R. A. LAFFERTY
ALOYSIUS LAFFERTY was born
He first tried to write when he was nineteen, and an editor scribbled on his rejected manuscript, "Hopeless, you don't know what life is. Live it for twenty-five years and try again." He forgot that advice until long afterward and then discovered that he had followed it almost exactly. He has six published science fiction novels: Past Master, The Reefs of Earth, Space Chantey, Fourth Mansions, The Devil Is Dead and Arrive at Easterwine; and two historical fantasies: The Flame Is Green and The Fall of Rome. There are two published collections of his science fiction stories: Nine Hundred Grandmothers and Strange Doings. He has had more than eighty stories published in magazines or original collections, and half of them have been anthologized.
His hobbies are geology, art, languages and history. He modestly disclaims any sort of competence despite the fact that he has a reading knowledge of all the languages of the Latin, German and Slavic families, as well as Gaelic and Greek, and during his military service in World
War II he learned to speak Pasar Malay and Tagalog.
of his novels, Past Master,
The Sky-Seller was Mr. Furtive himself, fox-muzzled, ferret-eyed, slithering along like a snake, and living under the Rocks. The Rocks had not been a grand place for a long time. It had been built in the grand style on a mephitic plot of earth (to transform it), but the mephitic earth had won out. The apartments of the Rocks had lost their sparkle as they had been divided again and again, and now they were shoddy. The Rocks had weathered. Its once pastel hues were now dull grays and browns.
The five underground levels had been parking places for motor vehicles when those were still common, but now these depths were turned into warrens and hovels. The Sky-Seller lurked and lived in the lowest and smallest and meanest of them all.
He came out only at night. Daylight would have killed him: he knew that. He sold out of the darkest shadows of the night. He had only a few (though oddly select) clients, and nobody knew who his supplier was. He said that he had no supplier, that he gathered and made the stuff himself.
Welkin Alauda, a full-bodied but light-moving girl (it was said that her bones here hollow and filled with air), came to the Sky Seller just before first light, just when he had become highly nervous but had not yet bolted to his underground.
"A sack of Sky from the nervous mouse. Jump, or the sun will gobble your house!" Welkin sang-song, and she was already higher than most skies.
"Hurry, hurry!" the Sky-Seller begged, thrusting the sack to her while his black eyes trembled and glittered (if real light should ever reflect into them he'd go blind).
Welkin took the sack of Sky, and scrambled money notes into his hands, which had furred palms. (Really? Yes, really.)
"World be flat and the Air be round, wherever the Sky grows underground," Welkin intoned, taking the sack of Sky and soaring along with a light scamper of feet (she hadn't much weight, her bones were hollow). And the Sky-Seller darted headfirst down a black well shaft thing to his depths.
Four of them went Sky-Diving that morning, Welkin herself, Karl Vlieger, Icarus Riley, Joseph Alzarsi; and the pilot was - (no, not who you think, he had already threatened to turn them all in; they'd use that pilot no more) - the pilot was Ronald Kolibri in his little crop dusting plane.
But a crop-duster will not go up to the frosty heights they liked to take off from. Yes it will - if everybody is on Sky. But it isn't pressurized, and it doesn't carry oxygen. That doesn't matter, not if everybody is on Sky, not if the plane is on Sky too.
Welkin took Sky with Mountain Whizz, a carbonated drink. Karl stuffed it into his lip like snuff. Icarus Riley rolled it and smoked it. Joseph Alzarsi needled it, mixed with drinking alcohol, into his main vein. The pilot Ronny tongued and chewed it like sugar dust. The plane named Shrike took it through the manifold.
Fifty thousand feet - You can't go that high in a crop-duster. Thirty below zero - Ah, that isn't cold! Air too thin to breathe at all - with Sky, who needs such included things as air?
Welkin stepped out, and went up, not down. It was a trick she often pulled. She hadn't much weight; she could always get higher than the rest of them. She went up and up until she disappeared. Then she drifted down again, completely enclosed in a sphere of ice crystal, sparkling inside it and making monkey faces at them.
The wind yelled and barked, and the divers took off. They all went down, soaring and gliding and tumbling; standing still sometimes, it seemed; even rising again a little. They went down to clouds and spread out on them: black-white clouds with the sun inside them and suffusing them both from above and below. They cracked Welkin's ice-crystal sphere and she stepped out of it. They ate the thin pieces of it, very cold and brittle and with a tang of ozone. Alzarsi took off his shirt and sunned himself on a cloud.
