The Scale-Tree

Issue #178

Zeuxis, the flying artist and geometer, and his wife, Helen, lived in Enoch, the world-city that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega. They dwelt alone on a deserted street and had no one to help them.

Every day they went up to the mossy crown of the tower they lived in, one of thousands of pinnacles and spires comprising the coast-long downtown, and prayed for their long loneliness to end.

One evening as the sun was sinking toward the molten-gold bosom of the sea, resting its quaking crown on a cloud-wrack, they burned two lumps of resin on the brazier, pale yellow for princes and dusky red for death. The decayed spire loomed over them like a cloaked green goddess, a disheveled dryad with bones of stone and no tree to call home.

Twice Helen climbed up and dropped down on the smoke-column. Then she said, “Let’s go downstairs.”

They knew one another, and Helen gave birth to a son. He had golden skin and golden hair and eyes like twin jades. They named him Phoenix.

They knew one another again, and Helen gave birth to a daughter. Her skin was pale and freckled and for hair she had curling masses of red. They named her Philomena but called her Mena.

Father, mother, sister, brother: they were a family in Enoch.

A strange voice awoke Zeuxis one dawn. He opened his eyes. Pink light filtered through the lace curtains. The crumbling crowns of nearby towers were green-gold flames against a rose-gray sky.

“Yes? What was it?” he said, not certain he hadn’t been dreaming.

Helen stirred but said nothing.

He rolled over. Mena stood in the doorway. Her hair was a subdued aureole in the roseate glow of the room behind her.

“Was that you, my princess?”

“Never call me princess,” she said.

He sat up and slid his feet into his slippers. “May I inquire why not?”

“They’re afraid of things. I love gorgons and chimeras and everything scary.”

“Ah.” He rose and began shuffling toward the lavatory. The big four-poster bed took up most of the room; the rest was full of clutter and rickety furniture. The plaster walls were hung with paintings and diagrams and emulsion images. An unwound clock sat atop the dresser.

“I am a queen,” said Mena, following him. “You may call me queen.”

“Good morning, queen.”

“Good morning!”

The nephridium lamp threw its sickly light against the white-tiled walls of the lavatory. Zeuxis stopped the drain, filled it with a ewer of collected rainwater, and washed his face.

“I wish I could go with you today,” Mena said.

“I wish you could, too. But you can’t, little queen.”

“Why not?”

He turned and picked her up. “What if they thought you were a pretty little statue and wanted me to sell you?”

“Well, you would just say no.”

He knit his brow. “That would depend on what they offered me.”

“No!” she said, patting his forehead. “Do not say that you would sell me as a statue! Tell me you would just say no!”

He set her down and ran his fingers through his scraggly beard. “Well, I don’t know. Think of all the paint I could buy.”

“You’re only joking me.”

He bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “Soon you can come with me. Is your brother awake?”

“Yes.”

“He’s very quiet. What’s he doing?”

“Counting.”

Together they went into the next room. It was almost bare of furniture. There was a washstand and a big wardrobe. A mattress lay on each side of it.

Phoenix was sitting cross-legged on top of the wardrobe. His golden face and green eyes were calm, serious, and beautiful. “Babu,” he said.

“Get down from there,” said Zeuxis.

“Two gnomons is four, a square. Three gnomons is nine, another square. Four—”

“Get down from there.”

“—is sixteen. So, if you keep adding gnomons, you keep getting squares. Is that right?”

“Down, I say. Off! Off! Right now! But don’t just—”

But Phoenix had already taken a flying leap. He landed on the mattress, bounced backward, and knocked his head in the corner where the wardrobe met the wall. “Ow!” he shouted.

“Well, what do you expect?”

“Was I right?”

“Get dressed. Yes. Hurry up.”

“Where are we going?”

“Out. You’re coming with me.”

“Hurray!” he shouted, leaping around the room, while Mena tried to tell him the things she was going to do that day. He threw the wardrobe doors open with a bang and began to strip. Suddenly he froze and faced his father. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try to sell some pictures.”

A look of betrayal came into the boy’s face. “I hope no one will buy them.”

