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Authors: Avram Davidson

The Island Under the Earth

BOOK: The Island Under the Earth
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by Avram Davidson

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Whoever wishes to learn about the Island Under the Earth must consult

— Todros Podrosi

It is nowadays common enough to take another’s words and put one’s own name on them. The ancients had other ways, and often delighted (perhaps with the famous and — to us — puzzling “archaic smile” upon their faces) to take their own words and put another’s name to them. Particularly if the other had a more famous name: thus the pseudoepigraphers thought to gain attention for conceptions which their own fame might not be enough to forward. That there is “an island beneath the Earth” is indeed a most ancient notion, one which doubtless originated in the days of a different cosmogony, but has not entirely vanished even today. We know at least of Anaximander that he was an Ionian and that the discovery of the obliquity of the ecliptic was attributed to him; of the writer now called Pseudo-Anaximander, nothing is known, and only fragments of his texts remain to tantalize us, but we cannot do without the following quotation from his XIIIth Book:

“As we have observed before [i.e. as the true Anaximander had observed before],
Out of the Primal Chaos grew the Earth, as a reed grows from the mire or a flame from a bed of coals: there clung to this secondary, sundry remnants of the primary. Presently the connection was
terminated and the remnants fell away like flakes of fiery matter, most of which perished
. [Now here observe how adroitly the pseudoepigrapher passes from recapitulation to addition:]
The surviving mass has from that time remained close to and
under the Earth,
from which it cannot be seen in its own form: but its glow can be seen in our own night skies, and this glow some call the Zodiacal Light

Modern references are not many, and donnish Dr. Barghardt, whose name is perhaps most often mentioned in connection with the Legend, disposes of the above in a footnote; and the well-known classical concept that the Rivers of Earth pour down into a vast lake on which is found an island and that
there it is light when here it is dark
, he dismisses as “a confused and inchoate adumbration of the Antipodes”: a more confused and inchoate line would be hard to find even in the works of Barghardt, who so abounds in them. And there is also the tantalizing reference in one of the Geniza Fragments (those not-quite-Dead-Sea-scrolls found in the Nineties) which Schulman very hesitantly suggests might be a citation from the lost Gemara Aboth of the Jerusalem Talmud,
Whither went the Sheydeem whom Solomon the King did not imprison? To an island under the earth
[here the text is tattered] ba-lishna acharina,
in another language —
and here the Fragment terminates. Then, too, Dr. Ben-Varad’s diligence has rescued from the Neo-Cappadocian Text a pertinent comment to the effect that just as the impress of a seal remains upon a tablet even hastily touched by it, so does the outline of the upper world remain upon the island below: and this, with its vivid hint of blurred cuneiforms on wet clay, moves us to enjecture a lesser Libya and a reversed Asia —

Lastly, let us reflect on Professor Ryerson’s terse definition of our mystery: It is a place not actually connected to our Earth, but the two are sometimes mutually visible, and it is subject to a different order of the laws of physics, its own being in a state of flux.

— But all this and similar is comparable to reconstructing an anatomy from shreds of broken grammars, or an economy from the single page of an arithmetic. Todros Podrosi has summed the subject up: Whoever wishes to learn of the Helm Wind and of the Cap of Grace, whoever wishes to know what occurred in the Year of Ro between the times of Starflux and Earthflux and where to find the traces of the blood shed then (which is the blood which has never dried), whoever desires to discover why there is seldom true thunder on the land, how the thunder heard upon the sea is really the noise of Rahab roaring forth her love for Leviathan, whoever looks to find the High Far Glades where the centaurs resort in their heats and seasons lest the sons of men mock their lusts or the wild asses envy them, whoever yearns to sit beneath the cedars and listen to the sound of silver and gold growing beneath the soil: the accounts of all these and of all other doings and designs and places and persons of the Island Under the Earth must be sought for in
The Book Bound In Black Hide

And this seeking is of certain peril.

Chapter One

The particular ill will between the men of the Household of Hobar and the Sixlimbed Folk was said to date from the time of the Hennan Hobar who was the senior of the cadet line which inherited — for lack of male heir in the elder branch — all the fat lands of the Household, well-girthed in appleyards.

The Hobar used to go up to a stone-built dwelling his late wife had in the Half-Hills, summer by summer, with many kin and guests and serving-sorts: since he was gear-proud (some said, gear-poor) and half-stripped the Main Place each time, the line of onagers stretched a league along behind him, laden down with furnitures and chests and floor-rugs and wall-rugs, kitchen coppers and tableware, and all such things. The distance alleged is not certain. So the word went.

