Part IV: The House of Despond
Gateposts high and wound round with dead growth. Brown ivy strands clinging in their mortis grip to the pitted wood that stretched frozen fingers to the gunmetal sky and held aloft the engraved and once-florid legend, “The House of Succour.” Yet the last word had been scrawled out by a later hand and new words scratched over to read; “Despond.” For that was its name, this mansion respite, this waypost along the great trunk road to the eastern lands. For that was its earlier name and though it had strove hard it could not shake off the moniker that weighed heavy around its neck.
For in the great old days there had been a mire of great girth and infamy that lay here by that name. And though the once proud house had been built to remove its stain the earth here was blighted and the garden lay soiled and weed-strewn, barren wastelands that encircled the yawning building with its sightless windows and rotting gables.
And Martin fell against the rusted gate, his eyes staring desperately at the house before him. And he tried to cry but the tears were dust and his eyes hurt. And he pushed the gate open with a shower of red rust and fell into the grounds. The wind came up around him and whistled in his ears, penetrating straight down the canal to the centre of his brain and freezing and catching and tearing and fleeing. And he flew from the depth of the feelings within him.
But he could not escape it. He had faced the knowledge of mortality now. He had faced it and it had crushed him and held him down, a great foot upon his chest that held him and crushed the air from his lungs and weakened him under it and made him gasp and know that he would die.
The path, straight to the door, overgrown and dead, dusty soil blown up by the wind, a cloud obscuring his footsteps, he knew not where he was or where he had come from. His foot occluded, his shins immersed, his eyes burning as the grit caught his lashes. And there was no hope, no help here.
Once the owners of the house would spend their days in watch, their post that of their name, of the family’s name handed down over generations from the first who had but a shack by the swamp and came to the assistance of the unfortunate who strayed into its clinging depths. But now they too were drowning in the choking fumes of the despoiled earth, now dry but none the less cloying for that.
The dust had gotten in under the doorframe, between the window panes and down the chimneys. It had come through the walls and sifted up through the floorboards and crept along the joists of the house with the insidious touch of dry rot. For despondency could not be held back by a helping hand.
And over the years the family of Succour had succumbed. Now no one watched the gate or the road. No one stood and blew a trumpet or rushed like a Samaritan to the open welcome. The door was shut weakly, the lock broken, the wood swollen against the frame. And the wind whistled among the tiles and blew dust against the walls and whispered coldness into Martin’s ears.
The wind whispered: “what branches grow out of this stony rubbish.” And Martin tried to put his hands over his ears but the words were in his head, half remembered from Eliot’s poem, half spoken to himself.
“You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock).”
And Martin dreamed that terrible dream once more, which had haunted him for so many long nights. He watched, as one watches in dreams. And he saw a red, land of rock and dust. Scorched and broken. And within it, a hole, a hole within a hole. Less a hole than a crack in the earth, and huddled within it a woman, trying to find she from the red sun, but there was no shade to be had. She was desiccated, no longer able to sweat or cry, for she had drunk nothing for so long, and there was no water to be had, but yet she could not die.
And he knew she was there because he’d put her there. And he knew that she blamed him for it. And he knew that he deserved to be blamed.
And in that dry and desperate land, in that endless waste, there were other holes, other cracks in the splintered, dry stone. Too many to count, each one separated form the others by a gulf too great to cross. And he could not look in them. He could not bring himself to look, because he feared what he would see. For there was another, a child, and he did not know where she was, but he suspected. And he could not bring himself to see.
And he awoke, dry-mouthed, and gagging on the dust, and staggered up and on, the words of the poem rasping on his mind, scouring a canyon inch by inch.
“There is shadow under this red rock,”
And Martin’s steps grew slower, and the path grew longer for there seemed so little point in reaching the end. And the tempting lure of the wind’s words were making the world about him fade out and pulling him into himself, to the back of his self.
It would be so good just to give up, to curl up under the red rock, in the shadows, in the endless dark. And his steps grew shorter and his arms stopped swinging and step by step he just ran down like a clockwork robot running out of wind. Then, for an endless moment he stopped, the thread of his will ended, flapping loose, he stared dumbfounded at the surroundings, too heavy to move from his fate, to just starve and rot where he stood, fossilising in the uncaring air.
And then his will caught again, and with a great strain he put one foot in front of the other and again, one step at a time. But there was no point, no point, no point. For all was death and endlessness and suffering. And blackness on either side and blackness within. And these thoughts weighed down, suffocating until Martin felt almost physically unable to breathe. And he had to take great gasps of cloying, earthy air and choked helplessly on it as his lungs rejected the blightful soil.
He retched and fell to his knees, his stomach clenching, his mind full of the images of his family’s faces, their dead, sightless faces, their happy, laughing, dead faces. And he retched and he retched until nothing came up but thin, black tendrils of bile that dangled wetly from his chin.
And Martin gasped in the air and hauled himself up, screaming into the wind and the wind screaming just as meaninglessly back. And he raged himself into the uncaring air and fell against the door of Despond and the heavy wood rasped open and let him in, exhausted, his last thin, ragged end of will played out among the dead plants of the waste-garden where there was no one to hear or understand or help. Where there was no answer.
Useless now, he lay against the floor and with his feet pushed the door back to shut halfway against the wind, the swollen jamb failing to seal the house against the blasted thoughts and knowledge Martin had tried to escape. And dry tears struggled to weep and failed. And the wind blew ever on.
