Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

An Invocation of Incuriosity

An Invocation of Incuriosity by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Hillary Pearlman)

There are flea markets all across Florida, and this was not the worst of them. It had once been an aircraft hangar, but the local airport had closed. There were a hundred traders there, behind their metal tables, most of them selling counterfeit merchandise: sunglasses or watches or bags or belts. There was an African family selling carved wooden animals, and behind them a loud, blowsy woman named (I cannot forget the name) Charity Parrot sold coverless paperback books, and old pulp magazines, the paper browned and crumbling, and beside her, in the corner, a Mexican woman whose name I never knew sold film posters and curling film stills.

I bought books from Charity Parrot, sometimes.

Soon enough the woman with the film posters went away and was replaced by a small man in sunglasses, his grey tablecloth spread over the metal table and covered with small carvings. I stopped and examined them—a strange set of creatures, made of grey bone and stone and dark wood—and then I examined him. I wondered if he had been in a ghastly accident, the kind it takes plastic surgery to repair: his face was wrong, the way it sloped, the shape of it. His skin was too pale. His dark hair looked like it had to be a wig, made, perhaps, of dog-fur. His glasses were so dark as to hide his eyes completely. He did not look in any way out of place in a Florida flea market: The tables were all manned by strange people, and strange people shopped there.

I bought nothing from him.

The next time I was there Charity Parrot had, in her turn, moved on, her place taken by an Indian family who sold hookahs and smoking paraphernalia, but the little man in the dark glasses was still in his corner at the back of the flea market, with his grey cloth. On it were more carvings of creatures.

“I do not recognise any of these animals,” I told him.

“No.”

“Do you make them yourself?”

He shook his head. You cannot ask anyone in a flea market where they get their stuff from. There are few things that are taboo in a flea market, but that is: Sources are inviolate.

“Do you sell a lot?”

“Enough to feed myself,” he said. “Keep a roof over my head.” Then, “They are worth more than I ask for them.”

I picked up something that reminded me a little of what a deer might look like if deer were carnivorous, and said, “What is this?”

He glanced down. “I think it is a primitive thawn. It’s hard to tell.” And then, “It was my father’s.”

There was a chiming noise, then, to signal that soon enough the flea market would close.

“Would you like food?” I asked.

He looked at me, warily.

“My treat,” I said. “No obligations. There’s a Denny’s over the road. Or there’s the bar.”

He thought for a moment. “Denny’s will be fine,” he said. “I will meet you over there.”

I waited at Denny’s. After half an hour I no longer expected him to come, but he surprised me, and he arrived fifty minutes after I got there, carrying a brown leather bag tied to his wrist with a long piece of twine. I imagined it had to contain money, for it hung as if empty, and could not have held his stock. Soon enough he was eating his way through a plate piled with pancakes, and, over coffee, he began to talk.

 

***

The sun began to go out a little after midday. A flicker, first, and then a rapid darkening that began on one side of the sun and then crept across its crimson face until the sun went black, like a coal knocked from a fire, and night returned to the world.

Balthasar the Tardy hurried down from the hill, leaving his nets in the trees, uninspected and unemptied. He uttered no words, conserving his breath, moving as fast as befitted his remarkable bulk, until he reached the bottom of the hill and the front door of his one-room cottage.

“Oaf! It is time!” he called. Then he knelt and lit a fish-oil lamp, which sputtered and stank and burned with a fitful orange flame.

The door of the cottage opened and Balthasar’s son emerged. The son was a little taller than his father, and much thinner, and was beardless. The youth had been named after his grandfather, and while his grandfather had lived the boy had been known as Farfal the Younger; now he was referred to, even to his face, as Farfal the Unfortunate. If he brought home a laying-fowl it would cease to give eggs, if he took an axe to a tree it would fall in a place that would cause the greatest inconvenience and the least possible good; if he found a trove of ancient treasure, half-buried in a locked box at the edge of a field, the key to the box would break off as he turned it, leaving only a faint echo of song on the air, as if of a distant choir, and the box would dissolve to sand. Young women upon whom he fastened his affections would fall in love with other men, or be transformed into grues or carried off by deodands. It was the way of things.

