Sunday, August 12, 2012
The long black lines had appeared one morning and slowly worked their way across the far green of the prairie, moving from west to east. At first they seemed almost imaginary, perhaps even a malfunction in the Hibson’s eye - five or six of them moving steadily forward until they created uninterrupted streams from horizon to horizon. Then the five or six became ten or fifteen and then more until they filled in a broad river of black Hibson estimated to be miles across, a swath in which they completely obliterated all but their own colour as if they were a single strange, sinuous animal driving its dark body across a sea of green.
“What on earth are they?” he asked the elder when he arrived back in the tiny village.
“They are the beginning,” replied the elder and then, refusing to answer any more questions, sent him to work in the summer garden.
“They will come from the east carrying with them the high mountain berries. Their devastation will be as a single devouring maw moving eastward. Death will be their marching call and they will spread it about them like an ink stain until the earth shrugs its shoulders and annihilates them and they become a memory, no more. True men will see them as an abomination, a stink. “Gaia,” they will cry out and Gaia will hear them. The green will devour them. Gaia will open herself and consume them as if she had suddenly become a giant mouth of grinding green.”
This was the text the elder read before the evening meal. The younger men were astonished. They had read Devastations of course, for it, along with the entire body of the Sacred Text, was the basis for all learning in the community but they, along with their teachers, had thought it a metaphorical extravagance, a dark meditation from the time when the ancient teachers, in their search for learning, ingested drugs and drove themselves into the beyond by dreadful fasts and sensory deprivations. To have it quoted in the dining hall, at the end of a clear, delightful day of sunshine and soft breezes, was extraordinary.
The next morning Hibson thought he would be again sent to the garden but no. He was told to climb onto his mountain pony and go off like he did every morning of the warm season searching and counting the high grazing sheep. Except that today he was given new instructions.
“Bring them in dear brother,” the foreman told him. “In through the high pass where they will out of sight from the plain as soon as possible.”
They sent four mounted brothers to accompany him. “Take the low trail to the edge and then herd them from the south,” said the foreman. “The elders want them gone by dark. Your packs have extra provisions. Don’t come back until the animals are all through the pass. Let there be a last man who goes back when the main body has been driven before you. If the stragglers run they must be shot. There must be none left on the face of the mountain.”
“Why?” asked Hibson.
“Because the evil ones will see them you dolt!” said the foreman. “ And what the evil ones see they lust after.”
Try as they might it took them longer than one day to herd the sheep through the pass. Sheep are creatures of habit. The sun was high, the grasses long, the mornings without chill. That they were being driven from their traditional high pasture months before the usual time confused them. But the brothers rode hard, even shooting their pistols into the air until, by the end of the second day, the great bulk were through the pass and crossing the rocky ravines leading to the lower pastures in the north. Hinson sent his four companions to follow and herd while he turned back to search for stragglers. He drove for the edge and made it by nightfall. He camped in the lee of a giant boulder, and, after two long days riding, slept like a dead man until the hot sun roused him in the morning.
“Do not show yourself!” the foreman had told him. “The evil ones can sense presence from hundreds of miles away and will come with sharp teeth to devour its flesh and blood. They are wild beasts. The cougar, compared to these, is a kind mother to all. Beware!”
Taking his instructions to heart, Hibson snaked on his belly around the boulder until he came to a twisted shrub growing from a crumbling run of stone. He inched himself forward until, parting the leaves, he looked down onto the prairie. The black river had broadened. It stretched from east to west as far as he could see. It seemed to Hibson very strange that he could see how vast was its movement, how almost endless its parade, and yet he could not hear it. It made no sound at all; it was like a great beast stuck dumb. Its body was not all attached to the ground. Small specks flew above it like the birds of carrion the teachers claimed followed armies in the times of war and hatred. Eaters of the dead, the Text called them, devourers of souls.
When he brought his glass to bear he could see the flying specks more clearly. They were strange creatures indeed, giant dragonflies flitting from one place to another above the heads of the great marching throng. Sometimes fire erupted from their bellies, blue and yellow fire. Clouds of smoke suddenly erupted from the earth. The dragonflies dove into these clouds more fire spitting from their bellies and then they suddenly rose and moved on. The dead lay on the ground; the living moved on. Sometimes the dragonflies landed. They sat on the ground, great wings partially folded while figures did things to their bellies and then they flew off once again.
“They are of the Devastation. Brothers and sisters, listen. I tell the bold truth which rocks to the core. They are merciless; they have no heart; they revel in cruelty; they devour as the beasts devour. Gaia hates them. Gaia will crush them like a dog crushes bones.”
Devastations, 6, 11.