And then the word went that certain Sixlimbs (and the name of Drogorógos was mentioned here), meeting the Hobar in the half-hills, asked a gift of wineskins and bread and were refused. Some said the gift was customary, some said it was not, some said it was after all a gift and hence not bound to be given, others asserted a sort of toll was taken in quit of centaur-claim to the half-hills. It was variously stated that not the wine and not the loaves were begrudged but that they were demanded in so brute a fashion that the Hobar to save his shame could not have given it then despite anything, and that (another version) —

But such tellings and retellings can occupy and indeed have occupied entire evenings when the snow powder falls thick upon field and tree and the chestnut limbs with their ruddy hearts turn into ruddier flames upon the fire-hearths. A certain thing is that the Sixlimbs with brandies of thorn made a sudden attack, stampeding the onagers and driving them off, some for lawful plunder and some for wanton destruction. Several seasons later (or that very season, it is also held) a plague broke out upon whole bands of Sixlimbs who had — or had not: choose — partaken of hospitality at Hobar harvest. Some alleged poison.

So that scene was set, and many acts were played upon it.

Hennan himself had been a long time dead, after a legendary malediction upon Drogorógos and all his stud: “
… stallion and yearlion and cob and colt and crone, maiden mare and matron mare
…”; and Drogorógos himself — but who can say? who can count the centaurs’ ages and feel certain he is right? — when no one knows if they live for a beast’s span or for man-span. Another Hennan, Hennan Westerdweller, had calculated by certain geometries that a centaur endured for man-span times beast-span, but even advocates of his theory conceded it lacked proof — and Drogorógos himself, scarred and shaggy and foul of mouth beyond common even for a Sixlimbs, had either been picked clean by the kites of the forest and the rocky scarps or perhaps had gone to eat certain soft herb until his age was healed, but at any rate was no more seen by men than Householder Hennan.

In his youth this Hennan had been of a broad and thick build like a sound keg of seasoned wood, favored by women and admired by men. It was said that he had aged like an apple of his Household’s own growing, a metaphor capable of several meanings, though none dispute that he was in his age of a ruddy and shiny face. There is a tale told of his middle son, Harran Hobar, concerning an encounter with a brute golem of the golemmeem who live in the shadows of the satherwood, live (it is said) upon the coarse root called ass-fodder or asphodel which no onager nonetheless will touch unless famished: but the place of that tale is not here.

Hennan himself was but a name, then, and a night-light in the Fathers-niche of the shrine wall, and Harran a whitebeard with great-grandchildren upon his knees: he gave in a dower-gift to the mother of one of these, sundry plats and tracts of lands, and among them was the stone-built dwelling in the hills. The bride’s name was Banna and her husband was Tabnath Lo, a merchantman; he let it on a lease of several years for a nominal rent of a fleece and three blackfish, as the custom is, to a partner of his in the sea-venturings, one Captain Stag.

The venturings had been of late uncommonly prosperous and untowardly long, and the captain resolved to tarry on land a while and get the stink of bilge and tar (and, it might be, blood) out of his nose. The hill party consisted of himself, his woman, a man who was his bosun and cook and cabin-servant, and the hired ass-man and his string of asses, this one agreeing to find guides and furnish fuel and fodder. Still, Stag, preferring to be over- rather than under-cautious in (as it were) strange waters, took along provision enough for extra days, and a glow-stone as well.

The ass-man, or onagerer, was amused. “And sails and oars?” he asked, scratching his pelt.

Stag made a noise in his throat. He was a black-haired, black-bearded man, young, with a ruddy face and a gold ring in his right ear. “Sails — yes! For tent and awning. As for oars, I don’t need wood in my fist to punish insolence.” The onagerer found sudden tasks to occupy himself, muttered to his beasts and checked the pack-knots. They were sailors’ knots, and not all to his style of knotting, but they were all sound, and in the end he stood silent, a shade sullen, but submissive enough and awaiting orders.

It was early dimlight, under the arcade of Tabnath Lo’s warehouse, and then out from his counting-room where he had been checking stores against tally-pebbles came the merchantman himself: no older than the boat-captain, but pale, and inclined towards thinning hair and thickening middle.

“You stink of the stale wine, Partner,” Stag greeted him, cheerfully enough.

The merchant shrugged. “Money never stinks,” he said — as always, placid. His keen eye noted an omission even as he was speaking. “Your boatswain’s not here …”

“Gone to fetch a doctor-priest.” Voices were heard from down the street and around the turning past the warehouse-end. The town-churls had already swept the stones with their besoms. Here and there someone appeared at a doorway to snuff out a link, and the pungent smell overcame the wine scent. “Be them, now.”

His eyes passed over his partner, his woman sitting in her litter and veiled against the cold (a captive, warm-blooded booty of a distant war, legally sold and legally purchased; only sometimes at night she murmured or cried out in strange syllables Stag took to be her native tongue: but not often, not for long), the ass-man and the laden onagers — big, healthy, sandy or reddish-colored beasts: different from the stunty gray asslings of the Northern Capes — and rested at the corner. Automatically he examined the hoisting-tackle of the upper door. It seemed all in order.

“ ‘A doctor-priest’ …” Tabnath Lo’s mouth quirked a bit. “An augur? Whatever for?”

Stag’s black eyebrows folded, met across the dent in his nose. “Call him an augur in land-talk, do you? Makes no difference … name … ‘Whatever for?’ Whatever makes you ask? Why, for taking omens, curing them if they need curing, like doctors do cure.”