“It’s very possible that they may.”

“Then I won’t see them again!” Angry tears welled up in his eyes.

“Little boy,” Zeuxis said gently, placing his hand on his son’s head and running his fingers through his hair, “we’ve talked about this. I’m a painter. This is what I do. Our family needs the rods.”

“What a lovely morning,” a sleepy voice said. The children turned. Helen was standing in the doorway.

“Today is the day the gods have made,” said Zeuxis. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

The steam lift had stopped running ages ago, so Zeuxis and Phoenix took the stairs down from storey to storey. It had once been a beautiful building, with brown and white tile floors, wrought-iron fixtures, wooden wainscots, and cobweb-festooned gas chandeliers. Zeuxis carried his portfolio under his arm; he was wearing a long coat and a black cap.

“Can we talk some more about what you were telling me last night?” asked Phoenix.

“What?”

“That man. The sage.”

“Oh, yes. Eiron the polyhymnist. Yes. Well, let’s see. So after he left his mountain and went wandering, he met an auraiad atop a sleeping volcano in an inner-city pumice desert. This auraiad told him that the cosmos is like a shell folded in on itself. Each place consists of two leaves that are almost, but not quite, the same.”

“How can they be almost the same?”

“What happens in one affects the other. A natural affinity keeps the stars and planets paired.”

“Then are there two universes?”

“No, but it’s not easy to explain. You see, if you were to fly to the uttermost antipodes of the cosmos—impossible, of course, but supposing you did it—then you would arrive back where you started, but in the other leaf. If you kept on in the same direction then you’d eventually get home again, in the leaf you started from.

“The leaves were separated long ago because the nephelim, who were made to guide creation, fought terrible wars against one another instead, spoiling the earth. The seraphim therefore divided the leaves, consigning the bad spirits to this one.”

“We live in the bad one?”

“Yes, so the polyhymnist says. Husbandry of life was forsaken here, so it’s been allowed to stagnate, while the other continued to grow and change. The children of men came originally from the other leaf.”

“How do you mean it grew and changed?”

“All life is connected. You come from me, and I from my father, though I never knew him, and he from of old. The same is true of every creature. All spring from a common corpuscle in some dim unguessable aeon. Somehow that divine spark contained within it every eft and ammonite, every scale-tree and stinkhorn that has ever been.”

“Mama calls it the tree of life.”

Zeuxis nodded. “To me it’s more like a great river, which flows in one direction, yes, but with whorls and eddies, and no lines between the streams and undercurrents and secret springs.”

They reached the lobby, which was shrouded in dust and greenish gloom, and crossed to the foyer. The huge iron doors were slightly ajar. They slipped between them into the street.

It was an uninhabited district, but the smell of refuse hung heavy in the humid air. The noise of tramping crowds and steam engines drifted faintly from far away. They went toward it, picking their way around heaps of junk and rotten masonry. The towers’ broken windows watched them like empty eyes.

“How is it different?” Phoenix asked. “The other leaf, I mean.”

“In the other leaf there are creatures that fly.”

“Like dragonflies?”

“Yes, but red-blooded beasts, too. They are brightly colored, and have long, beautiful scales that are soft like hair. And they sing to wake the dawn. Plants there have lovely delicate organs, a bit like sea anemones.” He raised his hand and opened it, palm upward. “These organs last only a few days, then die.”

“Why?”

“To make room for others. Also, in some plants, the organ produces a body that can be plucked and eaten as meat, or pressed for blood more delicious than anything we have in this world.”

“Do the people there know about us?”

“No. Why would they? They live in the world made for men. They have everything they need. There’s nothing to make them wonder what’s on the other side. Perhaps some of them don’t even know there is another side.”

“Why are there men here at all?”

“Once, long ago, two of the ghulim, beast-men who have no souls, awoke to themselves, and became the first man and the first woman. They had two sons, twins. One of the sons spilled the life-blood of his brother, and was consigned to this leaf, together with his family. But for the love they bore toward their kin, the murdered one’s sons and daughters pled to be allowed to follow them here, and their wish was granted. From the murderer’s children sprang the goblins and the cyclopes, the phylites and the helots.”

