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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (34 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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“Guess it’s lucky we haven’t run into any, then.”

“Yes,” Harczos said, perhaps a trifle doubtfully. “Very lucky.”

6

“Ismael brought me here.” Darrin looked at the great chasm, the deckless bridge, the swirling mist. “We passed by, anyway. What is it?”

“A bottomless pit, there,” Harczos said. “Ismael jumped into it once, expecting oblivion. He fell for three days, and when he was about to die of thirst, the briarpatch flung him into a fountain.”

“But the bridge. Where does it go? I mean, I guess it doesn’t go anywhere, but . . .”

“I think it goes to the land of the dead,” Harczos said. “Or so I have been told, by those older than me. We cannot cross the bridge, because there is nothing for the living to walk on. But for the dead, there is something solid underfoot, and they can cross. I have seen ghosts walk over the chasm.”

“It’s the real land of the dead?”

“For some people, at least. Maybe there are many lands of the dead. Perhaps some go into the light, and lose themselves. Some others cross this bridge, and go into who knows what world?”

“Do you think this is where Bridget is supposed to go?”

Harczos shrugged. “I’m not sure anyone is
supposed
to go anywhere. We go where we go. Come. I want to show you a place I know, where all the children have wings, which wither and fall off when they grow up. Such a beautiful place and sad.”

7

After many weeks together, Darrin felt comfortable enough to ask about the details of Harczos and Ismael’s falling out. They swung in hammocks strung from trees in an orchard, below pendulous orbs of hallucinogenic fruit.

“Ah, that is a tale,” Harczos said. “Ismael and I travelled together for many years. For a time, in the early part of the 20th century, we lived in France. I was bored with wandering around the outskirts of the briarpatch, and Ismael was reluctant to go deeper, so we decided instead to embrace life in the plausible world. I took a wife and had children. I did not know it at the time, but Ismael passed the time by finding suicidal people and goading them toward death. He had become obsessed with finding the better world, and I understand why—it is a very plausible heaven, quite stable, and I was as entranced by the occasional glimpses of the place as anyone. Ismael discovered, quite by accident, that he could glimpse the light when people died, sometimes, and he developed a theory that by letting go of life completely, and meditating to loosen your soul, and killing yourself, you might reach the light. There is reason to believe his theory is correct, by the way.”

“But why did he get so obsessed?” Darrin said. “I mean, you’re not.”

Harczos swayed in the hammock silently for a moment, then said, “Ismael’s life in the plausible world was always harder than my own, because for many years he tried to live among people as an ordinary man, while I had always been willing to slip away into the safety of the briarpatch when things became too unpleasant. Ismael saw plagues, and pogroms, terrible things. He was set upon by dogs, and attacked by swordsmen, and rode down by mounted warriors. He was a peasant and a slave and a victim. He nearly died a number of times, and was flung into the briarpatch again and again. He suffered, and went hungry, thirsty, and got sick, but didn’t die, because our bodies do not seem to die. What do men crave most, Darrin?”

“What they can’t have.”

“Precisely. Ismael craved death. He came to believe life was all suffering—and, for most people, for most of history, that has been true, yes? He wanted to give people the gift of death, a gift he could never receive himself. And so he made suicide pacts with people, promised to die with them. They would both jump from, a bridge say, and Ismael’s friends would die, while Ismael himself was shunted to safety somewhere in the briarpatch. I did not find out about this habit of his until later. He discovered that those ordinary suicides seldom led to the light, and in time, he started telling people the truth, convincing them to strive for the light with him. Ismael has a forceful personality. He is able to make others feel what he feels—usually his pain and depression. He considered himself a shepherd. He meant well, I believe—he helped people reach the light, but he never asked himself if the light was
worth
reaching. He believes that the best imaginable life is one in which there is no pain, only ceaseless pleasure. I do not agree. A little pain adds savour, and makes the pleasure more potent.”

“So you stopped being his friend when you found out he was convincing people to kill themselves?”

