Within a Blinding Now

The nowdrinkers would bring time, the most insidious disease.

Time and forever balanced each other. Without balance, time would blight life or forever would dam all change. These contrasting strands wove together the fabric of all being. For you, each had substance and unique flavour, and you drank forever as it pooled in living things. Time you did not drink, for it left you heavy. You were fluid as the wind and almost shapeless until you met the faces of living things.

Unlike you, the nowdrinkers would have fine skill to work the world outside them. Without this control, you could not make the least of their treefish or smaller craft. You might, if you swallowed the materials—or wore the limbs of a dead drinker—but it never had fit your will. Instead you sculpted the forever into pathways inside yourself, where your control was complete. These pathways unfolded the seasons to you. By them you travelled across pasts and futures to feed, to learn, to live. Forever gave you what freedom you still kept.

Through many seasons of exile, you passed through forests, grooming, tasting. All life drank. You drank faces to fill your lack, and you drank forever to live and pass between seasons. At first you would call the arrivals nowdrinkers, because they would drink time without future.

Yet more than trace amounts of time would act in you like poison. Time did not only mean death, or decay, or change, because these belonged in the world and gave you no fear. Many forms of life were closer to time than you. What gave time its terrible power instead was the relentless flow. Time would break up the landscape of seasons through which you travelled. A line of time, impassable, divided you from the bygone. Time narrowed sense. Time flattened life and memory, gave death its power, stranded its victims in a nothing-now, and for all these traits you named it first of all diseases.

As season overlaid season, older forests or bogs were pressed in stone and in oil to feed the younger with memory and strength, as the young also fed the old in turn. Between freezings, native forest bloomed over those dark, rich layers of power beneath. Frozen changed exile into a sprawling waste, but you found life even outside the forest-under-frozen. Life thrived in all seasons.

When you walked the cliffs between the hills in seasons of frozen, you laid touch over the curls and sweeps of forests once in motion, now engraved in stone. Your living ancients. The nowdrinkers would call them fossil, a name soaked in wretched time. It denied the life in these forests. By contrast, you looked through forever, seeing the humid aromas of these pasts in lush colour. You did not have the nowdrinker form—four long limbs, hair in tufts—nor the same sensing—unsmelling eyes, unseeing tongue, each rooted in a clever mind. Unlike them, you tasted the chill of light reflected over a frigid sea and you smelled deep indigo when a creature died.

Your forest was sacred as the sky to you. Spray, stem, and leaf; sweet blood, firm shell, bright scale. After this land of exile was banished with you to the far corner of the world, the frozen preserved the forest from breath of sun and sweat of winds. In turn, the forest preserved living memory of that bygone season where you were free as your kindred.

Glutted with face, you encountered the first sign of the nowdrinkers that you would yet know. It was a hole, ripped from this tree here. The void left in its wake was sizzling with wretched—the odorous taint of time. Reading the shape and flow of time, you dreaded the coming of this wretched.

This tree was the first to fall sick. You saw through the forever how time began to corrupt it. Time would fester through other trees, burning needle and leaf and cankering roots. Time would sour the forever. Time would spread across this ripe setting into all seasons, consuming everything.

You passed back through the fold of yesterday. The tree was sick still, but the blight had shrunk inward, one merest step. You eased over the fold and reached tomorrow again: to your dismay, the blight now advanced two steps. Once more, slower now, and you could see the blight crackling further no matter which direction you turned. You delved further into yesterdays. Brights and darks spun away along the shape of forever. Leaves curled and unfurled, shrinking with each day as futures and their blight receded. The tree reclaimed its branches; here dead trees groaned and stood again, there saplings bowed under bog and soil, ferns and trees gathered up their seeds and spores from where these would fall, waters flowed uphill, rains flew up into clouds which passed away to melt into the sea, and then you reached the moment of this tree’s birth and released the forever to stop yourself at this moment.

You carried the seed to another place and returned to the seed’s prior ground to learn if the blight would still come in absence of that tree.

To your horror, the blight remained and now began to gnaw the edges of ferns. You knew you must taste the wretched to find the source of the blight and quench it. You stroked one time-tainted fern, and it cast face on you. The face filled your sensing with tendrils brushing air, roots in the ground, each a net for nutrients. Face was not the same as form or being. You only became like the fern under its face. To gain form, you might wear a corpse, but that was shame utmost.

Through this fern’s face you searched memories of days and seasons until you found the moment of infection in a season far hence. Nowdrinkers would cause this by stealing the forest ancients they called fossil.

So deadly, with such ease. Tearing out bits of forest in one season would break the flows of forever through all seasons. Then as balance faltered, time became blight.

