The First Bait of the Innocent
Wormwood looked much the same as I had left it before I had slept. I was wearing only my shirt and pants. My socks and shoes were still drying on a rock beside the fire. Becky had my jacket. Sometime during our sleep, it had become hers. Gently, I lifted it from her. She rolled away but did not wake. I skipped across to the wall of the cave to where we had piled our firewood and, retrieving an armload returned and dumped it onto the fire as quietly as I could so as not to wake her.
Of Lincoln and Lilith, there was no sight.
I sat on a rock and pulled on my socks and then my shoes. My toes were immediately grateful for it and tingled painfully as blood began to rush into them.
I stood and took in my dress. I had the appearance of a scarecrow. Executionerofthewill’s pretty suit was so ragged and torn I looked more like a man stranded on a dessert island rather than a man of serious business, which I guess was the impression executionerofthewill sought to inspire in the wearing of such a fine suit. Oh, well, I thought, it was of no importance. None of him belonged to me anyway, neither his suit nor his person.
I walked to the mouth the cave and stood beneath the overhang. I looked out onto Wormwood. Whether it was day or late afternoon, I knew not, but the sky was clear. The storm of last night was gone and this new day had the feeling of morning to it, even though it could just as well be evening for all I really knew.
Mine, or rather, executionerofthewill’s young bones creaked because of the effort of walking those few feet and I shivered in the cold air as I stood and looked out across Wormwood’s vast landscape.
My left hand hurt badly. I looked down at it. Adam’s healing had removed all visible scarring from executionerofthewill’s body, and so it made me wonder about me. Had the Muppet tree’s barb penetrated more than just executionerofthewill’s flesh and somehow gone deeper? What I mean to say is, beyond executionerofthewill and into me. The pain in my hand was not debilitating but rather it was more of a distant, dull, constant throb. It reminded me of my grandmother’s complaints of her arthritis when I had been a boy. Arthritis in her fingers had robbed her of her grasp, but that was not the case here. The pain in my hand seemed detached from me, as if not part of this body at all, and if that were true, then it could only mean one thing… I decided I would ask Lilith about it. She would know.
The world beyond the cave was crisp and clean; there was no obscuration of the sky at all. The vista across the valley was breathtaking and I saw that our little cave was perched upon a lip of stone and ice that struck out boldly from the side of the mountain and hung there like a spike above the great valley floor below. Wormwood, in this early morning (for it did feel like morning), was quite a stunning and beautiful place. The river, the patchwork of deep green forest and brown parched meadows, loomed large before me and appeared to curve upwards and round me as if it itself was inside a cave and I was outside looking in.
I stood for some time admiring the view and trying to shake its ‘cave-like’ illusion from my head, but could not. So instead, I searched; trying to see the way we had come, but the river and her islands seemed to be a maze of shiny blue arteries from up here and I quickly became lost in them. The river was nothing like I had imagined while sailing our water-lily upon it, and I was quickly lost in its winding, reaching fingers and tributaries.
I looked about for Lilith and Lincoln. I saw some fresh tracks in the loose snow. They went in the opposite direction of the little forest, going up to one side and round the rocky joint the cave made with the mountain. Clearly, they had not gone for firewood.
“Lilith?” I asked with my mind.
There was no reply.
I sniffed at the jacket. The damn thing smelled of fish and I was immediately annoyed at Becky for wrapping her fish in it, and just as suddenly as the anger came upon me, I regretted it. Those fish had been a Godsend last night. Becky had reheated them on her fire and then divided them equally among us, even Lilith had eaten a little, but just for the taste of it, she had said, giving the rest of her portion to Lincoln.
Exactly how selfish a man was I? I wondered. Had I always been this way? I don’t remember it if I had.
I looked down at Becky asleep on the ground. She breathed softly, her dark hair, scattered about her pale face, was in disarray. She wore only her summer dress and upon her feet, she wore only her sensible, summer shoes.
Shamefully, I removed the jacket I had taken from her and laid it gently back down upon her, and in doing so, I wondered again at the relationship between the pain in my hand and executionerofthewill’s body. Chivalry had always been important to me. Why had I forgotten that so easily? It was easy to blame executionerofthewill, or even the celestial magic that seemed to be afoot in this place, but none of it excused me.
I knelt beside Becky and quietly rebuilt the fire properly. There were still a good many branches in our pile and only when I had hearty blaze blooming did I finish with it. Becky did not wake but she stirred easily in its warmth.
Suddenly, I heard Lilith inside my head.
I looked about, and not seeing her, stood and walked out of the cave and into the dry snow.
“Lilith, where are you?” I replied with my mind. “I can’t see you.”
“It is because I am up here. Behind you,” she answered.