“What about the others?”

“They are said still to survive in the waste spaces and forgotten corners of this sphere, persecuted and destitute but content with their lot, a sin-offering for their kin.”

They went on in silence, each lost in his own thoughts, holding hands.

After a while they reached a more populous neighborhood. The streets there were crowded with phylites, the great ones of Enoch. They were graceful and tall, with limbs swathed in colored silk, skin covered with ornate tattoos or dyed blue or saffron or pink, cheeks pierced by delicate ruby-strung chains.

Those of the same phyle were almost indistinguishable, while those of different phyles didn’t exist to one another. They walked unhearing, unseeing, eyes shuttered from within. There was no one to notice a tramp leading a boy down the street, weaving in and out of shops, past revolving doors of apartment foyers, markets, dealers of jewelry and machines, theaters, perfumeries, accounting houses, glittering shrines and fanes, all scenes of silent bustling activity.

One by one, father and son visited the curio shops and junk dealers, trying to sell Zeuxis’ pictures. His most popular offerings were the images he’d captured while soaring over streets and touched up with pigment. No one wanted his paintings or diagrams.

“Good,” said Phoenix. “I don’t care about those others.”

“Still,” Zeuxis replied, “I must try. The gods are kind to those who make the most of what they’re given. Who knows but that some poor phylite might see a picture of mine one day and be drawn to it?”

“But what about when the people who buy them die? They’ll just sit in empty apartments and fall apart.”

“And what about when I die? Eh? I think of it every day, little boy. Will my pictures be collected and treasured when I’m gone? It’s not likely. But I’ll tell you something.”

“What?”

“We’re conduits. When we stop the outflow, no more can flow in, and we stagnate. We die daily to live. It’s the flow that matters, not the possession of what’s not really ours anyway. Remember that.”

They walked on silence, while the rest of the world whirled around them.

Their last stop was well back from the street. They had to cross a neglected court and descend a flight of steps to a half-basement. The shop was situated between the phylites’ world of sunny streets, soaring towers, and the high-piled honeycombed foundation, the helots’ world down below.

It was a musty, suffocating labyrinth. Phoenix wondered who could possibly want so many thousands of porcelain idols, chipped kraters, clocks without pendulums, cracked glass plates iridescent with age, seatless wooden chairs, and faded emulsion portraits of people long dead. Furtive phylites picked through the wares like fallen angels at a discount market.

The shopkeeper, Granny, glared at the boy from her counter, her pink eyes glittering with malice. She was large, stooped, and flabby, her pallid skin scored by a network of hairline cracks, like a grub that had never gotten around to pupating.

Her man—too young to be a husband and obviously not a son—sat a little behind on a stool, leaning back on a shelf. He was big and tall and had strong-looking hands. One of his eyes was much larger than the other.

An overused tone-stick rotated relentlessly in the player, screeching a treacly tune.

“Take a look at these,” Zeuxis said, opening his portfolio on the counter.

Granny flipped through the pictures. “No. No. No. Hmmm. No.” She looked up. “The whole thing for a rod.”

“Thank you for your time,” Zeuxis said, starting to gather them up.

“That’s all they’re worth,” said Granny.

Phoenix stamped his foot. “That’s not true!”

“Quiet, my boy.” As Zeuxis closed the folder, a loose picture slipped out of a pocket and slid down the counter. It was a portrait of Mena, abstracted from nature by the pith of his brain and given form by his hands, a vision of delicate, sensitive beauty.

The man leaned forward and took it up before Zeuxis could reach it. He wetted his plump lips with his tongue, breathing heavily. “You painted this?”

“I don’t know how it got in there. Here, I’ll—”

“Is this—is this from your imagination?”

“Yes, more or less. Let me—”

“It’s my sister!” Phoenix shouted.

“You have a beautiful little sister,” the man said. “I’ll pay ten rods for this.”

“No, thank you,” said Zeuxis. “It’s not for sale.”

“Fifteen, then.”

“This is going to get expensive for me!” Granny chortled.

