Chapter 14 - Polecrab
The morning slowly passed. Maskull made some convulsive movements, and opened his eyes. He sat up, blinking. All was night-like and silent in the forest. The strange light had gone, the music had ceased, Dreamsinter had vanished. He fingered his beard, clotted with Tydomin's blood, and fell into a deep muse.
"According to Panawe and Catice, this forest contains wise men. Perhaps Dreamsinter was one. Perhaps that vision I have just seen was a specimen of his wisdom. It looked almost like an answer to my question.... I ought not to have asked about myself, but about Surtur. Then I would have got a different answer. I might have learned something ... I might have seen him."
He remained quiet and apathetic for a bit.
"But I couldn't face that awful glare," he proceeded. "It was bursting my body. He warned me, too. And so Surtur does really exist, and my journey stands for something. But why am I here, and what can I do? Who is Surtur? Where is he to be found?"
Something wild came into his eyes.
"What did Dreamsinter mean by his 'Not you, but Nightspore'? Am I a secondary character - is he regarded as important; and I as unimportant? Where is Nightspore, and what is he doing? Am I to wait for his time and pleasure - can I originate nothing?"
He continued sitting up, with straight-extended legs.
"I must make up my mind that this is a strange journey, and that the strangest things will happen in it. It's no use making plans, for I can't see two steps ahead - everything is unknown. But one thing's evident: nothing but the wildest audacity will carry me through, and I must sacrifice everything else to that. And therefore if Surtur shows himself again, I shall go forward to meet him, even if it means death."
Through the black, quiet aisles of the forest the drum beats came again. The sound was a long way off and very faint. It was like the last mutterings of thunder after a heavy storm. Maskull listened, without getting up. The drumming faded into silence, and did not return.
He smiled queerly, and said aloud, "Thanks, Surtur! I accept the omen."
When he was about to get up, he found that the shrivelled skin that had been his third arm was flapping disconcertingly with every movement of his body. He made perforations in it all around, as close to his chest as possible, with the fingernails of both hands; then he carefully twisted it off. In that world of rapid growth and ungrowth he judged that the stump would soon disappear. After that, he rose and peered into the darkness.
The forest at that point sloped rather steeply and, without thinking twice about it, he took the downhill direction, never doubting it would bring him somewhere. As soon as he started walking, his temper became gloomy and morose - he was shaken, tired, dirty, and languid with hunger; moreover, he realised that the walk was not going to be a short one. Be that as it may. he determined to sit down no more until the whole dismal forest was at his back.
One after another the shadowy, houselike trees were observed, avoided, and passed. Far overhead the little patch of glowing sky was still always visible; otherwise he had no clue to the time of day. He continued tramping sullenly down the slope for many damp, slippery miles - in some places through bogs. When, presently, the twilight seemed to thin, he guessed that the open world was not far away. The forest grew more palpable and grey, and now he saw its majesty better. The tree trunks were like round towers, and so wide were the intervals that they resembled natural amphitheatres. He could not make out the colour of the bark. Everything he saw amazed him, but his admiration was of the growling, grudging kind. The difference in light between the forest behind him and the forest ahead became so marked that he could no longer doubt that he was on the point of coming out.
Real light was in front of him; looking back, he found he had a shadow. The trunks acquired a reddish tint. He quickened his pace. As the minutes went by, the bright patch ahead grew luminous and vivid; it had a tinge of blue. He also imagined that he heard the sound of surf.
All that part of the forest toward which he was moving became rich with colour. The boles of the trees were of a deep, dark red; their leaves, high above his head, were ulfire-hued; the dead leaves on the ground were of a colour he could not name. At the same time he discovered the use of his third eye. By adding a third angle to his sight, every object he looked at stood out in greater relief. The world looked less flat - more realistic and significant. He had a stronger attraction toward his surroundings; he seemed somehow to lose his egotism, and to become free and thoughtful.
