What follows is, for good or ill, one or my most gruesome stories. Be warned…
The Dead Orchards
Ian R MacLeod
I used to live in a house made from the bones of the City. Stones plundered from the dreams of palaces peered from every wall. It was too big for me alone, yet I rarely sought any company other than that of my servants. Forgotten rooms reached into tunnels, doorways opened on rotting boards. But there was still a core where a tarnished kind of luxury flourished. This was my home, and the living was as easy as it could be in this City, which is to say that my suffering was less than that of many others.
Sometimes when my solitude became a burden I used to wander the streets searching for some female from whom the City had yet to drain the last dregs of grace. A difficult quest, but I had my successes. I would draw my guest back to my house with the necessary threats or promises, filling it with the silvered clash of china, the fragile aromas of good food. And when the feast had ended and contentment played on the air, when my guest sat on her golden chair and all past life was an ugly dream, I would offer her one last luxury: a glass of the clearest water drawn from a well deep in the foundations of my house. Pure water in this City where the sewers foul the river and the river feeds the wells. Crystalline water in a crystal glass.
The goblet would rise in hands I had scented and cleansed, the water would tremble on the bevelled rim. And after it had touched those delicate lips, after the shapely throat had moved to swallow, the hand would fall, the glass would shatter, the eyes would blink once, then widen forever. For the clear water was invisibly polluted by the mutterings of some ancient spell. It caused a living paralysis for which, in all my experiments, I could discover no release, least of all death.
Once, I used to take endless pleasure in seeing my guest sitting motionless, clothed in whatever fairness youth had granted her, with every muscle down to heart and lungs magically stilled, yet her mind alert, her senses singing. After weeks of slow study, I would take a knife to her flesh, blowing the dust from her unblinking eyes that she might better see the riches she contained. Each organ within was a gleaming jewel, strung like a wet necklace on the bones beneath. Once, towards the end of my explorations, I found another life enclosed within the first. A child. I cut the burden from its ropes of flesh and lifted it into the candlelight. But the eyes of the half-finished thing seemed to stare at me, and I replaced it hurriedly in its mother’s belly.
Inevitably — and as with life itself — my guests didn’t keep their freshness forever. The spell allowed them to retain thoughts, sensation and life, but putrescence is an unavoidable fact even amongst the truly living in this city. Maggots eventually began to burrow the warm flesh. Gazing into the sockets of eyes that had run like tears, I used to wonder if death ever came to my guests. Did they sense every moment of decay? Was there ever an end to their pain? But could find no answer from those rotting lips, and eventually I would call my servants to take the stinking burden from my sight and carry it to the dead orchards, there to dispose of it in the traditional way.
Eventually, such diversions began to bore me. I found that although the human body is a rich and ornate vessel, its variety is far from infinite. I came to treasure only the moment when the lips moistened and moved. When the delicate throat swallowed. When the glass fell. When the eyes widened with that last moment of knowledge. That was all: when the shadow passed, and when certainty began.
There came a time when I had not left my home in months. But boredom brought restlessness, and the horrors of the City beyond my door sometimes seemed less that the atrocity of my own company. One day, in the bland depths of my discontent, I went out. I had been long away from this City. I was surprised that life still passed so busily in these streets filled with mud. My senses clogged with the smell of it, with the separate ugliness of every face. I shook my head when the beggars offered me their blood in bowls. I kicked and stamped at the little creatures that crawled towards me from the gutters.
I took a path that led by the fringes of the dead orchards, passing many on the way who pulled, dragged or carried burdens in that same direction. I went that way without thinking, but as the hovels gave way to grey-green grass and the little hill reared up before my steps, I wandered on amid the stained and sapless boughs. They were sharp as spears, and similarly blackened with the blood of their victims. The trees were a deathly army, proffering trophies for the delectation of whatever Gods gaped down from the dismal sky. Some of the corpses were still fresh enough from their impaling to have kept a trace of character in their sunken eyes, or at least to make their sex and age discernable. But the majority had shrivelled to leathery anonymity, preserved by the parasitic tendrils of the trees as withered sketches of humanity. The branches pierced rags of flesh. Arms lifted and waved in the stinking breeze. Here, somewhere amid the leafless avenues, were the remains of my guests, doubtless roughly pinioned by my servants with their usual lack of care…perhaps dead, perhaps dreaming, perhaps still screaming voicelessly with pain.
