The bible repairman and.., p.11
The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, p.11Tim Powers
Somebody once said that you become what you pretend to be, and Trelawny had always pretended to be a romantic character out of one of Byron’s swashbuckling tales. In the end I admire him.
“Though here no more Apollo haunts his Grot,
And thou, the Muses’ seat, art now their grave,
Some gentle Spirit still pervades the spot,
Sighs in the gale, keeps silence in the Cave …”
– Lord Byron
“Oh, thou Parnassus!”
– from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,
Canto I, LXII
Somewhere ahead in the windy darkness lay the village of Tithorea, and south of that the pass through the foothills to the crossroads where, according to legend, Oedipus killed his father. Trelawny and his young wife would reach it at dawn, and then ride east, toward Athens, directly away from Delphi and Mount Parnassus.
But it was only midnight now, and they were still in the Velitza Gorge below Parnassus, guiding their horses down the pebbly dry bed of the Kakoreme by the intermittent moonlight. It was half an hour since they had left behind the smells of tobacco smoke and roasted pigeon as they had skirted wide through the oaks around the silent tents of Ghouras’s palikars at the Chapel of St. George, and now the night wind in Trelawny’s face smelled only of sage and clay, but he still listened for the sound of pursuing hoofbeats … or for stones clattering or grinding, or women’s voices singing atonally out in the night.
The only sound now, though, was the homely thump and knock of the horses’ hooves. He glanced to his right at Tersitza – huddled in her shaggy sheepskin cape, she seemed like a child rocking in the saddle, and Trelawny recalled Byron’s words:
And then – that little girl, your warlord’s sister?–she’ll be their prey, and change to one of them – supposing that you care about the child.
Byron had said it only three months after dying in Missolonghi last year, and at the time it had not been a particularly important point – but now Tersitza was Trelawny’s wife, and Trelawny was determined to get her free of her brother’s ambitions … the ambitions which until a few months ago had been Trelawny’s too. A man had to protect his wife.
A great man?
The intruding thought was so strong that Trelawny almost glanced around at the shadows among the twisted olive trees here to see who had whispered it; but he kept his eyes on Tersitza. He wished she would glance over at him, show him that she was still there, that she still had a face.
Percy Shelley hadn’t protected his wife – his first wife, at least, Harriet. He had abandoned her in England and run off to Switzerland to wed Mary Godwin, and Harriet had in fact died a year or two later, in the Serpentine River in Hyde Park. Shelley had been a great man, though, one of the immortal poets – a true king of Parnassus! – and such men couldn’t be bound by pedestrian moralities out of old holy books. Trelawny had been proud to call Shelley his friend, and had eventually overseen the poet’s cremation and burial. Shelley had been a braver man than Byron, who for all his manly posturing and licentious ways had proven to be a willing prisoner of … convention, propriety, human connections.
A warm wind had sprung up now at their backs, tossing the loose ends of Trelawny’s turban across his bearded face, and he smelled jasmine. All the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, he thought. I am even now literally turning my back on them.
With the thought, he was instantly tempted to rein in the horses and retrace their course. The British adventurer, Major Francis Bacon, would be returning here, ideally within a few weeks, and if Bacon kept his promise he would be bringing with him the talisman that would … would let Trelawny do what Byron had advised.
But he bitterly recognized the dishonesty of his own rationalization. Major Bacon would probably not be able to make his way back here before Midsummer’s Eve, and after that it would almost certainly be too late. And – and Trelawny had told Tersitza that their expedition tonight was to rescue her brother, the klepht warlord Odysseus Androutses, from his captivity in the Venetian Tower at the Acropolis in Athens. Odysseus had been imprisoned there two weeks ago by his one-time lieutenant, Ghouras, whose palikars were already camped in several places right here in the Velitza Gorge. Trelawny knew that Ghouras meant soon to blockade the mountain entirely, and that tonight might be the last chance he and Tersitza would have to escape.