“Sun’s gone out,” said Balthasar the Tardy to his son.

Farfal said, “So this is it, then. This is the end.”

It was chillier, now the sun had gone out.

Balthasar said only, “It soon will be. We have only a handful of minutes left. It is well that I have made provision for this day.” He held the fish-oil lamp up high, and walked back into the cottage.

Farfal followed his father into the tiny dwelling, which consisted of one large room and, at the far end of the dwelling, a locked door. It was to this door that Balthasar walked. He put down the lamp in front of it, took a key from around his neck and unlocked the door.

Farfal’s mouth fell open.

He said only, “The colours.” Then, “I dare not go through.”

“Idiot boy,” said his father. “Go through, and tread carefully as you do.” And then, when Farfal made no move to walk, his father pushed him through the door, and closed it behind them.

Farfal stood there, blinking at the unaccustomed light.

“As you apprehend,” said his father, resting his hands on his capacious stomach and surveying the room they found themselves in, “this room does not exist temporally in the world you know. It exists, instead, over a million years before our time, in the days of the last Remoran Empire, a period marked by the excellence of its lute music, its fine cuisine, and also the beauty and compliance of its slave class.”

Farfal rubbed his eyes, and then looked at the wooden casement standing in the middle of the room, a casement through which they had just walked, as if it were a door. “I begin to perceive,” he said, “why it is that you were so often unavailable. For it seems to me that I have seen you walk through that door into this room many times and never wondered about it, merely resigned myself to the time that would pass until you returned.”

Balthasar the Tardy began then to remove his clothes of dark sacking until he was naked, a fat man with a long white beard and cropped white hair, and then to cover himself with brightly-coloured silken robes.

“The sun!” exclaimed Farfal, peering out of the room’s small window. “Look at it! It is the orange-red of a fresh-stirred fire! Feel the heat it gives!” And then he said, “Father. Why has it never occurred to me to ask you why you spent so much time in the second room of our one-room cottage? Nor to remark upon the existence of such a room, even to myself?”

Balthasar twisted the last of the fastenings, covering his capacious stomach with a silken covering that crawled with embroideries of elegant monsters. “That might,” he admitted, “have been due in part to Empusa’s Invocation of Incuriosity.” He produced a small black box from around his neck, barely large enough to hold a beetle. “This, when properly primed and invoked, keeps us from being remarked upon. Just as you were not able to wonder at my comings and goings, so neither do the folk in this time and place marvel at me, nor at anything I do that is in any wise contrary to the mores and customs of the Eighteenth and Last Greater Ramoran Empire.”

“Astonishing,” said Farfal.

“It matters not that the Sun has gone out, that in a matter of hours, or at most weeks, all life on Earth will be dead, for here and at this time I am Balthasar the Canny, merchant to the sky-ships, dealer in antiquities, magical objects, and marvels—and here you, my son, will stay. You will be, to all who wonder about your provenance, simply and purely my servant.”

“Your servant?” said Farfal the Unfortunate. “Why can I not be your son?”

“For various reasons,” stated his father, “too trivial and minor even to warrant discussion at this this time.” He hung the black box from a nail in the corner of the room. Farfal thought he saw a leg or head, as if of some beetle-like creature, waving from inside the little box, but he did not pause to inspect it. “Also because I have a number of sons in this time, that I have fathered upon my concubines, and they might not be pleased to learn of another. Although, given the disparity in the dates of your birth, it would be over a million years before you could inherit any wealth.”

“There is wealth?” asked Farfal, looking at the room he was in with fresh eyes. He had spent his life in a one-roomed cottage at the end of time, at the bottom of a small hill, surviving on the food his father could net in the air—usually only seabirds or flying lizards, although on occasion other things had been caught in them: creatures who claimed to be angels, or great self-important cockroach-like creatures with high metal crowns, or huge bronze-coloured jellies. They would be taken from the netting, and then either thrown back into the air, or eaten, or traded with the few folk that passed that way.