“I’m sorry, it’s not for sale.” Zeuxis snatched it back and thrust it in the portfolio. “Come, my boy.”

They got back to the apartment in the afternoon. “Any luck?” asked Helen, looking up from the mechanical reading console.

“Seven rods,” said Zeuxis. He tossed his hat on the bed and dropped the purse on a table.

“I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”

He shrugged and walked to the window. “As we always do, I suppose.”

“That’s very well for you to say! If you would only let us join the Collective...”

“The divine machine, the headless god with a million eyes and a million hands. Yes, that would solve everything, wouldn’t it? But there’d be nothing to survive for. Anyway, it’s quite impossible, as you well know.”

“Did you sell any of your paintings?”

He sighed. “No.”

“You’re not going to want to hear this, but if you could just do more—”

“I would, but I can’t. I have to obey the spirit that sustains me. I have to go back and forth. One thing feeds another.”

She went back to her reader. “I never have understood it. We mortals just aren’t capable of understanding it.”

He spread his hands hopelessly. “Are we going to argue again?”

She didn’t reply.

For a while he stood there, watching her. “All right,” he said. “I’ll try to do more emulsion images. You’re right. I’m out of them now, so I suppose I’ll go take some aerials.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

He got his camera ready and popped his leather helmet down over his head. A loud thump came from the children’s room. “Ow!” Phoenix cried. He started shouting while Mena calmly tried to explain something. Then she screamed, too.

Zeuxis went to the door. “What’s going on in here?”

“Mena just—”

“But he wouldn’t—”

All at once they saw that he was wearing his helmet.

“Are you flying?” asked Mena.

“Are you flying?” asked Phoenix.

“Yes.”

“Can we watch you?” they asked with one voice.

“I suppose so.”

They began bounding around the room with glee.

Zeuxis led them up to the highest storey. There he left them while he went back and forth between darkroom and roof with his camera and the parts to his flying machine, carrying them up to the pavement that surrounded the topmost spire.

“Come on,” he said from the top of the stairs. Phoenix and Mena ran up and out into the sunshine, capering joyously.

The tower’s mitered crown was weathered almost to the point of obliteration and overgrown with huge mosses. Its arched openings gaped blackly like clustered mouths overhung with locks of verdure. Zeuxis sat on a carved sailbeast and assembled his flier.

When he was done he dropped his coat to the pavement, slipped into the harness, and stepped up to the parapet. Two pairs of gauzy wings extended from his shoulders. Spires and terraces rose like islands out of a shadowy sea all around, piles of white and gray stone stained yellow and streaked with orange and black. His face was lit with the golden glow of the rooftops below.

“Listen, you two,” he said. “Keep away from the parapet. Climb the spire if you want to see. Understand?”

“Babu,” said Phoenix, “are you—”

“Understand?”

“Yes, Babu,” they both said.

He leaped off the edge and soared along a southbound street. For a few seconds he glided, and was able to take a quick picture with the camera at his breast. Then he wheeled, driving the gearbox with his legs, and made his way back to the spire.

“Did you take one?” called Mena. She was on the pinnacle with her brother.

“Yes. A nice one, I think. I’ll be right back.”

He left them, going down to his darkroom to replace the paper, and returned. The process was repeated several times. He took pictures of streets, turrets, and various inaccessible details.

By the seventh round the children were getting restless. Phoenix was doing flips to make Mena laugh. Suddenly she screamed and pointed. Phoenix followed her gaze, just in time to see his father dropping from the air, trying frantically to get his wings to work. One of them was broken.

Phoenix heard someone scream. “Babu!” He was the one screaming. He slithered down to the spire’s base, ran to the parapet, and looked down. His father was a huddled heap on the street, moving feebly.

The world spun. He felt sick. The sun was a searing eye and the air was still and sultry. “Go tell Mama,” he shouted, then dashed down the stairs.

When he reached the street he ran to his father, who lay where he had fallen in the middle of an intersection. Zeuxis let out a horrible, high-pitched groan and began wriggling on his side.

Phoenix hesitated, afraid to get nearer. There was blood on the pavement. One of his father’s legs was broken, with a jagged white bone protruding. The camera lay in pieces all around.

