Posts Tagged: short stories

Feb 11


[a LOST STORY by John Shirley - originally published in Dark Wisdom magazine...]

The merchant Calaphais was coming to an agreement with the seller of dates, Mustapha of Caesarea, when their negotiations attracted the notice of the demon Malchance. A fiend of the air, Malchance had blown in on an ill wind, a sour meteorological note, provoking the village camels to lift their heads and snort, the village dogs to sniff the air and whine, and its old women to cringe into their robes, making the sign against evil.

Seeing the crones make the sign, Malchance laughed to himself as he drifted invisibly by. He waved back at the women, though they were unaware that he was fluttering his unseen fingers. He regarded the sign against evil as a species of greeting; he regarded it thus ironically, yet deep in the folds of his inmost nature he took an obscure comfort in seeing it.

On an impulse—he was a creature of impulse and curiosity, little else–Malchance tarried to observe the traders. Calaphais, a man with a pointed black beard and red and blue turban, the colors of his turban signifying his spiritual sect, was sitting on a carpet in the silken pavilion of the date seller, pretending to argue about the price. In fact, Calaphais knew that this white-bearded Mustapha, whose hands were beginning to crook with rheumatism, had recently lost his eldest sons, one to a feud not of his making and one to the ague; that without his sons to oversee the date-pickers, his harvest was diminished. Some other man might have used this intelligence to lower the price he would pay for dates, knowing Mustapha for a desperate man, but as the wife of Calaphais had once said, while she lived, “He is not ‘some other’ man.” So Calaphais now allowed himself to be persuaded that he must pay much more than he Mustapha had secretly hoped…

Malchance was both bemused and irritated by Calaphais’s generosity. Malchance regarded generosity as aberrant, even perverse behavior. It incensed him when men behaved unnaturally, though if you had interviewed him, and he were inclined to honestly answer, he could not have said why. Of course all attempts to interview demons are prone to return only perverse responses, unless the demon is bound by some magical sigil, some unbreakable imprint of Solomon’s, and even then their replies are of little value, since they understand so little themselves. Calaphais had once read an account of a mystical interrogation carried out by the magus Belafelonce, who had bound a demon, Repulsivoraq, to reply “truly and without deception”, and it was truly and without deception that Repulsivoraq replied, to Belafelonce’s question regarding how many angels God commanded and where one might reliably encounter one, “You may as well ask how many zebras are green and blue, and how one may see an ape take to wing. No such exist except in the mind of man. There is no God but Vengeance; those beings who exist are but you transient ones creeping below, the Hungry Mind of the Harsh Glare above—and the wilderness of sublime beasts such as myself, between…” Belafelonce believed the demon, supposing the creature knew more of the ultimate reality than he did himself, but this is both true and untrue at once, like so many other things. Misdirected in this fashion, Belefelonce thereafter went awry, and came to a bad end.

But it is the demon Malchance who concerns us, and it was he who followed Calaphais from the tent of Mustapha of Caesarea, to the oasis near the village where the merchant’s caravan awaited him. “I have a bad feeling upon me,” Calaphais said to his jet-black camel driver, Norigula, when he found him in the shade by the murky pool. “The whole way here I smelt death, though no carrion was apparent; I labored to walk, as if there were weighted chains on my ankles; now my own camels shy from me, and when I look around I see only the tattered appearance of the trees, the offal on the ground by the goat slaughterer’s camp, the flies and the dust. I can see nothing more—where once I saw beauty.”

“You have a malady,” said Norigula, backing away. “The plague is upon you. God be with you. Find another to be your camel driver.”

But it was not plague that had hold of Calaphais—he was merely feeling the effects of demonic breath on the back of his neck. So full of ire and spirit-bile was Malchance, that his proximity alone was enough to curdle fresh milk, or a man’s soul.

Demons, however, are a bit more than a collection of malevolences. They are sentient creatures, and as such, each has a personality, characteristics, peculiarities. Malchance had three dominant peculiarities: impulsiveness, curiosity and a dislike of unpredictability in the world around him. He liked to be the very soul of unpredictability himself, but could not abide it in others. Men and women were on the whole predictably prone to be fractious, selfish, gluttonous, dishonest, proud; a demon’s role, as Malchance saw it, was to fan these small flames, so that feuds and wars, those delightful displays, were combusted. It was Malchance’s cousin Miseruppulis, who had cultivated the very feud that had taken Mustapha’s son from him. Human predictability made these little triumphs possible. But from time to time Malchance encountered exceptions, like Calaphais. Following him to the oasis, he had looked into Calaphais’s memories, and saw that he had been smitten with an errant fantasy, as a boy, of an encounter with the divine, which had induced in him this anomalous behavior, so that consistently through life Calaphais had behaved benevolently toward other men, and, against all odds, had somehow thrived.