"You will burn," Welkin told him. "Nobody burns so as when sunning himself on a cloud." That was true.
They sank through the black-whiteness of these clouds and came into the limitless blue concourse with clouds above and below them. It was in this same concourse that Hippodameia used to race her horses, there not being room for such coursers to run on earth. The clouds below folded up and the clouds above folded down, forming a discrete space.
"We have our own rotundity and sphere here," said Icarus Riley (these are their Sky-Diver names, not their legal names), "and it is apart from all worlds and bodies. The worlds and the bodies do not exist for as long a time as we say that they do not exist. The axis of our present space is its own concord. Therefore, it being in perfect concord, Time stops."
All their watches had stopped, at least.
"But there is a world below," said Karl. "It is an abject world, and we can keep it abject forever if we wish. But it has at least a shadowy existence, and later we will let it fill out again in our compassion for lowly things. It is flat, though, and we must insist that it remain flat."
"This is important," Joseph said with a deep importance of one on Sky. "So long as our own space is bowed and globed, the world must remain flat or depressed. But the world must not be allowed to bow its back again. We are in danger if it ever does. So long as it is truly flat and abject it cannot crash ourselves to it."
"How long could we fall," Welkin asked, "if we had not stopped time, if we let it flow at its own pace, or at ours? How long could we fall?"
"Hephaestus once tumbled through space all day long," Icarus Riley said, "and the days were longer then."
Karl Vlieger had gone wall-eyed from an interior-turned sexual passion that he often experienced in diving. Icarus Riley seemed to be on laughing gas suddenly; this is a sign that Sky is not having perfect effect. Joseph Alzarsi felt a cold wind down his spine and a series of jerky little premonitions.
"We are not perfect," Joseph said. "Tomorrow or the next day we may be, for we do approach perfection. We win a round. And we win another. Let us not throw away our victory today through carelessness. The earth has bowed his old back a little bit, and we make ready for him! Now, guys, now!"
Four of them (or maybe only three of them) pulled the rings. The chutes unpeeled, flowered and jerked. They had been together like a sheaf in close conversation. But suddenly, on coming to earth, they were spread out over five hundred yards.
They assembled. They packed their chutes. That would be all the diving for that day.
"Welkin, how did you pack your chute so quickly?" Icarus asked her suspiciously.
"I don't know."
"You are always the slowest one of us, and the sloppiest. Someone always has to reroll your chute for you before it is used again. And you were the last one to land just now. How were you the first one to be packed? How did you roll it so well? It has the earmarks of my own rolling, just as I rolled it for you before we took off this morning."
"I don't know, Icarus. Oh, I think I'll go up again, straight up."
"No, you've sailed and dived enough for one morning. Welkin, did you even open your chute?"
"I don't know."
High on Sky, they went up again the next morning. The little plane named Shrike flew up as no plane had ever flown before, up through Storm. The storm-shrouded earth shrank to the size of a pea-doogie.
"We will play a trick on it," said Welkin. "When you're on Sky you can play a trick on anything and make it abide by it. I will say that the pea-doogie that was the world is nothing. See, it is gone. Then I will select another pea-doogie, that one there, and I will call it the world. And that is the world that we will come down to in a little while. I've switched worlds on the world, and it doesn't know what happened to it."
"It's uneasy, though." Joseph Alzarsi spoke through flared nostrils. "You shook it. No wonder the world has its moments of self-doubt."
They were one million feet high. The altimeter didn't go that high, but Ronald Kolibri the pilot wrote out the extended figure in chalk to make it correct. Welkin stepped out. Karl and Icarus and Joseph stepped out. Ronald Kolibri stepped out, but only for a while. Then he remembered that he was the pilot and got back in the plane. They were so high that the air was black and star-filled instead of blue. It was so cold that the empty space was full of cracks and potholes. They dived half a million feet in no time at all. They pulled up laughing.
