Witch of Newdath
Written by Rand Burgess
First week in Newdath and standing in line at the Mini-Discount. I can afford two bowls of instant noodles, I have change for three, but tax here is unnatural. This guy, something particularly broken in his bobble-eyed stare, keeps cutting in front of me and asking about a Briny’s Brand canned fish that was in a few days ago. He smells like burning rope and peppermint. It’s dark by the time I get home. One noodle bowel survives the trip.
My apartment complex is broken like the stare of cats stacked the lobby, but unlike them, I am free to leave my cage whenever I want. What isn’t covered in school text is smothered in budding rot. Floor above mine is the building’s stomach, and leaks are constant and putrid, which rent reflects. You can’t really see what counts as a cot or the portable closet under the sea of tarps, but they are there and usually dry. There is a washroom down the hall that reeks of cherry brine, and is a quarter to get into, so I tend to use the ones on campus. Surprisingly the water from what consists of my half-kitchenette is drinkable, and I can even see the Citadel out the window beyond the tap, which becomes a mammoth hydra in the blistery hours of morning.
I have to take the rail to class and thankfully it’s free for student-workers but the university line is always heated, even in the dead of spring. It is always the same attendant that rips my ticket at the U-line booth, that’s what we call it, the U-line, and then I’m shoved through all the sniffers and prodders and floppers that root out the Thulians. On the docks I work with them, the Thulians, and their not bad, just hung up on dislocation and ugly. Some of them have that cat stare, like they can still see Kadath trying to break through behind me. Maybe they can, but that really isn’t any of my business.
At university I’m taking artificial classes, ones which mean nothing in your area of study, the basics of not looking like a complete hack when it came time to do something other than busy work. The campus is nice, open air, caged study areas, extensive focus departments, and almost death-match style competition among certain course studies. I’ve heard criminal tales about the deep-space fauna department, second only to the relic fabricationist, whom I’ve witnessed dueling on and off campus to reduce competition for scholarships. Sometimes I wonder why I was transferred, or how, considering the non-existence of my department faculty members. At least the washrooms are clean and they have a microwave I can use to make lunch.
It really is funny how time passes here, not funny like ha-ha funny, but funny like the smell of a yellow refrigerator in someone’s yard with weird little mushrooms where the handle should be. In some places, it remains frozen like a stamp in thin air. I sparingly take the Walk, only to the Mini-Discount, the Rosarch Bank, and the Trans-Post. The other week I almost walked into traffic because of a downed guard rail. I swear it was the door to my apartment, it was not; it was the highway. That’s the other issue, consistency, like time, it runs around unchained, but still herded. Sometimes I look out the window and it’s a frozen wasteland, and if I open the window it becomes cool reality. Since that incident I have fastened the window shut, but the temperature still drops a little at night. I worry that I’ll walk down to the Trans-Post and it will be a great Cerberus asking me riddles I cannot answer and I’ll miss class and be sent back. That is my darkest fear, that I am already lost.
Recently I was approached, don’t worry not by a Lodd-Head, but by what one might call a member of my department. I was making way to my Uncommon Communications class when confronted by a most charming voice. From a nearly invisible archway appeared the speaker, whom proceeded to take my hand and pull me down a series of sharp stairs into a torch-lit underground—I did not resist. My guide smelled of rare sulfurs and exotic beets, which reminded me of the gardens crowding the Citadel when it remained in temper. The underground was stuffed with books and halls and archways and terrible echoes of words that held worlds in their refrains. Here my guide turned and with a blind movement grabbed my face and glared deeply into my eyes, and I saw what was reflected in that ancient stare, the worlds within them focusing me like a fine needle on fresh wax. Thus my studies began.
I still ride the U-line but I no longer ride it to the docks, and thus I see my ticket maiden, consistency, less and less. When she takes my ticket I try to gesture, to catch an anchoring look. Her nametag is hidden behind auburn hair and mild stature. I have seen her a hundred times now. At school I wonder what her name is, and I mispronounce core words and phrases as the quality of my work buckles under distraction. My peers cast glassy eyes at one another when I slip, and when I fall, I see the doubt well up through their darkness—I can feel the holes being burned in with hidden eyes. I am reminded that I have forgotten, constantly I am reminded, and I cannot help to think I ever knew. Yet I take the offer to walk outside when it is given. To fail I needed first the opportunity, so they said.