His father moaned again. Phoenix fell to his knees at his father’s side. “Babu! Oh, Babu, please be well!” he cried. “Gods, let him be well!” He touched his father’s shoulder.

“Phoenix?” said Zeuxis. “Is that you?”

“Yes, Babu.”

“I love you, Phoenix. I’ll always love you. Always be a good boy.”

“Babu, everything will be all right.”

“Take care of your sister. Be good to your mother. Let her lean on you a little.” He coughed violently and his body convulsed.

“Zeuxis!” Phoenix heard his mother scream. She was standing on the apartment balcony high above. “Zeuxis!”

“Listen,” said his father. “Bury me in the spire. Do you understand?”

“In the spire?”

“Yes, up there where we just were. I want to be where we were so happy.”

A helot wrapped in white gauze came skulking by, casting the pair a sidelong glance. Phoenix called to him and begged for help. Together they were able to get Zeuxis into the building and up the stairs. They met Helen on the way.

While Helen and their helper got Zeuxis on the bed, and Mena stood there watching, Phoenix went and knelt on his mattress, facing the wall. “O divine spirits of flame,” he whispered, “I’ve never prayed to you before. But please let my Babu be all right. Please let him get well.”

Zeuxis died before sunset. He was interred as he had asked.

The endless stagnant summer dragged on. Phoenix shrank within himself. No more did he leap or shout or sit atop the wardrobe to contemplate the universe. Helen was afraid of provoking a reaction and left him alone. Mena became terribly sensitive, crying at the least rebuke.

It so happened that Zeuxis’ death drove up the price of his pictures. Soon phylites were more than willing to buy anything they could get. Helen began selling them one at a time, holding some in reserve. Mena often went with her while Phoenix stayed at home.

One night the children were lying awake on their mattresses. They had their feet pointing toward the wall because they liked to be in the moonbeams.

“Phoenix,” whispered Mena.

“Yes?”

“I miss Babu.”

“I know. I don’t want to talk about it.”

After a moment’s silence: “Phoenix?”

“What?”

“Why don’t you ever talk to Mama?”

“I don’t know.”

“It worries her.”

“I know.”

“She said today that what you need is a man in the house.”

“She’s wrong.”

“That’s what I said, but she won’t listen. She talks to a man.”

Phoenix got up on his elbow. “What? A man? Who?”

“I don’t know. Just someone she met. She likes him. His name is Brontes. He makes me feel strange. He’s always looking at me.”

Phoenix fell back on his pillow. “Don’t think about it.”

“I won’t, Phoenix.”

They drifted off to sleep soon after.

One day a few days later Phoenix was sitting in his mother’s room, reading at the console, when he heard voices in the corridor. His mother was talking to another adult. He turned around with a sinking heart.

The door slowly swung open. Helen stepped in out of the darkness. “Hello, Phoenix,” she said. “I have a surprise for you.”

Phoenix said nothing.

“Come in, Brontes,” she said.

The man from Granny’s store, the big man with one eye larger than the other, stepped in beside her. He smiled good-naturedly, but Phoenix could have sworn there was a hint of a smirk behind it. His teeth were large and yellow.

“Say hello, Phoenix,” his mother said.

“Hello.”

She looked nervously from Phoenix to Brontes and back to Phoenix again. “I have wonderful news. Brontes is going to be a new Babu to you and Mena. We’re going to leave this place as soon as we can and start afresh in another part of the city.”

“He’s not my Babu,” said Phoenix.

“Phoenix!”

“It’s quite all right,” said Brontes. “He’s right. We understand one another, eh? Don’t we Phoenix, my boy? We’re going to be friends, aren’t we?”

“I’m not your boy, and I’m not your friend. We were happy the way we were.”

“That’s enough of that!” said Helen. “You apologize to Brontes.”

“You can’t marry him. I won’t let you.”

“I already have. We just made the sacrifice.”

“We’ll be good friends, boy,” said Brontes. He put his big arm around Helen’s shoulders and squeezed her.

Phoenix bolted past them, past his sister, and up the stairs.