You would learn, inside their face, that their consciousness restricted time to flow only and always on one path. Nowdrinkers would remember no futures and believe in one unchanging past. They would carry away a piece of your forest deep in forever and by so doing, devastate pasts and futures spiralling outward from that fatal moment. Such was the disease of time unbalanced. Yet of this outcome they knew nothing. You must confront, prevent, learn, even at high chance of infection from their time-thick face. If not, you would lose the forest to them evermore.

You wove forever and flew through memory to the future season where the nowdrinkers would come. Their wretched was a strong stench, easy and terrible to follow. In that season, you glimpsed the nowdrinkers that skimmed your shores. They were almost unknown to you.

The nearest of them looked to your exile from out on the sea, their bodies marked with colours, but these stayed away. Small treefish they sailed, trees from a land of fresh forest that was kindred to yours. Even those dead trees appeared delicious, ripe with exotic flavour that echoed your bygone home season. Exile’s sharp hills and sprawling frozen landscape gave them story. Yet these seemed no threat to your forest, and they never landed on your shore.

Then bigger treefish, from farther lands, appeared on the edge of sky. In passing days, they crept ever closer to shore. Smoke, pungent with dying ancients, poured off them into the sky. You saw the drinkers in more detail: they hung forest carcasses over their joints and kept slaves. Thinking they would mine your forest under the frozen and throw it into their fires, you wailed in anger. But you must be safe on exile. The frozen was your safety, and the night, and the sea, all that separated you from them.

You were wrong.

When you saw them make landfall, you released the forever and edged out into that corner of the season. An ungainly treefish perched offshore over a wound in the frozen. Nowdrinkers prowled all around.

You swam through the frozen as it were more sea, and it flowed to your will. You surfaced outside their burrow, corpse of a forest far. Close now, you sensed how the wretched came gnashing from their throats, and oozed from their slick skins, and festered in the dead things that encased them.

The burrow disgorged a group of drinkers which lashed their slaves to great loads and led them across the bay of frozen. You followed them inland through dark and bright as they piled hills of supplies at intervals. They plotted course for the daycenter, what they would call southpole. It hurt to see their wretched spread deeper into your exile, but you smelled in them no hunger for your forest.

With night, they fell back to their burrow and you left to seek strength in the faces of other living things. There were many kinds born into this season of the nowdrinkers, even with the forest dormant under frozen. Forever pooled in all life—even the nowdrinkers, but time was thicker in them.

You came upon a lost divebird, far from its kind. As it then squeaked and cast face on you, you knew it was young, only three moults and not yet father. Its face surrounded your native mind, a second aware which gave you hunger for fish and warm safety. Snow and winds had swept it away from family and food whilst marching to the mating. Now it was weak, confused, and soon to die, but instead you guided its feet to the other birds you smelled on the wind.

A divebird face tasted familiar—you must have lived several hatchings and deaths and all living between, when you counted the many branches of divebird memory you had drunk. Nights you passed huddled against others, a hill of warm blasted by howling cold. Countless eggs you remembered guarding, hugging to save the spark of life inside from the frozen. You were no divebird, but you carried their memories like those of tree and fern, fish and beast, all that you had tasted across the seasons.

On exile, you always hungered to share face. Once you and your kindred lived with the power to share face with trees, fish, and all things living, drinking each from the other in common learning and nourishment. In the bygone sharing face came as natural to you as breathing to the nowdrinkers. But the kindred had stripped away your essence, your face, for exile. After that stripping, your face was empty until other life cast face on you. You remembered only scant details of your kindred and the bygone season, but even so your hunger for them was long. On exile you were captive to faces cast, because you had no face to give in turn, so none knew how deep your alone.

At the divebird mating, other faces brushed you. These filled you with their urges to seek, to call, to choose, to mate. You stayed to savour their forever and drown all trace and thought of wretched in their faces.

But with eggs cupped on shuffling feet, you were later startled from the many divebird awares by the approach of new wretched.

You could not escape the divebirds to see above the many. Instead you bobbed, face by face, through the crowd until you had clear sightsmell of the nowdrinkers. Three of them, but these had less assurance on the frozen. They were not the same as the slavers you watched before nightfall. Each of them killed a divebird as you stood near. In full night they should not see you, at least not enough to cast face. You still hungered to find the thief who infected your forest, and in the colour of these drinkers’ scent lay your answers. Yes: two of them would steal ancients from your fossil forest unless you could stop them.

Eggs had fallen over the frozen. Other divebirds pushed past you, deeper into the crowd. Rather than confront the nowdrinkers and open yourself to infection, you would hide the ancients from their path. A few fossils were exposed to the wind and sight of the nowdrinkers in places across exile. The drinkers could not reach what lay below frozen, not yet.

The drinkers had gathered eggs and turned to leave. But then, despite the dark, one of them cast face on you. Only a flicker of face, but it was enough. Crushing choking time rushes over like the sea, trapping you flat in this flicker.

