Fire in the night
TO THE north thin smoke made a column against the darkening sky. Again I felt the unreasoning fear, the impulse toward nightmare flight that had been with me for a long time now. I knew it was without reason. There was only smoke, rising from the swamps of the tangled Limberlost country, not fifty miles from Chicago, where man has outlawed superstition with strong bonds of steel and concrete.
I knew it was only a camper's fire, yet I knew it was not. Something, far back in my mind, knew what the smoke rose from, and who stood about the fire, peering my way through the trees.
I looked away, my glance slipping around the crowded walls — shelves bearing the random fruit of my uncle's magpie collector's instinct. Opium pipes of inlaid work and silver, golden chessmen from India, a sword…
Deep memories stirred within me — deep panic. I was beneath the sword in two strides, tearing it from the wall, my fingers cramping hard around the hilt. Not fully aware of what I did, I found myself facing the window and the distant smoke again. The sword was in my fist, but feeling wrong, not reassuring, not as the sword ought to feel.
"Easy, Ed," my uncle's deep voice said behind me. "What's the matter? You look — sort of wild."
"It's the wrong sword," I heard myself saying helplessly.
Then something like a mist cleared from my brain. I blinked at him stupidly, wondering what was happening to me. My voice answered.
"It isn't the sword. It should have come from Cambodia. It should have been one of the three talismans of the Fire King and the Water King. Three very great talismans — the fruit of â¢cui, gathered at the time of the deluge, but still fresh — the rattan with flowers that never fade, and the sword of Yan, the guarding spirit."
My uncle squinted at me through pipe-smoke. He shook his head.
"You've changed, Ed," he said in his deep, gentle voice. "You've changed a lot. I suppose because of the war — it's to be expected. Arid you've been sick. But you never used to be interested in things like that before. I think you spend too much time at the libraries. I'd hoped this vacation would help. The rest —"
"I don't want rest!" I said violently. "I spent a year and a half resting in Sumatra. Doing nothing but rest in mat smelly little jungle village, waiting and waiting and waiting."
I could see and smell it now. I could feel again the fever that had raged so long through me as I lay in the tabooed hut.
My mind went back eighteen months to the last hour when things were normal for me. It was in the closing phases of World War II, and I was flying over the Sumatran jungle. War, of course, is never good or normal, but until that one blinding moment in the air I had been an ordinary man, sure of myself, sure of my place in the world, with no nagging fragments of memory too elusive to catch.
Then everything blanked out, suddenly and completely. I never knew what it was. There was nothing it could have been. My only injuries came when the plane struck, and they were miraculously light. But I had been whole and unhurt when the blindness and blankness came over me.
The friendly Bataks found me as I lay in the ruined plane. They brought me through a fever and a raging illness with their strange, crude, effective ways of healing, but I sometimes thought they had done me no service when they saved me. And their witch-doctor had his doubts, too.
He knew something. He worked his curious, futile charms with knotted string and rice, sweating with effort I did not understand — then. I remembered the scarred, ugly mask looming out of the shadow, the hands moving in gestures of strange power.
"Come back, O soul, where thou are lingering in the wood, or in the hills, or by the river. See, I call thee with a toemba bras, with an egg of the fowl Rajah moelija, with the eleven healing leaves… ."
"Yes, they were sorry for me at first, all of them. The witchdoctor was the first to sense something wrong and the awareness spread. I could feel it spreading, as their attitude changed. They were afraid. Not of me, I thought, but of — what?
Before the helicopter came to take me back to civilization, the witch-doctor had told me a little. As much, perhaps, as he dared.
"You must hide, my son. All your life you must hide.
Something is searching for you — " He used a word I did not understand. " — and it has come from the Other World, the ghostlands, to hunt you down. Remember this: all magic things must be taboo to you. And if that too fails, perhaps you may find a weapon in magic. But we cannot help you. Our powers are not strong enough for that."
He was glad to see me go. They were all glad.
And after that, unrest. For something had changed me utterly. The fever? Perhaps. At any rate, I didn't feel like the same man. There were dreams, memories — haunting urgencies as if I had somehow, somewhere left some vital job unfinished.
I found myself talking more freely to my uncle.
"It was like a curtain lifting. A curtain of gauze. I saw some things more clearly — they seemed to have a different significance. Things happen to me now that would have seemed incredible — before. Now they don't.
"I've traveled a lot, you know. It doesn't help. There's always something to remind me. An amulet in a pawnshop window, a knotted string, a cat's-eye opal and two figures. I see them in my dreams, over and over. And once —"
"Yes?" my uncle prompted softly.
"It was in New Orleans. I woke up one night and there was something in my room, very close to me. I had a gun — a special sort of gun — under my pillow. When I reached for it the — call it a dog — sprang from the window. Only it wasn't shaped quite like a dog." I hesitated. "There were silver bullets in the revolver," I said.
My uncle was silent for a long moment. I knew what he was thinking.
"The other figure?" he said, finally.
"I don't know. It wears a hood. I think it's very old. And beyond these two —"
"A voice. A very sweet voice, haunting. A fire. And beyond the fire, a face I have never seen clearly."
My uncle nodded. The darkness had drawn in; I could scarcely see him, and the smoke outside had lost itself against the shadow of night. But a faint glow still lingered beyond the trees… Or did I only imagine that?
I nodded toward the window.
"I've seen that fire before," I told him.
"What's wrong with it? Campers make fires."
"No. It's a Need-fire."
"What the devil is that?"
"It's a ritual," I said. "Like the Midsummer fires, or the Beltane fire the Scots used to kindle. But the Need-fire is lighted only in time of calamity. It's a very old custom."
My uncle laid down his pipe and leaned forward.
"What is it, Ed? Do you have any inkling at all?"
"Psychologically I suppose you could call it a persecution complex," I said slowly. "I believe in things I never used to. I think someone is trying to find me — has found me. And is calling. Who it is I don't know. What they want I don't know. But a little while ago I found out one more thing — this sword."
I picked the sword up from the table.
"It isn't what I want," I went on, "But sometimes, when my mind is — abstract, something from outside floats into it. Like the need for a sword. And not any sword — just one. I don't know what the sword looks like, but I'd know if I held it in my hand." I laughed a little. "And if I drew it a few inches from the sheath, I could put out that fire up there as if I'd blown on it like a candleflame. And if I drew the sword all the way out — the world would come to an end!"
My uncle nodded. After a moment, he spoke.
"The doctors," he asked. "What do they say?"
"I know what they would say, if I told them," I said grimly. "Pure insanity. If I could be sure of that, I'd feel happier. One of the dogs was killed last night, you know."
"Of course. Old Duke. Another dog from some farm, eh?"
"Or a wolf. The same wolf that got into my room last night, and stood over me like a man, and clipped off a lock of my hair."
Something flamed up far away, beyond the window, and was gone in the dark. The Need-fire.
My uncle rose and stood looking down at me in the dimness. He laid a big hand on my shoulder.
"I think you're sick, Ed."
"You think I'm crazy. Well, I may be. But I've got a hunch I'm going to know soon, one way or the other."
I picked up the sheathed sword and laid it across my knees. We sat in silence for what seemed like a long time.
In the forest to the north, the Need-fire burned steadily. I could not see it. But its flames stirred in my blood — dangerously — darkly.