He had no choice but to turn his back on the mountain, and on the glamorous damnation it offered.
Not for the first time, he forced down the forlorn wish that Byron had never spoken to him after dying in Missolonghi.
A year ago, in April of 1824, Edward Trelawny had ridden west from Athens toward Missolonghi with a troop of armed palikars, eager to show Lord Byron that an alliance with certain maligned old forces really was possible, and would be the best way to free Greece from the Turks. Previously, especially on the boat over from Italy, Byron had laughed at Trelawny’s aspirations – but shortly after their arrival in Greece, Trelawny had left the dissolute lord’s luxurious quarters in Cephalonia and struck out on his own across the war-ravaged Greek countryside, and had eventually found the klepht, the Greek warlord, who knew something of the ancient secret ways to summon such help – and to virtually make gods of the humans who established the contact.
As Trelawny had furtively guided his band of palikars westward through the chilly mountain passes above the Gulf of Corinth, hidden by the crags and pines from the Turkish cavalry on the slopes below, he had rehearsed what he would say to Byron when they reached Missolonghi: The klepht Odysseus Androutses and I have already paid the toll, in rivers of Turkish blood on the island of Euboaea, and in blood of our own drawn by the metal that’s lighter than wood – we have our own army, and our headquarters are on Mount Parnassus itself, the very home of the Muses! It’s all true – join us, take your rightful place on Parnassus in the soon-to-be-immortal flesh!
Byron wasn’t nearly the poet that Shelley had been, in Trelawny’s estimation, but surely any poet would have been flattered by the Parnassus allusion, Parnassus being the home of the goddesses called the Muses in classical Greek myths, and sacred to poetry and music. Trelawny would not remind Byron that Mount Parnassus was also reputed to be the site where Deucalion and Pyrrha landed their ark, after the great flood, and repopulated the world by throwing over their shoulders stones that then grew up into human form.
And Trelawny would not mention, not right away, his hope that Byron, who had once had dealings with these powers himself before foolishly renouncing them, would act in the role the Arabs called rafiq: a recognized escort, a maker of introductions that otherwise might be dangerous.
Trelawny had imagined that Byron would finally lose his skeptical smirk, and admit that Trelawny had preceded him in glory – and that the lord would gladly agree to serve as rafiq to the powers which Trelawny and Odysseus Androutsos hoped to summon and join – but on the bank of the Evvenus River, still a day’s ride west of the mudbank seacoast town of Missolonghi, Trelawny’s band had passed a disordered group of palikars fleeing east, and when Trelawny had asked one of the haggard soldiers for news, he learned that Lord Byron had died five days earlier.
Damn the man!
Byron had died still intolerably imagining that Trelawny was a fraud – If we could make Edward tell the truth and wash his hands we will make a gentleman of him yet, Byron had more than once remarked to their mutual friends in Italy – and that all Trelawny’s reminiscences about having captured countless ships on the Indian Ocean as second-in-command to the noble privateer de Ruyters, and marrying the beautiful Arab princess Zela, were fantasies born of nothing but his imagination. Trelawny had always been sourly aware of Byron’s amiable skepticism.
His horse snickered and tossed its head in the moonlight, and Trelawny glanced at Tersitza – who still swayed in the saddle of the horse plodding along beside his, still silently wrapped in her shaggy cape – and then he
Only to himself, and only sometimes, could Edward Trelawny admit that in fact he had concocted all the tales of his previous history – he had not actually deserted the British Navy at the age of sixteen to become a corsair and marry a princess who died tragically, but had instead continued as an anonymous midshipman and been routinely discharged from the Navy in Portsmouth at twenty, with not even the half-pay a lieutenant would get. A sordid marriage had followed a year later, and after the birth of two daughters his wife had eloped with a captain of the Prince of Wales’s Regiment. Trelawny, then twenty-four, had vowed to challenge the man to a duel, though nothing had come of it.
