A certain Cnaeus Gabinius Capito, military tribune in the Third Augustan Legion then stationed in Lindum in Roman Britain, had been summarily expelled from his command for participation in certain rites unconnected with any known religion.
– H.P. Lovecraft, “The Descendant”
I once met the oldest living person in the world and asked her what it was like to have lived so long–one hundred eighteen years. I expected to receive an answer conveying a sense of pride or accomplishment or good fortune, perhaps some benign platitude about longevity through good living or smoking El Productos or drinking a shot of Worcestershire sauce every morning. I was therefore taken quite aback when the petite old woman, still with her back to me as she stared at the sky through the arched upper panes of the room’s single window, gave the following answer.
“When I came squalling into the world as a newborn infant, the planet was populated on that day by all the other members of the human race, every single one of which has since died. None–not one–of my fellow humans from that long-ago day are alive any more. In some sense I’m like an alien from another world, one that no longer exists and which no other living person can claim to have visited in the flesh.”
I must have stood there speechless in her doorway just a bit too long, for eventually the woman turned to face me. The morning sunlight almost made her porcelain skin translucent, and I was surprised at how remarkably unwrinkled it was. In truth, she didn’t look a day over seventy, and her movements were strong and swift, even if her demeanor conveyed something of a distracted aspect. Her silver-gray eyes looked through me, as though hoping to catch a glimpse beyond. She kept her head cocked in the manner of one listening to a far-off sound.
“You’re black,” she said, and her eyes blinked.
My momentary sense of awe crumbled all at once. “Is that a problem, Ms. Sigurdson?”
“You didn’t sound black on my cellphone.” Again she blinked, very deliberately it seemed.
“Sorry, my minstrelry’s a bit rusty,” I said, giving in to an annoyance that would have made me say something even less polite if I didn’t feel a natural deference for this woman owing to the mere fact of her age. My mother had always taught me to respect my elders. Besides, I didn’t want to sabotage the interview before it had even begun; my paper had assigned me to come see Ms. Ethel Sigurdson so as to write a fluff piece for the Sunday edition, and I was still new enough on staff that torpedoing the assignment would have been a very bad idea career-wise.
“Don’t be cheeky,” she answered, moving to a table at which a tea service for two had been set.
“Is it though?” I asked. “A problem?”
She made a dismissive noise and began pouring, inviting me with a wave of her spidery hand to sit across from her. “Of course not. Humanity is but a collection of random molecules interacting per the laws of mechanics. Melanin is a byproduct of that random interaction and skin-tone thus utterly without significance.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with that sentiment; history–indeed the present–taught us otherwise. But I bit my tongue and took the offered seat.
“Let’s move on then. From what you just said, I have to ask, were you a scientist of some sort, Ms. Sigurdson?”
“A scientist? Yes, I was, twice before actually.” She stared at me–or rather through me–as I tried to puzzle out her answer while jotting notes in my flip pad. Then she took a deep breath and put down her teacup, squaring her thin shoulders as though coming to some decision. “I mentioned your being black only because it put me in mind of a dark-skinned folk I once spent some time with in Britannia. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about that time over the past few days. And it’s rather fortuitous you showed up to speak to me today of all days, for I dare say you won’t have the chance to do so again.”
I looked up from my pad. “Are you unwell?”
She shook her head, seemed about to laugh, then became distracted again, glancing at the window as if waiting for something to appear within its frame, nevermind that we were on the building’s twelfth floor. I confess at this early stage of our meeting, I chalked these mannerisms up to senility or dementia, but the more she spoke, the more her bizarre tale unfolded, the more I came to the unsettling conclusion she was quite lucid.
I took a sip of tea. It had hints of peppermint, which I didn’t like, but I took another sip to be sociable. “You’ve been to England, then?”
“Well, it wasn’t yet England at the time.” She sighed. “I speak of past memories, past lives.”
The light dawned. “Oh, you believe in reincarnation. Like Shirley MacLaine. The Children’s Hour is my favorite of her movies.”
