flame

A Vineyard Burned on the Moon

The vineyard on the moon was burning.

Flames lapped at frozen grapes; twists of orange danced in the airless dark. The Vintner screamed, but there in the void came no sound. He watched helplessly as his last harvest—that of the driest wines, preferred drink of heavenly oligarchs—evaporated to dust along the shore of an empty sea. He fell toward Earth to save it, his family adrift and fleeing the desolation, but too late. He was far too late.

            The Vintner flew to NASA, forced his way into their chambers. He begged of the scientists who stared at him in disbelief, grabbing the hem of their white coats in entreaty: “Please, my crop is ash. My people wither with poverty and thirst. Please, you must save us!”

            "What is the meaning of this?" They cried.

            The Vintner ran to their telescopes, pointing once towards the full, glorious moon. "Look! Look to the moon. It is my home. Look, can't you see it burning?"

            "Fire? In space? What is the meaning of this?"

            "My crops," The Vintner tried to calm himself. He had to make them realize. Of anyone, surely they could see. "The grapes. They smolder and catch fire. Soon they will be nothing, But still there is hope. Hope for my wine and for my kind. Please, can't you see?"

            He looked, and he could see the small trail of smoke from his home the moon. If only they would look, they would realize…

            …But they merely dismissed this clearly mad man.

            They scoffed at his claims. “Wine?” They chuckled, “On the moon? Seeded in what soil? Fed by what air? Peddle this nonsense elsewhere.”

            And they turned their back on him, not even willing to give his claim a chance at truth.

            He wept, and every time he closed his eyes, behind his lids he saw the fires continue to roar. He saw his loved ones, lost in space. They were dying… dying… dead. Their faces fixed in his memory, grim but not judgmental. They forgave his failure, and with their absolution, he felt himself ever more damned.

            And with his loss, he went truly mad.

            Soon he took to the streets, muttering and indigent. He wandered, lost in his hopelessness. He moaned, repeatedly: “Will no one help? Does no one care for their moon? Will no one help? My, my family needs…”

            His voice broke as he remembered his grief and he spoke no more. Until his clarity lapsed into the fog of madness, and again and again he called.

            "Will no one help? Does no one care for their moon…"

A passer-by clinked some change in his cup.

On Earth's sole satellite, on the edge of a sea of dust, where once trickled chrome ambrosia there now smoldered ash, crumbling a gray. And only the madman, the mad, lonely man, knew what loss there was to mourn.

Alas, the vineyard on the moon had burnt.

 

 

Old Money

                Ah, the gentlemen’s club, last bastion of fresh cigars and old money. Where scotch vapors and thick smoke choke the air. Dimly lit by lamp and the brief life of matches, by lighter and watch-face, navigating the chairs and tables in the dusk is as difficult task as navigating the social scene, the inbred legions of old money, of pretension and condescension. Where image is all that matters, where status is greater than substance. It is the dying resting place of the wealthy, but it is not dead, not yet.

Here Walter Mathis made his home, here lived his people.

                So it came much to his surprise, one inauspicious Friday night, when he found seated in his regular chair a young man he did not recognize. There were no labels designating this chair as such, his preferred place by the fire. Where he whiled away many an hour sipping whiskey and talking nonsense with fellows who, like himself, were products of birth and not their own labor. Here such things as station, and wealth, and what was owned, and by whom, were just known, understood, and never questioned.

                “Excuse me.”

                The young man looked up, but did not move. Eyes placid, dark moons in a white sky.

                “Can I help you…”

                “Walter. Mathis… Sir Walter Mathis,” The noble sputtered, unused to being so challenged. He gathered his bearings and continued. “And you know very well what’s required.”

                His voice carried no inherent command, just the assumption that, backed by his name, orders from it would be obeyed. Walter was not one accustomed to resistance.

                “Ah yes, of course,” The young man smiled, moving only the corners of his mouth, like the rest of him was cast in plaster. “You want me to move.”

                Walter silently fumed, and said nothing, waiting for his place in the universe to restore itself.

                “You see, as I understand it, the oldest money can sit where it may-”

                Here Sir Mathis could bear the indignity no longer. “The Mathis family has been coming this club for generations. Here the eldest has always sat. Ours is a proud family, a wealthy family, and it is on our patronage that the legacy of this place was built. So you see… you see…”

                Mid-tirade, the young upstart, usurper of Walter’s rightful place, turned away watching the wood crackling in the flames as if nothing in the room were more worthy of his attention.

                “You speak of generations, of centuries, as if I should be impressed Walter. Time… is a fickle thing. So much of it passes, worth so little.” As the young man spoke, still he did not look at Walter, but the flames. And every eye in the house was drawn to their confrontation, and so too were they taken by the young man’s impudence. Wondering how a stranger unknown to them all even merited entrance to their world.