He found himself in his father’s darkroom. It hadn’t been touched since that day. The emulsion papers were still where his father had stored them. He decided to try developing one.

For several hours he worked there in the darkness, not thinking about anything else. The results were imperfect, but the picture was legible. It was a carved gargoyle spouting lead that had melted in some forgotten sunstorm long ago.

When he went back down Brontes was still there. He still refused to acknowledge the man, but his mother was kind and gentle, and they soon settled into an uncomfortable truce.

Every day Phoenix returned to the darkroom to develop another picture. Brontes was always about. For all the man’s plans, he didn’t seem particularly eager to move. He spoke daily of going to his place to get his things, but never did.

A scale-tree sprang from the pinnacle of the spire, over Zeuxis’ sepulcher. Its herbaceous trunk was scaly and pale, its head darkly livid with touches of green. It grasped the crumbling masonry with splayed roots. Though it shot up almost overnight, the head refused to open. The children grew fond of sitting beneath it.

One day Phoenix went back down to the apartment earlier than usual. He found the door locked. He knocked and got no response. It wasn’t the first time he’d been locked out when they went to sell pictures. There were voices inside, though. He knocked again. Still nothing.

It gave him a bad feeling. He slid the window open at the end of the hall and climbed out to the ledge. Clinging to the ornate masonry, and trying not to think of the dreadful gulf behind him, he inched his way over to his bedroom window and peered in.

Brontes was there, and Mena was with him.

Something went off in Phoenix’s brain. He slid the window up. It was noisy, but Brontes didn’t notice. Phoenix slipped across to the other bedroom and got the poker they used to stir the brazier. He returned, lifted it up, and struck Brontes, who was crouching, on the back of the head.

Brontes let loose a low, angry whine. He rose slowly and turned. “You little maugreth!” he spat.

“Touch my sister and I’ll kill you,” said Phoenix. He struck a second time, laying the iron alongside Brontes’ jowl. Brontes stepped forward as though not quite comprehending what was happening. The third blow felled him. His fall was tremendous.

“Let’s go,” said Phoenix. He took his sister’s hand and together they fled. They ran up the stairs without thinking and hid in Zeuxis’ darkroom.

The velvety darkness embraced them. They sat side by side, hearing one another breathe, listening for the sound of steps on the stairs. But no steps came. The darkness was pregnant, as in the instant that preceded the unfurling of the cosmos.

They were there for hours, long after the sun must have gone down. They dozed a little, perhaps, but it was hard to tell.

“Phoenix,” whispered Mena.

“What is it?”

“I miss Babu.”

“I do, too.”

As time went on they started to get restless but were too afraid to leave the comforting darkness. So Phoenix set about developing the last of the pictures, showing Mena how it was done.

The picture emerged like a memory from the mists of time. It showed a field of rooftops. A tiny human figure stood at the corner of one, casting a long shadow like a black stiletto. With a magnifying glass Phoenix looked closer.

He jerked upright and backed against the wall. Mena took the glass and looked for herself. It was Brontes, holding a metal weight on a long chain.

“We have to get help,” said Phoenix.

“Where?”

“We’ll go to the hoplites.”

Mena shook her head. “They only help members of the Collective.”

“There’s nothing else to try. If that doesn’t work, we’ll just run away.”

“We can’t leave Mama,” said Mena.

Phoenix didn’t reply. He rolled up the picture and took Mena by the hand. They went out into the hallway. Pale dawn showed against the window.

They went to the back stairs and crept down. On the ground floor they followed a narrow corridor to a side door. But as they neared the rectangle of light, a dark figure stepped out to bar their way.

“Just where do you think you’re going?”

“Run!” shouted Phoenix. He dashed toward Brontes while his sister ran the other way. Brontes threw him against the wall, knocking him senseless, and chased after Mena. He grabbed her and thrust her, kicking and screaming, into a closet and wedged the door shut behind her.

Then he went and helped Phoenix to his feet. An ugly purple and yellow bruise ran along one side of his face. He placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “I was going to start with her,” he said. “But you’ve spoiled things.” His hands inched toward Phoenix’s neck.