This unpredictability set Malchance’s teeth on edge –for though he was an astral being, make no mistake, he had teeth—and his natural curiosity drove him to try to get to the bottom of Calaphais’s deviancy, so that he could uproot it.

And so Malchance followed Calaphais as, troubled in mind, he walked out into the desert to pray, the demon mulling the satisfaction of his curiosity. When Calaphais—still feeling himself dogged by an unknown misery—had reached a hummock on which a tuft of brown grass shuddered in the wind of the dusk, Malchance drew into himself drifting grit and bits of seed and drifting camel hair, so that this detritus took on the shape of his body, and in this way he made himself known to Calaphais. His appearance was of a lean winged biped, with wings of leather but shaped like pinions of vultures, with four eyes arranged into a diamond-shape on his bristly head, a drooping multifanged mouth wide across his torso, extremities ending in three-pronged talons.

Calaphais drew back in alarm, asking, “Is this indisposition in me bringing about hallucination?”

“You see what you see,” said Malchance, his words coming from the wide mouth across his belly. “You will not for long question your senses: I will shortly make myself known to you in terms you cannot deny. Pain is a convincing witness.”

“It is the indisposition itself,” Calaphais marvelled, “revealed and voluble!”

Malchance bowed—demons are not without a sense of style. “It has come to my attention, Calaphais of Alexandria, that you are an anomaly. Anomalies in the natural order torment me. I cannot abide them. I could dispose of your own case by simply murdering you, in a trice. But it occurs to me that if I can show you the error of your ways, you would be of great use. You are received as a wise man into the tents of sheiks and the palaces of kings—you could counsel these potentates to war.”

“You are very good to offer me a choice,” said Calaphais, clasping his hands to still their trembling, “but I must regretfully decline.”

“You decline too soon—I have not yet begun to persuade you!” declared Malchance.

So saying he sprang forward and took to the air above the cringing Calaphais, his wings raising a dust devil with their beating; he seized the merchant by the neck with his lower talons, and drew him into the sky. As Malchance jerkily rose, he had no more need of visibility, and he allowed the grit and detritus to drain out of him; by the time Calaphais was as high in the air as the top of a palm tree, a local shepherd, spying him up there, perceived only a man flying upward, spasming like a fish on an unseen line as he ascended into the air, seemingly propelled skyward by his twitchings.

The shepherd fled in horror, but Calaphais could make no escape, and soon gave off his struggle, resigning himself to death.
Death, however, would have been a kindness, and kindness is not something disbursed by devils. Instead, Malchance flapped yet higher, to just beneath the clouds, flexing his talons to induce greater discomfort in his prey. The demon had sunk his claws into the soft flesh under Calaphais’s jaws, not quite crushing his throat nor yet severing arteries, but producing much bleeding and extreme discomfort.

Calaphais writhed in voiceless agony, for what seemed ages, though in fact it was 77 seconds.

Then Malchance let go his hold and Calaphais fell, turning end over end, the pain momentarily lessened but replaced now with the terror of plunging from on high toward the spinning, stony land below. He might have been relieved at this opportunity for a quick death, but his instinct over-ruled his good sense, and he clawed at the air as if to find a hold in vapor.

“Now!” Malchance demanded, spiraling down beside him. “Will you submit to my program for your preservation from aberration? Will you prey upon, conspire against, and undermine your fellow man?”

This entreaty only served to restore Calaphais to himself; his soul took counsel with something higher, and he found his self control. Inwardly drawing away from terror, though he continued to tumble earthward, he responded, “No! Death is for me a union with the Beloved! I rejoice in it!”

Snarling, Malchance swooped to sink his talons into Calaphais again, claws this time digging in about the unfortunate merchant’s spine, stopping his plunge nigh to the ground, the arrested descent giving Calaphais a terrible wrench, so that he screamed in pain. The demon began to ascend once more, tightening his grip on his victim’s spine, giving it a vicious twist now and then, to induce greater pain and finally agony. The word agony is bandied about a great deal—few actually experience it. Calaphais did.