My comments earned me a withering look. “I assure you, young man, this has nothing to do with Hollywood or New Age crystals and dreamcatchers.”
“Of course not. Please, continue.” I decided then that the interview was getting fun. I thought, in my naïveté, that I could turn it into a tongue-in-cheek look at the very sort of New Age mysticism the woman claimed to disdain. I can only despair, now, at what a fool I was.
“Reincarnation,” she said, sucking at her teeth, tasting the word. “Yes, I suppose in a sense it is that. But at the same time it’s both much more and much less. Ideas such as karma and nirvana have no place in what I speak of, for there is no progression, no cause and effect, no change but for the superficial change of matter from one bodily host to the next. All humanity, all of its individual consciousnesses, you see, are but part of a great seething mass, a soupy vortex that exists outside of tangible reality but which feeds into and draws from the tangible when individual human bodies are born and die.
“At the moment of birth into a given body, a morsel of that human soup is tethered to a web, for lack of a better word, comprised of all the other human bodies then existing. These tether points reach forward so the newborn will in turn tether successive newborns, but the reverse is not true, meaning one’s birth does not tether in place those born at an earlier point. Throughout the body’s lifespan, those tethers do exactly what the word implies: anchor you, keep you part of the whole so you return to the soup and are not lost when the body dies and becomes corrupted.”
“I see,” I lied, scribbling with my pen. “And how do you…uh…know all this?”
“That gets us back to Britannia, as the ancient Romans referred to England. You see, in the year 75 AD, I was a military tribune named Gabinius, originally from Legio III Augusta on secondment to II Adiutrix, which was still stationed at Lindum before its later move to Deva.”
“That’s modern Lincoln and Chester, right?”
The old woman arched a thin eyebrow. “I see you know something of Roman history.”
“A bit. I was a classics and ancient history double major in college before I switched to journalism. Do go on.”
She nodded. “Well, my secondment was owing to my expertise on matters of the occult, having spent some time earlier in my career in Galatia among worshipers of Cybele and Attis, having acquainted myself with the orgiastic Dionysiac cult that persisted in Rome itself, and even having insinuated myself for a time among those Britanno-Romans who found themselves clinging to the then frowned-upon rites of Sylvanus Cocidius. I was sent to Lindum to look into reports of a furtive race of dark folk in the hills said to be engaged in abominable rites. I took this assignment most seriously, fearing an impending repetition of those disastrous events known to have happened nearly a hundred fifty years earlier on the eve of the kalends of November in the Pyrenees outside the town of Pompelo in Hispania Citerior.”
I stared at the woman in fascination, realizing I had forgotten to keep taking notes, so rapt had I become in her odd story. “What disastrous events were those?” I asked, forcing myself to put pen to paper again.
“An entire Roman cohort under the primipilus command of a provincial quaestor named Lucius Caelius Rufus vanished after having gone into the foothills to investigate ominous drumming and the glimmer of bonfires on the distant Pyrenees peaks.” The woman stopped and shuddered. “Had I known then what I know now, I’d have had a better idea what might have happened to that bygone cohort, and I never would have accepted my assignment in Lindum. But accept it I did, and in the end it was the very oddity I was sent to investigate that led to me being expelled from my command. I was never the same again after that last night in the cave…”
All at once she lurched in her seat, swinging her gaze back toward the window, eyes wide above trembling lips.
“The cave?” I asked after more than a minute had passed, hoping to draw her back.
She looked at me, blinked in surprise, and shook her head. “Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. As I said, there were stories of a dark folk, and the rumor trail eventually led me to where they were holed up. Some fifty miles inland from Lindum, there was a great limestone gorge peppered with caves and hidden grottoes beneath brooding cliffs, caves decorated with late Stone Age engravings and bas-reliefs made by Magdelanian humans, and littered with discarded Neanderthal tools.”