I turned to look. And there, high up the side of the mountain, I saw the pink shine of her nude body against a field of ice, snow, and hard, blackened rock. I saw also the brown dot that was Lincoln. He was running and skidding madly across the snow in pursuit of some creature, but I was too far away to see what that creature was.
“I see you now.”
“Yes. I need you. Lincoln has become terrible. I need your help. Lincoln is possessed in the pursuit of a Cabbit.”
“A Cabbit? What the heck is a Cabbit?”
“It is food. Do not argue. Come here at once.”
To this, I said nothing. I shook my head and laughed, thinking how alike the personalities of Lilith and Becky, and knowing both would hate the comparison.
I took a long look at Becky, and deciding she was safe, climbed around the outcrop of rock that made our little overhang so perfect and moved carefully up the side of the mountain toward Lilith and Lincoln.
The sun was at my back and it gave the wall of ice and rock before me a look of something slick, but nevertheless, manageable. I could see clearly the tracks Lilith and Lincoln had made, but they were erratic and confused, probably because of Lincoln’s chase of this Cabbit thing, so I ignored their tracks, forging a more direct path up the side of the mountain.
Its slope of the ice looked to be only about ten degrees or so, but after fifteen minutes, I began to pant with exertion and doubt my initial estimation. I seemed no closer to the running form of Lincoln and his irritated mistress. Far in the distance, I could see Lilith sitting upon a large rock near Lincoln’s running, bouncing form. The metronomic sound of her clicking tongue of annoyance chimed loudly inside my head.
I stopped, exhausted.
“Lilith, how far is it to you?”
After a pause, as if calculating, she said, “The same distance as it is to you.” I thought to say something snide in return, but realized the irony of it would be lost on her.
I continued to climb. It was easy going from the sense of finding good footing, but not so the slope. Its grade was slowly tiring me. I stopped frequently to rest. And looking back the way I had come I wondered how high we really were on the mountain. The universal rim of Wormwood was as deceptive as the mountain was high. And now that I saw the place as it really is: seeing how Wormwood’s shape bent and warped the light as it poured into Wormwood’s space, for the singularity of Space here must have a truly weird effect on light as it divides and redirects Time in three different ways. It must really do something bizarre to its photons. My human eyes, I supposed, only knew what they had been evolved on Earth to do, and to work here at all they must have found some suitable average causing my brain to see familiar things in a somewhat familiar way.
And looking across the vast valley below I decided I would not worry myself about it. This mountain may not be a mountain at all and that valley down there may not be a valley at all. Size and shape may mean nothing here, though none of my musing helped me with the mountain’s slope. It seemed, mountain or no mountain, I was definitely climbing up something steeper than ten degrees.
Drenched in sweat and quite exhausted I found Lilith sitting cross-legged upon a smooth, dark bolder. And with her eyes closed, she looked to be in prayer. And thinking it, I laughed aloud.
“Lilith,” I called, “I’m here. Where’s Lincoln.”
She did not open her eyes; only, she stretched out her hand and pointed across the slope. I followed her hand and saw Lincoln nearby in the midst of a giant hole that he had dug before a smooth, obsidian-like rock embedded deeply into the ice. There were numerous such rocks in the ice sheet and they protruded as if they were floating icebergs, for above, they were visibly small, but below, where Lincoln had dug, I saw they were extended and enormous.
Lincoln was mad with passion. He was barking, growling, snapping, and digging with a fury I’d never seen in him before. He had dug a snow pile that would make an Eskimo envious; piled high about him, he looked buried beneath it.
I went to him and climbed into the hole. He barely acknowledged my presence.
“Lincoln, what have you got there, boy?” I asked companionably.
I knelt in the snow beside him and peered beneath the rock. A small, narrow tunnel snaked away into the mountainside. It was far too small for Lincoln to climb into and so he seemed to think he could dig out enough of the snow around it to get at whatever hid there. I climbed out of the hole and watched him for a moment.
“I don’t think he’s going to stop,” I said flatly. “What did you say’s in there?”
“A Cabbit. It is a very tasty creature from your world. It is a cross between a cat and a rabbit, and so Lincoln is particularly furious about sinking his teeth into it.”
“I never heard of such a thing.”
Lilith climbed off the rock and stepped without trepidation into the snow. Her foot, I saw, was black and she limped lightly upon it. She came to me, put a hand on my chest, and said, “Just because you never heard of something does not mean that it does not exist.”
This was true. I looked into her small, perfect oval face. Her eyes were a radiant green and sparkled like emeralds in the glistening white of the mountain’s ice sheet. Then, without warning, she reached up and took my face in her hands. She pulled me to her and kissed me deeply on the mouth. I was so surprised I could do nothing but reciprocate. I pulled her naked body to mine and I was instantly lost in her.