Now through the last trees he saw full daylight. Less than half a mile separated him from the border of the forest, and, eager to discover what lay beyond, he broke into a run. He heard the surf louder. It was a peculiar hissing sound that could proceed only from water, yet was unlike the sea. Almost immediately he came within sight of an enormous horizon of dancing waves, which he knew must be the Sinking Sea. He fell back into a quick walk, continuing to stare hard. The wind that met him was hot, fresh and sweet
When he arrived at the final fringe of forest, which joined the wide sands of the shore without any change of level, he leaned with his back to a great tree and gazed his fill, motionless, at what lay in front of him. The sands continued east and west in a straight line, broken only here and there by a few creeks. They were of a brilliant orange colour, but there were patches of violet. The forest appeared to stand sentinel over the shore for its entire length. Everything else was sea and sky - he had never seen so much water. The semicircle of the skyline was so vast that he might have imagined himself on a flat world, with a range of vision determined only by the power of his eye. The sea was unlike any sea on Earth. It resembled an immense liquid opal. On a body colour of rich, magnificent emerald-green, flashes of red, yellow, and blue were everywhere shooting up and vanishing. The wave motion was extraordinary. Pinnacles of water were slowly formed until they attained a height of perhaps ten or twenty feet, when they would suddenly sink downward and outward, creating in their descent a series of concentric rings for long distances around them. Quickly moving currents, like rivers in the sea, could be seen, racing away from land; they were of a darker green and bore no pinnacles. Where the sea met the shore, the waves rushed over the sands far in, with almost sinister rapidity - accompanied by a weird, hissing, spitting sound, which was what Maskull had heard. The green tongues rolled in without foam.
About twenty miles distant, as he judged, directly opposite him, a long, low island stood up from the sea, black and not distinguished in outline. It was Swaylone's island. Maskull was less interested in that than in the blue sunset that glowed behind its back. Alppain had set, but the whole northern sky was plunged into the minor key by its afterlight. Branchspell in the zenith was white and overpowering, the day was cloudless and terrifically hot; but where the blue sun had sunk, a sombre shadow seemed to overhang the world. Maskull had a feeling of disintegration - just as if two chemically distinct forces were simultaneously acting upon the cells of his body. Since the afterglow of Alppain affected him like this, he thought it more than likely that he would never be able to face that sun itself, and go on living. Still, some modification might happen to him that would make it possible.
The sea tempted him. He made up his mind to bathe, and at once walked toward the shore. The instant he stepped outside the shadow line of the forest trees, the blinding rays of the sun beat down on him so savagely that for a few minutes he felt sick and his head swam. He trod quickly across the sands. The orange-coloured parts were nearly hot enough to roast food, he judged, but the violet parts were like fire itself. He stepped on a patch in ignorance, and immediately jumped high into the air with a startled yell.
The sea was voluptuously warm. It would not bear his weight, so he determined to try swimming. First of all he stripped off his skin garment, washed it thoroughly with sand and water, and laid it in the sun to dry. Then he scrubbed himself as well as he could and washed out his beard and hair. After that, he waded in a long way, until the water reached his breast, and took to swimming - avoiding the spouts as far as possible He found it no pastime. The water was everywhere of unequal density. In some places he could swim, in others he could barely save himself from drowning, in others again he could not force himself beneath the surface at all. There were no outward signs to show what the water ahead held in store for him. The whole business was most dangerous.
He came out, feeling clean and invigorated. For a time he walked up and down the sands, drying himself in the hot sunshine and looking around him. He was a naked stranger in a huge, foreign, mystical world, and whichever way he turned, unknown and threatening forces were glaring at him. The gigantic, white, withering Branchspell, the awful, body-changing Alppain, the beautiful, deadly, treacherous sea, the dark and eerie Swaylone's Island, the spirit-crushing forest out of which he had just escaped - to all these mighty powers, surrounding him on every side, what resources had he, a feeble, ignorant traveller to oppose, from a tiny planet on the other side of space, to avoid being utterly destroyed? ... Then he smiled to himself. "I've already been here two days, and still I survive. I have luck - and with that one can balance the universe. But what is luck - a verbal expression, or a thing?"