“These caves?” I asked. “They have something to do with your…awareness of–”
“My awareness is a trifle. A mere corner of the veil having been raised, but that glimpse alone has nearly been enough to unravel my mind once again, even removed as I am from Gabinius by geography and generations. The dark folk I found in those caves were–”
“Forgive me for interrupting again,” I said, “but when you say dark folk, what exactly do you mean?”
Ms. Sigurdson shook her head and gave a slight shrug. “I never did determine their origin. They spoke a language not unlike the Numidian tongue I’d encountered among many of the Roman army’s light cavalry units, but when and how they’d have found their way from North Africa to those caves? That’s a question I can’t answer. There were a score of them there when I found them, but they were merely self-appointed caretakers for other beings, a half dozen, which had been in the caves far longer. The Watchers, as I came to call this latter group, had been situated in the caves since time immemorial, watching the first creatures crawl on their bellies out of the primordial mud, watching Jurassic theropods then mammoths lumber their way through the gorge valley, and watching mankind rise in its hubris to think themselves masters of the world, of the very universe. But we are not masters. We are no more or less than amoebas or ferns or igneous rock. In truth, I don’t know what those beings watched for, but according to the dark caretakers, who I believe had come to worship them as something like gods, their vigil was unending, and they never moved an inch from their vantage points.”
“These Watchers?” I shook my head, growing lost. “They were…people?”
She laughed. “No. I can’t say, really, what they were. To my limited human vision they resembled something more like lumps of melted wax, perhaps three feet tall, of indeterminate hue. Each dripping mound contained but one other feature, a sort of compound eye, sparkling and iridescent like dragonfly eyes. Never blinking. Always watching. I spent long weeks, perhaps it was months, sitting alongside those Watchers, keeping vigil with them, watching the sun chase the mists from the limestone canyon by day and the more distant stars dance overhead by night. I did not know then but came to realize their lumpish, wide-eyed form was but the merest tip of a far greater, less visible whole. Together, those six forms were a sort of probe, pushed into our world through a bending of the cosmos.”
“How did you come to determine that?” I asked, reaching for my teacup and sipping before I remembered the peppermint.
“One night, my last night in those caves, the lumps all at once began to vibrate, their eyes to glow. I looked out from the cave mouth upon the starry night, and…and…I know not how else to describe it but to say the sky itself appeared to blink. Stars disappeared and reappeared as though a great eyelid or nictitating membrane the size of all the heavens masked and then revealed the celestial cornea.
“Then the waxen Watchers liquified, the liquid almost instantly vaporizing into a fine mist that settled into each shining compound eye. The eyes themselves were sucked up into the sky as if at the ends of elastic ribbons retracting back into what I saw was a great host of almost infinitely large entities so far away the distance could not have been measured in a way our mortal brains could understand. They rejoined these entities outside space, outside time, outside reality. But…and this is what I think drove me mad that night in the cave…they were getting closer. Ever closer.”
She stopped speaking, distracted, and looked around the room in growing agitation. With a visible effort, she gathered herself, shook her head to clear it, and pressed on with the tale’s conclusion.
“Seeing their gods leaving them, their purpose taken from them, the dark caretakers acted as if with a single mind, each man slitting his own throat with a flint dagger, perhaps hoping to rejoin the Watchers somewhere beyond death’s veil. I myself lunged toward the last of those lumpish probes, reaching for it even as it vaporized but managing only to catch a tiny puff of its essence as it vanished. I breathed in that essence so my lungs burned, and that tiny bit was enough to leave a permanent taint upon my being. The essence has permeated my existence across all the human bodies I’ve inhabited across all the ages before and since. It was a bit of themselves, a bit those far-off entities have ever since been trying to get back.”
“My God!” I breathed, putting down my teacup but missing the saucer so that I spilled my tea across the doily-covered table.
“God has nothing to do with it,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper now. “And yet I have cried out to God more times than I can say, begging for an end to my suffering. As Gabinius, I spent the rest of my days crying out to whatever pagan gods might be listening, crying for relief from the madness that grew ever greater within me after the night the skies opened up. Throughout the ages, and more so now than ever before, here in this life, I have been plagued by the sound…by the motion…of those nearing entities, plagued by the hidden knowledge to which the Watchers’ essence made me privy, plagued by the molecular noise of my own frightened amygdala flooding my body with chemical chatter…”
She rose, gripped my forearms in her bony hands, nails like a raptor’s digging into my flesh.
