Big trouble under the shadow of the Tower
The tower loomed ahead in the dark like an ancient, druid obelisk. It was a lonely thing, and in the fading light it took on the color of desolate gray; it was as hoary and as ugly as a pile of wetted ash. There was power here: horrible, evil, perverted; of truth and light, under its dark oblivion, I saw neither. Here, only menace lived. That we should arrive after dusk, when all the goodness of the golden sun had run from the world, frightened me terribly. And Lilith, my limping, broken friend reeking of despair for her lost dog, only made the coming peril all the more terrible. Blood leaked from between my teeth and I did not know from whence it came nor, I think, did I care, for the tower ahead consumed all of my senses. Its enigmatic darkness commanded something like awe in me. I’d never thought of death as a tangible thing and yet, here it was right in front of me.
* * *
Mia rubbed the rain from her face. It was not a refreshing rain, packed full of soot and sharp particles of scorched dirt it stunk of sulfur and cordite from the bombs falling in the east.
Two orderlies were lolling under the flap of Tent 13 smoking French cigarettes. The terrible smell of their cigarettes hid little: neither the stink of the gritty rain nor the stench of rotting human flesh that washed out from out of the tent’s terrible insides. Her stockings and shoes, covered with mud, slipped on the planking when she stepped up beside the two men. One man caught her and steadied her. “Hey, li’ll lady,” he said smiling. His drawl was American South. “Careful now, what’s a young gurl like yourself do’n ‘ere. Dis ain’t no place for the likes of you.”
* * *
The tower, darker than the black, gray pitched sky above us, seemed to welcome the coming night. There were no stars to be seen yet, either it was too early for them or they, like me, wanted nothing to do with this dreadful world. I saw a procession of low, scudding clouds moving above the tower. They appeared to hesitate, moving in short stuttered bursts as if cautious of the rising, appalling obstruction disturbing their aimless path. I looked to the sun. It was almost gone. Instead of reds, oranges, and yellows painting trails across the horizon, the stern of the setting sun cast behind the tower only gray. The tower was greater than a star, but its world bleaker than a coffin’s slate seal. If a shadow be cast black against the coming night, then this horrid menace, the tower of all towers, did succeed. For its stretching, reaching shadow was the darkest thing I’d ever stepped into.
The grass beneath our feet gave way to dirt, and what grass remained was dry and yellow. It crunched like popcorn beneath our feet when we stepped upon it. I saw the faint slash of a river before us, and to our right, I saw there was a crude, cobbled road leading to a stone bridge. The bridge ran with the road, onward to a balustrade at the steps of the tower.
I adjusted my grip on Lilith’s arm, and when I did, I began to feel that urgent, itchy feeling at my back – it was the feeling of being ‘watched.’ It was painfully uncomfortable and I rubbed at the back of my neck, brushing down the rising hairs that prickled there. I looked about, but the darkness of the tower and the blackness the falling sun had obliterated all but Lilith at my side and the dim, almost incomprehensible shapes of Becky and Bartholomew moving ahead of us; the two moved askance our direct line to the tower to join the cobbled road, and like lemmings, Lilith and I followed.
A sudden smell of a summer’s morning, flowers, boiling tea, and the tack of tobacco filled my nostrils. The feeling that I was watched intensified. I turned to look warily about, but all was black and I could see nothing. I tightened my grasp on Lilith’s giant arm and a voice so unexpected, so soft, and so kindly came to my ears: “I think,” the voice said, “that the Dark Tower is in Hell.”
I froze and stopped dead in my tracks, pulling Lilith to a halt. “Lilith,” I hissed. “Did you hear that?”
The summer smells evaporated and the pungent odor of the stagnant river ahead extinguished everything else. The river stunk of rotted vegetation and dead fish. The sweet scents that had just accosted me were gone.
“I heard nothing,” Lilith answered with her mind.
I rubbed at the nape of my neck. The feeling of eyes on me had vanished. I looked up at my friend and said, “It’s gone now. Don’t worry.”
“I was not worried,” she answered. “This place is a wrong place. You may hear and see many things that may or may not be real.”