As he was putting on his skin, which was now dry, the answer came to him, and this time he was grave. "Surtur brought me here, and Surtur is watching over me. That is my 'luck.' .. . But what is Surtur in this world? ... How is he able to protect me against the blind and ungovernable forces of nature? Is he stronger than Nature? .. ."
Hungry as he was for food, he was hungrier still for human society, for he wished to inquire about all these things. He asked himself which way he should turn his steps. There were only two ways; along the shore, either east or west. The nearest creek lay to the east, cutting the sands about a mile away. He walked toward it.
The forest face was forbidding and enormously high. It was so squarely turned to the sea that it looked as though it had been planed by tools. Maskull strode along in the shade of the trees, but kept his head constantly turned away from them, toward the sea - there it was more cheerful. The creek, when he reached it, proved to be broad and flat-banked. It was not a river, but an arm of the sea. Its still, dark green water curved around a bend out of sight, into the forest. The trees on both banks overhung the water, so that it was completely in shadow.
He went as far as the bend, beyond which another short reach appeared. A man was sitting on a narrow shelf of bank, with his feet in the water. He was clothed in a coarse, rough hide, which left his limbs bare. He was short, thick, and sturdy, with short legs and a long, powerful arms, terminating in hands of an extraordinary size. He was oldish. His face was plain, slablike, and expressionless; it was full of wrinkles, and walnut-coloured. Both face and head were bald, and his skin was tough and leathery. He seemed to be some sort of peasant, or fisherman; there was no trace in his face of thought for others, or delicacy of feeling. He possessed three eyes, of different colors - jade-green, blue, and ulfire.
In front of him, riding on the water, moored to the bank, was an elementary raft, consisting of the branches of trees, clumsily corded together.
Maskull addressed him. "Are you another of the wise men of the Wombflash Forest?"
The man answered him in a gruff, husky voice, looking up as he did so. "I'm a fisherman. I know nothing about wisdom."
"What name do you go by?"
"Polecrab. What's yours?"
"Maskull. If you're a fisherman, you ought to have fish. I'm famishing."
Polecrab grunted, and paused a minute before answering.
"There's fish enough. My dinner is cooking in the sands now. It's easy enough to get you some more."
Maskull found this a pleasant speech.
"But how long will it take?" he asked.
The man slid the palms of his hands together, producing a shrill, screeching noise. He lifted his feet from the water, and clambered onto the bank. In a minute or two a curious little beast came crawling up to his feet, turning its face and eyes up affectionately, like a dog. It was about two feet long, and somewhat resembled a small seal, but had six legs, ending in strong claws.
"Arg, go fish!" said Polecrab hoarsely.
The animal immediately tumbled off the bank into the water. It swam gracefully to the middle of the creek and made a pivotal dive beneath the surface, where it remained a great while.
"Simple fishing," remarked Maskull. "But what's the raft for?"
"To go to sea with. The best fish are out at sea. These are eatable."
"That arg seems a highly intelligent creature."
Polecrab grunted again. "I've trained close on a hundred of them. The bigheads learn best, but they're slow swimmers. The narrowheads swim like eels, but can't be taught. Now I've started interbreeding them - he's one of them."
"Do you live here alone?"
"No, I've got a wife and three boys. My wife's sleeping somewhere, but where the lads are, Shaping knows."
Maskull began to feel very much at home with this unsophisticated being.
"The raft's all crazy," he remarked, staring at it. "If you go far out in that, you've got more pluck than I have."
"I've been to Matterplay on it," said Polecrab.
The arg reappeared and started swimming to shore, but this time clumsily, as if it were bearing a heavy weight under the surface. When it landed at its master's feet, they saw that each set of claws was clutching a fish - six in all. Polecrab took them from it. He proceeded to cut off the heads and tails with a sharp-edged stone which he picked up; these he threw to the arg, which devoured them without any fuss.