“Oh, no,” said Phoenix. “Please let us go. We’ll just go away and won’t ever bother you again.”

“And leave Mama? But I don’t want you to go away. I want us to be happy together.” He had his thumbs on Phoenix’s windpipe now.

Phoenix tried to plead again but he could no longer speak. He was sad but not afraid.

Brontes squeezed until there was no more to squeeze. Then he looked down at what he had done, and gave a long, drawn-out sob.

He noticed the paper on the floor and stooped to pick it up. He unrolled it. “Well, I’ll be,” he said, wiping his eyes. He giggled and crumpled it into a ball.

Mena crouched in the closet, forgotten. She began to explore the space. It was cluttered with brooms and mops and hardware. At the back she found a little door midway up the wall. She slid it open. There was a tall vertical shaft beyond, with a cord dangling from above. A dumbwaiter.

As quietly as she could she ran the box down. It was large enough for her to climb into. It slid slowly down with her weight and came to a rest in the basement. Dim light filtered through the grille.

Brontes was there. He had a white sheet laid out on a table. With a big boning knife he began to work on what lay heaped there. Every so often he went over to stoke the fire he’d started in the old boiler.

Mena watched him strip the flesh off the bones one piece at a time and throw it in a big pot of water. He stacked the bones to one side as he cleaned them. The organs he heaped in a different pile, with the heart by itself on a platter. Everything was red by then.

He went out. Mena threw the grille up, dashed over, seized the still-warm heart, and returned to her hiding place. She got the door back down just before Brontes returned.

For a moment he continued his work without noticing. Then he looked down at the plate and froze. He whirled, peering suspiciously into the shadows. For a moment Mena thought he was going to come open the grille. But in the end he shrugged and went on.

Mena wrapped the heart in her silk handkerchief and put it in her apron pocket. Once or twice she thought she felt it palpitating, but she knew that that was impossible.

She thought of the stories her father had told her of cannibal cyclopes living in high mountain valleys, beyond the coal swamps, where they herded behemothim with crooks of black iron. He’d said there were clans of them in the city, too, living in ruined neighborhoods where no men dwelt, and that occasionally they bore off a phylite woman and begot mixed offspring.

Done with his preparations, Brontes set the pot on the fire. Every so often he stirred it. For hours he came and went at intervals, checking on the stew. Mena stayed where she was, though her limbs ached with crouching.

The day was far gone when Brontes came in with a platter of sea vegetables and trilobites. He dumped the plate into the pot and stood by, stirring frequently. Half an hour later he took the whole thing off the fire, ladled the steaming contents into a big bowl, and bore it out of the room.

Mena emerged, shaking. The bones lay in a glistening stack on the table. A clean folded sheet lay on a shelf where Brontes had put it. Mena placed the bones in the sheet, drew up the corners, and tied them.

She went to the stairs and listened. There was no sound. Quickly she dragged the bundle up to the corridor and from there to the back stairs.

It took a long time to climb to the top. It was sunset when she stepped onto the pavement. Wind from the west lifted her hair. The sun was setting.

She spread the sheet out and carried the bones up to the pinnacle one at a time, placing them in a mossy hollow embraced by the scale-tree’s roots. When she was done she discovered that she had lost one bone, the tip of a little finger. She looked for it, but it was nowhere to be found, and there was no going back for it. Last of all she placed the heart in the ribcage, still wrapped in her handkerchief.

She slid part of the way down and sat there, looking out. Sunset collapsed into dusk, orange to blue-green to indigo. Here and there the descending curtain was pricked by an argent light, a window behind which some actuary or accountant was concluding a day’s work. She hugged herself.

A rustling noise made her turn. The scale-tree shuddered from the base of its pithy stem to its bulbous head high above. She climbed down and backed against the parapet. The tree’s head glowed from within as though enclosing a gold-white fire.

There was a tremendous explosion. The crown burst open in a spray of soft boughs and glittering windowpane leaves. A creature of fire and light shot straight up into the starry sky.

