MOOT AND THE MAD PREACHER
Hmmm. I'm rather thinking I know why I abandoned this novel, Moot and the Mad Preacher. I got about 30,000 words into it and just...stopped. Back in 1996-97, I think. Possibly 1995. Just found the file on my computer. Thought I only had the hardcopy.
Anyway, this is probably self-indulgent, but here's the first chapter. Particularly love the dialect from the grandmother, and that thar "last sweaty thrusts". Eew.
Once, there lived a mortician's daughter who was lost amid the bones of a desert city so old that it barely remembered its name. Her name was Moot and her story happened a long time ago, in a land so far away even its outermost boundaries are only a dream in the minds of lovers poised on the cusp of sleep.
For centuries this land lay across the back of a beast that none had ever seen, for it slept buried beneath grass and earth, rivers and mountains. Among those who knew the Beast existed, or who worshipped it as oracle in places both profane and doubly forgotten, there was much discourse as to its nature. Was it serpentine? Was it crocodilian? Did it share the guise of bear or of leopard, fish or fowl? Was it perhaps a land whale beached forever in the nautilus coils of its own centuries old memory?
But one night, after so many years of sleep, the Beast woke, and in its throes of waking displaced the world, displaced the city, displaced all questions of its appearance, for that night it had no single appearance, but was the sum of all appearances, here deadly and swift, there slow and merciful as the earth shifted and swallowed whole and spit up and bellowed like a lost, hurtful soul. What did it dream? What did it dream as it rose from sleep, and rising fell? What could it be dreaming but the gleaming white premonition of its own death?
And so it awoke, and in the waking, died.
Then came the years of flesh, the years of bone, and the years of reclamation. Then came Moot, born the night the Beast died.
Moot she was, if not truly mute or beside the point: shags of long, black hair, spindly limbs with no flesh on them, and violet tinged eyes that, by accident or design, pierced anyone who gazed into them; a gaze that caught everything and let nothing out. Pale of skin, with the quick darting movements more common to geckos. She wore rags she had sewn together, so that she resembled a colorful patchwork shadow woven from faded sunsets, wine stains, and the reflections of moonlight on amber glass. A waif, then, fashioned from the last sweaty thrusts of failed relationships, lusts so utterly quenched as to leave her thus fatherless, motherless, alone.
Moot worked for the Can Man, a junkmeister who ruled a twilit world of nostalgia and lost glories and sold parts of that world, broken and whole, to any who could afford his price. The Can Man "can get you anything" and he had gotten Moot a small room on the second floor of his headquarters: a squat, fort like building that enclosed a courtyard. The room's only window looked out on the Cathedral of Soul Voices: a distant spar of bone which rose from near the city's center and functioned as a watchtower, an ingenious architect having hollowed out the bone and added the support of wooden construction beams so that it resembled an inverted harp. When the wind came out of the west or the east, then the windows placed at odd intervals on the Cathedral's lacquered sides played a strange and sighing music. Beyond the tower rose the gaunt hills where the remnants of aristocracy peered down from the rotting palaces known as the Mansions of the Moon, the glassless windows seemingly painted black.
If Moot looked down, she could see Martel Street, the thoroughfare on which the building faced, but she did not look down often. She liked to focus on the tower, marveling at its intricacy, its sheer beauty compared with the squalor of the world below.
Martel Street cracked, dirty, with its cadre of pale skinned orphans (amongst whom the Can Man recruited vigorously) resembled the city in the days after the Beast's death sixteen years before. Whereas the rest of the city, with its white and gray streets, its calm and curving lines, might resemble a graveyard for its paucity of citizens, Martel Street crawled with waifs, those whom the Beast had disenfranchised, either at its death or in the horrific years following. Crowded with phalanxes of ragged, mangy chickens and goats as well. Even the weaseling merchants who carried their livelihoods on their backs would not traverse Martel Street: a shrug, a grunt, a staggered walk, and they might call out, the litany intended for anywhere but Martel Street: "Spices! Spices! Pots! Pans! The finest glasswork! Spices!" All to the vast indifference of Moat’s fellow stragglers, most too poor to afford anything as luxurious as a pot, a pan, a hand-blown glass. Spices? They spiced themselves with the odor of a week without baths, could hardly afford the cold dried mutton slung across the backs of shepherds come down from the parched hills.
And yet, despite her small room, despite the surrounding squalor, Moot never quite forgot that she lived within the hollow bones of a Beast so large its sleeping breath had sent storms across the world. Her eyes would grow bright as she thought how marvelous it was, to be alive in such a place. Other times, she had nightmares that she could hear the Beast breathing still, slow and sonorous and ancient, that it had not truly died but had taken on new and more subtle shapes. In these dreams, she followed the sound enraptured, content to bask in the depths of its hollow echo; followed though it led her down into the earth, so deep that she could no longer even conceive of the concept of a world above and came to believe that the light behind her eyes, memory of the sun, was only the light ahead pulsing from the molten core of the Beast.