I found a corpse that somehow still retained a shabby parody of young femineity. Several tumescences were thriving on it, green, apple-like parasitic growths of the tree itself, one a grey parody of a breast, another swelling on the shrivelled remains of the tongue, forcing apart the jaw. The wind struck up a keener note, dipping the branches all around, setting limbs clicking and bobbing, heads nodding. The woman-corpse tilted up, her mossy backbone curving as though still tormented by whatever agonies had brought her to this place. I turned and quickly made my back through the trees, towards the life of the market.
The market awnings flapped their damp wings. Those who lived and needed jostled with those who had forgotten all but the fears and habits of life. The smell of rotting meat and vegetables was heavy. That day, in what passed, I think, for the season where there is more cold and less rain, I had already eaten and the food had lodged in my stomach, an unwelcome but tolerated guest. Everywhere there were shouts and squabbles. I was swept along and almost off my feet as a fresh basket appeared, dripping mud and the offal of white-eyed fish from the river. The crowds were almost as sickening as what was on offer. I felt glad of my wealth, my gold, my servants. I smiled at the thought, remembering why I had come. And as I smiled my eyes settled on a face that was part of the crowd, yet separate from everything. My shock was immediate and intense. Even under the grime and rags, I could hardly believe that chance had brought me this close to beauty.
She had a basket wrapped around her filthy arm. In it, as I drew close, tumbling rickety stalls and people aside, I saw the remnants of a loaf of bread, grey green with mould. She turned with slow and perfect wonder towards me. Heart shaped face, eyes of tremulous green. She could almost have been a child, had the city not forgotten true childhood in the age before it remembered death.
Determined that she would be my guest that night, I stopped her and offered money, grasping an oily sleeve that went slick though my fingers, grasping tighter and again. Her delicate arms scrabbled in fear, weak claws reaching for my face. I drew out coins and pushed them towards her fluttering palms, not caring how they fell. They fountained from my hands. Those around us began scramble in the mud, raking the gold from the ooze. At last she caught a coin in her palm and drew it to her lips, touching it to her perfect teeth. I offer this, I said, and more. Her eyes widened and blinked, clear pools in a world of mud. She nodded. She understood. I kept my hand on her in case she should run, but in truth I sensed within her that fatalism that is part of this City. I never bothered to enquire about her background. No doubt others knew her but were too blind or ignorant to see her beauty. So be it; this City has withered everything down to a single moment of need, endlessly repeating itself. I took her hand and she let me lead her away under the leaning walls. Through the tunnel of a toppled tower where dark things whispered to the echo of our breath. To the place that was my home.
My servants pointed and shivered excitedly as they gathered for a sight of my prize. I chased them away to with curses and threats and led her quickly up the wide stairs past rotting tapestries and green statues, along corridors streaked with decay. Some emotion caused her to cry. The tears washed bands down her face. I asked her name and she sobbed it through the bars of clear skin: it was a thing that fell uselessly between us. I changed it to Caitlin.
Caitlin. I drew water from the purest butts of rainwater, straining the soup of spiders and leaves. I warmed it with magics to fill a rusted marble tub. I stripped her of her rags and bathed her. As the water clouded, she grew glistening white. Touching the wonder of her flesh with my own ragged claws, I could hardly believe that we shared humanity. As I dried her, I saw that Caitlin was like none of my guests who had gone before. She was perfection. I anointed her with scents and oils. I seated her before the brightest, warmest fire and combed the knots and lice from her wet hair, working through and through until it sparked and glowed to the touch. And I dressed her in the best fabric I could muster. Velvet that still retained its colour in patches, seams of lace that the damp hadn’t yet unravelled. I stood her before a mirror, and once again she cried. And as I gazed upon her my own eyes stung as though with the touch of flames.
My Caitlin smelled of apples and sunlight. She made me weep with a long-interred memory of a happy interval in my otherwise cheerless youth. Of lying on sap-scented grass to drown in snow flurries of blossom, of the broken certainty of waiting for the one-who-loved, the one who never came.
