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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (10 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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“It is, at least, a means for finding such a meaning,” Ismael said. “Come. The way back is shorter, at least, and doesn’t pass through the grove.”

“Can we . . . just for a minute . . . go into the light again?”

Ismael nodded. He’d expected as much. In truth, of course, he wanted to stand in it too, and feel cleansed. When he came here, he was able to forget about the misery of his condition, and he was untroubled by his liver flukes, his eczema, his various non-lethal STDs, and all the parasites he’d picked up over centuries of stumbling through this filthy, disease-pocked world.

They went back into the light and stood near a trio of broken pillars. They didn’t hold hands this time, and after a while Ismael drifted away from her, toward a freestanding fragment of wall decorated with ancient bas-relief carvings of animal-headed women; he didn’t recognize any of the animals, though, and he supposed the carvings might have been truly representational of the city’s former inhabitants. Where had they gone? Had the light started shining on their civilization one day, and doomed them all to a death of bliss and dehydration? Whatever had become of them, there was nothing alive here now, except the bears, and Ismael, and the people he brought. It was possible that other children of the briarpatch, or assorted mad wanderers, passed through from time to time, but Ismael had never encountered them.

There was no wind here, and so Ismael didn’t smell the bear coming, and it was almost upon Bridget by the time he noticed. At first, he was struck by the unimaginable majesty of the bear—over 750 pounds and easily seven feet tall if it rose onto its hind legs. In this light it looked like something that should be worshipped as a god. Ismael froze in place, unable to be precisely terrified because of the light’s calmative influence, though wariness wormed up from his deeper self. Bears were unpredictable under the best of circumstances, and the light affected them oddly. Sometimes they became blissful. Sometimes they became enraged. This one seemed merely curious. Blue ribbons were woven all over its hair, giving it a cheerful air, but in its face there was no expression Ismael could read.

These creatures weren’t usually very dangerous as long as they stayed in bear form. Then they were just animals, wary of people, and this bear was male, with no cubs to defend.

“Bridget,” Ismael said. “We should go. Walk toward me.”

Bridget ignored him. She’d noticed the bear. “Beautiful,” she murmured, and walked toward it, hand outstretched. Ismael wanted to shout at her, but the loud noise might startle the bear and make it notice him. If Ismael was attacked, he’d be wrenched away from here by his body’s ultimate defences, and Bridget would be left alone.

The bear sniffed at Bridget, cocking its head. “You’re someone’s pet, aren’t you?” Bridget said, in a faraway voice. “Such pretty ribbons.” She stroked the bear’s shoulder, and the bear simply stood there, untroubled.

“You shouldn’t,” Ismael said, trying to rouse himself from his light-stupor, to take action. “Bridget, just move away from it, it’s a fucking
bear
, I told you this place is dangerous.”

Bridget looked at him, brow wrinkled. “Silly Ismael. He’s a nice bear.” She stroked the bear again.

And then the bear changed. One moment, it was a grizzly on all fours. The next it was a man, filthy and hairy. Not terribly large, shorter than Bridget and wiry, with blue ribbons tied into his chest hair and pubic hair. Bridget’s hand was on his cock, which was erect and brown with dirt. She jerked her hand away, and the bear grunted, grabbing her wrists and forcing her back against the pillar. Bridget stared at the bear, eyes a bit unfocused. “You’re not a bear,” she said.

Ismael got to his feet, shaking off the peace of the light like a man waking from a heroin nod. He’d been here before, often, and built up something of a resistance—he knew how to pull himself away by now. He reached into his pocket for his baton, snapped it open—every action felt slow as the advance of glaciers—and he advanced on the bear. If he could give the bear a crack across the head while it was in man-form, he might be able to knock it unconscious. Fortunately, the bear seemed utterly bewildered by Bridget’s clothes, fumbling with buttons and tugging at fabric. Bridget tried ineffectually to pull herself away, a look of profound confusion on her face.

Just as Ismael cocked his arm back to swing the baton, the bear transformed again, back into grizzly form. Now Bridget was pinned against the wall by 750 pounds of dangerous animal, but at least it didn’t have rape on its mind anymore. It wouldn’t see Bridget as a sexual partner, but it did see her as a potential meal, and Ismael stopped walking. It was too late. He couldn’t fight off a bear with his baton, and Bridget was as good as dead. Being mauled by a bear was hardly a pleasant experience, but here, in the land of light, at least it would be as pleasant as such an experience
could
be.

