“Seeds of a Dead Star”
There was something to the dusky man’s laugh that churned Jack’s stomach. In contrast to the peddler’s stately appearance, his amusement was untamed, like a gritty wind howling across the sand-swallowed cities of old. The farmer’s son looked at the beans in his palm. He wanted to try and rescind the deal just struck, but when he opened his mouth to do so the foreigner stilled it with two fingers. Rings crafted from ivory and obsidian cooled the boy’s flesh.
The man waited to speak until Jack met the fathomless gaze offered. “What has been sewn cannot be undone. Hurry home, Jack. Hurry home.” With that the salesman gracefully turned and took the cow’s bridle. His fine frock-coat danced against tall boots caked with the dust of a dead civilization. The dark fellow didn’t look back as he walked away on the shattered blacktop infested with gnarled weeds.
As far as Jack knew that path trailed into the badlands. Perhaps the huckster planned to pawn off the cow to nomads. Jack tried not to think of what they’d use Bessie for. The men that strode the wastes were not known for their sanity, only their barbarism. After all, they lived where the dead star had fallen to earth and nearly wiped the globe clean. Madness claimed as many lives in the desert as the twisted flora and fauna that infested it. He glanced down at the magic beans and curled his fist tightly around them, then did as told and hurried home.
Even residing within one of the green oases sprinkled across the continent didn’t make life easy for Jack and his mother. To get home he navigated a long crumbling concrete trench filled with noxious water and poisonous plants. Then he maneuvered through uneven flights of stairs and crooked boardwalks. The grayed wood always groaned as if might give way at any moment. Haphazardly arranged buildings loomed claustrophobic at every angle when he looked up. Choking ivy consumed much of the structures, and grimy glass barely reflected uncaring sunlight. While this oasis held thousands of souls, they were like rats in the walls – hardly seen but always heard. Finally, he hit the familiar stretch of crumbled statuary that pointed the way home. Jack often wondered what once-skyward cast eyes on somber faces of marble were looking for. Perhaps they knew that mankind’s doom lingered in the cold void of space and was soon to give the planet a deadly caress. The past didn’t matter, only today, and scratching out enough to make it to tomorrow.
That scratching had been damn hard of late, and his home showed it. The abode sagged from the weight of poverty. Lazy trails of smoke curled out of the corroded chimney. He carefully walked over the stack of rusty gates they used for a bridge over a long-exposed sewage pipe. A sigh popped out of the young man. One day he’d find a way to rise above this squalor. For now he was drawn inside by his mother calling out his name.
“I’m back.” He bubbled with both excitement and dread. Mother would think him swindled at first.
“Ah, and Bessie is gone.” The woman, aged beyond her years by the loss of her mate in youth, swept across pitted floor to that husband’s spitting image. Too bad Jack had inherited some of his father’s idle ways too. Good looks and big dreams attracted her when she was soft and foolish. Life hardened her, and she’d never look twice at such a man now. “I’m relieved. I don’t see any goods, though. Did you find someone with silvers to spare?”
“Better.” He bounced on his feet and offered out the black seeds.
“Oh… Jack.” Dismay consumed her features.
In turn the son puffed up his chest. “No. No. I met a peddler from across the wastes with skin as dark as night and eyes to match. These are beans harvested from around the dead star itself. They carry the magic of the –owww.”
His mother considered cuffing him behind the ear again, but knew it wouldn’t knock any sense into him. She snatched the beans, stalked to the door. Her voice wavered on the edge of tears. “For crying out loud, Jack, when will you get your head out of the clouds?” With that she hurled the handful. The kernels bounced across the grating outside before falling into dismal sludge below.
Jack went to bed without supper that evening, so did his mother. All they had left in the house was stiff bread. A torrential rain fell after charcoal clouds gathered. The white noise helped lull him into listless sleep that lasted until morning. He t dreamedof a distant melody on bewitching strings. As he fluttered into wakefulness, he rubbed at the side of his face and found it moist. At first the rascal wondered if the roof was leaking again. When his eyes focused, he gasped. There wasn’t much of a roof left to be leaky. How the falling boards hadn’t woken him, or killed him, was a marvel really. In their place remained a sickly green canopy. Its leaves and vines had a texture somewhere between steamed broccoli and mummified corpse, with shriveled clumps, wilted skin, and leathery seams. Jack’s brain struggled to fathom this combination of vegetable and animal traits, but failed. Within a blink he was across the sparse living room to the front door.
