CONJUNCTIONS:52, Spring 2009

Predecessor
Jeff VanderMeer


THE GREAT MAN’S HOME lay within thick woods, beyond a churning river crossed only by a bridge that looked like it had been falling apart for many years. The woods were dark and loamy and took the sound of our transport like a wolf taking a rabbit. The leaves passed above us in patterns of deep green shot through with glints of old light. There was the smell of something rich yet suspect in the chilled air.
      The house rose out of the forest like a cathedral out of a city: unmistakable. It had an antique feel. Two levels, although the second story was gutted and unusable to us, with an off-white color stained with the amber and green dustings of pollen and pine needles. A steeple of a roof that contained nothing but rotted timbers, descending to a screened-in porch, beyond which (we knew from our maps) lay the horseshoe construction of the interior passageways. The house might have been a hundred years old. It might have been two hundred years old. It might have always been there.
      Our tread on the gravel driveway startled me; it was the first true sound I’d heard for many miles.
      The screen door was broken—someone had slashed through it, and the two pieces had curled back. We walked onto the porch and found there beside two large wicker chairs like decaying thrones the mummified remains of two animals the size of dogs but with skulls more like apes. They looked as if they’d fallen asleep attempting to embrace. They looked, in the way their paws had crossed, as if they had been attempting to cross the divide between animal and human.
      My partner looked at them with revulsion.
      “Corruption,” she said.
      “Peace,” I said.
      In answer she took out her keys and moved toward the door that led into the house.
      The door had been hacked at with some kind of axe or other crude weapon. The gouges and cuts had turned black against the weathered white. The knob dangled from the door as if it belonged somewhere else.
      “Nothing did that,” I said. “Nothing that lives here now. Remember that.”
      “I’ll remember,” she said, and turned the key in the lock. It made a sound like metal scraping, but also of something released.
      She glanced at me before she opened the door. “We don’t know what he left.”
      The iron gray of her eyes wanted something from me, but all I had was: “The power’s gone from it. He hasn’t slept for a long time.”
      I had no weapon. She had no weapon.

Beyond the door, a long, straight corridor waited for us, badly lit by glimmering lamps set into walls that seemed to both jut outward and recede into shadow. It was like the throat of a beast, except at the far end we could see where it curved to enter into the second half of the U. Where it came out, we didn’t know. There had been no other door on the porch.
      From where we stood, the corridor clearly changed as it progressed. What was near to us had a weathered opulence—rosewood panels and graying chandeliers long since gone dark. The burgundy carpet lay flat under our feet, and something had been dragged so violently down its length that the fibers had flattened in a swerving pattern. But farther down we could see plants or little trees, and there came from the far end a suggestion of an underlying funk, the smell of unnatural decay. There came also a throaty murmur, as of a fading congregation.
      “Vestiges,” I said.
      “Of what?”
      “Of the man himself.”
      I walked forward. Her boots scuffed the carpet behind me as if she was compelled to follow against her will.
      Nothing happened for several minutes. We did not investigate the rooms we passed, which lay behind closed doors. We did not stop to look at the paintings. Side tables, lamps, and the like did not interest us. Instead, it was as if we followed the swerving pattern in the carpet to see where it led. I began to think of it now less as the imprint of a body being pulled and more as the trail of something that had no legs, like a giant slug. There was a suggestion at the edges of the swerve of a curious mixture of a deeper red and an amber resin.
      We had no specific brief. She knew this, and still she asked, “What are we looking for?”
      “Everything,” I said, and it was true. Nothing angered him more than the wrong focus. But she was nervous. I could tell.
      The corridor seemed to collapse into forest, even though I knew this could not be true. It was simply the overgrowth of potted plants and trees run amok, aided by the bulge of a domed skylight mottled dark green with debris. The trees were almost bony, but tall, and their leaves spread out like emerald daggers. What once were regimented bushes had become feral explosions of branches. Between them lichen and vine had taken hold in cracks in the floor where the carpet had been cut away. The trail of the thing without legs led over the underbrush. Recent.
      “What’s that? In there—beneath?” she asked. I felt rather than heard a tremor in her voice.
      “Something dead,” I said. It did not seem important to say more.
      “Spectacularly dead,” she said, and I thought perhaps I had not felt a tremor after all.
      We moved on, farther into the great man’s house. Now there were glass cages set into the inner wall and no doors at all, but the cages held only mold and things that had died a long time ago. Some of them lay close to the glass as if trying to burrow through it. Others had died with their forearms banging against it. We did not examine them closely.