Amid the unavoidable pathos of decay, I tried to give our feast solemnity. My efforts exceeded everything that had gone before, just as Caitlin herself outshone all the past. In the great hall, I sat her down on the gilt chair raised on a stone above the moss-carpeted floor. I cleaned silver and china with my own hands, ransacked ancient chests to find a ragged tablecloth that was almost white. I polished a glass until its facets were like knives and drew on the whispering darkness of my secret well until I was sure that the poisoned water would match Caitlin’s purity. I even discovered an old machine from the time beyond the City’s memory that wove melodies in voices that were neither human nor drum.
The preparation of the food, pampered idiot that I am, was beyond me. I set my servants to work with terrible threats. What emerged on platters from the steaming dungeons was an insult to Caitlin’s loveliness. I took a skewer from the filthy meat and showed the leading servant my disgust, stopping before fatality only to avoid the inevitable distraction that dragging another body to the dead orchards would cause. Their second offering was many times better. When I put the sauce to my lips, I could only wonder at the contrast with the foul stuff I was normally forced to tolerate. But still, it failed to match Caitlin’s perfection. As, inevitably, did the third offering. But nevertheless I carried the abject dishes up to her myself, rare fruits and savories, sweetmeats that the City had long forgotten, riches on the palate beyond dream.
I watched as she ate, seated on that gilded chair. Her movements were swift with hunger, yet delicate, fluttering like leaves in sunlight. I poured wine from a bottle furred with the centuries of dust into her sliver goblet. The light of the candelabra formed a heart within the hall, intimate and yellow. I moved the plates and dishes with my ugly, clumsy hands, drawing her attention to this or that culinary treasure. Music played from my newly discovered box, trembling the shadows around us. She looked at me and smiled, her fingers twisting the frayed edge of the cloth. With each flicker of movement another facet of her beauty stung my eyes.
Finally, she sat back, and I asked there if there was anything else she wanted.
She shook her head, and I asked her if she was happy.
A shadow crossed her face for a moment. Then her clear eyes fixed on mine, that green that seemed to flicker with more than flamelight.
She told me that she had lost her mother when she was still a child. She told me how she heard rumours that she had been taken from the market, just as I had taken her. Someone with riches, it was said, someone such as I. Eventually, she had found her mother’s body in the dead orchards, dangling upside down, her guts hanging out over her face, not living, but somehow not yet dead.
I nodded. But of course, I had no way of telling whether Caitlin’s mother had once been my guest. In truth, my memories of my many guests had flooded together like the blood-scent of their hidden jewels. And Caitlin outshone any from the past. But still, I was pleased with the symmetry that should bring my guests here, generation on generation.
Certain in the knowledge than I could not be lying, I told Caitlin that she was infinitely more beautiful than her mother.
She nodded gravely. She had seen herself in the mirror; she knew that there was no point in arguing. I watched her eyes travel across the dishes and condiments, the glowing candelabra, the crystal glass filled with crystal water.
I asked if she was thirsty.
Slowly, she shook her head. To my astonishment, I felt a rush of well-being, almost equal to that which I had felt as I watched the throats of my previous guests move to swallow. My heart raced at the thought that here, at last, I had found something new. A guest who survived the feast! Weeks and months stretched before me in my delirious excitement. Caitlin and I together, her beauty and my power, King and Queen of this City.
Then what, she asked, what shall we do?
My face must have betrayed my sudden confusion. I wanted us to become lovers, I wanted to drown in her blossom-honeyed scent. After I had stammered out some inadequate expression of this, Caitlin put her head back and began to laugh.
Laughter. The sound rebounded from the wet walls. Laughter. Unheard in centuries. Laughter. Thick, ugly laughter. I gazed at Caitlin in disappointment as her lips twisted back with the cackle and bray, as knotted roots of tendon formed in her neck, as her face distorted beyond recall. She sniffed and gave a last bark.
I was sickened, but I forced myself to shrug. So quickly, the possibilities had faded.
Her face was smoothly solemn now, but it was only a sick parody of my memory of her beauty. Love is impossible in this City, she said. So what would you have me do?