My peers leave me out on an avenue, at night, in only my robes. The air is thick and frozen, but it could not still the boiling at my core. This was not a test, it was further distraction. The neighborhood had been suppressed, locked in ignorance with answers in plain sight. If you were to look straight up you could see the twinkling amusements of Platinum Dish like freshly baited hooks. In fact, half their trash was resold by these very insect markets, but they remained blind; stunted. It was emotional like a funeral for someone you’ve never met but know it was somehow wrong the whole way through because of the faces made at the coffin. Most of them can’t, or don’t, see me, because to them I don’t exist. Through these hours I loose fickle parts of my sanity and I remember what it’s like to be a ghost, a glimmer in someone’s peripheral, to be back home. It is a test against my failures, which I pass. But I cannot shake the feeling I’ve folded in, tucked myself away and lost.
I board the U-line. She takes my ticket and I stop her hand to prove I’m still corporal, if not criminal. I ask her before she looks. It is something I don’t want to know yet. Somehow the answer was expected. I don’t mind riding the regular rail, or waiting for her to get off shift. She sits across the aisle from me. Her nametag reads “Hazalya”. It’s funny that it came out spelled like that. When we exit the line her hair is red in the outside air and she’s a few inches taller than before. I avoid her stare when she waves goodbye. I promise myself I will look when I meet her again tomorrow.
On my way out the door, the cats make a break for the street, cram in front of me and vanish into the ether with tails pointed. I never see them again. The three suns hang low in the south, and even if I wanted to look, I could not, so instead she takes my hand and leads the way. If you were to ask me the route, I could not tell you, not because I do not remember, but because it was not for me know. Sometimes I wonder if the cats had seen it too, like a locked door finally torn from its frame. Even in the stuffy air her smell is cinnamon sick. Now I choke it up constantly; it is a lovely flavor.
Hazalya lives in a suburb. To say it short, it was altogether a different place than the city; different space, different time. The house stood alone; the yard green, the walls painted pale white, the roof tarnished merlot. Echoes of children, of wind chimes, of a birthday party a few blocks away seem almost within reach here. The suns backpedal and they are once again setting on the endless horizon of black gables. Inside, the T.V. is on and there is a thin blonde in a blue dress sitting crisscross on almond shag. This is Meela, she smiles and returns her gaze to a black and white cartoon before I can catch her eyes, for that I am lucky. Meela stays until dusk before she skips out the front door gibbering into the din. I never see her again.
After dinner there comes a sudden awkwardness in time, a rupture in consistency. I cannot seem to catch myself as I stumble off my chair. I touch my fingers to my tongue, pulling away blood-silver gloss. Reeling in space I shoulder my way into a china cabinet I hadn’t before noticed, the crash of dishes is a warble of disturbed pelicans and far off sirens. My expression shatters to a panel of anxiety as the house flickers in and out of existence. I have had dreams like this, where I am paralyzed at the waist and being pulled across dirt and straw by the ankles. I did not expect it to happen so quickly, for her to be so strong.
Here I lay on my back as everything melts into irrelevance. Sometimes I can see the Citadel sing in moonlight with its many heads, sometimes I see only moth wings, while others I’m within fire and smog or looking out across icy desolation. Sometimes I’m back at the university, on the docks, home. Sometimes I summon myself back to Kadath, and to places on which the great dream city was built, and I see the same blank stares everywhere I go. Sometimes I work up the courage to follow a procession of cats, and on occasion I am lucky and they let me.
When Hazalya, witch born from the frailties of Newdath, clambers over my stillness, teeth barred like rats and eyes stitched ritually shut, I act as if I am the victim of some cosmic evil I could not derail.
I do not think she suspects I am lying.
You can find some of Rand’s other stories here: http://thebookofcthulhu.com/