The young man’s voice was low and hollow. And it struck Walter as though it belonged to one much older than the face it bore. The shadows he cast, flickering with the blaze that cast them, stretched long in the gloom, far longer than his seated form merited. There were depths here, depths Walter was too blind to recognize. And he waded into them now. Unbeknownst to him, the waters swelled way over his head.

“Anyone in this club will tell you who I am… what my family has done.” Walter continued to flail and drown, confident his name was life-raft enough. “Who, pray tell, are you? How have you earned MY seat?” He moved to stand between the young man, still nameless, and the flames. He would be acknowledged. In his world, he would not stand to be ignored.

“I am one who does not have to answer. That I sit here, unmolested, should be answer enough. Run along, ‘Sir’ Mathis, before you open doors you cannot close.”

“You… you… that is old money’s chair. The oldest! No one here even knows your name! Everyone can say what the Mathises have done. How they helped build this-“

"Old money?" The young man laughed, “Old money? You know nothing of time, and understand even less of wealth.”

The façade fell away, youth and naïveté falling with it, and Walter saw it was he, of salt and pepper hair and the paunch of middle age, who was the youth here. The creature in his chair, with eyes of flame and soot, cast in coal, skin dark and shining like obsidian, seemed far older than even the idea of man. Than life itself.

"Old money?" The ancient scoffed, "You men are fools. We have accrued wealth since before this universe was a twinkle in its God's eye! We have watched the parade of expansion and collapse with little interest. We exist, or not, at our own leisure. This… club? Your chair? Are of little consequence to us. But I claim what I will, and I will not. Be. Questioned."

Suddenly Walter saw that he was alone, alone with a presence that measured its life in epochs. How small he felt then. Unsure of protocol, he fell back on dealings with royalty, and knelt. And begged.

“My Lord, I-I’m sorry, I didn’t. I did not know!”

“No, I suppose not,” The being’s voice echoed a hundred, thousand times, equaling the number of souls in its timbre, “But that still will not save you.”

With a wave of its hand, the whole room caught fire. Turning to ash, the former Sir Mathis burned away with it.

Those interviewed later, by the police and their families, by gentlemen in other clubs, by friends and curious barman, all insisted on the same truth: Long after the club burned, long after the smoke settled and the foundation crumbled to dust, the screams of the late Sir Mathis could still be heard, dwindling in the evening frost.

The Old Man and the Flame

                He hadn't seen the old man since.

14 years and not even a hint, scouring the whole world and yet no trace of the prophet, nor his congregation, who forever changed his life. His arm burned each morning, his shoulder still stiff from where the knife had entered, again and again. When he closed his eyes each night, he saw his face, frenzied and flecked with spit and blood, seemingly hanging disembodied in the smoke that, bilious, penetrated the wide hall. He still felt the bonds on his wrists from where he had been tied to the altar.

In his dreams, over and over, memories of that night replayed. Not with the haze of a nightmare, but the perfect recall of the present. As if the trauma was still visited upon him even now, as if he had never left that room, as if the death he escape then loomed on the horizon waiting for a lax moment. He closed his eyes, and…          

He choked on the earthy fumes in the hall. Fumes limiting both his breath and his vision. Low chanting, alternating with high-pitched wails, assailed his ear. He blinked to clear his eyes, but still saw nothing but grey-black smog, still felt nothing but burning. He strained to move his hands, but they remained tied and raw against the black-rock slab, the obsidian altar which sprouted straight from the ground. An eruption of stone.

Slowly, in the noise and the blinding smoke, a face coalesced. One he knew in kindness, now twisted by obsessive fervor, by religion, by faith unbalanced by doubt. The old man, who befriended the suddenly orphaned young man, who promised him a home. A place in 'the world I will create'.

How could he have known what he meant?

"Now is the time!" He chanted, this old man, blind now to the squirming figure on the altar. "The door will open. The world will atone."

"WE. WILL. RISE!" The faceless many roared in response.

"Now is the time." He continued his refrain. "The key lies before us, blood that spills into the lock, opening the world to the darkness that fills us all. To the Beast!"

"THE BEAST! THE BEAST! THE BEAST!"

"There is no God but death, my children! And she consumes us all." The old man howls, before joining his worshipful throng in their howls, the joyous cries of the name of Death's deific personification.

As the old man and his minions, distracted by the ecstatic thrall of all the plans come to bear, descended further into madness, the younger man worked at his bonds. Pulling and pulling, slowly, they came loose. In the obscuring smoke, none noticed, not even his once father.

Finally, the man looked down on the youth, sorrow haunting his gaze.

"I'm sorry… son, but it must be you. This must be done."

The dagger falls, the rubies on its hilt glittering with the light of distant flame. The young man wrenches free just in time. The blade piercing flesh once, twice, dragging down his arm as he rolls off the stony shelf. Bleeding, he flees past the enraptured flock, out the mouth of the cave and into the cool, cool night, disappearing in the shadows before any who might search could find him.