I did not enquire; instead, I helped her onto the cobbled stone of the road. The dearth of light beneath the tower made it impossible to see even a few feet ahead now and Lilith’s crippled legs buckled as we crested the new path. Her clawed feet scraped and stubbed upon the stone making clacking sounds that sounded like a Polynesian orchestra of broken coconut shells.
Two tall, stone posts stood sentry before the bridge, and coming up to them blind, we collided with Becky and Bartholomew. The two stood side by side and peered cautiously into the impenetrable darkness the bridge offered. The entrance to the bridge and the shadow of the tower above gave the crossing the look of a cold, wet tunnel burrowed deeply into the ground.
“What do you see?” I asked of them.
Becky answered, “Death.”
I waited for more, but she added nothing.
“Well then,” I said cheerily, “let’s get to it then.”
“Quiet, little man,” said Bartholomew. “This is no time for humor. This bridge is guarded and a toll will be required.”
I shuddered, reminded of the River Styx from Greek Mythology. “I have nothing to offer,” I said, quietly.
“Yes, you do. We all have something the Bridge Master wants.”
“Such as?” purred Lilith dangerously beside me. “For I am Lilith, I receive only. I pay tolls to no one.”
In the darkness, I fancied the wooly head of Bartholomew turn to look inquisitively at her.
“The Bridge Master exacts the toll,” he continued. “You may offer him something, but he may not take it. He may negotiate… if you are lucky. But once on the bridge you can go forward only, never back, never back the way you came, and you can only cross if he accepts your offering.
“I shall go first. I have done this many times before. I will wait for you all to cross… if you dare,” he added darkly.
Bartholomew stepped onto the bridge. He disappeared almost immediately into the cloak of blackness.
After a minute or so, we heard voices on the bridge. One belonged to Bartholomew and the other to something else. The voice was alien, coarse, and sinister. What was said, I could not say. The voice, muffled by the dampness of the river below, was heavy and incoherent.
There was a small flash of light on the bridge, and in that spark, I caught the image of Bartholomew standing before a creature of impossible proportions. It was man-shaped but with four arms. Its head, distended and as round as a football lay sideways, hanging loosely from the left shoulder. The thing seemed not to have legs or even feet. It was clothed in greenery, and if not for a bright, red sash wrapped about its waist, it could easily be mistaken for an aquatic plant. The tassels of the sash lay coiled and piled at its feet like the arms of an octopus and in that glimpse, I saw them shift and move about. I put my fist in my mouth to stifle a scream. Becky’s face, as pale as a ghost’s, turned to look at me, for I must have made a sound, though I didn’t know it. In the darkness, I saw little of her features but for her eyes; they were as black and as narrow as the tower above. She looked away from me in disgust, for she appeared not to share my feeling of revulsion of that thing waiting ahead – and then, without pause or forethought, she stepped onto the bridge.
* * *
Mia left the city. The freeway wound endlessly out of the suburbs and then, ahead of her, the traffic began to slow, and then finally come to a stop. An accident? Construction? The city was famous for both. The semi-trailer in front of her belched black diesel into her windscreen, the smell was atrocious. She reached forward to twist the knob that set the air-conditioning controls of her car to recycle.
The trailer’s rectangular, silver back blocked her view ahead. A large white sign with red words stickered to the truck’s enormous bumper announced: How’s my driving? Call 1-800-F**-kyou to complain. Mia rolled her eyes but did not smile. With a rumbling, grumbling tremble another truck rolled up beside her. It reminded her of big, wet, shaking dog, and with a sigh of hydraulic lines venting, it too came to a stop. Mia felt trapped. There seemed no way forward nor, it seemed, was there any way to turn back and find another way. She was locked and stationary in the center lane: cars, vans, and trucks with their drivers craning their heads to see what was causing the delay fumed and stared in vain about her.
Mia felt a kind of hopelessness in her that she had not felt since she was a child. Then, she was like the rest of the children about her, the adults too, on the plantation. All of them encased in a universe where fate ruled, and like them, she too had been a victim; only her strange, untrained sight gave her relief from the ordinariness of those about her, but nonetheless she was as much a sorry victim to circumstance as the rest of them. And now, that same tired, old universe seemed to be settling upon her as quietly and as softly as a Down feathered blanket. She was smothering and she did not know why.