The owner of the pack-beasts exchanged quick glances with the merchant and the corners of this one’s mouth quirked, too. “Yes, Captain — I have sent off enough ships to understand the necessity of doing so before weighing anchor,” Merchant Tabnath said. “But … taking the omens before starting on a trip by land?” There was just a hint of amusement, incredulity, in his tones. “Well, it will of course do no harm. If you wish it …”

“Here they are now,” Stag muttered, not replying to his partner’s questioning voice. “Come up, Bosun, come up, come up, let’s not dally and delay more!”

The bosun, with a grunt, set down the table he toted on his head; its slight weight had scarcely set his conical felt cap more than a trifle askew. No one looking had to ask why he now poured sand from a small sack onto the table and spread it out with both his horn-palmed hands. It was at once clear that here was a simulation of the sandy beach on which omens for sea-journeys were commonly taken. Now, only, Stag gave an explanation — brief, grudging. “Custom I picked up in another country, not long ago,” he said. A quick, deep look passed and flashed between the partners, was broken by the augur stepping between them.
One augur does for all augurs
, says the proverb. They came, they went, coasting up and coasting down, voyaging from isle to main and cape to cape, cadging place on any vessel; sometimes tarrying but more often not.
One doctor does for all doctors
. There was always one on hand.

“Troscagac, Troscagac, Troscagac,” this one murmured, taking a quick reading on the skies, informing the Elements and Potencies who he was, so that they would take no offense. He yawned on the third repetition, and clearing his throat, with his stick he drew a quick square … or four lines which would do for a square … another look upward … he shifted the table slightly … again … a tiny bit more … enough. A nod of satisfaction. He was a biggish man, fat of face and hands, with his nose a bit splayed at the tip. He took his medicine-case and shook it briskly, then put it down to draw another series of lines, these set within the square: arcs, waves, intersecting angles, stars, ox-horns
… scritch-scritch-scratch
, the sound of stick on sand and wood. He stuck the stave into his belt, gave a quick, frankly curious scan of the faces roundabout, then, with a slight grunt and a slight sigh, as of one engaging in a not very interesting necessity, opened the end of his medicine-case and sent its contents sprawling onto the sand. All moved a step closer. The augur leaned over.

His stick in his hand once more, he began to point and to decipher. “Shell over pebble here … something capping something … what and what? Cap of Grace, maybe…. Noonstone, ox-horn, crone-sign … open … vocal … pointing north, danger…. Beware the bull that bellows at noontide. Beware the crone that shrieks at noon….” He scowled. Stag winced. The packtrainman shifted on one leg, put tongue-tip between cracked lips. Merchant stared, dully. Bosun breathed, noisily. “Danger. Danger. Danger. Earth-Mother and Sky-Father, I never saw such a rotten cast! Danger. Danger. Danger.
Six bewares!
is one,
is two — but what’s the other four?” He peered, frowned, then shrugged and sighed and shook his head.

“Well, makes no difference anyway. ‘Bad signs take good cures,’ we all know that.” He gave one tremendous yawn more, scrapped his medicine-things into a hair-sieve, smoothed the sand with his staff, effacing all the signs, then shook the sieve over the surface, adhering grains of sand dropping all about.
“ ‘Say sooth, smear smooth, ill-things cure, good-things sure,’ ”
he chanted. He transferred medicine-things into a bowl of the roughest and the cheapest sort; water was added; the shells and pebbles, stones and bones were washed clean of ill-luck and ill-omen and put into their box once more. Then, with a hoot of warning, Troscagac picking up the bowl, simply withdrew his hands and let it drop. Everyone jumped a little bit, then laughed a little bit. The shattered bowl lay in shards between the street-stones. The water trickled away.

There was a silence. “Well,” said merchant Tabnath Lo, “you have had your readings and your warnings.” A very, very slight note of a something between amusement and scorn still sounded in his voice. “
do not urge you to go.” The bosun looked up from the runnel of dirty water, one finger absently musing upon the scar of a kraken-claw along his cheek. He looked at merchant, looked at master, a somewhat brighter expression coming across his seamed and sun-scoured face.

But Captain Stag, with a flush of rage striking all along his countenance, brows compressed, eyes hottened, nostrils widened, mouth a-snarl, then going swift away, like lightning flash — Captain Stag said, “Onward.” One look as red as fire he gave to the owner of the packtrain: this one instantly chicked his tongue and smacked his lead-beast. The line moved on at once, the onagerer swung himself onto the lead-onager, captain and bosun followed alongside. The augur nodded and gave a dismissing gesture. His fingers felt his scrip where his fee reposed. The merchant opened his mouth, then he shrugged, said nothing.

In her litter, the captain’s woman was silent. She said nothing, she looked nothing. She had prayed, she had shrieked, wept, pleaded … all in the past. Now she silently endured a securer present, did nothing to invoke the hastening onrush of a future which might be worse.

BOOK: The Island Under the Earth
4.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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