He hadn't seen the old man since. And thought of him as he sat on the edge of his bed, unable or unwilling to sleep. There was a knock at his door, and despite the gulf of time between his dreams and now. He smelled once again the sulfuric flames harkening that dark night. He knew who waited for him before even he opened the door. The old man, face calm and kindly once more, a knife in his hands. Ruby hilt, still dripping with blood.

Wordlessly, he extended the knife. Wordless, the young man accepted his fate.

The Desert Outside the Real

            You wake baking on strange, hot sands, borne into a place you have never been. Where the light never abates. Where men never die. You are alone, but for the gently whispering wind and stinging loneliness. This ache, this vast chasm within you screams that you have been lost for an eternity, but you can't remember anything past this waking. Not where you were yesterday, or who you were, nor who you are now. All you know for certain is you are alone.

            You start walking, numb to the sands that burn your feet. Baked by an omnipresent light. Looking up into the sky, you spy no suns, only red bubbling flames hanging overhead. Like you world is contained within a volcano, within another world. Hours pass, perhaps days, the darkness' absence robs you of all sense of time. You stumble through this flat, sanded plain, sinking deeper into fire, climbing further into despair. Why you? Why this fate? What sins do you atone for that you cannot remember? What God must you plead to for absolution?

            Perhaps, you realize, there is no redemption to be had. Perhaps your sins were too great, and this world you find yourself bound by… perhaps this is hell.

            "I know the way out."

            You jump at the voice, and seek its source, but none is forthcoming. Mere madness, you suppose, tricks of the whistling, gusty wind.

            "I am not your imagination," I know the way out. The last words speak directly into your mind and at last you see it. A figure drapes in black, covered except for its white, pupil-less eyes that stare straight through you.

            It approaches you, appearing not to walk but glide over the sand. As it approaches, the wind howls louder, enraged by its trespass. Waves of sand envelope you both, blocking you from the fire, leaving you cold and in shadow. It whispers now, urgently, as it nears.

            "The only way out is up, and through. The only way out is past those who would keep us here forever."

            "Where are we?" You demand, with a voice so hoarse you suspect it has never been used.

            "The Desert," It replies, and grips your hand. Its grip a vice, there is no escape.

            Your feet leave the ground, and together you hover into air. Up above the sands, up towards the skies and flame.

            "Wait! Through there? We can't. We'll die."

            All you must do is believe. All you must do is realize. It whispers again in its mindspeak.

Then speaks aloud, and though you cannot see its face, you suspect that it smiles. You imagine it ghoulish, filled within black gums and rotten teeth. A fetid, wriggling tongue lashing out beneath its cowl.

"You see, fire cannot hurt those who are already dead."

            And with that, the two of you ascend back to the real and life.

Flames of the Rogue Planet

Within the hydrogen rich atmospheres of rogue planets live creatures of acid and liquid fire. Brutal intelligences for inhospitable worlds. There is no night, no day, no year. They live indifferent to time. Innoculated to all except dreams. What lies beyond the omnipresent cloud?

Their first ships are ramshackle, their first forays failures. Beasts of flame have little notion of space's absolute zero.

But they learn.

And in vessels constructed of scarabic chitin, leaking pools of pus, toxic gasses. They escape their hellish world. For the first time in a long history of listlessness, they discover the stars.

Their voyage is slow, the distance great. No issue to creatures born, then reborn, through ceaseless combustion. Beasts unacquainted with time.  Eventually they find a star. Around it orbit eight planets, a belt of asteroids, planetoids. One planet draped in striking blues and greens.

What drew them to this world? One with atmosphere, and life, and temperament so unlike their own. With solid bodies instead of combusting forms. Perhaps it was pure chance, a thirst for the unknown. Perhaps, just as we gaze at the stars and wonder what breathes beyond their veil, they too wondered at our naked world. Our oceans. Our alien life.

And so, much to the consternation of us simians that mark the surface, they descend. Ships wreathed in flame, arms opened in deadly greeting. How unprepared we were for these creatures. Our answer to 'are we alone in the universe?' Their insectile crafts scream across the sky.

How easily these souls of constant fission envelop our defenses. Our warning missiles mere greetings. They oblige by responding in kind. And as they roar, Earth burns. Here was a language they recognize. And as Man weeps, as we fade, they rejoice. Here are voices they understand.

And so creatures of fire arc through blistering air over a planet of ash. Our cries give way to disquieting silence. Our greens and blues burn to umber. And after a time unbeknownst to these beasts who exist beyond, the flames spiral back to their ships. They depart the idle, voiceless Earth. A dying ember orbiting the boiling Sun.

So continues their long journey, rogue ships far afield their rogue planet. Traveling through the black, called by other voices back across the stars.