“It is more complicated than that,” Harczos said. “I was happy enough, as I said, in France, with my wife and our children. Ismael grew restless, and wanted me to join him in his search for the better world. He became convinced there must be an overland route, and that he could not find it himself. Since all children of the briarpatch have access to different pathways, he wanted me to help him. I refused, and he left in anger. Some months later, there was a terrible fire, and my wife . . . my children . . .” He fell silent.

“I’m so sorry,” Darrin said.

“It was long ago. My wife would be dead now anyway, perhaps my children as well. I did not, at first, suspect Ismael. I joined him and we entered into the briarpatch. But my grief was great, and Ismael tried to comfort me, telling me my wife and children were surely in a better place, perhaps
the
better place, that we might find them in the light, and he let slip something, some comment about how they did not suffer, perhaps, and I grew suspicious. Eventually, I confronted him, and Ismael confessed he’d killed my family—though he said he ‘set them free.’ He killed them so I’d have nothing holding me back, of course, so I would come with him like he wanted. In my unthinking rage I attacked him, and he was swept away into the briarpatch. I saw him again, years later. I told him I’d found an overland route to the land of perfect light, and that, since I could not kill him, my only revenge was in withholding the route to that light. Oh, how he begged, but I just laughed at him. It was very satisfying.”

“You lied to him, then?” Darrin said. “You fucked with his head?”

“Oh, no, I did find the land of light. Would you like to see it? We can go there next.”

“You found it?” Darrin frowned. “And you didn’t show him the way?”

“I could not kill Ismael for the crime he committed against my family. But I could punish him that way, and I did.”

“He killed Bridget to get to me,” Darrin said. “So I could help him find the light. If you’d just let him go there, into the light, Bridget would still be alive.”

Harczos bowed his head, sighed, and said, “I am sorry for your loss, Darrin. But I did not goad Bridget to her death. Ismael did. Save your anger for him.”

“If you’d just—”

“Bridget would have died eventually.” Harczos looked up to meet Darrin’s eyes. “I am sorry, but it is something you must face. This pain you feel now, for her loss, you would have felt it eventually. Hate Ismael for cutting your time with her short, but remember, you will live forever. Every mortal you allow yourself to care for will wither beneath your gaze.”

“Fuck you, Harczos.” Darrin stormed off into the trees. If not for Harczos’s need for revenge, Bridget would still be
alive
, he’d never have met Ismael, he wouldn’t even know he was a child of the briarpatch. How many people had died at Ismael’s urging? How many people had leapt for the light and failed to reach it in the decades since their falling out? Harczos had lived too long. He might miss his wife and children in the abstract, but he didn’t really care about
people
anymore. And why would he? Their lifespans were too short. It would be like Darrin fretting over a butterfly’s quality of life. Would that happen to Darrin, now that he knew he was a child of briarpatch? Would he become capable of such epic cruelty and caprice? He hated Ismael for urging Bridget to kill herself . . . but if sending Ismael into the light would save the world from his influence, Darrin wouldn’t hesitate.

After a while, he returned to the hammocks. Harczos was still there, gazing at the sky.

“Forgive me?” Harczos said.

“I want to see the light,” Darrin said.

“Okay.” Harczos closed his eyes.

8

Three days later they stood together on the moon-coloured bridge, a structure so broad and smoothly shining it was like a bridge from a dream. He’d seen it before, always a distant gleam in the sky, and it was just as gleaming up close. The glow of the better world rose up before them, swallowing the end of the bridge, and it was a mesmerizing, soothing light.

“Is that really where the gods live?” Darrin asked, straining toward the light, pulling against the rope Harczos had tied around his waist and secured to the railing of the bridge.