Having the bear leaning against her, breathing its carrion-and-berries breath into her face, must have been overwhelming, because she simply passed out and slid down the wall. The bear pushed himself back, going down on all fours, and took a swipe at Bridget, claws taking a chunk out of her side. That woke her up, and she screamed briefly, before shock set in, and then went silent. The bear nudged her, took a bite out of her elbow, bit her leg, and then bit at her head. He didn’t crack her skull, though bears liked to do that, considering brains a treat; he just tore off a great swath of her scalp and hair, chewed it briefly like a piece of gum, then spat it away. Ismael didn’t dare move. If the bear smelled him, or noticed him, it might try to kill him. It might run away too, but there was no telling. If Ismael stood very still, and the bear lost interest before completely devouring Bridget, then all was not lost. So he waited.

After about a minute of pawing at her, the bear lost interest and wandered off, leaving Bridget behind. If it had intended to keep her as a meal for later, it would have scraped dirt over her and left her partially covered to tenderize. It must not have been very hungry.

Ismael hurried to Bridget, checked her pulse, took off his shirt and tried to staunch the bleeding from her head. He consulted his complex mental map of the briarpatch—a place resistant to mapping, where the paths shifted over time and distances varied with the seasons, with the tides, with the weather, with
anything
—and thought maybe it was possible to take her quickly to that strange crystal hospital Harczos had shown him once. Assuming the hospital wasn’t so improbable it had already dissolved into a void of unlikelihood. That was really her only hope. Even if she survived her wounds, she’d been bitten by one of the bears in the briarpatch, which meant
she
might eventually transform as well, and go mad in the process. She needed a better body.

Ismael scooped Bridget up tenderly in his arms. In this light, even her wounds were beautiful. She was breathing raggedly, but she was alive. “Come, little Bridget,” he murmured. “You’re stubborn and sometimes stupid and too contrary by half, but you deserve a better death than this.” He carried her away.

Darrin Catches a Lift

1

After seeing Bridget die that morning, Darrin stayed home for a couple of hours, but then he couldn’t stand his apartment anymore, cluttered as it was with so many reminders of his loss, so he gulped the last of his latest drink, grabbed his camera, and went out the back door and down the stairs, jumping over the loose third step from the bottom, almost tripping and stumbling when he hit the ground. He’d only had two screwdrivers, but they’d been more vodka than orange juice, and he hadn’t eaten lunch. It was a good thing his car had been repossessed all those months ago—he was in no shape to drive anyway, and self-preservation wasn’t high on his priority list at the moment.

The backyard was shared by all the apartments, but was seldom used, though there was a nice brick patio, a barbecue, two posts with dangling chains for a hammock, and a picnic table with benches. Darrin walked around the big redwood growing by the detached garage and out the back gate. He set off down the steep hill toward Park Boulevard with no fixed destination in mind. He’d go down a couple of blocks, he figured, then curve back into the swirl of residential streets, walk by some of the million-dollar houses, and make his way down toward the apartment buildings and liquor stores closer to Lake Merritt. Maybe looking at the water would soothe him. Or maybe it would remind him of walks with Bridget, of their one ridiculously expensive gondola ride, the way she’d always insisted they rush out at the first hint of spring to see the newborn goslings while they were still fuzzy and adorable, before they turned into fat, foul-tempered geese.

As he walked, the light seemed to shift around him, and he glanced skyward, expecting to see clouds moving across the sun, channelling the sunbeams in unexpected directions, but the sky was blue and clear. Still, the light seemed fragmented, as if shining through a lens of broken prisms. He must be drunker than he’d realized. Darrin ducked his head and kept his eyes on the sidewalk, walking over broken beer bottles, past Arturo’s paper-stuffed Chrysler Wendigo, past the corner apartment building with the fake castle crenellations on the roof. When he hit Park Boulevard he turned right, down a block of storefronts with signs he couldn’t read because they were written in Korean, until he hit the next side street, which sloped back uphill again at an angle. A palm tree flourished here, its giant fronds overhanging the sidewalk and turning it into a sort of tunnel. Darrin ducked in, feeling obscurely comforted by the screen of leaves. And there, just up from the corner, he saw a set of stone steps disappearing into a heavily wooded vacant lot. Darrin went toward the steps, curious, because he’d never noticed them before.