It was invigorating, it was vivifying. They stamped on the clouds, and the clouds rang like frosty ground. This was the ancestral country of all hoarfrost, of all grained-snow and glare-ice. Here was weather-maker, here was wind-son. They came into caves of ice mixed with moraine; they found antler hatchets and Hemicyon bones; they found coals still glowing. The winds bayed and hunted in packs through the chasms. These were the cold Fortean clouds, and their location is commonly quite high.
They came down below Storm, finding new sun and new air. It was pumpkin-summer, it was deep autumn in the sky.
They dropped again, miles and millennia, to full Sky-summer: the air so blue that it grew a violet patina on it to save the surface. Their own space formed about them again, as it did every day, and time stopped.
But not motion! Motion never stopped with them. Do you not realize that nothingness in a void can still be in motion? And how much more they of the great centrality! There was Dynamic; there was sustaining vortex; there was the high serenity of fevered motion.
But is not motion merely a relationship of space to time? No. That is an idea that is common to people who live on worlds, but it is a subjective idea. Here, beyond the possible influence of any worlds, there was living motion without reference.
"Welkin, you look quite different today," Joseph Alzarsi spoke in wonder. "What is it?"
"I don't know. It's wonderful to be different and I'm wonderful."
"It is something missing from you," said Icarus. "I believe it is a defect missing."
"But I hadn't any, Icarus."
They were in central and eternal moment, and it did not end, it could not end, it goes on yet. Whatever else seems to happen, it is merely in parentheses to that moment.
"It is time to consider again," Icarus mused after a while. There is no time or while in the Moment, but there is in the parentheses. "I hope it is the last time we will ever have to consider. We, of course, are in our own space and beyond time or tangent. But the earth, such as it is, is approaching with great presumption and speed."
"But it's nothing to us!" Karl Vlieger suddenly raged out in a chthonic and phallic passion. "We can shatter it! We can shoot it to pieces like a clay pigeon! It cannot rush onto us like a slashing dog. Get down, world! Heel, you cur! Heel, I say!"
"We say to one world 'rise' and it rises, and to another one 'heel' and it heels," Icarus sky-spoke in his dynamic serenity.
"Not yet," Joseph Alzarsi warned. "Tomorrow we will be total. Today we are not yet. Possibly we could shatter the world like a clay pigeon if we wished, but we would not be lords of it if we had to shatter it."
"We could always make another world," said Welkin reasonably.
"Certainly, but this one is our testing. We will go to it when it is crouched down. We cannot allow it to come ravening to us. Hold! Hold there, we order you!"
And the uprushing world halted, cowed.
"We go down," said Joseph. "We will let it come up only when it is properly broken."
("And they inclined the heavens and came down.")
Once more, three of them pulled the rings. And the chutes unpeeled, flowered and jerked. They had been like a sheaf together in their moment; but now, coming to earth, they were suddenly scattered out over five hundred yards.
"Welkin, you didn't have your chute at all today!" Icarus gaped with some awe when they had assembled again. "That is what was different about you."
"No, I guess I didn't have it. There was no reason to have it if I didn't need it. Really, there was never any reason for me to have used one at all ever."
"All, we were total today and didn't know it," Joseph ventured. "Tomorrow none of us will wear chutes. This is easier than I had believed."
Welkin went to the Sky-Seller to buy new Sky that night. Not finding him in the nearer shadows of the Rocks, she went down and down, drawn by the fungoid odor and the echoing dampness of the underground. She went through passages that were manmade, through passages that were natural, through passages that were unnatural. Some of these corridors, it is true, had once been built by men, but now they had reverted and become most unnatural deep-earth caverns. Welkin went down into the total blackness where there were certain small things that still mumbled out a faint white color; but it was the wrong color white, and the things were all of a wrong shape.
There was the dead white shape of Mycelium masses, the grotesqueness of Agaricus, the deformity of Deadly Amanita and of Morel. The gray milky Lactarius glowed like lightless lanterns in the dark; there was the blue-white of the Deceiving Clitoeybe and the yellow-white of the Caesar Agaric. There was the insane ghostwhite of the deadliest and queerest of them all, the Fly Amanita, and a mole was gathering this.
"Mole, bring Sky for the Thing Serene, for the Minions tall and the Airy Queen," Welkin jangled. She was still high on Sky, but it had begun to leave her a little and she had the veriest touch of the desolate sickness.
"Sky for the Queen of the buzzing drones, with her hollow heart and her hollow bones," the Sky-Seller intoned hollowly.