His father smirked and stroked his impressive white beard like a man petting an animal. “Wealth indeed,” he said. “There is much call in these times for pebbles and small rocks from the End of the Earth: There are spells, cantrips and magical instruments for which they are almost irreplaceable. And I deal in such things.”

Farfal the Unfortunate nodded. “And if I do not wish to be a servant,” he said, “but simply request to be returned to where we came from, through that casement, why, what then?”

Balthasar the Tardy said only, “I have little patience for such questions. The sun has gone out. In hours, perhaps minutes, the world will have ended. Perhaps the universe also has ended. Think no more on these matters. Instead, I shall procure a locking-spell-creature for the casement, down at the ship-market. And while I go to do that, you can order and polish all the objects you can see in this cabinet, taking care not to put your fingers directly upon the green flute (for it will give you music, but replace contentment in your soul with an insatiable longing) nor get the onyx bogadil wet.” He patted his son’s hand affectionately, a glorious, resplendent creature in his many-coloured silks. “I have spared you from death, my boy,” he said. “I have brought you back in time to a new life. What should it matter that in this life you are not son but servant? Life is life, and it is infinitely better than the alternative, or so we presume, for nobody returns to dispute it. Such is my motto.”

So saying he fumbled beneath the casement, and produced a grey rag, which he handed to Farfal. “Here. To work! Do a good job and I shall show you by how much the sumptuous feasts of antiquity are an improvement over smoked sea-bird and pickled ossaker-root. Do not, under any circumstances or provocation, move the casement. Its position is precisely calibrated. Move it, and it could open to anywhere.”

He covered the casement with a piece of woven cloth, which made it less remarkable that a large wooden casement was standing, unsupported, in the centre of a room.

Balthasar the Tardy left that room through a door that Farfal had not previously observed. Bolts were slammed closed. Farfal picked up his rag, and began, wanly, to dust and to polish.

After several hours he observed a light coming through the casement, so brightly as to penetrate the cloth covering, but it soon faded once more.

Farfal was introduced to the household of Balthasar the Canny as a new servant. He observed Balthasar’s five sons and his seven concubines (although he was not permitted to speak to them), was introduced to the House-Carl, who held the keys, and the maidmen who hurried and scurried thence and hither at the House-Carl’s command, and than whom there was nothing lower in that place, save for Farfal himself.

The maidmen resented Farfal, with his pale skin, for he was the only one apart from their master permitted in the Sanctum Sanctorum, Master Balthasar’s room of wonders, a place to which Master Balthasar had hitherto only repaired alone.

And so the days went by, and the weeks, and Farfal ceased to marvel at the bright orange-red sun, so huge and remarkable, or at the colours of the daytime sky (predominantly salmon and mauve), or at the ships that would arrive in the ship-market from distant worlds bearing their cargo of wonders.

Farfal was miserable, even when surrounded by marvels, even in a forgotten age, even in a world filled with miracles. He said as much to Balthasar the next time the merchant came in the door to the sanctum. “This is unfair.”

“Unfair?”

“That I clean and polish the wonders and precious things, while you and your other sons attend feasts and parties and banquets and meet people and otherwise and altogether enjoy living here at the dawn of time.”

Balthasar said, “The youngest son may not always enjoy the privileges of his elder brothers, and they are all older than you.”

“The red-haired one is but fifteen, the dark-skinned one is fourteen, the twins are no more than twelve, while I am a man of seventeen years . . .”

“They are older than you by more than a million years,” said his father. “I will hear no more of this nonsense.”

Farfal the Unfortunate bit his lower lip to keep from replying.

It was at that moment that there was a commotion in the courtyard, as if a great door had been broken open, and the cries of animals and house-birds arose. Farfal ran to the tiny window and looked out. “There are men,” he said. “I can see the light glinting on their weapons.”

His father seemed unsurprised. “Of course,” he said. “Now, I have a task for you Farfal. Due to some erroneous optimism on my part, we are almost out of the stones upon which my wealth is founded, and I have the indignity of discovering myself to be overcommitted at present. Thus it is necessary for you and I to return to our old home and gather what we can. It will be safer if there are two of us. And time is of the essence.”