Knowing it was true, I lifted the glass. The words were easy now. I suggested that we could share the crystal water together. Her, and then me.
Caitlin nodded. Unhesitatingly, she took the glass in both her slender hands and lifted it to her lips. The facets danced light on her cheeks. I felt coolness and calm wash through my agitation as I witnessed the movement, that familiar part of the ritual. She tipped the glass up. Inch by inch. Degree by degree. Her eyes were momentarily closed like the child she almost was. In the last moment, as the water broke into her mouth, I even saw her beauty reassert itself.
The glass tumbled and broke. She slumped from the gilded chair, down into the filth below the table. It drew a black streak across her flaccid face, as though nature was reasserting itself. Gazing at her strewn there, eyes open again and staring wide at me, I pondered for a moment my old pleasures, the way the inner jewels of a body could be drawn out gleaming for display. But I shook my head, knowing that to do that would only sour further an already bitter memory. I called for my servants. I bid them carry her to the orchard, fresh and as she was, with her skin unmarred. And recalling Caitlin’s grim story of her roughly pinioned mother, I decided to accompany them.
The moon was howling in the sky, the light of madness breaking over blind chimneys, shattered towers, seed husks of broken rooftops. The City was still seething alive. The night people, gory rags of flesh and fabric, scuttled their trails in the solemn wake of our procession. My servants bore Caitlin on a stretcher of silk, albeit blackened with the strains of its previous occupants. Although motionless, her eyes stated unrelentingly at me as I walked beside her along ways where firelight bloodied the darkness, beyond the deep pools of sickness where the nightbirds fluttered, through the empty market itself ransacked by the day. Now that she was stilled by the water, I could see her in abstraction, the planes of flesh, the intersections of beauty and imperfection.
We reached the dead orchards, grey boughs weaving the grey light. The wind was faint, but everywhere there was the scratchy sound of movement. We passed along the avenues of withered flesh and stopped at a tree that was tenanted only by chattering ancient bones. My servants put Caitlin down and hovered fretfully, awaiting their instructions. I waved them away and crouched down close to Caitlin, over her face. My shadow blocked the wild moon. Her eyes glittered. As I had done many times before, I wondered how it must feel to be trapped in a body that possesses every faculty but movement, that sensed my foul breath and the ripe smell of decay. That felt pain. I moved a fraction closer still and bit a piece from her nose. Just a small piece: I had already disciplined myself not to spoil this moment with petty disfigurement. I chewed it slowly. My Caitlin was bitter-sweet, unlike any human flesh I had tasted before, yet still resonant with memory. I closed my eyes momentarily, glimpsed dappled light, the moist white flesh of a golden-green fruit offered to me in the hand of a smiling child. I blinked, and gazed lovingly down at Caitlin, at the sweetness she contained. When I took another small bite of her nose, a bead of moisture broke from her eye and ran down her cheek. A pretty cheek, yes I could see that now. Still imperfect, but possibly less so than any other I had known.
You should never have laughed, I said. Never.
The eyes poured back at me, wet stones in the stillness of her face.
I lifted her from the stretcher alone. My servants shivered around the distant trees, whinnying and muttering in pitiful excitement. Her flesh was warm and living, youthful and elastic. Pushing it onto the spears of the branches was difficult and messy work. My hands grew slickly black in the moonlight. Her sweet-apple smell grew stronger. I licked my glistening fingers, expecting the salt taste of blood, but discovering instead a stronger, sappy sweetness. My Caitlin, I thought, you are so, so beautiful, so unlike the rest. The limbs of the tree skittered and creaked. Although there was little wind, the surrounding orchard grew agitated in sympathy. I felt a cold rising of fear, but forced myself through it. And soon, almost too soon, the job was done.
I stood back. My Caitlin, hanging there in the moonlight. In the orchard, the living amid the dead. She now possessed a different kind of beauty — something dark and impossible to explain. I shivered in anticipation, knowing that it would give me pleasure to visit this spot in the grey months and years to come.