Malchance eased his grip a bit and stopped his wrenching, so that agony subsided to mere excruciating pain, and Calaphais hung from his talons, gasping. “Before I recommence your torment, mortal,” said Malchance, answer me this: “What is this Beloved you speak of? How will death do ought by release your soul into the Harsh Glare, where it will be consumed by that rapacious, that cruel light?”

Calaphais thought at first that the demon was making sport of him, trying to sew doubts—but some intuition, perhaps refined by his close proximity to the demon, the presence of Malchance’s mind like a dark, foully membranous umbrella, informed him that the demon was genuinely puzzled.

“Why…” Calaphais found it necessary to lick his wind chapped lips, to spit out the blood that was beginning to seethe up from his traumatized insides, before continuing, “Why the Beloved is called… by some…God. The usual…usual notions of God are inadequate—this is no mere person. Nor does it ordain the evil that takes place upon the Earth. God is more like an endlessness of mind. But it wishes us well and calls us back to it.”

“What? What do you mean, back to it?”

“Once all beings were part of the pleroma, the body of this Beloved, but Time came about, and flung us from the Beloved, the sparks of our being falling to Earth…or to the airs above the Earth…The Harsh Glare only seems so because of your nature…Oh it is hard to speak, here, demon…my throat closes with blood. I cannot continue.”

“Why should I let you continue with lies? I have looked at the Harsh Glare, and I have seen nothing but searing hostility!”

“Because…” Calaphais paused to spit blood. “You are capable of seeing only hostility. If your head is turned to the south, you see only the south. Turn your head to the north, and see…” He began to gag, and spat out additional blood. He gasped for air and managed, “…and see the north…”

Malchance snorted. “I have heard some of the older daemonae speak of something beyond the Harsh Glare and they sound a note of sadness as if they wish they could return there—but I have always known they are trying to get rid of me, they’re working against the competition, trying to send me to my destruction! And I note they do not try to return!”

“They cannot bear the…the suffering…it would require. Purification…painful…”

Unconsciousness was bearing down on Calaphais, and Malchance gave him an extra clenching of talons, so that the wave of agony would wake him again. Calaphais cried out a Holy Name, imploring, sobbing, but never cursing.

“Still you keep up the charade!” said Malchance. “Well now…I could torment you thus for hours, perhaps days before you died; I could take you to a mountaintop and slowly pick you apart. The idea has merit! It has appeal! The tang of your suffering, more distilled, would be a spicy delight! But still could you end all discomfort if you will submit to my will, and destroy your fellow men, who are, after all, but ephemeral, grubby little primates!”

“Do…as you choose,” Calaphais wheezed. “I will not submit. Even a thousand years of torment could not…measure against the joy of reuniting with the Beloved. It is as nothing…nothing in comparison…”

Malchance snarled in frustration, sensing that Calaphais was moving into another state entirely. He had reorganized his inner state, so that he was detached from the physical pain, he was oriented to something else—something that Malchance could not quite distinguish. Something that was beyond Malchance’s senses, as the highest notes of a violin may be unheard by an old man. “What is this? You dare to withdraw within?”

“I…have merely shifted my attention to something else…a change of…inner polarity…The pain continues but…I am outside it!”

To Calaphais, who had trained inwardly for many years, it was as if the pain induced by the demon’s claws had become an edifice, an architectural expression, a spiky, grotesquely designed temple to the god of Despair. Normally a man in terrible pain resides within the edifice; Calaphais had stepped outside it. He could still see it, looming above him. But he was not within its baleful influence.

“We’ll see if you can continue to remain outside it!” Malchance cried.

Malchance then flung Calaphais high into the air—yet he kept ahold of him: Malchance’s talons were still embedded in Calaphais’s flesh, but were now unreeling, outward, on lines, on wires of ectoplasmicksis, that hardened but resilient astral tissue, so that Calaphais was like a kite on a cruel string, with Malchance the kite flyer. When gravity took hold and Calaphais began to fall, Malchance ceased extending the sticky lines from its extremities, and spun about, swinging Calaphais around in taut circles, a considerable distance from him, wheeling him this way and that, cackling gleefully like a wicked child, nearly tearing the merchant’s spine from his back—and it would have torn away, too, had not Malchance reeled him back in, clutching him close once more.

“There! Now how do you feel! Was not the pain almost infinitely increased?”