He lifted the camera, thumbed it on, and looked down at the screen. The camera did its trick of making him pay attention and notice details. Weeds grew up through the cracks in the concrete, and weathered stone lions with chipped ears snarled from either side of the broad steps. They must have led up to a house, once upon a time, before the lot was bulldozed and overtaken by bushes and trees. He took shots of the lions (probably shitty shots, he figured, since his compositional sense was currently drowning in OJ and liquor,), and then followed the camera up the steps, just a dozen of them and then trees and darkness. There was the barest suggestion of a path, and Darrin decided to follow it, though he knew it probably just led to a burned-out campfire, a pile of beer bottles and used condoms, a hangout for the homeless or horny teenagers. Still, even the squalid could make for a good photograph, and if Darrin had ever held himself above such ugly things, that time had passed. He stopped looking through the camera to move branches out of his way, and to brush aside ancient spider webs.

There was a surprising variety of trees here. He was no botanist, but he’d walked in Oakland enough to recognize most of the common trees, even if he could only name oak, eucalyptus, redwood, and palm. There were trees here with silver-white bark, and others wound around with black thorns, and others hairy with parasitic vines. He trod fungi underfoot now too, as he went deeper—ghost-white things, some of them as big as footstools, the sort of cartoon mushrooms he hadn’t realized existed in real life. The ever-present smells of asphalt and car exhaust, so ordinary on his street that he barely noticed them, were gone now, replaced with a deep-woods scent of earthy rot and riot, vegetable wetness, fungal dust, and something sharp, like a whiff of piss. What light filtered in from above still seemed fractured, slanting in at odd and even contradictory angles, it seemed; but he was no optics specialist, no more than he was a botanist. All he knew these days was anxiety and cameras, and so he lifted the camera to his face again to take some pictures of those mushrooms, trying to get his foot in the frame to provide scale.

The path kept winding, and though he heard running water nearby, he was loath to leave the path for reasons that hovered between superstition and instinct. He knew, intellectually, that there must be houses a few yards away, that if he kept walking this way through the trees he would emerge behind one of those Korean stores, within shouting distance of his own front door, but this place gave the impression of being deep dark woods, and somewhere beneath the booze and his detached observation it unsettled him. There were no beer bottles here, no candy wrappers, no used condoms, though it seemed like an obvious place for teenagers to fuck and bums to drink and crash. It was like a pocket of deep wilderness in the middle of a city.

The path ended at an open pit ten or twelve feet across, with steeply sloping sides of crumbled black earth. An odour like chalk dust and ancient paper rose from the hole, and Darrin looked in vain for some suggestion of a path leading around its perimeter. He went to the edge, wondering if the hole led to the remains of a basement, or if it was a sinkhole. The bottom was deeper than a grave, littered with dead leaves, but Darrin could discern some white structure underneath—a lattice of PVC pipes, maybe? He looked around and picked up a long stick—a fallen sapling, really—and poked around in the hole, expecting the hollow thump of wood against plastic pipe. Instead, the sound was a muted clack, and as he prodded and stirred the leaves he realized the white things were bones. Was this some North American urban version of an elephant graveyard, where deer or skunks came to die? Or maybe it was a pet graveyard of convenience, where families from decades before had tossed their dearly departed cats and dogs?

Then his probing stick flipped over something that was clearly a ribcage, and revealed a skull with a star-shaped hole punched through the middle of its forehead. Not a dog’s skull. Or a cat’s. Darrin was no anthropologist, but . . .
Could be an ape’s skull or something
, he thought, letting his stick fall into the hole among the leaves and bones. His dry mouth made swallowing difficult, and the fuzziness of the alcohol he’d consumed no longer seemed like a pleasant buzz but a dangerous impairment.

“That’s a human skull,” Darrin said aloud, but if anything, animal or otherwise, heard him, there was no sign. This wasn’t just bones in a hole anymore—this was an open grave.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
5.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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