Then we began to encounter the living. The inner wall pulled into itself and left room for more than just glass cages. A muttering rose from the displays that had been left there, behind a torn, bloodied, sometimes shredded, cross-hatching wire. What lay behind was squirming flesh mottled with fur, an eye or two glancing out from the mess with an odd acknowledgment of fate. A spasming claw. A quivering snout. There was no great seriousness or order to this exhibit. These creatures, neglected and left without food or water, had half devoured each other, and by their nervous natures had consigned themselves to an ever-contracting existence. They would not leave the ledge on which they’d lived their lives to that point. Now they were deranged, and lay on the border between life and death without knowing the difference.
      “Survivors,” she said.
      “No,” I said. “Not yet.”
      We walked farther. By now, we were almost two-thirds of the way to the curve of the U. The stain trail on the carpet had resumed, seemed again to lead us.
      Now came the parrotlike birds that had the mange and stumbled across the floor, too weak to fly. Now came cats and dogs that had been combined in peculiar ways and left to stagger, something wrong with their brains that made them lose their balance. Now came the fish tanks full of slop and mewling and naked, shivering tissue. Now came things living inside of other things, gone so completely wild that they were innocent of us.
      The vines had crawled up the sides of the walls.
      The vines were hiding tiny creatures that peered out at us. Or had they become part of the vines?
      She was looking around as if for a weapon, but we had decided against weapons.
      “It will be over soon,” I said. “For some, it is already over.”
      She nodded. I knew she trusted me. We were not without weapons now that we had abandoned them.
      What had looked like ornamentation ahead, at the join of the U, was actually a row of faces jutting out of the wall, set slightly above what appeared to be a long love seat with thin crimson cushions. These faces—twenty or thirty of them—ranged from that of a boar to that of a kind of thick lizard to a thing very much like a woman. They were all undergoing a slow transmutation of expressions, as if sedated. None looked peaceful. None could speak, and where you could see their throats it was clear some surgery had been required of them. This was to be expected. But what were they supposed to be looking at?
      My partner knelt and stared into the face of the woman-thing. There was not so much distance between them. Not really.
      “These cushions were once white,” she said, staring into the open, gray eyes of the woman-thing. Its lank hair fell straight. It gave off a smell of corruption.
      “There has been spillage,” I said.
      “Can we free them?”
      She, like me, had understood that these were not just faces. The bodies behind them must descend in living coffins behind the love seat. Did their feet touch the edge of some surface? Or did they hang, torsos held in harnesses? And if so, what lay beneath them?
      I dared not put my hand on her shoulder. When you let some things in, you never get them out.
      “Don’t you see that they are already free?” I said.
      It was in the eyes. While the muscles in their cheeks, their jowls, their snouts, their muzzles, winced and pulled back in soundless rage or sadness, those eyes stared straight ahead, as dead as anything dead we’d yet seen.
      “This is the work of a great man,” she said, but I could hear the question.
      “We should continue,” I said.
      For the row of faces led to a doorway, and the doorway led to the second corridor—the one that should lead back even though there had only been one entrance on the porch.
      She rose, and on a whim peered back down the corridor we had just traveled through. “The lights are out,” she said. “The lights are going out.”
      And they were. One by one, each lamp, each dim-glowing chandelier, was blinking out, leaving more and more shadow. More and more darkness. Into that space shapes moved where no shapes had been.
      Was the shiver I felt one of anticipation? I don’t know. Soon there would be an ending.
      “We should continue,” I repeated. Perhaps there was a tremor in my voice this time. I do not know.