The metal gratings he’d walked across thousands of times were still there, but they hung from vines and barbs as thick as a man’s arm. It took his brain another few moments to register the trunk of the massive plant in front of him, another to liken slowly flexing orifices dotted along the titanic beanstalk to mewling mouths. . Repelled by the abomination Jack stumbled backwards into his mother. She blinked at him as if in a fugue, like he she was unable to fully comprehend what flowered in their front yard. He ushered her back inside and then returned to the stalk. It had to be as broad as two men and clearly had burst from the exposed sewer. He peered upwards trying to see the top, only to realize it pierced the dark clouds that lingered.
“Magic.” Jack smirked. Yes, the maw-like holes were a bit off-putting, especially since they had rudimentary teeth. He swore he could hear them humming a familiar song. His mother fainted dead away on the couch. He made no attempt to rouse her, but rather hastily scrawled a note of intent. The dark man promised that the beans would sweep him off to adventure, riches, and grand destiny. He wasn’t going to waste any time. After grabbing a rucksack, leather gloves, nylon straps, and a half-loaf of stale bread he set out.
At first it was easy going because the metal sheets provided for hand holds. Once he got past them, the climb became tougher. Besides not sticking his fingers in the stalk’s many mouths, he had to maneuver around thorns too. Still the leaves and vines were enough to help his ascent. Soon his home looked more like a dollhouse. Day rolled into afternoon, and Jack kept scaling the green. By then the decrepit city spread out below him in its ramshackle glory. All the inhabitants looked like ants on a rotting corpse. He found the water gathered inside leaves, while coppery, was enough to ease his thirst. The bread was a pitiful dinner as afternoon gave way to evening. Jack pushed into the foreboding mist above an hour past sundown.
Breaking through the cloud cover exhausted Jack. He forgot the full body-ache when he noticed how close the moon was. The shards of the fractured satellite pulled along the rest of its leprous bulk akin to a team of horses and carriage. He wondered if he jumped as high as he could if he just might graze the celestial object with his fingertips. A testing step found the cloud top as solid as aged concrete. As he walked away Jack realized the plant had been softly singing the whole way up. His ears had grown used to the tune, and his soul felt the absence.
It wasn’t long before he came to a megalithic castle. The structure’s gothic spires had seen better days; many were half-collapsed by remorseless time. Massive walls loomed undaunted. They were built from ruddy and irregularly hewn blocks that fit together none too well. It gave one the impression of a deep scab on the verge of shedding. The ramparts were silent, pennants tattered remnants. Jack kicked a puff of semi-solid mist before skirting the walls. It seemed even fantastic locales were ruined in this forlorn age. When he found the gates, he gaped for several minutes. They had been crafted from what had to be the ribs of… he could not fathom what from the size of them. Elephants like the ones from the Hot Coast perhaps? Even those large beasts were too small. What strain of men would need so tall an entrance?
Nevertheless Jack snuck inside.
There was no need for stealth. The wide courtyard bore the scars of a battle finished long before humanity stood upright. The sanguine surface was littered with craters and the oily burnt bones of giants. Such was the scope of conflict that Jack couldn’t wrap his mind around it. A strumming of strings echoed across the majestic graveyard. It drew him toward the keep. The stone building’s daunting doors were sealed, but a great hole had been scooped out of the side wall. Through it he gained entrance.
The keep’s interior felt fathomless. No matter how hard Jack squinted he could not find the top, but he swore there were bat-like shapes stirring. From somewhere above a shaft of moonlight cascaded down and highlighted a horrid fresco. A loathsome mass of diseased flesh hung in painted sky like the sun breaking free of clouds. Around the mad deity squirmed shapes without any earthly definition. These formless abominations frolicked and played instruments within the flesh sun’s pallid rays.
His battered shoes echoed off of the floor as he drifted to where the moonlight terminated. Bathed in ethereal glow was a harp carved from a solid piece of redwood. It was inlaid with varying eyes of precious metals. Its shimmering strings vibrated as if spectral fingers danced across them. The song produced was just like in his dreams! Not to mention that the artifact was surrounded by heaps of gold coins, fine plates, swords, and other spoils. He didn’t pause to consider that the stash may have been strategically placed where light would hit it as a trap.
That was until Jack heard the snoring and smelled whatever was making it. He stopped at the edge of the light, tried not to gag. The stench of wet hair copulated with whiffs of rancid meat and fungal-ridden dust. He’d never experienced such an odor even when he found a bloated corpse half-sunk in the muck-way north of the village. The sound of deep sleeping was as strange as it was savage. It reminded him of a hog breathing against mud. He dared not to exhale for being heard, and focused on the gloom.