Its form was human, but in place of arms it had broad wings that beat the night air exultantly. It was clothed in silky scales that were long and soft and pearl-white. For feet it had cruel talons, and cruel, too, was its curved beak, with corners curled in a terrifying smile. Its eyes were vast black pools, and a diadem of gold-tipped white scales thrust back from the crown of its head.

For a moment it beat there, glowing with its own golden light, and then with a vengeful shriek it was gone.

Mena sank to her knees on the pavement.

When she entered the apartment, her mother and Brontes were seated at the sideboard, eating. Brontes looked up in surprise, then flushed, a strange fire dancing in his eyes.

Helen was angry. “There you are,” she said. “Brontes told me how naughty you and your brother have been.” She took a bite of meat. “This is so good, Brontes. I never knew you cooked.”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Brontes, smiling at Mena.

Mena calmly picked up her mother’s bowl and bore it to the windowsill. Her mother was too surprised to stop her. She did the same with Brontes’ bowl. He seemed amused.

Then she went over and took up a fork. Scorn gave way to suspicion on Brontes’ face. Like lightning she lunged. Brontes jerked back and fell over.

“Philomena!” Helen shrieked. “What are you doing? Are you mad?”

Again Mena tried to stab him. He was on his hands and knees now, scrambling to get away from her. On the third try she succeeded in driving the tines into his lower back. He leaped to his feet with a howl, striking his head on the table, the fork still sticking out.

Just then an unearthly golden light flashed across the window and was gone.

They all froze. “What was that?” Helen whispered.

A lovely strain of inhuman song suffused the sudden silence.

“Whatever could that be?” she went on. “Somehow, it makes me feel... oh, I don’t know!” She held her hand out to Mena.

Mena went and clasped it. They hugged one another. Brontes cowered in the corner, holding the bloody fork.

The singing reached a crescendo and ceased. The light fell through the door now. Something was in the children’s bedroom.

“I’m going to go see it,” said Mena.

“Perhaps you’d better not,” said Helen. But she made no move to stop her.

Mena went and soon returned. “Look,” she said. “It gave me this.” She held up a diaphanous infolded shell with a delicate design in gold leaf. Its shape was curiously simple—simpler than a perfect sphere—but it had no edges.

The creature began to sing again.

“I’m going now,” said Helen. She went as Mena had, and came back a moment later. “It was so beautiful,” she said. “I’ve never seen scales so snowy soft and golden white.” She opened her hands to reveal a lump of rich resin fit for the thurible. “It gave me this.”

For the third time the creature sang.

Brontes drew himself up. “This is madness,” he said, “but I suppose I should go see what it has for me.”

He stalked past them into the chamber. There was a moment of silence, then a horrific scream cut short, and a fearful inhuman shriek. A succession of strange, unidentifiable noises followed. Then a rustling shudder, and finally a low crackle.

They crept cautiously to the doorway and peered inside. Of Brontes there was no sign. A pile of what might have been soft, pearly scales lay heaped in the middle of the floor. It was being consumed by a smokeless white fire.

Phoenix sat cross-legged on top of the wardrobe, watching them serenely. His bare skin was clean and white, as though newly made. Beauty both ancient and new sat in his face. He held up one hand as if to bless them. But Mena looked closely, and saw that his little finger was missing one joint.


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Raphael Ordoñez is a mildly autistic writer and circuit-riding college professor living in the Texas hinterlands, eighty miles from the nearest bookstore. His stories have appeared multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and his novels, the first two in a planned tetralogy, are available from Hythloday House. He blogs sporadically about fantasy, writing, art, and life at raphordo.blogspot.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Day of the Dragonfly” by Raphael Ordoñez
“Memories of Her” by Greg Linklater

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2 Comments on “The Scale-Tree”

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  1. […] “The Scale-Tree” by Raphael Ordoñez Zeuxis led them up to the highest storey. There he left them while he went back and forth between darkroom and roof with his camera and the parts to his flying machine, carrying them up to the pavement that surrounded the topmost spire. […]

  2. […] Ordoñez dives into the blacker depths of storytelling in the “The Scale-Tree.” Zeuxis, a “flying artist and geometer”  and his family live in a tower in […]

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