My Caitlin. As my servants gathered closer to see, I stretched up to her. Wetly stained branches projected through both of her arms. It was an inexpert job, but far better than my foolish servants could ever have managed. The sweetly scented blood was still flowing from the wounds, splattering the earth, betraying life: somehow, it spoiled the effect, but I didn’t doubt that she and the tree would gain equilibrium as she began to wither and rot.
I leaned forward to kiss her, and the howling moonlight softened to a glow around her, spinning green rainbow webs, filling my heart to the choking. Caitlin. My Caitlin. I touched her lips, breathed the apple scent of love and memory and childhood.
But something was wrong. The tree shuddered movement and her arm shook on the branches, breaking loose and spraying sappy petals of blood. She circled me with it and drew me in, her lips seeking mine, pressing, her tongue a strong root, inexorably parting my lips.
Holding me like ivy, she spat the contents of her mouth out into mine. A flood of crystal soaked my lips and tongue. My throat contracted. I held the poison tight in my mouth, wanting to vomit it out with all the contents of my stomach, but held back by the knotted pressure of her lips. Then her other arm curved out from the tree and drew me deeper into the embrace. I felt the leafy fire of her beauty. I felt living branches clawing at my flesh. I felt my throat weaken and dissolve, the cool crystal flood of magic through my body.
The sky span up.
The earth thudded my back.
Lying motionless, I heard the rasping scream of fresh wood on old bark as Caitlin pulled herself fully away from the barbed branches. I smelled her greenly resinous tang. She stood over me, the sap still dripping from the gleaming white rents in her limbs, revealing the knotted intricacies of grain within.
She leaned over me with her leafy-apple scent. I heard her voice like the whisper of spring, quiet and strong.
“My Lord,” she said, “the story that I told you at our banquet is true. You did kill my mother, or at least bring her to hang in that frozen place which is worse than death. Yet when I said that I was a child, I revealed less than all of the truth.”
I gazed up at her, suddenly conscious of the huge silence of my heart and lungs. She said, “My Lord, you lifted me from my mother’s womb. And doubtless you toyed with me a while before you eventually you grew disgusted or bored, and pushed me back in with the other entrails, bidding your servants take my mother to these dead orchards.
“But I was living too. And I did not drink your magic potion — for magic is not like poison or dreamsmoke or alcohol, it does not pass through the blood. I was not caught in your spell.
“So the boughs of the dead orchards received my poor mother — hanging upside down in much the way I described — and the trees found within her something untainted by that dreadful paralysis, a life that still lay on the brink of living. It was a life that the tubers and roots revived and nourished, tended, caused to grow and be brought out as a new fruit, half human, and yet half of the wood.”
She blinked slowly, as though at a happy memory. But her beauty was terrible, and her hair was drifting like a forest in a storm. “My Lord,” she whispered, “do you understand what I am saying?”
Yes, I understood, and although I had no way of showing, she knew that I did. My thoughts now were quick, freed from all the normal distractions of living. My senses were heightened too — every nerve receptive and glowing — which made me realise the delicious, searing torment that my guests must have experienced.
Caitlin unbowed into the moonlight. She turned away from me and towards my servants. I could not see them, but I knew from the sounds I heard that they were bowing and muttering in fear of this new and terrible wood-God.
Caitlin said one word. She said, “Now.”
My servant’s clumsy hands were on me, around me. They lifted me up. My feet were in air, and I then felt the pressure of the tree. Splintered boughs breaking through my clothing, on into the flesh. For once, they did a good job. They skewered me deep on the branches through belly and limbs.
And I tried to scream, as I have been trying ever since.
Caitlin visits me often, brushing the dead things from my yawning mouth, lovingly smoothing each new tendril as it works its way through my spine. She talks to me about life in this unchanging City, about the discoveries she has made in my house since she became its tenant. Sometimes her face crinkles with disgust, like old bark. But after all these years, she still retains her beauty. And when the pain is no more than bitter agony and a small corner of my thoughts remain my own, I find time to wonder if the fresh wood in her heart and the timber of her bones will ever die.
Yes, Caitlin visits me often. She smiles like sunlight and brings the memory of snow-flurried blossom, of waiting for the one-who-loved, the one who never came.
I pray to the Gods that she will never desert me.