Lilith’s person was physically brilliant, but shocking, for she seemed to electrocute me. Frozen upon her, stuck to her in frightening static, I barely breathed–nor did I care to breath. Her lips, her mouth, her essence flung the wretched world and its wretched universe and thee, thy wretched Wormwood, all to Hell. Lilith! She! That penultimate woman of all women that God had made suffocated me with her love. Gomorrah! For gladly would I become its citizen forever, and in that damned and barren place would I happily take up the yoke and chain of The Lilith and latch them about me. Succumb gladly, I would! Yes, I decided, that is what I shall do. And with her tender flesh so wantonly given to me, and I, clasped so warmly in her embrace; and with her wondrous lips, so soft and spicy joined to mine; and with her penetrating, probing tongue exploring my mouth, I began to give myself up to her and descend with her into her narrow, empty city.
And falling together, our enjoined electricity held us tight to one another. In wonder, I knew it to be right and good. Slowly, gently, happily, Lilith consumed me.
* * *
Then …something was suddenly gnawing upon my leg, and there was real pain in it and the electrical vibrations that locked me to Lilith’s lips snapped in a violent burst of light that shot out from between us. A mighty clap of thunder rippled across the mountaintop and rolled heartily down into the valley below. I broke away from Lilith, and cried out, “Lincoln! Son-of-a-bitch!”
He was actually biting me. He had a full-scale lock upon my ankle; his teeth were penetrating my flesh as he ground down upon the bone there. His black and white pulse was in full flare, but worse, red flames exploded from his back burnishing the nape of his long, shaggy neck. He had the look of a red-eyed demon. Not one trace of the earthly dog I had once known and loved remained in him.
Instinctively, I reached down and smacked him full on the nose. But this only made his bite worse, my strike simply infuriated him and he bit down all the more harder because of it. Pain shot up my leg in sporadic, sharp bursts as he worked his jaw into the meaty part of my leg above the ankle. His inflexible, grinding, chewing motions burned as he himself was burning. I felt as though I had stepped into a bear trap: a bear trap that was on fire! Lincoln was absolute, his passion for my leg remorseless. He was a different dog or no dog at all. The flames on his neck rose like a palm in a heavy wind. He seemed to grow in size and his grip upon my leg was so powerful I thought he could easily snap it off at the foot if he needed too. All that was demon and wolf inside of him poured out of him. Each fibrous hair upon his body spewed forth a red and fiery spume as it were live, flowing lava. It was as if he had become a flaming ball of lit gasoline. It was difficult to know where dog and demon began, but it was all too clear that nothing of my Lincoln remained in the blazing, scorching thing that held my leg in its jaws. I was powerless in Lincoln’s mighty grip.
I think I fainted then, and fell, quite broken, into the snow. And besieged in pain, I felt his fire shoot up my leg and burn its way into my chest. I was having difficulty breathing and grasped at my breast in real fear that I might actually be having a heart attack. A wave of blackness rolled across my mind and suddenly I was floating.
I saw myself then, or rather executionerofthewill. He was as white as the snow he lay upon; his grimace was the ghastly, twisted, spastic face of death. I floated nose to nose with him. I was a pariah, a ghost, a phantom. I began to float away from his body, for it had never been my own; I was lost now and I called out to my Love to save me, for there was more to Lincoln’s bite than teeth.
Lilith came to me. She hovered beside me. I saw her take executionerofthewill’s hand in hers and with her other hand she caught my phantom hand. She brought the two together, palm to palm, and clasped in that manner, she brought her lips to them.
I saw there was a hole in my hand. Lilith blew into that hole and I breathed once again. Executionerofthewill’s chest heaved and his body gasped loudly as it sucked air deeply into its lungs. The black clutch of death vanished from the both of us as quickly as it had come.
We, he and I, snapped back into place. Lilith still held my ruined, phantom hand, which suddenly became executionerofthewill’s real left hand, and she lifted me to stand before her once more.
Reading the terrified state of my mind, she spoke unto it, “Stop it! We have won…, for now. Lincoln’s passion for the Cabbit has been broken. His passion for me has now returned. We are done here, and safe…, for the moment.”
She turned and began to walk away, back down the slope toward Becky and the cave. “Let us return to the warmth of the fire and the chill of the Lailoken’s daughter.”
I stood and tried to follow her but fell almost immediately. Lincoln, looking remorseful (at least somewhat remorseful, I felt), sat with his head cocked to one side looking at the two of us as if seeing us both for the first time. His fire, self-consumed or burned into me, was no more and he was an ordinary dog once more.
Lilith, without pause said, “A new force has come into Wormwood. The passing of the Purple Celestial has made a balance in the universe, but it has fashioned an imbalance in Wormwood. We must be careful, exnzpat, for this new one has come to tempt us.”