A challenger had emerged. So, what? she thought. The girl in the grass was not the first, and yet, with the others there had never been any doubt. Mia had bested them all, easily killing them before they came of age or killing them at the cessation of their normality – confusion at their emerging state their weakness. It was true that Simon had not been so easy, but then he was Magus Supreme, his arrogance and the darkness of her skin, his folly. He had discounted her the moment he knew her. A failing, to be sure, and kept hidden by the pretender Barrett, she grew to know Simon better. Their war was a long and protracted one and ended only a year before she found Ben. A change had been in the air when she had discovered Ben, and now, trapped in traffic she felt a new change come. Ordinarily, her hands would have done the thinking and the driving. Ordinarily, she would not have come this way and be trapped in traffic. Yes. Ordinarily, she would make it to Ben and save him. Ordinarily…
But the universe is never ordinary, unless it allows itself to be. And so, caught and trapped in a place she should never be caught and trapped, a thought came to her: had her love for Ben weakened her? Yes, she decided, it had, but in another way, it had made her stronger, too. Ben’s presence in her life gave her foundation, a sort of base-camp that she grew from, and because of it, she knew she had become a stronger and a wiser Magus than Simon had ever been – a better Magus because she labored under the humility of love. It was a tidy idea. Simon never knew love. Was it true for the girl in the grass, too? She was pregnant, but it in itself was not proof of love but… all the same… Mia decided something of a kind made the girl supremely dangerous to her throne.
The traffic had not moved and Mia’s mind began to drift. She forgot the girl. She found herself in France. It was 1926, the height of the Great War. When she stepped upon the crude, uneven planking that was the floor of Tent 13, the smoking orderly caught her arm when she slipped from the loamy, red mud that caked her shoes. Both men were mulattos, Americans from the Southern States. Of course they would be. Whites, Blacks, and the English were too good to tend to the dead.
Mia saw an image of violence and sex in the man’s head when he touched her. She disarmed him immediately with a simple smile of friendship. The image died in him, fading to something akin to paternal nurture. Mia mused at the memory. Sometimes a simple smile is all the magic one needs.
“I’m looking for someone… an American soldier in the wards asked me to find his dead friend,” she lied. “In his friend’s pocket is a letter and a ring for his sweetheart back in Houston, can you help me? It would mean a lot to him… and to me,” she added, smiling brightly again.
The semi-brown face of the mulatto cracked into an equally bright smile. He had nice even, clean teeth, and Mia knew instantly that she could trust him.
It was common for soldiers at the Front to exchange letters and gifts with their closest comrades. They gave them to pass on to their loved ones back home in case of a shortened career as a soldier. It was an insurance policy of a sort. For every soldier thinks unlucky thoughts in war and, believing their comrades impervious to a shared equality, reach out with all the superstition the human mind can muster. None of it is true of course. Extreme duress in war makes victims of the living and the dead. There are no insurance policies in war and no amount of letter writing and precious trinkets will ever change that: to be sure, some will die and some will live, and that is all anyone really knows.
The man flicked his cigarette into a muddy puddle where it fizzled, went gray and died. The red mud swallowed it immediately, just as it swallowed hope and everything else in this place. If not for Ben’s song, Mia would have wept just then at the absoluteness of the mud, the rain, and the crashing bombs in the east. The extinguished cigarette seemed to represent all life here, for hopelessness was what this world was, and Mia realized, that like the cigarette, she was but a scrap of nothing in the world and would die an equally pathetic death alone, no matter how great her power was. She decided then she must find the singing man at all cost.
The mulatto was speaking. “Der’s more’n undred dead in ‘ere, nurse. And dey be piled one atop d other. An’ anyway, how’d you know what this guy looks like?”
Mia whispered a simple syllable into the man’s ruby-brown face. It was an ancient syllable taken from an ancient rune of a now dead language of an extinct race of a lost northern people. It was an utterance of trust, assurance, and respect balled up into one single sound. The man had little choice but to accept it. A queer look came across his face and he smiled. He removed his rifle from his shoulder and propped it against a canvas tie. “Well, sure. Let’s go look den. D dead ain’t goin’ t find imself.” He punched his partner playfully on the arm and said, “Come on Zachariah, let’s help dis purty lady find ‘er man.” But Zachariah had other ideas. “No,” he said, inhaling deeply on his own cigarette, “I ain’t goin’ in der. Ain’t my job, nor yours either. You best let her go alone.”