But his stories had become so real to him, as he had repeated them in ever-more-colorful detail to Shelley and Mary and the rest of the expatriate British circle in Pisa in the early months of 1822, that Trelawny’s memory served them up to his recall far more vividly than it did the tawdry, humiliating details of the actual events.
And now he was living the sort of life he had only imagined – only foreseen! – back in Italy. He habitually dressed now in Suliote costume, the red and gold vest and the sheepskin capote, with pistols and a sword in his sash, and he was second-in-command to Odysseus Androutses, a real brigand chief, and together they had killed dozens of Ali Pasha’s Turkish soldiers on the occupied island of Euboaea.
But the memories of ambushing Turks and burning their villages on Euboaea brought up bile to the back of his throat now, and made him want to goad the horses into a foolhardy gallop through the patchy moonlight. It wasn’t the fact of having killed the men, and women and children too, that twisted his stomach, but the knowledge that the killings had been an offering, a deliberate mass human sacrifice.
And he suspected that when Odysseus had afterward performed the blood-brother ritual with him in the vast cave high up on Mount Parnassus, in which Trelawny had cut a gash in his own forearm with the knife made of lightweight gray metal, that had been a human sacrifice too. A humanity sacrifice, at any rate.
With an abrupt chilling shock he realized that the wind at his back shouldn’t be warm, nor smell of jasmine. Quickly he reached across to take the slack reins of Tersitza’s horse, but he had no sooner grabbed the swinging leather strap than a cracking sound to his left made him look back over his shoulder –
– the sound had been like a rock splitting, and for an instant he had been afraid that he would see again, here, the black bird-headed thing, apparently made of stone, that had been haunting his dreams and had seemed in them to be the spirit of the mountain –
– but it was a girl that he saw, pacing him on a third horse; and her horse’s hooves made no sound on the flinty riverbed. Her luminous eyes were as empty of human emotion as a snake’s, though by no means empty of emotion.
But he recognized her – she could be no one else than Zela, the Arabian princess who had died while pregnant with his child thirteen years ago. Her narrow little body was draped in pale veils that were white in the moonlight, but he was certain that they were actually yellow, the Arab color of mourning.
The smell of jasmine had intensified and become something else, something like the inorganically sweet smell of sheared metal.
She smiled at him, baring white teeth, and her soft voice cut through the clatter of the wind in the olive branches: “Out of this wood do not desire to go,
Thou shalt remain here whether thou wilt or no.”
His face went cold when he abruptly remembered that Zela had never existed outside his stories.
Even as he called, “Tersitza!” and goaded his own horse forward and pulled on the reins of hers, he recognized the lines the phantom girl had quoted – they were from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it was on this upcoming midsummer’s eve that he was to be consecrated to the mountain.
Tersitza was still slumped in her saddle, and Trelawny pulled his mount closer to hers and then leaned across and with a grunt of effort lifted her right out of the saddle and sat her limp form on his thighs as her cape came loose and blew away. Glancing down at her in the moment before he kicked his horse into a gallop, he saw that her eyes were closed, and he was profoundly reassured to feel for a moment her warm breath on his hand.
With one arm around her shoulders he leaned forward as far as he could over the horse’s flexing neck and squinted ahead to see any low branches he might be bearing down on. Tersitza’s riderless horse was falling behind, and the hoofbeats of Trelawny’s were a rapid drumming in the windy gorge.
Peripherally he could see that Zela was rushing forward right beside him, a yard away to his left, though her horse’s legs were moving no faster than before, and the moonlight was luminously steady on her even as it rushed past in patches all around her, and her voice was still clear in his ears:
“I am a spirit of no common rate.
The summer soon will tend upon my state,
And I do love thee. Therefore stay with me.”
Trelawny didn’t spare her a glance, but from the corner of his eye he could see that her veils were not being tossed in the headwind. His breath was choppy and shallow, and the wind was cold now on his sweating face.