Yet Gaia didn’t seem to be crushing them right now. The broad river of the evil ones flowed in a seemingly unending torrent and above them the dragonflies flitted and spit fire. There were also crawling things like fast moving spiders with two mouths full of terrible revolving teeth smashing everything. They twisted and turned and destroyed in packs like mad dogs, cutting paths through the throngs. But there were not enough to change anything essential. A temporary stoppage, a brief scattering was all they could manage. When they moved on the throngs closed ranks as if they had never been. The dead were stripped. Those coming from behind trampled their bodies or tossed them out of the way into a hollow. Perhaps when darkness came they would be devoured thought Hibson.
“Oh they are vicious snakes! In the darkness when they think Gaia is not watching, they devour their own. Oh how hideous they are Brothers and Sisters. They are like ten day carrion, foul and covered with bloated insects.”
Devastations, 25, 11.
Hibson could not bring himself to shoot the uncooperative stragglers. Instead he roped three mother yews and trailed them along behind him, lambs in turn following along behind the mothers. Occasionally small groups came from out of the tall grasses or from behind outcrops and joined the procession. By the time he reached the pass he had a herd of fifty or so. Hibson left his companions to guard the pass to prevent the sheep from retracing their steps and rode down into the village, reaching it on the fourth day.
“What did you see?” asked the foreman.
“A great river of black moving from west to east,” Hibson replied.
“Ninny! I know you have a glass.”
“It is forbidden,” replied Hibson.
“And so is fornication. Yet the village is filled with children. What did you see?”
“Flying dragonflies shooting fire. Spiders with two mouths with great flat teeth grinding and crushing,” said Hibson.
“They are, strictly speaking, not creatures at all,” said the foreman. “They are made of metal by servants of the dark, in a place now flooded by the sea. Gaia has arranged this in her anger and disgust at the abominations of the evil ones. You will remember Devastations, 4, 10. “The sea will scour the shore. Gaia will raise the water and cleanse abomination, leaving the rock as white as washed wool, as white as scrubbed bone.” What else did you see?”
“A great spread of brown coming from the south east.”
“Ha! Just as the elders say. That would be the rivers backing up and spreading. What you saw is coming from the Irgle, no doubt. Do you know what the Irgle is?”
“Ha! That would be one way of putting it. When I was a boy we called it her stream of pee. Gaia drinks rains in the mountains and pees it out onto the plains. Watch you don’t repeat these things to the novices. They will be scandalized and report you.”
“I’m not that stupid,” Hibson said.
After looking at him suspiciously for a moment the foreman replied, “No, you aren’t. But I have to be cautious. Some of you young men are incredibly dense. How far had the brown spread?”
“One third of what I could see, coming from the south.”
“Well it won’t be long now,” said the foreman.
“Until what?” Hibson asked.
“Until it washes away the evil ones of course. What else?”
“Won’t they move onto higher ground?”
“I doubt it. They are too busy killing one another. By the time they wise up it will be over.”
The next day the elders sent Hibson back to the edge to observe. They sent a cage of homing pigeons with him so he could send back messages.
1st day: Brown half way up. Black river moving to the northeast.
2nd day: Brown over halfway. Black river moving directly north.
3rd day: Black river overtaken. Chaos. Spiders and dragonflies abandoned.
4th day: Water in front and behind Black river. A great circle gathered on high ground being slowly eaten away.
5th day: Everything is water. Bodies floating.
Perhaps a dozen rafts reached the rocks. There they were met by the Elder’s Purity Guard. The survivors were helped off the rafts, given a drink of clean water and then lined up against a rock face and shot dead.
“They were of the dark side, servants of evil, abominations,” the foreman said to Hibson who said nothing in reply.
“They were a bacillus,” said the foreman. “They had to be stopped dead at the edge of the water.”
Unlike the foreman, Hibson had witnessed the executions. Those who ran, rather than wait for the bullets, were chased down and bludgeoned to death with iron bars. The white robes of the Purity Guard assigned this task became splattered with blood. The commander ordered them to strip naked and toss their clothing into the waters.
The foreman was still talking. “To allow them to mingle with us would have brought contamination. Thank goodness we have the steel of the Purity Guard who did not flinch at such a gruesome task.” After saying this he looked at Hibson but Hibson refused to meet his eye.
Some of the survivors were children. Most were with parents or relatives who held them close and spoke words of comfort to them as the Guard raised their rifles. But there were a few unattached who ran. The guard used their iron bars on one, a girl of about ten years of age, for what seemed to be an eternity before she stopped moving.
When the foreman was gone Hibson got up and walked across the field to where his ponies were hobbled. They snorted when they recognized who he was and came to nuzzle him. Each of the six he rubbed about its furry ears and kissed on the forehead. Then he laid his own forehead between the ears of his favorite, a dappled, shaggy creature with immense, intelligent eyes and wept silently. Large, hot tears rolled down his cheeks and fell from his chin onto the pony’s head.
“No, no, no, it was a terrible sin,” he told the pony. “He is a liar; it is he himself who is the abomination.”