Polecrab beckoned to Maskull to follow him and, carrying the fish, walked toward the open shore, by the same way that he had come. When they reached the sands, he sliced the fish, removed the entrails, and digging a shallow hole in a patch of violet sand, placed the remainder of the carcasses in it, and covered them over again. Then he dug up his own dinner. Maskull's nostrils quivered at the savoury smell, but he was not yet to dine.
Polecrab, turning to go with the cooked fish in his hands, said, "These are mine, not yours. When yours are done, you can come back and join me, supposing you want company."
"How soon will that be?"
"About twenty minutes," replied the fisherman, over his shoulder.
Maskull sheltered himself in the shadows of the forest, and waited. When the time had approximately elapsed, he disinterred his meal, scorching his fingers in the operation, although it was only the surface of the sand which was so intensely hot. Then he returned to Polecrab.
In the warm, still air and cheerful shade of the inlet, they munched in silence, looking from their food to the sluggish water, and back again. With every mouthful Maskull felt his strength returning. He finished before Polecrab, who ate like a man for whom time has no value. When he had done, he stood up.
"Come and drink," he said, in his husky voice.
Maskull looked at him inquiringly.
The man led him a little way into the forest, and walked straight up to a certain tree. At a convenient height in its trunk a hole had been tapped and plugged. Polecrab removed the plug and put his mouth to the aperture, sucking for quite a long time, like. a child at its mother's breast. Maskull, watching him, imagined that he saw his eyes growing brighter.
When his own turn came to drink, he found the juice of the tree somewhat like coconut milk in flavour, but intoxicating. It was a new sort of intoxication, however, for neither his will not his emotions were excited, but only his intellect - and that only in a certain way. His thoughts and images were not freed and loosened, but on the contrary kept labouring and swelling painfully, until they reached the full beauty of an aperu, which would then flame up in his consciousness, burst, and vanish. After that, the whole process started over again. But there was never a moment when he was not perfectly cool, and master of his senses. When each had drunk twice, Polecrab replugged the hole, and they returned to their bank.
"Is it Blodsombre yet?" asked Maskull, sprawling on the ground, well content.
Polecrab resumed his old upright sitting posture, with his feet in the water. "Just beginning," was his hoarse response.
"Then I must stay here till it's over.... Shall we talk?"
"We can," said the other, without enthusiasm.
Maskull glanced at him through half-closed lids, wondering if he were exactly what he seemed to be. In his eyes he thought he detected a wise light.
"Have you travelled much, Polecrab?"
"Not what you would call travelling."
"You tell me you've been to Matterplay - what kind of country is that?"
"I don't know. I went there to pick up flints."
"What countries lie beyond it?"
"Threal comes next, as you go north. They say it's a land of mystics... I don't know."
"So I'm told.... Still farther north there's Lichstorm."
"Now we're going far afield."
"There are mountains there - and altogether it must be a very dangerous place, especially for a full-blooded man like you. Take care of yourself."
"This is rather premature, Polecrab. How do you know I'm going there?"
"As you've come from the south, I suppose you'll go north."
"Well, that's right enough," said Maskull, staring hard at him. "But how do you know I've come from the south?"
"Well, then, perhaps you haven't - but there's a look of Ifdawn about you."
"What kind of look?"
"A tragical look," said Polecrab. He never even glanced at Maskull, but was gazing at a fixed spot on the water with unblinking eyes.
"What lies beyond Lichstorm?" asked Maskull, after a minute or two.
"Barey, where you have two suns instead of one - but beyond that fact I know nothing about it.... Then comes the ocean."
"And what's on the other side of the ocean?"
"That you must find out for yourself, for I doubt if anybody has ever crossed it and come back."
Maskull was silent f or a little while.
"How is it that your people are so unadventurous? I seem to be the only one travelling from curiosity."
"What do you mean by 'your people'?"
"True - you don't know that I don't belong to your planet at all. I've come from another world, Polecrab."
"What to find?"
"I came here with Krag and Nightspore - to follow Surtur. I must have fainted the moment I arrived. When I sat up, it was night and the others had - vanished. Since then I've been travelling at random."
Polecrab scratched his nose. "You haven't found Surtur yet?"