Beyond the doorway lay the second corridor. Gone the rosewood. Gone the carpet. Gone the paintings on the wall. The walls were as off-white as the outside of the house. The stench of blood came from everywhere, and the lights here were bare bulbs and flickering fluorescent strips. The floor was linoleum and the stain of whatever had come through formed a long snarl of red disappearing into the distance. Now, though, it trailed up the walls, onto the ceiling, not just the floor. Spun crazily. Did not take a straight line.
      We could not see the end of the corridor. We could see no trees or bushes. Now the lights went out one by one as we passed, and when I looked back there appeared to be a long shadow with one arm against the doorway staring at us. Then it was gone.
      “Is he here?” she said.
      “Yes,” I said.
      She took a step, then another, and I followed for a time and let her lead.
      We came to a place where the wall gave way to a huge glass cage that held a wet, flickering, shifting mass of blackish brown broken only by shimmers of blood.
      “What is it?” This time I asked.
      She was quiet for a moment. “Starlings. So many starlings, so close together that they cannot move, held up by each other’s bodies.”
      Now I could see the wings and beaks and feathered heads. The eyes bright, feverish, anguished.
      “What purpose could this serve to him?” I asked.
      She only laughed harshly, took my arm, tried to pull me away. I would not go.
      “What purpose could this serve to him?” I asked again, and still she had no answer.
      There was a way into the cage. A small chamber at the bottom that would allow a man to crawl in, shut the door, and then open another translucent door into the space with the birds. The red trail led inside and then back out again.
      She saw me looking at it. “What purpose would it serve to go in?” she asked.
      “Then I would know why,” I said.
      “You might know why, or you might not. But you would come out mad.”
      “Am I not already mad?”
      There was no way in which I could look at an individual starling within that glass cage. They had become something else.
      “Trap,” I said, wrenching my gaze away.
      She led me forward. We had no weapons.
      I had said no weapons.
      Was I right?

The lights, they went out behind us. Now the few windows showed us not forest but darkness. Night had come, and had kept coming while we walked down the corridor. I kept thinking about the starlings. I kept thinking about the soundless scream that must be rising within them.
      We came to a massive enclave hollowed out from the inner wall. I did not think that there could be such a space within the house, until I remembered the second floor and the way the steepled roof had looked like a chapel.
      Within this enclave lay a giant human body composed of many other bodies. And within its belly, which had been ripped open, there lay the bodies of animals too various to describe. And these bodies too had been torn apart and remade to create still stranger creatures. And those creatures had their own as well. The scene seemed to recede from us as we watched it, as if my mind wanted to put as much distance there as possible. The face of the giant human body was various—a patchwork of so many different possibilities. Flesh is only flesh, skin only skin, muscle only muscle. It can all change and be changed. There was a desperation to it, as of someone frustrated, thwarted, looking for a solution that never came.
      The stain across the walls, across the ceiling, across the floor, had smashed through the glass divide between us and that tableau. The stain ended here even if the corridor did not. Somehow this change in logic unnerved me more than the box of starlings—more even than the body within bodies laid out before us.
      “What is the meaning of us?” she whispered.
      I know she meant “What is the meaning of this?” but that is not what she said.
      “Keep moving,” I said. “We are almost at the end now.”
      “What kind of end can that be?”
      “The great man is nearby, I can tell.”
      “But we have no weapons.”
      “That is our weapon.”
      “I expected …”
      “Stop.”