You try to escape through the memory in this face. You recall a whiff of sweet and a swath of candles before leaving the hut—later the weary march from the cape—clothes locking over neck and joints like a vise—the shallow light of Jupiter alone to see by—ghostly mounds rising up to snare your feet—sleepless hours of shakes and foul breath—dangling from rope—dead matches—the penguins. You’ll extract blubber to survive a few more days, to bring these eggs back to the hut for study. But every minute here risks fatal exposure.

The memories are vivid, but useless. These are mere impressions, unlike the deep, forever memory of trees. Here you remain, smashed into this nothing-now present, unable to break loose. Even as the human mind fades and you resume the faces of divebirds, penguins, you are sluggish with time. Your mind reels with new and foreign ways of thought that still cling like ice.

Your tormentors have already left you behind. Wild with terror and fury, you leave the divebirds to swim down through ice, splitting it as the drinkers’ feet approach, and you manage to drag down one man’s foot into the sea. That one pulls free but hobbles away with a leg frozen clumsy by the wind.

The humans…nowdrinkers never dared come out in the night before. Where is their burrow, that hut you savoured in the memories? Or their treefish, the ship that carried them to your shores?

You watch as they burrow into the frozen, close their bodies in great thick corpse bags, and sleep. Outside their burrow, with only a skin or tent hung over it, lies their craft…instruments, equipment, each with unique names and purposes, but all is craft to you, sleazy with time. Afraid to come near even the chance of a trap, you call on the faithful winds to tear and scatter. The tent and craft alike fly up, shrink in, and crash far off. You stir up stinging winds to assault their burrow, and you race away through the frozen to find safety in your fossils.

And the contagion takes root in your mind. Time closes around you. It fades from substance to concept. Colour also bleeds from the forever, and all the world, until you see only scarce hues. A whisper of scent lingers after the forever, but it is imprecise and flat. You realise humans have no precise term or notion of forever, which gives it a slippery sheen through this dulled consciousness.

The ancients open no pathways at your touch. They are but impressions, still and without music. In this season, forest is mere stone, and a vain memory to you, whilst your forever is leaking out.

If you lose all forever, your second exile will begin. You will be bound to this epoch and this moment, barred from all others except through the dim glass of unliving memory.

The night stretches out in agonies whilst you strain to hold in forever, your lifeblood. When the new day comes, you ache to purge of the nowdrinker wretched and time, you hunger to hurt them—and you may yet find both cure and revenge at the origin moment where the blight begins. That origin is close. The winds bring you a telling that nowdrinkers have travelled into the heart of exile.

The first group of nowdrinkers and their slaved dogs have littered tracks, skins, and craft at southpole. You bend over the joints and bones of all the ruin they’ve left until your eyes burn. What they’ve come for, what they’ve found, you don’t know. More will come, maybe. Exile will be overrun. You will have no consciousness for more than time’s cold causality, no hunger besides the death you can never have.

Two trails of wretched lead away, two groups of humans, and despite new limits in your senses you know which group includes those thieves you seek.

Over the hill, that trail passes bare stone cliffs. Here is one place where fossils lie open to the sky, the tips of your ancient forest. You test the moment. You aren’t sure, but here you think they stole the first fossils and created that blight you found years—millions of years—ago. Here the humans broke the ancients from their place in a network of forever. Effects from that moment flow in all directions, to pasts and futures. If you weren’t poisoned with time, you could fold back into yesterdays and hide these fossils before their prying hands arrived.

Instead you are too late.

Never before have you known too late, and the nowdrinkers caused it. They cast you into suffering without a thought in all their wide minds. You will kill them no matter the cost. And they will know you before they die.

Further down the trail you find your tormentors, five now. Trailing them, you learn they are almost blind in white winds and full day. You also learn that two are weak with pain, each soon to die. You’ll need care and cunning to ensure that none escape vengeance, and that you aren’t overcome by their venomous faces. One by one, then.

At the shoreline, you meet with the first failing nowdrinker.

It spots you after the other four have left it with its aware sputtering from deepest hunger. It casts face. That hungry delirium smashes against you, and then the face changes.

You become god.

This idea is new to you, and yet through a haze of torpor you understand that gods are a form of life, beyond day-glutted humans and above the world. Humans revere their god much as you revere the sky, the winds, the forever. Yet under this human reverence lies paradox: they have murdered their god and wrested the world from your kindred. For the first sin, they mortify themselves. For the second, they care nothing.

Yes, after humans appeared, your kindred lived among them until peace crumbled beneath human modernity. Lately, falling more timesick with every generation, the humans spurn pasts to claim futures. To the British, and perhaps all people, your kindred are mere pagan stories or tricks of the mind.

Staggering from these discoveries, you almost fail to the notice the others. Now they are coming back, shouting for Evans, and you flee in stark horror. Time drags on you. Perhaps you ought to have more power, as god, but you’re only the idea of gods. Already that is fading as the drinker topples into the snow and his mind loses hold of you. Then at last you break free of his face and dive sighing into the ice sheet.