"I've heard his drum taps frequently. In the forest this morning I came quite close to him. Then two days ago, in the Lusion Plain, I saw a vision - a being in man's shape, who called himself Surtur."
"Well, maybe it was Surtur."
"No, that's impossible," replied Maskull reflectively. "It was Crystalman. And it isn't a question of my suspecting it - I know it."
"Because this is Crystalman's world, and Surtur's world is something quite differently
"That's queer, then," said Polecrab.
"Since I've come out of that forest," proceeded Maskull, talking half to himself, "a change has come over me, and I see things differently. Everything here looks much more solid and real in my eyes than in other places so much so that I can't entertain the least doubt of its existence. It not only looks real, it is real - and on that I would stake my life.... But at the same time that it's real, it is false."
"Like a dream?"
"No - not at all like a dream, and that's just what I want to explain. This world of yours - and perhaps of mine too, for that matter - doesn't give me the slightest impression of a dream, or an illusion, or anything of that sort. I know it's really here at this moment, and it's exactly as we're seeing it, you and I. Yet it's false. It's false in this sense, Polecrab. Side by side with it another world exists, and that. other world is the true one, and this one is all false and deceitful, to the very core. And so it occurs to me that reality and falseness are two words for the same thing."
"Perhaps there is such another world," said Polecrab huskily. "But did that vision also seem real and false to you?"
"Very real, but not false then, for then I didn't understand all this. But just because it was real, it couldn't have been Surtur, who has no connection with reality."
"Didn't those drum taps sound real to you?"
"I had to hear them with my ears, and so they sounded real to me. Still, they were somehow different, and they certainly came from Surtur. If I didn't hear them correctly, that was my fault and not his."
Polecrab growled a little. "If Surtur chooses to speak to you in that fashion, it appears he's trying to say something."
"What else can I think? But, Polecrab, what's your opinion - is he calling me to the life after death?"
The old man stirred uneasily. "I'm a fisherman," he said, after a minute or two. "I live by killing, and so does everybody. This life seems to me all wrong. So maybe life of any kind is wrong, and Surtur's world is not life at all, but something else."
"Yes, but will death lead me to it, whatever it is?"
"Ask the dead," said Polecrab, "and not a living man."
Maskull continued. "In the forest I heard music and saw a light, which could not have belonged to this world. They were too strong for my senses, and I must have fainted for a long time. There was a vision as well, in which I saw myself killed, while Nightspore walked on toward the light, alone."
Polecrab uttered his grunt. "You have enough to think over."
A short silence ensued, which was broken by Maskull.
"So strong is my sense of the untruth of this present life, that it may come to my putting an end to myself." The fisherman remained quiet and immobile.
Maskull lay on his stomach, propped his face on his hands, and stared at him. "What do you think, Polecrab? Is it possible for any man, while in the body, to gain a closer view of that other world than I have done?"
"I am an ignorant man, stranger, so I can't say. Perhaps there are many others like you who would gladly know."
"Where? I should like to meet them."
"Do you think you were made of one stuff, and the rest of mankind of another stuff?"
"I can't be so presumptuous. Possibly all men are reaching out toward Muspel, in most cases without being aware of it."
"In the wrong direction," said Polecrab.
Maskull gave him a strange look. "How so?"
"I don't speak from my own wisdom," said Polecrab, "for I have none; but I have just now recalled what Broodviol once told me, when I was a young man, and he was an old one. He said that Crystalman tries to turn all things into one, and that whichever way his shapes march, in order to escape from him, they find themselves again face to face with Crystalman, and are changed into new crystals. But that this marching of shapes (which we call 'forking') springs from the unconscious desire to find Surtur, but is in the opposite direction to the right one. For Surtur's world does not lie on this side of the one, which was the beginning of life, but on the other side; and to get to it we must repass through the one. But this can only be by renouncing our self-life, and reuniting ourselves to the whole of Crystalman's world. And when this has been done, it is only the first stage of the journey; though many good men imagine it to be the whole journey.... As far as I can remember, that is what Broodviol said, but perhaps, as I was then a young and ignorant man, I may have left out words which would explain his meaning better."