"And fresh, Oh I want it fresh, fresh Sky!" Welkin cried.
"With these creatures there is no such thing as fresh," the Sky-Seller told her. "You want it stale, Oh so stale! Ingrown and aged and with its own mold grown moldy."
"Which is it?" Welkin demanded. "What is the name of the one you gather it from?"
"The Fly Amanita."
"But isn't that simply a poisonous mushroom?"
"It has passed beyond that. It has sublimated. Its simple poison has had its second fermenting into narcotic."
"But it sounds so cheap that it be merely narcotic."
"Not merely narcotic. It is something very special in narcotic."
"No, no, not narcotic at all!" Welkin protested. "It is liberating, it is world-shattering. It is Height Absolute. It is motion and detachment itself. It is the ultimate. It is mastery."
"Why, then it is mastery, lady. It is the highest and lowest of all created things."
"No, no," Welkin protested again, "not created. It is not born, it is not made. I couldn't stand that. It is the highest of all uncreated things."
"Take it, take it," the Sky-Seller growled, "and be gone. Something begins to curl up inside me."
"I go!" Welkin said, "and I will be back many times for more."
"No, you will not be. Nobody ever comes back many times for Sky. You will be back never. Or one time. I think that you will be back one time."
They went up again the next morning, the last morning. But why should we say that it was the last morning? Because there would no longer be divisions or days for them. It would be one last eternal day for them now, and nothing could break it.
They went up in the plane that had once been named Shrike and was now named Eternal Eagle. The plane had repainted itself during the night with new name and new symbols, some of them not immediately understandable. The plane snuffled Sky into its manifolds, and grinned and roared. And the plane went up.
Oh! Jerusalem in the Sky! How it went up!
They were all certainly perfect now and would never need Sky again. They were Sky.
"How little the world is!" Welkin rang out. "The towns are like fly specks and the cities are like flies."
"It is wrong that so ignoble a creature as the Fly should have the exalted name," Icarus complained.
"I'll fix that," Welkin sang. "I give edict: That all the flies on earth be dead!" And all the flies on earth died in that instant.
"I wasn't sure you could do that," said Joseph Alzarsi. "The wrong is righted. Now we ourselves assume the noble name of Flies. There are no Flies but us!"
The five of them, including the pilot Ronald Kolibri, stepped chuteless out of the Eternal Eagle.
"Will you be all right?" Ronald asked the rollicking plane.
"Certainly," the plane said. "I believe I know where there are other Eternal Eagles. I will mate."
It was cloudless, or else they had developed the facility of seeing through clouds. Or perhaps it was that, the earth having become as small as a marble, the clouds around it were insignificant.
Pure light that had an everywhere source! (The sun also had become insignificant and didn't contribute much to the light.) Pure and intense motion that had no location reference. They weren't going anywhere with their intense motion (they already were everywhere, or at the super-charged center of everything).
Pure cold fever. Pure serenity. Impure hyper-space passion of Karl Vlieger, and then of all of them; but it was purely rampant at least. Stunning beauty in all things along with a towering cragginess that was just ugly enough to create an ecstasy.
Welkin Alauda was mythic with nenuphars in her hair. And it shall not be told what Joseph Alzarsi wore in his own hair. An always-instant, a million or a billion years!
Not monotony, no! Presentation! Living sets! Scenery! The scenes were formed for the splinter of a moment; or they were formed forever. Whole worlds formed in a pregnant void: not spherical worlds merely, but dodecaspherical, and those much more intricate than that. Not merely seven colors to play with, but seven to the seventh and to the seventh again.
Stars vivid in the bright light. You who have seen stars only in darkness be silent! Asteroids that they ate like peanuts, for now they were all metamorphic giants. Galaxies like herds of rampaging elephants. Bridges so long that both ends of them receeded over the light-speed edges. Waterfalls, of a finer water, that bounced off galaxy clusters as if they were boulders.
Through a certain ineptitude of handling, Welkin extinguished the old sun with one such leaping torrent.
"It does not matter," Icarus told her. "Either a million or a billion years had passed according to the time-scale of the bodies, and surely the sun had already come onto dim days. You can always make other suns."
Karl Vlieger was casting lightning bolts millions of parsecs long and making looping contact with clustered galaxies with them.