“Nothing is infinite but the Beloved—I reached the far frontier of the pain and stepped beyond it,” Calaphais responded, his voice weak. For he was close to dying.

“Bah! You are a stubborn one, that is all! But I shall take you on yon mountain top and shred you, cell by cell, and then we shall see how well you hold out!”

Malchance descended to the rocky, icebound mountaintop, and flung Calaphais upon it, breaking his legs. Calaphais groaned, but quickly found his inner orientation, and once more stepped outside the grotesque temple of pain.
Malchance could see that Calaphais was dying. He might keep him alive, so to torment him longer, but there was something about the game that was deeply unsatisfying—Calaphais’s refusal to identify with his suffering seemed to suck all the joy from the act of torture, for Malchance.

“Poor Malchance!” the demon muttered, sadly. “I am cheated!”

“My soul is about to leave this broken…shell…” Calaphais rasped. “Come with me, to see…come with me…follow me…see if I lie…”

“A man who is deceived does not know he is lying,” Malchance growled. “But now I see it is too late to keep you here…at least I have ended your aberrant life. Now there is one less troublesome exception…Now your soul rises to be consumed by the Harsh Glare!”

Malchance watched intently, though he had observed the phenomenon many times, as Calaphais’s soul sprang from the top of his head: the rough outline of a man, elaborated in light. Usually these souls were faint, filmy, tenuous things, scarcely there at all—but Calaphais’s soul was considerably more substantial than any Malchance had seen before. This further anomaly, and the remarks Calaphais had made—and made sincerely, Malchance knew—piqued the demon’s curiosity. And since curiosity was one of his driving attributes, he was driven to follow the soul of Calaphais, as it ascended upward. He would watch from a safe distance, he told himself, as the soul was consumed by the Harsh Glare.

Upward, upward, the soul went—or rather, outward. For the light that demons called the Harsh Glare encompassed the world, in every direction, not simply “up.”

Malchance gave chase, like a hawk pursuing a smaller bird, up and up. He had tried, before, catching these souls and eating them—it could be done with some souls. Some were slow and ragged and easily caught. There was little taste to them. But others were rapid and slippery, could not be grasped as they ascended…

Calaphais’s effulgence rose through the atmosphere, to the edge of the void, where the overarching shimmer of light—a particular light visible only to spirits–was always in play. When Malchance approached this radiance, turning his eyes toward it, he quickly recoiled, hissing—a harsh glare indeed. He turned instinctively away…

But curiosity spoke up again. Why not go a little farther, and see this impudent, transitory Calaphais consumed by the Harsh Glare? It would be amusing to see him burst into flames like a moth at a candle.

Malchance tried to look away from the Harsh Glare, but continued to ascend, following the fleeting, flitting form of the soul of Calaphais…

He turned his attention to Calaphais, who appeared to be singing a song with his mind as he rose…

The pain continued to mount for Malchance as he ascended—yet Calaphais, he saw, was not burning up, but was becoming more and more substantial, as if the light were entering, combining with him, refining and restoring him, making him more what he already was at the same time as bringing him into intimate relation with itself…

“Calaphais!” Malchance called. “How comes it that I am in pain, I feel my wings begin to burn—my pinions are smoking, seething away!—and you, by contrast, are enjoying this place, are flourishing here? I demand an answer!”

“You are turned to face south, my poor friend!” shouted Calaphais back, from close above. “Face north! Look inward and outward at once! Assume that all you thought true was wrong and look to see what is—and you will be set free!”

Malchance watched Calaphais rising, the soul’s effulgence increasing, its joy redoubling; and the demon realized, then, that the real reason he had chosen Calaphais for torment was envy; was a secret suspicion that Calaphais had indeed known a secret…a secret Malchance ached to know.

So Malchance ascended further, gazed into the terrible illumination that had been called the Harsh Glare, and threw aside all assumptions of knowing, but only looked, simply looked…

There came a flash of intense light around Malchance, then, and he was incinerated—outwardly. His outward form was instantly burned away, but inside, as the ashes drifted down, was revealed a small creature, winged and vaguely human, a creature without memories or, as yet, a name. But this inner fetus was able to ascend into the light, to bask in it, to listen to the voice that called it closer, so that it might begin, might seek a new adulthood.

Calaphais, meanwhile, in a higher place, was greeting old friends and ancestors. Soon, however, he drew aside from them, for a time, to pray for the soul that had once been hidden inside the demon Malchance.
——- end ——-