Maskull, who had listened attentively to all this, remained thoughtful at the end.
"It's plain enough," he said. "But what did he mean by our reuniting ourselves to Crystalman's world? If it is false, are we to make ourselves false as well?"
"I didn't ask him that question, and you are as well qualified to answer it as I am."
"He must have meant that, as it is, we are each of us living in a false, private world of our own, a world of dreams and appetites and distorted perceptions. By embracing the great world we certainly lose nothing in truth and reality."
Polecrab withdrew his feet from the water, stood up, yawned, and stretched his limbs.
"I have told you all I know," he said in a surly voice. "Now let me go to sleep."
Maskull kept his eyes fixed on him, but made no reply. The old man let himself down stiffly on to the ground, and prepared to rest.
While he was still arranging his position to his liking, a footfall sounded behind the two men, coming from the direction of the forest. Maskull twisted his neck, and saw a woman approaching them. He at once guessed that it was Polecrab's wife. He sat up, but the fisherman did not stir. The woman came and stood in front of them, looking down from what appeared a great height.
Her dress was similar to her husband's, but covered her limbs more. She was young, tall, slender, and strikingly erect. Her skin was lightly tanned, and she looked strong, but not at all peasantlike. Refinement was stamped all over her. Her face had too much energy of expression for a woman, and she was not beautiful. Her three great eyes kept flashing and glowing. She had great masses of fine, yellow hair, coiled up and fastened, but so carelessly that some of the strands were flowing down her back.
When she spoke, it was in a rather weak voice, but full of lights and shades, and somehow intense passionateness never seemed to be far away from it.
"Forgiveness is asked for listening to your conversation," she said, addressing Maskull. "I was resting behind the tree, and heard it all."
He got up slowly. "Are you Polecrab's wife?"
"She is my wife," said Polecrab, "and her name is Gleameil. Sit down again, stranger - and you too, wife, since you are here."
They both obeyed. "I heard everything," repeated Gleameil. "But what I did not hear was where you are going to, Maskull, after you have left us."
"I know no more than you do."
"Listen, then. There's only one place for you to go to, and that is Swaylone's Island. I will ferry you across myself before sunset."
"What shall I find there?"
"He may go, wife," put in the old man hoarsely, "but I won't allow you to go. I will take him over myself."
"No, you have always put me off," said Gleameil, with some emotion. "This time I mean to go. When Teargeld shines at night, and I sit on the shore here, listening to Earthrid's music travelling faintly across the sea, I am tortured - I can't endure it.... I have long since made up my mind to go to the island, and see what this music is. If it's bad, if it kills me - well."
"What have I to do with the man and his music, Gleameil?" demanded Maskull.
"I think the music will answer all your questions better than Polecrab has done - and possibly in a way that will surprise you."
"What kind of music can it be to travel all those miles across the sea?"
"A peculiar kind, so we are told. Not pleasant, but painful. And the man that can play the instrument of Earthrid would be able to conjure up the most astonishing forms, which are not phantasms, but realities."
"That may be so," growled Polecrab. "But I have been to the island by daylight, and what did I find there? Human bones, new and ancient. Those are Earthrid's victims. And you, wife, shall not go."
"But will that music play tonight?" asked Maskull.
"Yes," replied Gleameil, gazing at him intently. "When Teargeld rises, which is our moon."
"If Earthrid plays men to death, it appears to me that his own death is due. In any case I should like to hear those sounds for myself. But as for taking you with me, Gleameil - women die too easily in Tormance. I have only just now washed myself clean of the death blood of another woman."
Gleameil laughed, but said nothing.
"Now go to sleep," said Polecrab. "When the time comes, I will take you across myself."
He lay down again, and closed his eyes. Maskull followed his example; but Gleameil remained sitting erect, with her legs under her.
"Who was that other woman, Maskull?" she asked presently.
He did not answer, but pretended to sleep.
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