"Are you sure that we are not using up any time?" Welkin asked them with some apprehension.
"Oh, time still uses itself up, but we are safely out of the reach of it all," Joseph explained. "Time is only one very inefficient method of counting numbers. It is inefficient because it is limited in its numbers, and because the counter by such a system must die when he has come to the end of his series. That alone should weigh against it as a mathematical system; it really shouldn't be taught."
"Then nothing can hurt us ever?" Welkin wanted to be reassured.
"No, nothing can come at us except inside time and we are outside it. Nothing can collide with us except in space and we disdain space. Stop it, Karl! As you do it that's buggery."
"I have a worm in my own tract and it gnaws at me a little," the pilot Ronald Kolibri said. "It's in my internal space and it's crunching along at a pretty good rate."
"No, no, that's impossible. Nothing can reach or hurt us," Joseph insisted.
"I have a worm of my own in a still more interior tract," said Icarus, "the tract that they never quite located in the head or the heart or the bowels. Maybe this tract always was outside space. Oh, my worm doesn't gnaw, but it stirs. Maybe I'm tired of being out of reach of everything."
"Where do these doubts rise from?" Joseph sounded querulous. "You hadn't them an instant ago, you hadn't them as recently as ten million years ago. How can you have them now when there isn't any now?"
"Well, as to that-" Icarus began - (and a million years went by) - "as to that I have a sort of cosmic curiosity about an object in my own past "(another million years went by) - "an object called world."
"Well, satisfy your curiosity then," Karl Vlieger snapped. "Don't you even know how to make a world?"
"Certainly I know how, but will it be the same?"
"Yes, if you're good enough. It will be the same if you make it the same."
Icarus Riley made a world. He wasn't very good at it and it wasn't quite the same, but it did resemble the old world a little.
"I want to see if some things are still there," Welkin clamored. "Bring it closer."
"It's unlikely your things are still there," Joseph said. "Remember that billions of years may have passed."
"The things will be there if I put them there," Icarus insisted.
"And you cannot bring it closer since all distance is now infinite," Karl maintained.
"At least I can focus it better," Icarus insisted, and he did. The world appeared quite near.
"It remembers us like a puppy would," Welkin said. "See, it jumps up at us."
"It's more like a lion leaping for a treed hunter just out of reach," Icarus grudged. "But we are not treed."
"It can't ever reach us, and it wants to," Welkin piqued. "Let's reach down to it."
("And they inclined the heavens and went down.")
A most peculiar thing happened to Ronald Kolibri as he touched earth. He seemed to have a seizure. He went slack-faced, almost horror faced, and he would not answer the others.
"What is it, Ronald?" Welkin begged in kindred anguish. "Oh, what is it? Somebody help him!"
Then Ronald Kolibri did an even more peculiar thing. He began to fold up and break up from the bottom. Bones slowly splintered and pierced out of him and his entrails gushed out. He compressed. He shattered. He splashed. Can a man splash?
The same sort of seizure overtook Karl Vlieger: the identical slack face horror-face, the same folding up and breaking up from the bottom, the same hideous sequence.
And Joseph Alzarsi went into the same sundering state, baffled and breaking up.
"Icarus, what's happened to them?" Welkin screamed. "What is that slow loud booming?"
"They're dead. How could that be?" Icarus puzzled, trembling. "Death is in time, and we are not."
Icarus himself passed through time as he crashed earth, breaking up, spilling out more odiously than any of them.
And Welkin touched earth, crashed, then what? She heard her own slow loud booming as she hit.
(Another million years went by, or some weeks.)
A shaky old woman on crutches was going down the middle-of-the-night passages that are under the Rocks. She was too old a woman to be Welkin Alauda, but not too old for a Welkin who had lived millions of years outside of time.
She had not died. She was lighter than the others, and besides she had done it twice before unscathed. But that was before she had known fear.
Naturally they had told her that she would never walk again; and now most unnaturally she was walking with crutches. Drawn by the fungoid odor and the echoing dampness she went down in the total dark to where small things were glowing with the wrong color white and were all of the wrong shape. She wanted one thing only, and she would die without it.
"Sky for salving the broken Crone! Sky for the weal of my hollow bone!" she crackled in an old-woman voice. But it was only her own voice that echoed back to her.
Should a Sky-Seller live forever?