“No, man,” the mulatto replied. “Ain’t no way I’m doin’ dat.” He turned from his friend and led Mia into the tent proper.
The tent was a perfect square, and unlike the other tents of the hospital compound which, propped high on corners by steel poles had drooping middles where one had to bend one’s head to move about, Tent 13 was propped in its middle only. A single, enormous wooden pole the height of a ship’s mast gave the tent an imposing top, but for its shape, the tent reminded Mia of a circus tent.
Almost immediately upon entering the tent, Mia came across the dead. They were stacked on wide wooden shelving – six shelves high, and the dead, two atop the other, were stacked like broken cordwood.
Mia stopped in her tracks. She was surprised to see order here. Tent 13 was clean and quiet. Everything here seemed tidy, but for its silence, which was deathly, there was regimented order here.
The mulatto beside her said, “We don’ keep em long. Jus’ long ‘nough to identify em, sort em, an bag der stuff. A captain from the English army comes ever’ udder day. E takes der dog-tags, collects d stuff we bag, and then tells us which ones go to be buried.”
“You don’t bury them here?”
No, miss,” he said. “We ‘ave tags.” He went to the nearest shelve end to show her. Nailed to the wood frame of the shelf was a large wooden box. From it, he pulled out a handful of colored tags from which long pieces of twine dangled like spindly, little worms.
Mia took a red tag and saw upon it the printed name of an Allies burial ground near the town of Ypres, twenty-five miles to the west. She looked at another, a green one. It showed the name of a town almost sixty miles North West of their position.
Mia’s eyes asked the question. The man said simply, “Each color a diff’nt place. Too many dead. Too many to bury ‘ere.”
Mia took a step forward, the mulatto touched on her the elbow and asked, “How many days dead, miss. We ‘ave ’em put by death day.”
Mia considered this. The singing man was clearly not dead, but almost so, but to complete her lie she needed her imagined solider in the wards to have told her this. Only in the last hour had she only began to hear the dying man’s song.
“Today sometime. In the last six hours or so, I think.”
The mulatto reached up and scratched at his chin. “Not our shift, but I knows where e’ll be.”
The bodies on the shelves lay like sheaves, for they were all hard and stiff; they were little more than petrified sticks of wood. Mia followed the mulatto across the room. Cold drops of water plopped down from holes in the canvas above. Mia wove round these areas as if the dripping rainwater was acid, it was silly, she thought. She was already wet and cold-soaked to the bone, a little more suffering to find the singing man should be nothing to her. She swallowed hard, pushed her pride and fear aside, and dutifully followed the mulatto deeper into the tent.
The mulatto turned left and went down an aisle on the far side of the tent. On this shelf, the bodies were stacked more haphazardly than the others were. Seemingly, as if dumped, the bodies were stacked head to toe; detached limbs piled beside their owner in a disorganized mess. Mia, at a glance, could easily tell the piled body parts may or may not belong to the nearest dismembered solider. This was the ‘best-guess’ aisle, she decided.
The coppery stench of spilled and coagulating blood was strongest here, so strong that its odor overpowered the moldy smell of the mud soaked air and the buckets of kerosene placed randomly about to suppress such awful smells.
* * *
Becky disappeared into the dark of the bridge. I held my breath in fear for her, imagining disaster at the four hands or tentacles of the Bridge Master. But when no sound came and Lilith stepped ahead of me leaving me alone by the balustrade of the bridge in the dark without a word, I knew she must be safe. But what Becky had had to offer such a creature and pass safely to the other side I had no idea, or even if she had passed at all. And now, with Lilith gone ahead and I left standing alone shivering in the dark wondering what on earth I possessed to offer and to pass to the other side, I worried, for I had nothing on my person of value to anyone. Secretly I hoped Lilith would simply kill the Bridge Master and call me across and then together we could storm the tower and I, with Lilith’s strength and power,… oh, it was fancy come to my head, I think… thinking of revenge and triumph at this time, caught under the bleak shadow of the tower. All was a gray enormity! I was simply afraid, nothing more, and at that, my shivering took on a whole new significance: I was terrified.