I scrambled to the nearest rock, and leaning against it, breathed heavily while inspecting my bloody foot.
Lincoln’s teeth had ripped the pant leg and the broken the skin above and below the ankle. A bright, bleeding ring wrapped my lower leg. “Shit, Lincoln. Look what you did. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Lilith answered for him. “It is the passion of the tempter, exnzpat. Even Lincoln is not immune; the Cabbit was bait.”
It was then I understood.
“But not you?”
“I am Lilith. When the Crystalson and the Great Red one, Eve and the New Mother, and the all the Celestials are gone and all the living things of the universe have faded along with them, only Adam and I will remain.”
I stared blankly at her, and she smiled, “…and once God has glued us back together, and I am alone once again, I can catch up on my reading.”
I continued to stare at her, uncomprehending at first, and then to my amazement I realized Lilith had just made a joke.
Lilith did not make jokes, not even bad ones, and so I wondered at what she really meant by her pronouncement. I laughed nervously as we stood facing one another in the snow.
“So, you only kissed me to get Lincoln away from the Cabbit? To break the spell of this ‘tempter’”
“Maybe,” she answered, smiling slyly.
Lincoln looked up at me with barred teeth and growled dangerously at me.
* * *
With Lilith and Lincoln leading the way, I hobbled painful behind them leaving a trail of blood in the snow. I did my best to stanch the flow by tearing off one of the arms of my shirt and tying it as a tourniquet about my calf. Lilith looked back, frowning.
“Really, exnzpat, it is not that bad. It is merely a scratch.”
“A scratch? My question Lilith is this: why does Lincoln attack me and not you for your advances?”
She laughed at this. “Do not be ridiculous,” was all she said.
Mostly the two followed my tracks but occasionally they broke from my uphill trail and made odd, zigzagging treks uphill, and then downhill, and once, even came back towards me as I limped along to keep up. Lilith bid me follow her exactly and once, when I opted for what I assumed to be the quickest path–that of my own footprints, she scolded me for it. I thought to ask Lilith what she was doing but to my surprise we were suddenly back at the overhanging rock and the cave beneath it. The whole trek back to the rock took less than a third of the time it took me climb up to Lilith and Lincoln to begin with. I was so startled the look on my face must have been priceless, for Lilith laughed aloud and clutched at her sides.
“Surely, exnzpat, if I let your pretty eyes navigate Wormwood it will take us forever to get anywhere.”
She turned away smiling and went into the cave. I scrambled down the rock to join her.
I saw that Becky’s fire was now only a few hot coals. “Becky,” I called. She was not where I had left her.
Lilith came out of the cave. She looked puzzled. “Your woman is not here? Where was she last?”
“Sleeping. There, by the fire.” I pointed.
Stupidly we both looked at the empty spot we four had occupied the night before.
I said, “She probably went for more firewood.”
“And leaving the fire to die down? It is not likely. Your woman is many frivolous things but stupid she is not, for I still see a stock of wood enough for at least another few hours.”
I looked and saw she was right.
About us, in the snow, there were many footprints, but none was discernible because the snow was so scuffed and ruined. It was almost as if a struggle had taken place.
Lilith walked out to the intersection of the skeleton roads. The intersection, still covered in snow, was invisible. Lilith poked about with her good foot to find the intersection and said, “She did not use the crossed-bones,” and then suddenly, looking toward the path that went toward the little forest, she said, “There,” and pointed with her finger. I followed her finger to a spot where strange, long striations cut the icy surface.
“What are they?”
“Footprints. The giants have taken her.”
“What!” I shouted, alarmed.
She ignored my outburst and called to Lincoln who was sniffing at the fire, no doubt hunting out our fish bones from the previous evening’s meal. “Lincoln, my dear,” said Lilith. “Come here. Find Becky.”
“Lilith, Lincoln can’t do stuff like that, he’s… well, he’s just a simple house dog…,” I said, trailing off, still feeling the fire of his bite in my leg.
“Let’s just follow the tracks. I can see where they are going.”
She looked at me seriously. “It may not be so easy, exnzpat. These giants fly. Lincoln will know.”
To my surprise, Lincoln trotted over and began to sniff about at the markings at our feet as a Blood Hound would.
While Lincoln sniffed and snuffled at the snow the wind picked up and the flurries of the previous night returned. Our visibility dropped to only a few feet. Once again, encased in a wall of beating grey, we three all but faded from each other’s sight.
“Damn it,” I said in frustration. My leg hurt where Lincoln had bit me. My hand hurt from its phantom hole. And now Becky was missing, carried off by flying giants, if Lilith was to be believed. Surely, this day could not get any worse.
And then, something unexpected happened.
It was the voice of a child.
Incredibly, emerging from the grey, swirling curtain of snow and mist, a brown-haired boy came shyly forward.