At first, the corridor seemed to end in a blank wall—as disconcerting as following an arm with one’s gaze only to have it end in a nub. But no: It curved once again, and beyond the curve was the office of the great man. A sparse desk. A windowless existence. Parts of things all over the floor, red and various. No chair. It was not needed.
      In the light from the lamp on the desk, we could see that a giant raven stood there. It had a beak huge and ominous, which had the look of steel but the riddled-through consistency of driftwood, riven with wormholes and fissures. A clacking black tongue within the beak. A head like a battering ram. A body the size of a mastiff. Instead of legs and claws it had thick human forearms and hands. The fingernails were long, curved, and yellowing.
      The raven inclined its head and turned one giant, bottomless eye toward us—an almond of pure black with just a hint of light reflecting from it.
      “It didn’t take them long,” the raven said, in a deep, refined voice. “It didn’t take them long at all.”
      At the sound of that voice, my partner began to cry: a soft weeping that I echoed from somewhere deep inside. But I had a mission. We had a mission. Now, when it didn’t matter, I took her limp, cold hand in mine and held it tight.
      “We have a message to deliver,” I said.
      “Oh?” the raven said, considering me coldly. I saw now that all across his razor beak there were the signs of dried blood. “And what message is that? I’m busy here.”
      “You are to stop. You are to stop,” I said.
      “Stop what?” Bemusement beneath the dark feathers.
      “Out there, they want you dead.”
      A soft, chuffing laugh that a bird should not be able to make. “There is no out there. Anymore.”
      “No,” I admitted. “We didn’t find much. But every time you change something, it changes there.”
      “Someday it may be enough,” he said.
      My partner made a sound, as if to speak.
      “Don’t you recognize her?” I asked.
      “Her?” he said. “Her?” Peering.
      “Don’t you recognize me?” she said. “I recognize you.”
      The raven with the human hands turned back to his desk. Beyond that desk was a formless darkness. “That was a long time ago. That wasn’t here. That wasn’t this.”
      “It could be,” she said, and took a hesitant step forward. And then another. I saw the courage that took, although I don’t believe in courage.
      The raven’s head whipped around, and it said, almost with a snarl, “Stay back.”
      She stopped.
      I heard a lurching sound now, coming from down the corridor. Every light behind us was dark. We existed only in the round glow of the lights in the office.
      “We are here to make you stop,” I said.
      “I know,” he said.
      “Don’t you remember?” she said, as the dead talk to the dead. But she was staring into the darkness beyond.
      I was close enough now. I lunged across at him, in the motion I had practiced a thousand times at his behest. My arm around the surprisingly delicate neck. A quick, wrenching twist. The raven’s eyes rolled up. It dropped to the floor. Dead.
      I stood there, staring. Was it to be that easy? It was not.
      The darkness moved, came out into the light. It was him. Again. Much larger, but the same. The eye regarding me from above was not without love.
      “I couldn’t let you after all,” he said. “The work is too important.”
      “Don’t you remember?” she said again. My partner now seemed caught in a loop. I could not help her.
      The lurching came nearer.
      “Your predecessor is almost here,” the raven said. “I cannot stop, and you cannot stop me.”
      “Someday you will be convinced,” I said. “And you will let me.”
      “Someday I will finally sleep,” came the rumbling voice.
      There was a wetness behind me, and a soft guttural sound as of a throat that has been cut and yet the flesh lives.
      “Don’t you remember.”
      A sadness entered the eyes of the great man. “I remember enough to let you decide.”
      It was useless, but I tried. I lunged up at him, but my predecessor had caught up to me. A hand that was not a hand on my arm. A kind of intensity of motion that sucked its way into my skin, all of my skin. Tore it off. Tore it all off. All of it.
      Brought me struggling to the box of starlings. Shoved me in. Left me there. Waiting for the moments when the great man and his new-old queen walk by. Waiting to sense them from the way the wings ripple differently across my face, the way the beaks and heads and claws suppurate and wriggle and try to escape, and keep trying to escape. Breathing in the spaces between.
      One day, he will let me go, with or without her. He will release the starlings up through the ruined second story, through the chimney, to explode out into the sky, over the old woods. They will no longer know they are birds, as I no longer remember what I was before. But we will be flying and falling, falling and flying, and against that beating of atrophied wings, against that sharp blue, I will see the gravel path and the bridge beneath us. Returning. Remembering.
      While my predecessor feeds upon me.