When revealed in silhouette the behemoth set shudders of revulsion through Jack. It bordered on thirty feet tall, though it was hard to tell because the monster was lying down. It was haphazardly sprawled on a raised dais made for its girth. The rapscallion thought it was covered with matted fur. He couldn’t see more than a sliver of its misshapen cheek, perhaps with a bony ridge instead of eyebrow. There were other matters to its symmetry that he didn’t dwell on. After all the hulking beast slumbered. He was certain he could nick what he wanted and get out before it woke. He took a slow breath then stepped into the light.
The giant didn’t stir. Jack grinned. His bag of crumbs was quickly filled with as much coin as he thought it could handle without splitting. Next he went for a sword, though the mystical harp was never far from his mind. It felt like the gilded eyes were watching him as it tenderly sang a discordant lullaby. Even distracted he did pick out a small weapon that fit in his belt just right. The thugs around the oasis wouldn’t bother him again. He stole a glance to the sleeping ogre as it shifted with a wet snort. Like a great cat, one of its forearms stretched out. The extremity was larger than most children and could easily snuff out a man. Of course its hooked talons would deal death all the quicker. The creature’s fur was black, wrist adorned with bracelets of laced-together femurs and skulls. Thelatter were faintly painted to give the impression of makeup. The former were etched with blasphemous sigils.
Jack waited until the claw retreated back into darkness before making a play for the harp. The decorative eyes bored into his soul as he reached out and smoothed his hands over the arched column. He expected to feel the squishy wetness of something living, but was disappointed. He knew that the instrument was meant to be his. He didn’t know how to play it, but that didn’t matter. He quickly fashioned a sling out of nylon cord. As soon as he lifted the harp from its place, the soothing song stopped. The giant grumbled. Jack waited for several tense minutes, quaked in relief, and then hoisted the instrument across his shoulders.
With measured steps he headed back to the breach. When Jack was just at the opening, he chanced a look back to make sure the creature had not stirred. His view of the moonlit loot was cut off by something big. Jack realized the stench hadn’t abated any. What could only be hot breath washed over him. Towering above were disembodied pink eyes spaced too far apart, glowing through the darkness. Jack didn’t freeze like a rabbit, but jumped through the hole. The gargantuan pushed after, bellowing.
It was a thing that belonged in a land of fever dreams! What mad evolution gave the atrocity arms that split into two more at elbows? There was no mechanical way that the double set of forearms could move the way they did with just a single joint. Four claws tore at the stonework as it pulled itself through the hole. The shaggy giant’s head reinforced a sense of biological impossibility. Its maw was a vertical slash from crown to throat filled with gleaming yellow teeth and without a hint of lips. A dripping purple tongue lashed at the air like a serpent’s scenting after prey. Worse yet was how expressive the brute’s cancerous face was, filled with nothing but hate and hunger. Where mouth ended and cranium began sat a dingy headdress speaking of a foul religion best lost to history. The jaw snapped shut, and the giant shot after him.
While Jack ran for his life he deftly avoided craters and scorched bones. The terror merely trampled through them. It had little concern for the remains of its ancient followers. All the while sounds hissed out of its gullet.
“Fe Fi Fo Fum.” It was raspy nonsense like a hyena on the hunt.
The grotesquery gained fast. The booty Jack lugged didn’t help, but there was no way he was going to drop the gold or the harp. Instead he divested the sword slapping against his thigh, and clumsily tossed it backward as he neared the gates of bone.
The behemoth howled when it stepped on the blade. The giant limped forward. To the massive beastthe sword was like a goat’s head thorn digging into a man’s bare foot . Jack couldn’t help but cackle as he dashed for the beanstalk. He pushed through over-sized leaves, one of which accidentally brushed across harp strings. The plant’s rudimentary mouths sung in harmony then fell silent in time with the instrument. He jumped down, caught onto vines, and then started a dizzying decent. He quickly found that gravity was both an ally and foe. It was difficult to scramble down with the weight of the harp pulling on him. Jack would rather die than let it go.
Eventually the hungry sun crept steadily over the blasted horizon. Its red light stung Jack’s eyes, and he turned away. As far as he could tell he’d made it nearly half-way down. Everything was going to work out just right– a tremor rolled through the trunk.
“Fe Fi Fo Fum.”