“I don’t know about gods,” Harczos said. “I believe the briarpatch
itself
is God, the body and mind of God. But the light . . . it is a place of no pain. A place of great peace and tranquility. A place, ultimately, to dissolve. There are religions that believe God is a state of being, a transcendent experience that absorbs you and strips away your personality, returning you wholly to godhood. That is what happens there. I found the light, and was entranced by its beauty, and entered. My mind remained my own, for a time, and I floated there, feeling at one with the universe, but my memories began . . . not slipping away, exactly, but fading, becoming less important, less connected to me. I realized, after a while, that I didn’t care that my wife and children were dead, because what was flesh but grass? What was life but an obstacle to the beauty of the light?” Harczos shuddered. “When I lost that kernel of grief at the centre of myself, I knew I could not stay in the light. It was difficult to leave. More difficult than you can imagine. But I do not want to dissolve. I love my
self
, my ego, my particular memories. I do not seek an end to pain. Pain is the price I pay for all the joys in life. I do not think ill of those who wish to enter the light and lose themselves, but . . . it is not my path. Would you like me to cut the rope, Darrin, and let you go?”

The light was seductive. “Why don’t you want to return? How can you stand it?”

“Because I remember. Having been exposed to the pure light, I am more resistant to its charms. I know what waits for me there. Oblivion is not for me. Someday, perhaps, when I have lived too long, and want no longer to continue, but not yet. Do you want to go in?”

“I . . . no,” he said. “No. I don’t want to go.”
Not yet
, he thought.
Someday, maybe, if I become like Ismael, and death seems like the only hope. Because that light
is
death, however beautiful its aspect.

Harczos slipped a dark cloth bag over Darrin’s head, and that blocked the light enough that Harczos could lead him away.

9

“How long have I been with you?” Darrin asked, many, many worlds later.

“I’m not sure,” Harczos said. “Time is strange here, and the suns do not always rise and set in a predictable way. A little more than half a year, as time is reckoned in the plausible world?”

They ambled along a worn path by a creek. “I feel like I’ve figured out a lot of things,” Darrin said. “I don’t know when I’ve had this much time to think before.”

“It is a good life,” Harczos said agreeably. “What have you figured out?”

“That I like walking. And drawing maps.” His pack bulged with papers, his attempt to chart the strange interconnections of the worlds they visited.

“Useful things to know.”

“I think I understand why Bridget left me, too.”

“Ah. I know that has troubled you.”

“She’s always wanted to find the
next
thing, you know? Whenever she had a new experience—whether it was going scuba diving with me, or driving up to wine country, or going caving, or urban exploration, or whatever—she’d enjoy it, for a little while, but she didn’t usually want to repeat it. It was like she . . . sucked every experience dry. Like she was looking up to the next mountain even when she reached the peak of the one she was climbing.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

“Maybe. But I kind of admire it. That striving. I was silly to think she’d be happy with me, the way we used to be, indefinitely. It felt like a safe, steady place to me, but for her, I think it was a rut. When she discovered the briarpatch with Ismael, I’m sure she thought it was magical . . . for a little while. But then she wanted the next level, and that was the next
world
. Though, you know, I think she would have hated it, if she’d really understood. The idea of dissolving . . . I don’t think she’d like that.”

“Ismael probably misrepresented things a bit. He was always good at telling people what they wanted to hear.”

“Bridget must be miserable now, a ghost, no body, so limited, stuck haunting some guy she hardly knows . . .” He shook his head. “I wish I could help her.”

“Perhaps you could help, if you could find her.”

Darrin grunted. “Tell me about this place we’re going. You said it was a city of bees?”

“Oh, yes.” Harczos brightened. “One of my favourite places. I do not know its whole history, but it was once a city of beekeepers, with enormous hives, fruit trees everywhere, and more honey than you can imagine. At some point something changed, and the bees developed intelligence—at least, their queen did. Now, grown huge, she lives in the centre of the city, in the middle of her vast hive. Her bees fly everywhere, and they have lost their stingers—it’s remarkable. The human inhabitants, or their descendants, have been incorporated into the new society, and are essentially drones, still dressed in their faded, ancestral beekeeping garb, which is more ceremonial than protective at this point. The people don’t seem to have individual personalities anymore—they are extensions of the queen’s will. It is amazing and strange. They pay me no attention, just go about their business as I walk through their buildings. And oh, the honey, Darrin, it has extraordinary properties, and gives vivid waking dreams. I suppose if we attacked the queen, they would fight us, but if we are peaceful, they will let us pass.”

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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