Moot at sixteen could have no real memory of a beast dead upon her birth, but her late Aunt Jemsue passed away a year to the day the mad claptrap, rattling skull preacher entered the city had told her stories by torchlight. The Can Man had paid for the funeral and the ceremony by the Servants of the Beast, who had passed a long black shawl over her and taken her away to the vertical tombs that surrounded the base of the Cathedral of Soul Voices.
In the same room she now occupied alone, surrounded by all of Aunt Jemsue's things, Moot had curled up on the old woman's lap and listened to her as she watched the flames of the fire in the clay pot.
Aunt Jemsue was never really her aunt she had only scraps of knowledge about any of her relatives but the Can Man had employed her to raise those girls among the orphans he picked off the street, and of all the girls, Aunt Jemsue liked Moot best; how else to explain that early on Aunt Jemsue moved into Moot's little apartment? Poor as Aunt Jemsue was, feeble as she was, Moot loved her dearly and felt safe enfolded in her arms. Upon her death, Moot had cried and cried, her nights enfolded in intensified nightmares of a resurrected Beast.
"Shivery shuddery death," Aunt Jemsue would intone gravely. "Shivery shuddery death, wi' a great `rackin' sound as th' Beast rose in its death throes. I tell you, child, the city, it moved li' a hun'red earthquakes. Like we was at sea and floatin' on the surface. A scream in a hun'red thousand voices rise from the peoples in their houses an' in their beds an' on the streets, for they knew “They knew the doom foretol' by the prophets of the House o' the Beast had come to pass: the Beast, after more years than co' be `called, sought finally to wake, only then ta die."
Aunt Jemsue had had the slight, clipped lilt to her speech that was common to the folk of the sands, commonly known as the Glassblowers, who tended to their kilns and were such a tightlipped people that it was a marvel to Moot every time Jemsue opened her mouth.
"And my father?" Moot would ask by rote.
"A mortician, a funeral monger, a coffin builder. Lost, me poor child, in th' night, an' his body never `covered."
"And my mother?"
"A brave soul who gives you life amid th' Beastie's death an' then passed on, `er work done. She work for the Can Man an' that's how `e gave you a place `ere."
Then it would be off to bed.
Other times, Aunt Jemsue would scold Moot for having missed the Beast's death.
For Moot had lived unawares through the first year after the Beast's death. The Year of Blood they called it, when rivers of the Beast's ichors clotted the streets and, yes, the city's denizens feasted on the flesh of the Beast, but also in that year, the flesh rotted and brought ten million flies and ten million scavengers from the wastelands beyond the Mansions of the Moon. Families would struggle out into those wastes rather than stay and be poisoned by the gases that rose from the poisoned flesh. In the wastes at least the winds blew stronger. (Although the Can Man, it must be pointed out, had hove to his underground hidey away, well provisioned with supplies to outlast the end of the world, and the end of the next, as well.) The trees and grass in the city, the topsoil the Beast had carried upon its back, wherever that back might have been, had blown away, had been flattened or tossed to one side in the Beast's death throes. Everywhere, enormous bones ragged with flesh stuck up, through streets and doorways and courtyards. The wells that fed from the underground reservoirs were poisoned by the Beast's decay so that the citizens had to reply on the infrequent rainfall.
And when the rains came, they were rains of black blood. And the birds flew away. And the livestock died or ran, panicked, into the wastes. And the courses of the underground rivers had changed, dammed up or diverted so that the fields outside the city no longer sprouted with sweet corn or cabbage.
Nor, Aunt Jemsue would point out, had Moot any remembrance of the second year, the Year of Famine and Bone, when all the meat had rotted away to withered strips or become pustulent and corrupt. Then even the intrepid merchants who had made their way from the nearest cities, Callay and Ithagenia, in the year following the Beast's death would not come again to the nameless city (which surprised many, for it was said, only Death could stop a merchant from selling his wares, even `twere it in the bowels of the Beast itself; many the wag was heard to wager that such bowels was the best place for `em). Then were played out against a backdrop of carrion a thousand tales of desolation and chaos and madness. They city sunk so far into poverty and lawlessness that what little government remained became unhinged itself and people stole what they needed without care for anyone, except, perhaps, to live off the flesh of their neighbors.
"No, Moot," Aunt Jemsue would say, "You was three in th' Year of Rain an' Calm, an' that calm's all you `member, fer all its coarseness. Then's when the heavy rains come fer weeks an' months an' set the desert to bloom an washed the bones of Beast an' man alike clean an drove off them scavengers an brought the toads in the sands from their deep sleep. Sanity, Moot. Sanity, it come crawlin' back into th' city. `Member that clear, Moot, clear as yer clean, pale face. People'd come out o' th' wastes an' walk back into their broken homes, their faces like questionin' masks: Where I been? Why'd I go? Returnin' out of a land o' nightmare. Be thankful you only `member the calm."
A peck on the cheek, dimming of the fire, and sleep.
Sometimes, with Aunt Jemsue snoring, Moot would shiver in the grip of memory and wake to an emptiness that could not be filled with rice or apples or pears or even mutton. For, despite all her kindnesses, Aunt Jemsue could not tell her more about her parents, nor could Moot bring herself to ask the Can Man, afraid both of the Can Man and the tale he might have to tell: a tale of abandonment or death, or both.
Where might her father and mother be now if not in the grave?