“For don’t you see,” she hissed, “those tethers I spoke of–my fellow humans–were ever what kept the distant entities from stealing me away to take back what I stole from them when I inhaled the Watchers. But now…well, Atropos has been busy with her abhorred shears, and in this life, having outlived all who came before, I am wholly untethered from my birth web. There is nothing to stop those beings from returning now to claim me. In fact…”
She stopped, her eyes went wide, and she laughed.
“What?” I struggled to free myself from her grip. “What is it?”
Her silvery gaze locked with mine, and she said in a voice not quite her own, “Sedibus ut saltem placidis in morte quiescam.”
In the next moment, reality unfolded around me.
First came a screeching note, as of feedback from an electric guitar.
The outer wall vanished alongside us, and I stared into a void, into something my eyes could not convince my brain to see.
One by one, the Watchers appeared in a tight circle around our table, melting into existence as if they were indeed wax that hardened as it dripped. Ms. Sigurdson released me, staggering back a step, and it was my turn to grab for her, to pull her toward the door. “Come on! We have to get out of here!”
But even as my fingers touched her, she liquified, retaining her shape for the space of a heartbeat before shrinking up into herself, her mouth forming an O that became the center of a tiny maelstrom as the liquid swirled and vanished into the opening with a final burst of scarlet gas that enveloped me in its miasma. The Watchers, too, began popping out of existence all around me, and as I bent over, choking on their stench, I felt my mind’s eye expanding, understanding fully what the old woman had been trying to explain–the nature of humanity, our insignificant place in the cosmos, the universe and that which dwells beyond it. I watched the Watchers vanish with Ms. Sigurdson back into the outer reaches from whence they had come. There was a sweeping motion as if, indeed, a great eye had blinked across the heavens. The wall reappeared, and I was alone in silence.
I doubled over, retching against the burning ache in my lungs.
At least, that is how I remember it, but it was many years ago now.
As I retched, I think I sought to expel the essence, but I know it’s still in me–a great deal–more perhaps than even Ms. Sigurdson had taken in as Gabinius, for I see more…know more…than she’d come to know after all her accumulated lifetimes.
Those beings–those infinitely large beings of which the Watchers were but an astrally projected protuberance–are not done with us. They are coming. Have been coming from before the dawn of time.
Great hordes, undulating, flapping, gyrating their way closer.
Their trek might be long, aeons long, from the limited human perspective, but at the same time it might only last a mere fraction of an instant. It might already be over, their destination reached before they set out, for their movement is unconstrained by either Newtonian mechanics or quantum physics. They may arrive yesterday or five billion years ago, eating the universe before ever our own Earth accreted from the solar nebula.
Whatever the hour, the feast is set.
On the day I met Ms. Sigurdson, I was a callow youth, still laboring under the misapprehension that my words–the written word itself–could change the world…that there were things in the compass of human experience that mattered in some way. Now I write only as an emetic, to purge my thoughts lest they overwhelm me.
Oh, good, the orderlies are coming to give me their pills.
The pills won’t erase my knowledge or change the inevitable, but for a time, much as my putting pen to paper distracts me, the pills put me into a dreamless, thoughtless state affording respite.
I only hope the feast takes place before this next dose wears off…that reality ends while my brain is gone fishin’.
I don’t want to be there to see it.
Christopher M. Cevasco’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Space and Time, and the Prime Books anthologies, Zombies: Shambling Through The Ages and Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War, among many other venues. Chris is a 2006 Clarion workshop graduate, and a 2007 Taos Toolbox graduate. He was also the editor/publisher of the award-winning Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction from 2003 through 2009. Chris writes in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and their two young children. For more about Chris, visit: www.christophermcevasco.com
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Story illustration by Jonathan Price.