Jack didn’t need to look up to confirm his fears, the insane baying was enough. He gritted his teeth and redoubled his efforts. No doubt even with its bulk the four-armed giant wasn’t going to have much difficulty traversing the beanstalk. From far below he heard a woman scream. Jack swung out on a leaf in a reckless manner. He gained few more yards and got a look at who was shouting. As suspected it was his mother, who was violently pointing above him. By the stench, the monster grew closer. Before he was braced against the trunk once more Jack dared to glance up.
His abominable pursuer wasn’t shimmying down the same way Jack was. The living nightmare was descending after him, terrible head first! The quartet of forearms led the way similar to a spider skittering on her web. It roared again, anxious for human flesh. A good man would have fretted about what would happen once the glutton got into the city. Jack worried about his own skin.
To that end he started taking greater risks: Letting himself fall and catching the next vine, or sliding instead of climbing. It was an unpleasant experience, and more than a few times he barely stopped short of being impaled by a barb. Then he had to quickly shift position and slide again, ignoring the welts formed as leaves slapped him on the way by. He was sure that some of the mouths snapped at his fingers. Quickly enough he only had quarter left to go and could hear his mother’s terrified words. He slung the bag of gold at the shack’s remaining roof section. It plunged straight through distressed wood. Jack didn’t wince.
“Axe! Get the axe!” He reached for the largest leaf yet then took in a deep breath. Down the thief swung and let go. When his feet hit the ground the jar that shot up his bones nearly sent him into unconsciousness. The harp on his shoulders sang. Jack pushed through the pain. One foot was too numb for him to walk properly, but he managed to scramble back to the stalk’s base. Along the way he slipped off the instrument and set it carefully aside. Then he feverishly worked on tearing off the grates. The gargantuan’s howl echoed through the oasis. A hundreds-strong chorus of terrified shrieks responded. Jack mopped at his sweaty forehead. His stomach felt like it was going to crawl out of his mouth. There wasn’t time for shock. Dimly he realized that his mother was holding out the axe in shaking hands. He snatched the implement, and cocked his arms back.
Jack wasn’t ready for the spray of hot red that came when blade bit through green skin. How could he have been prepared for the beanstalk’s mouths wailing as he struck again? Neither occurrence lessened his resolve. The man set his jaw as he kept swinging with all he could muster. Hack after hack widened the plant’s mortal wound. Chunks of fleshy gore spread out around his feet, coated his clothes and skin. Jack’s mother recoiled and buckled against the house’s wall. Finally the stalk’s screams became whimpers; the giant’s roar a cry of alarm. Jack fought the poison of fatigue within his muscles, and managed to finish enough of the job for cruel gravity to do the rest.
The beanstalk swayed then the rest of its meat tore. As it collapsed the vegetation rapidly wilted until all that sprinkled on the inhabited ruins were brown flakes and teeth-like kernels. There was of course still the panicked giant that was not so lucky as to wither. Instead the aberration was lanced by the hundreds of broken girders that remained of a half-toppled skyscraper, which had the courtesy to both stop its decent and pierce all of the important organs. The impact made the building violently shake, but despite its ancient origin it did not collapse. One could well imagine the squatters inside stampeding over one another to exit.
Jack heaved out a sigh, leaning on the axe. His wild gaze moved from the severed stump to the fiend impaled on jagged skyline. He started to chuckle, but soon laughed loud and relieved. Not only was he a giant killer, but a rich man too. He also had the harp.
He closed his eyes to better savor the blood drying sticky across his body. Oh yes, that sweet harp. With its strings he would bring the sublime song he dreamt of to dying humanity. With it they would gracefully, finally accept extinction. Jack was humming as he let the axe go in favor for returning to abandoned instrument. Gore-smeared fingers brought bittersweet notes with the lightest of touch. He looked from the gilded eyes to the near-catatonic gaze of his crumpled mother. Jack’s teeth were white amid all the red as he smiled. “Everything is going to be okay from now on, Mother. Here, let me play you a song, you’ll feel better. A good long rest will do you, all of us, wonders.”
Leagues away, deep in the wastes, the dusky huckster cocked his ear. A regal smile, like that of a Pharaoh of old, spread from his lips as he caught a strain of music on lifeless breeze. He chuckled, tugged on Bessie’s bridle, and continued on. The mangled interstates he traveled stretched similar to poisoned black veins across the badlands. Soon enough the peddler of entropy would arrive at another oasis. There he’d make a fair trade for the virulent cow. The Earth would be made ready, one seeding at a time.