“I will help you,” said Farfal, “if you will agree to treat me better in the future.”

From the courtyard there came a cry. “Balthasar? Wretch! Cheat! Liar! Where are my thirty stones?” The voice was deep and penetrating.

“I shall treat you much better in the future,” said his father. “I swear it.” He walked to the casement, pulled off the cloth. There was no light to be seen through it, nothing inside the wooden casing but a deep and formless blackness.

“Perhaps the world has entirely ended,” said Farfal, “and now there is nothing but nothing.”

“Only a handful of seconds have passed there since we came through it,” his father told him. “That is the nature of time. It flows faster when it is younger and the course is narrower: At the end of all things time has spread and slowed, like oil spilled on a still pond.”

Then he removed the sluggish spell-creature he had placed on the casement as a lock, and he pushed against the inner casing, which opened slowly. A chill wind came through it, which made Farfal shiver. “You send us to our deaths, father,” he said.

“We all go to our deaths,” said his father. “And yet, here you are, a million years before your birth, still alive. Truly we are all composed of miracles. Now, son, here is a bag, which, as you will soon discover, has been imbued with Swann’s Imbuement of Remarkable Capacity, and will hold all that you place inside it, regardless of weight or mass or volume. When we get there, you must take as many stones as you can and place them in the bag. I myself will run up the hill to the nets and check them for treasures—or for things that would be regarded as treasures if I were to bring them back to the now and the here.”

“Do I go first?” asked Farfal, clutching the bag.

“Of course.”

“It’s so cold.”

In reply his father prodded him in the back with a hard finger. Farfal clambered, grumbling, through the casement, and his father followed.

“This is too bad,” said Farfal. They walked out of the cottage at the end of time and Farfal bent to pick up pebbles. He placed the first in the bag, where it glinted greenly. He picked up another. The sky was dark but it seemed as if something filled the sky, something without shape.

There was a flash of something not unlike lightning, and in it he could see his father hauling in nets from the trees at the top of the hill.

A crackling. The nets flamed and were gone. Balthasar ran down the hill gracelessly and breathlessly. He pointed at the sky. “It is Nothing!” he said. “Nothing has swallowed the hilltop. Nothing has taken over.”

There was a powerful wind then, and Farfal watched his father crackle, and then raise into the air, and then vanish. He backed away from the Nothing, a darkness within the darkness with tiny lightnings playing at its edges, and then he turned and ran, into the house, and through the door into the second room. But he did not go through into the second room. He stood there in the doorway, and then turned back to the Dying Earth. Farfal the Unfortunate watched as the Nothing took the outer walls and the distant hills and the skies, and then he watched, unblinking as Nothing swallowed the cold sun, watched until there was nothing left but a dark formlessness that pulled at him, as if restless to be done with it all.

Only then did Farfal walk into the inner room in the cottage, into his father’s inner sanctum a million years before.

A bang on the outer door.

“Balthasar?” It was the voice from the courtyard. “I gave you the day you begged for, wretch. Now give me my thirty stones. Give me my stones or I shall be as good as my word—your sons will be taken off-world, to labour in the Bdellium Mines of Telb, and the women shall be set to work as musicians in the pleasure palace of Luthius Limn, where they will have the honour of making sweet music while I, Luthius Limn, dance and sing and make passionate and athletic love to my catamites. I shall not waste breath in describing the fate I would have in store for your servants. Your spell of hiding is futile, for see, I have found this room with relative ease. Now, give me my thirty stones before I open the door and render down your obese frame for fat and throw your bones to the dogs and the deodands.”

Farfal trembled with fear. Time, he thought. I need Time. He made his voice as deep as he could, and he called out, “One moment, Luthius Limn. I am engaged in a complex magical operation to purge your stones of their negative energies. If I am disturbed in this, the consequences will be catastrophic.”