The village of Tithorea couldn’t be more than five miles ahead of them now, and this phantom didn’t appear to be a physical body. As long as his horse didn’t stumble in the moonlight –
Abruptly the Zela phantom was gone, but after a moment of unreasoning relief Trelawny cursed and pulled back on the reins, for somehow they weren’t in the Velitza Gorge anymore.
His horse clopped and shook to a panting halt. Trelawny could feel cold air on his bared teeth as he squinted around at the dozens or hundreds of tumbled skeletons that webbed the sides of the path now, below the rocky slopes; many of the further ones straddled the bigger skeletons of fallen horses, and the bony hands of those closer clutched ropes tied around the skulls of camels on the rocky ground. The jagged moonlit ridges far above seemed as remote as the stars they eclipsed, and faintly on the wind he could hear high feminine voices combining in alien harmonies.
He made himself breathe deeply and unclench his fists from the reins and stretch his fingers. He recognized the place, at least – the devils of Parnassus hadn’t transported them to some hellish valley on the moon.
They were in the Dervenakia Pass, where the army of the Turkish general Dramali Pasha had been trapped and massacred by the wild mountain Greek tribes nearly two years ago. The smell of decay was only a frail taint now on the night wind.
But the Dervenakia Pass was in the Morea – across the Gulf of Corinth, easily fifty miles south of where Trelawny and Tersitza had been a moment ago.
Very well, he thought stoutly, nodding as he forced down his panic – very well, I know the way to Argos from here, we can –
A clanking of stones on the road ahead jerked his head in that direction, and his tenuous hope flickered out.
A tall spidery thing like a black animated gargoyle stood in the moonlit path now, a hundred feet ahead. More rocks were breaking away from the walls of the pass and tumbling across the ground to attach themselves to it, adding to its height as he watched. Its stone beak swung heavily back and forth in the moonlight.
Its lengthening black shadow shifted across the scattered white ribcages and skulls behind it, and the high faraway voices were singing louder now, spiralling up toward a crescendo beyond the range of human hearing.
Trelawny’s eyes were wide, and he wasn’t breathing, or even thinking. His horse was rigidly still.
The figure ahead of them was even taller when it straightened somewhat, its long, mismatched stalactite arms lifting toward the horse and riders – and though it only roughly resembled a human body, Trelawny was certain that it was female. And when it spoke, in an echoing voice like rushing water choked and sluiced and spilled by a slow millwheel – “And I will purge thy morta
– he knew it was the same creature that had seemed to be riding at his left hand in the Velitza Gorge.
His face and palms tingled in the cold wind, as if damp with some moisture more volatile than sweat. Thy mortal grossness.
The thing ahead of them was hideous, but that wasn’t why Trelawny ached uselessly to tear his eyes from it – the stones it was animating were crude, but they weren’t it. The entity confronting him was an immortal ethereal thing, “an airy spirit” that only touched matter as a well-shod man might carelessly leave bootprints in mud, while Trelawny and Tersitza consisted of matter – fluids and veined organic sacs and tangled hairs, pulsing and temporary.
Trelawny yearned to hide from the thing’s intolerable attention, but he couldn’t presume to move. Abruptly he began breathing again, a harsh hot panting, and it humiliated him.
He was still holding Tersitza’s limp, gently breathing little body in front of himself, as if it were an offering, and for a moment of infinite relief he felt the thing ahead shift its attention to her for a moment before fixing its psychic weight on him again.
The voice came only in his head now, again using lines from his memory but no longer bothering to cater to his fleshy ears by agitating the cold air:
I claim the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her.
Since the thing had referred to Tersitza, Trelawny was able to look down at the girl. And though she was obviously as miniscule and ephemeral a thing as he now knew himself to be, her helpless vulnerability couldn’t be ignored, and he scraped together the fragments of his crumpled identity enough to answer. “No,” he whispered.
The thing in the path ahead of them was growing still taller and wider, its misshapen head beginning to blot out part of the night sky, but with adamantine patience it spoke again in his head:
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