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” it said, in a human voice, like his own. Martin couldn’t cry anymore. And he curled up on the dusty wooden boards, the wind whistling coldly through his ragged and dirty clothes.
He curled up, hugging his knees to his chest and fell into an almost-sleep and he dreamed; an exhausted, restless dream.
And as Martin slept, and dreamt, he found himself watching from a great height as a man was carried, small and thin in the clutches of a great, implacable-faced King. A king of a great underground land where water did not flow, it dripped in endless slowness from the ceiling, fossilising before it hit the floor, great waterfalls and icicles of stone. And distant, reeking fires were the only light in this cold blackness.
And through these endless caverns the King dragged his captive until he reached the lowest place he knew. A vast cavern in the centre of which lay a bundle of thick chains bound fast to the solid, frozen rock. And the whistling, distant draughts no longer touched the dimly-burning flame of the torch.
As the King placed it in a bracket the captive smiled up at his captor. “I take it this is from your younger brother?”
“Of course,” came the cold reply. “You angered him greatly with your betrayal.”
“And my punishment for my slip of the tongue?”
The King showed his captive the chains. “To be bound here for all eternity. To never be released though the world ends and all above passes away.”
“Then they must be strong chains, to last longer than the earth.”
“But have they been tested, have they been tried?” The King stared down at him. “Don’t get me wrong,” the captive continued, “I would love to break free when you and all my enemies have long gone and walk the earth free again. But that wouldn’t be much of a punishment would it?” The King looked confused.
The thin man stroked his beard as though in deep thought.
“Ah,” he said, “I’ve got it.”
“What?” the King replied.
“Well, you are the strongest in the world, it is commonly said that the strongest lock can not hold against you, nor the thickest door bar you out. If you were to test these chains yourself and they held fast then there would be no fear of them failing. And you could bind me under here and leave me to my eternal punishment without worry.”
The King considered this a moment and then nodded. He took up the chains and bound himself from head and foot. And then he pulled with all his might and strained with his great muscles, and tore at the rocks with all his strength but the chains held fast. But then the thin man leapt up, quick as a fox, and snapped the locks shut and fastened them tight around the king and leapt back with a grin on his face.
“Well, it looks like they do hold.” He said. “No need to worry after all.” And with a laugh he grabbed the torch and fled the cavern as the King roared his wrath at the darkness.
And Martin watched, from wherever one watches in a dream, and the thin man came up out of that Kingdom to a bright new world, with his body intact. And all around him stood other people, amazed at themselves still walking around though some had many grievous wounds and others lay in pieces, yet not dead. And then the man laughed happily and roared his victory to the sky for he had done what no man had ever done. He had beaten Death.
Yet Martin saw that battles went on for weeks without a victor and there was no end to the fighting. And so the great Lord of the Battlefields grew angry at this interference of his sport and went down to free his uncle from the chains. And so the battles could continue again with great slaughter and across the world the dead lay still and were buried again as always had been done. And the War Lord was pleased once more.
Then the War Lord chased the trickster to the ends of the earth and caught him and bound him hand and foot and dragged him down to the depths again to face the wrath of its king.
But Martin saw that the trickster whispered to his wife before his capture and told her not to bury him or to mourn him or perform any of the rites according to his body. And so as he was dragged down to the caverns he begged audience with its Queen. And spoke to her with quick and cunning words as he had spoken to her husband.
The trickster told the Queen that his wife was neglecting his corpse. He had not had a proper burial and as such should properly be wandering restless on the other side of the river, not allowed to enter this great kingdom. His would be a restless spirit and obviously, he said, the great King would prefer that the trickster was safe and sound in his kingdom so he could properly punish him. If only the Queen would allow him just three days back on earth he would properly admonish his wife and have her do the proper rites according a dead man and then he gave the Queen his word he would return to his proper place. And his words were so soft and charming and so reasonable the Queen allowed him to leave and go to his wife.
Martin watched as the three days came and went and at the end of it the trickster was nowhere to be seen. And the King and the Queen were furious and raged terribly against their subjects but they could not leave their kingdom to search the ends of the world for him and the sly man was nowhere to be found.
And so, when the King’s younger brother, the Great King of the overworld heard that this traitor, this trickster was loose he was furious and sent his son to hunt down the prisoner. As hard as the trickster tried and as far and as fast as he ran he could not escape this messenger of the High King.
And so, Martin saw in his dream, the trickster was caught again and dragged down again and lashed fast to an enormous boulder twice the size of a man. And he was told that, due to his cleverness, he would be allowed to leave the underworld and live forever just as soon as he pushed the rock to the brow of the hill and over the top to the other side. And so, straining and bathed in sweat, the cunning man with nowhere left to turn and no one to listen to his cleverness, pushed and heaved and hauled that rock up the hill until, exhausted, he reached near the top. But then, just close to the summit the weight grew too much and the slope too steep and the great rock slipped and rolled all the way down to the bottom again.
And so he trudged back after it and tried again. And it fell and rolled back again. And he had to try again. And again and again. Forever this endless, pointless cycle. And this man, who had hated death and tried his hardest with all the guile and skill of his clever mind to escape it. This man was forced to work through eternity in futile, pointless exertion.
A meaningless act, again and again and again.
For what else was his life but that?
Martin awoke, exhausted from his shallow and feverish sleep. His limbs ached from the draughty, hard floorboards, his throat rasped from the dust. Martin tried to shake the sleep from his eyes and, tired to the point of tears and bent under with his despair, he looked up and realised that he was now inside this rickety, failing house.