Farfal glanced around the room. The only window was too small to permit him to climb out, while the room’s only door had Luthius Limn on the other side of it. “Unfortunate indeed,” he sighed. Then he took the bag his father had given to him and swept into it all the trinkets, oddments and gewgaws he could reach, still taking care not to touch the green flute with his bare flesh. They vanished into the bag, which weighed no more and seemed no more full than it had ever done.

He stared at the casement in the centre of the room. The only way out, and it led to Nothing, to the end of everything.

“Enough!” came the voice from beyond the door. “My patience is at an end, Balthasar. My cooks shall fry your internal organs tonight.” There came a loud crunching against the door, as if of something hard and heavy being slammed against it.

Then there was a scream, and then silence.

Luthius Limn’s voice: “Is he dead?”

Another voice—Farfal thought it sounded like one of his half-brothers—said, “I suspect that the door is magically protected and warded.”

“Then,” boomed Luthius Limn, decisively, “we shall go through the wall.”

Farfal was unfortunate, but not stupid. He lifted down the black lacquer box from the nail upon which his father had hung it. He heard something scuttle and move inside it.

“My father told me not to move the casement,” he said to himself. Then he put his shoulder against it and heaved violently, pushing the heavy thing almost half an inch. The darkness that filled the casement began to change, and it filled with a pearl-grey light.

He hung the box about his neck. “It is good enough,” said Farfal the Unfortunate, and, as something slammed against the wall of the room he took a strip of cloth and tied the bag that contained all the remaining treasures of Balthasar the Canny about his left wrist, and he pushed himself through.

And there was light, so bright that he closed his eyes, and walked through the casement.

Farfal began to fall.

He flailed in the air, eyes tightly closed against the blinding light, felt the wind whip past him.

Something smacked and engulfed him: water, brackish, warm, and Farfal floundered, too surprised to breathe. Then he surfaced, his head breaking water, and he gulped air. And then he pushed himself through the water, until his hands grasped some kind of plant, and he pulled himself, on hands and feet, out of the green water, and up onto a spongy dry land, trailing and trickling water as he went.

 

***

“The light,” said the man at Denny’s. “The light was blinding. And the sun was not yet up. But I obtained these,” he tapped the frame of his sunglasses, “and I stay out of the sunlight, so my skin does not burn too badly.”

“And now?” I asked.

“I sell the carvings,” he said. “And I seek another casement.”

“You want to go back to your own time?”

He shook his head. “It’s dead,” he said. “And all I knew, and everything like me. It’s dead. I will not return to the darkness at the end of time.”

“What then?”

He scratched at his neck. Through the opening is his shirt I could see a small, black box, hanging about his neck, no bigger than a locket, and inside the box something moved: a beetle, I thought. But there are big beetles in Florida. They are not uncommon.

“I want to go back to the beginning,” he said. “When it started. I want to stand there in the light of the universe waking to itself, the dawn of everything. If I am going to blinded, let it be by that. I want to be there when the suns are a-borning. This ancient light is not bright enough for me.”

He took the napkin in his hand then, and reached into the leather bag with it. Taking care to touch it only through the cloth, he pulled out a flute-like instrument, about a foot long, made of green jade or something similar, and placed it on the table in front of me. “For the food,” he said. “A thank you.”

He got up, then, and walked away, and I sat and stared at the green flute for so long a time; eventually I reached out and felt the coldness of it with my fingertips, and then gently, without daring to blow, or to try to make music from the end of time, I touched the mouthpiece to my lips.

© 2009 by Neil Gaiman.
Originally published in Songs
of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance,
Edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanNeil Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was published in June 2013. His previous novel, the international bestseller The Graveyard Book, won the prestigious Newbery and Carnegie medals, the first author to win both for the same book. Other novels include American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, Neverwhere, and Anansi Boys, among many others. In addition to his novel writing, Gaiman also created and scripted the popular comic book series Sandman. Most of Gaiman’s short work has been collected in the volumes Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and M is for Magic. He is the winner of four Hugos, two Nebulas, four Stokers, the Carnegie Medal, the World Fantasy Award, and seventeen Locus Awards, among many other honors.