I listened closely. I heard the soft, sighing sound of slow water sluicing the pylons of the bridge, but other than that, it was as quiet as a grave. I peered into the foggy darkness as best I could, but again I saw only black. When Bartholomew had crossed and spoke with the Bridge Master there had been a burst of light, but when Becky and Lilith crossed there had been nothing at all. No light no sound. No nothing, and so, I wondered, how did they know when to cross? Then suddenly, as I pondered this mystery, I knew. A wicked voice came into my head. No spoken words came to me, but a voice came all the same. My time was up. It was time to cross. I began to walk but my feet were not my own, they drew me inexorably across the bridge without hesitation. I could not stop them if I tried. And I did try, but to no avail. I wanted to turn, but my body denied me all locomotion but forward. It is a maddening and frightening thing to lose control like that, for I was completely powerless to the speechless voice that called to me. The fetid stink of the river washed over me. The smell of it made me want to vomit, but even that bodily act evaded me. My feet walked and I went with them, and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it. In the dark before me the twisted shape of the Bridge Master took form; and coming up to him, I saw the darkness skate from about his crooked shoulders, rush to his feet, and pour across the stone flags of the bridge like spilled ink. It reached the railing and then slithered over the top and went down into the river below like a snake leaving, not light behind, but an emptiness of darkness. It is beyond my powers of description to describe the miniature, gray wasteland that surrounded the Bridge Master. But a hairy light did shine about him as if he wore a fur coat; albeit, the absence of darkness about him did allow me to see him better and that was all.
The Bridge Master stood before me; and with his head askance, hanging from his left shoulder like the bulbous knot of a diseased tree, he peered at me with a single, white eye – and where his head should be, hung a ropey knot of what looked to be looped, wound twine.
The Bridge Master was clad in what looked to be bright, green pondweed. The odd garment (or garments) clung to his body using tiny suckers and barbs, which lifted and then reattached when the Bridge Master moved to get a better look at me. The long red sash, he wore like a gentleman wears a good scarf, and like a good scarf it was wound twice about his crooked head and then once about his waist. He wore it like a toga. The scarf was longer in length than the Bridge Master was tall, and it coiled at his feet like a sleeping python. And indeed the scarf seemed to live, for it made undulating, breathing movements just like a serpent sleeping.
His torso seemed to be a singular thing. A pillar of sorts, by this, I mean that there was no discernible difference between the top of his shoulder and the stone arc of the bridge.
He came towards me, propelled across the stone on little roots; he appeared to me to glide as if the stone beneath him was newly waxed. The thick vegetation that clothed him curled and crawled about his body as he came closer. He moved like an octopus and the presence of four waving arms and their little hands, upon which, long spindly fingers grasped and waved only magnified the illusion.
The Bridge Master was not large. He stood no more than five feet in height, and for one idiotic moment, I thought I might be able to best him by pushing him off the bridge and bolting for the tower. The master’s head turned towards me, his single, baleful, horrible eye, watched me closely, sizing me up. It was as if he had already read my mind.
His eye was pus-white, without iris or pupil, it was horrific in its gaze and yet, at the same time, its emptiness fascinated me, and under its awful, pale gaze, all thought of fight and flight vanished in me. He had no nose and where a nose should be was a clean gash of an opening that was undoubtedly his mouth. I looked squarely into his vacuous eye and asked boldly, “What do you want from me.”
The eye widened perceptibly and the green gash of a mouth opened wide. His voice was that of a shovel driven into beach sand and said, “To pass you must give me something – a gift of sorts. It can be anything at all, but it must be of value to someone other than you.” The palm sized pond plants that clung to the Bridge Master curled and suckered at his words. I saw their tiny barbs unstick from his body and then, finding new moorings, dig themselves tightly in.
I pushed my hands into my pockets and came up empty. I held them out to the Bridge Master and said, “I have nothing of value to anyone. Not to me or to anyone else I know.”
“No man is hollow. I know you keep a secret from one of your companions. Give me that and you may pass.”