You were never safe. Time has corrupted these nowdrinkers until they honour little beside themselves, not even the balances that preserve them. Any man might burn the ground where he stands if it pleases his hunger. And time will drive them to burn it. The forever can’t save your forests from this plague.

The surviving men leave the body of Evans behind. That was its name, you remember. Evans thought you god, but you were too bewildered by the notion to exploit it. Yet now you might go after the others and, if they also make you god, use their trust to destroy them. Wear this body, and they will be more prone to see a creature equal to themselves. If not god, you will be Evans to them at least. The body still exudes a reek of wretched, but in death it is a shell without face, and therefore safe for you to wear, if repulsive. His hands will best hold the stolen, tainted fossils.

The remaining four men struggle across the frozen-upon-sea, hungering for the escort and relief that was promised on their return to the ship. You follow with your acquired human feet. Once your fossil ancients leave exile, the human world will come clamouring. They must not know. Your forest is the surest forever and only pleasure you have left in exile.

All of them are weakening now, but especially Oates—whose name you also gleaned from Evans. And so, clad in nowdrinker form, you return to them late in the day as they hunger over the rotting skull of a creature Oates has dug out of the frozen.

From a short distance, you coax the skull’s encrusting ice into orbs like eyes, until Oates can see your form reflected there, and you speak according to the terrible face he casts. “Laurie?” His name, once. “Will you never come home?” A place called london, in a land far across the world. “My darling baby boy!” Oates doesn’t recognise Evans, nor make you god; instead you are mother. He reveres, and fears, mother as much or more than god.

Not all were the words you wished, but the effect is clear. He drops the skull, and the others are distracted from casting face on you. You open a crevasse to hide the body and fall back into the ice, shivering with the effort. There is forever yet licking your inside, but each encounter with them squeezes more of this dwindling, precious resource from you. Deep inside the ice, you struggle even to scratch out a pale hint of forever’s savour from the forest deep, since you are forgetting its vibrant mists and feathery song. As time soaks you, this season grips you harder. This epoch belongs to the nowdrinkers—no matter if you can kill a few. You recover Evans’s body and resume trailing and waiting.

Whilst the summer begins to stutter into winter night, you watch Oates’s resolve cracking and dissolving like the frozen sea under warm day. Once, as the men sleep, you come into their camp to reclaim the fossils, only to find these are thick with wretched. The men have already slaved these forest fragments to time. Their scientific view of years and epochs, sequenced by causality, can’t construe a landscape to travel through years past. Seeing stillness, they create stillness. To them the fossils only represent a dead forest. And that same attitude infected you, has dimmed your view of the forever and through it, the living past. When Oates finds you rummaging for the fossils, he confronts you. You think he suspects you are something more than mother; the face cracks as you try to explain your purpose. Still, it is vain. The voice he casts for you has no language to share the world as you know it.

Retreating once more, you ponder how to share your suffering when you have no face. The winds howl for you, and the sky hides in mourning beyond the snow. Oates will die soon, so soon.

Then he comes after you—nothing you dared expect. He wanders out seeking through the winds and snow until you meet him, both wary. Some of the fossils are cradled in his arms. He is beginning to see behind this mother’s face he casts, and beneath the rotting skin of Evans, to see you. Another face is forming.

Your own.

Not your face from the bygone, but a new face, the face of his fears.

At last—in this moment when it matters nothing, because the forest will burn in time and you are exiled to this present—one of the humans sees you, real and living. And you are a monster to him, a preying spirit, a thing of nightmare. You face each other, sharing fear.

Sharing. Almost.

He seeks to give you a true face, unique and personal identity, but he doesn’t know how to define you. Your face can’t really be replaced. Your body carries only a slosh of forever left to comfort you until the sky darkens into winter. This forever won’t serve you. It’s only a pretence of memory.

“Take.” Oates gives himself to you. As he dies, time is leaching out of him like forever leaching from you. His starved mind hardly marks time. How splendid death must be for these timesick creatures: they can shrug off their pains. Without death, you will suffer your blight through all time, and the hope of a forest again on this continent seems empty.

It is savage and sublime both, that this man should understand you by sharing the cruel force of your endless loneliness. You will make him a living fossil—make him forever.

You pour in forever and ice together to crystallise mind and body of this man who almost shares face with you, and his wail shrinks away as the preservation spills down his throat. When his body is submerged, you sink down, trembling from strain. The last three will die, but this one will share your living tomb for all time. A poor replacement for your forest. But something is more than nothing.

You turn and shamble away over the path Oates left. First, the other men. Then you will be dry of forever, blind as the snow, and twice exiled to this wretched new world.


[see companion story, Upon a Forest Deep]