A secret? At first, I did not know what the Bridge Master was talking about, and then, after a moment’s reflection, I realized, “The password to my mortgage software’s Easter Egg?”
“Yes. Give it to me and then you may pass,” he said greedily.
I remembered the fresco in the strange building beneath the water where I had huddled in fear from some animal or monster that hunted me. I saw the password there. Right there, colored into the fresco above me. The password was as simple as it was unforgettable. It was a mystery unto itself, and I had chosen the password precisely because of those two reasons. And upon reflection, I realized that the software and its hidden information inside had no value to me. To Lilith yes, and I had kept it from her, but why I had done that I did not know. A part of me mistrusted her, I guess. For to give her what she wanted she might just abandon me altogether.
I said the word. The Bridge Master made a small sound that sounded like a squeaking door. He stepped back from me and his moon-white eye shuttered closed and then opened wider than it had before.
“It cannot be. You are lying.”
“I don’t lie,” I said. “Why would I?
“You take it or leave it… take me instead – I don’t care anymore,” I said and meant it.
The Bridge Master ignored me. He shuffled to the railing and began to climb it. His dress of vegetation made dry sucking, slithering sounds reminding me of snakes moving beneath dry autumn leaves.
Astride the railing and gathering his red scarf, coiling it in his two right arms (the scarf seemed reluctant to come and struggled with its master), he said, “Get off my bridge and don’t come here again.” And then he was gone. I heard a splash in the river below, but I did not look, for the darkness that had slunk away at my arrival immediately returned to envelope me; a cold wind too, coming from out of nowhere, blew across my body. And chilled, I pulled my torn and dirty clothing tightly to me and looked warily about.
I was alone and cold in the center of the bridge. Everything about me was black as pitch; even the tower was gone. Disoriented I looked hopelessly about. I realized I did not know in what direction I had come or in which direction I was to go. Under the shadow of the world, under which lay trapped the shadow of the Dark Tower I was lost, just as I had been under the pool of water at the Dais, and so, as before, I did nothing but wait for a sign: a beacon, a light, anything to rescue me. It had come before when I had stepped from the building beneath the pool, perhaps it would come again.
I circled as before, careful not to trip over my feet. I tried to shout but my voice fell flat against the blackness. There was no echo on the bridge, for I think the bleak water of the river swallowed up all my words. My telepathic link to Lilith appeared cutoff, too. Try as I might, I could not find her. Perhaps, I thought, as I turned, that this bridge was no bridge at all, but a Thin Place at the gates of Hell. It was a fancy of course, but an urgent need to leave the bridge welled up in me. I quelled my raising panic by clenching and unclenching my fists. I dug my nails deeply into my hands until they bleed. I took long, deep, careful breaths, watching and waiting, fighting the need to run.
Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I caught the glimpse of light. It was no more than a sharp, brief spark, but as small as it was, it was as mighty as skyrocket on Independence Day. I went toward it quickly, stumbling across the uneven stone brick of the bridge. In less than a minute, I struck something big and as leathery as an elephant. The thing grunted in surprise. I wrapped my arms gratefully about it. It was Lilith; I whispered a soft thank you into her bare, coarse waist.
We were all safe and we were all across. In the darkness, I made out the pale blob of each face.
“What,” I said excitedly, feeling the warm glow of adrenalin burning in me. “Did you offer up?”
Bartholomew held up his hands and said, “I gave the Bridge Master the wrist bindings of the Chora.
“The naked one freed my feet to give you light to see by.”
I looked to his feet and saw the dim scrap of dead rope curled upon the stone flags. I turned to Lilith and thanked her again. But Lilith ignored my platitude and said chillingly, “I gave the Bridge Master his life.”
In the dark I grinned – that was the Lilith I knew and loved the best.
And Becky? I looked to where her white face bobbed in the dark shadow of the tower and asked, “Becky?”
“I gave him my child,” she answered tonelessly.
If she replied, I did not hear her. My legs buckled like rubber. It was as if someone had struck a baseball bat across my knees. I crumpled and fell forward, gasping for air. And in that black place of collapse things became so much blacker than I could have ever imagined. I hit the stone parapet of the tower in a full faint, crashing into it as if it were a cushioned welcoming mat.