The Smoke Over Turisall
The old man laid on a bed of furs. Minks, bears, otters, and squirrels were all stitched together into a massive wrap, cocooning his frail body like a sickly butterfly. He clenched a long, ancient pipe between his teeth. It would have been worth something once, finely crafted with minute engravings and outfitted with gemstones, but the varnish and detail had been ground away by his cockroach-colored teeth and worn by the constant stream of black mucous that dribbled down it. With forced breaths he would crowd a plume of smoke into his mouth, fitting in as much as he could, savoring the brief moment of respite from the decay of his body before it escaped from his nostrils, fleeing to the air like some prisoner escaping from an oubliette.
It was neigh but a whisper, a creak from a dying house, but it commanded. And Lyril complied. The steps did not come naturally. Everything about this man disturbed Lyril; from his obsession with fur, to his gauzed ears, and the youthful eyes – trapped, pleading to be released from a prison of torturous flesh. His senses rejected this man. The rattling breath. The indescribable odors only labeled by thought: lemon rot, flesh dust, tree breath. With every step Lyril felt his skin coated in the deterioration of this creature. Finally he found himself standing over the poor heap, breathing in the strange, sickly-sweet smoke emanating from the pipe.
“Do you know why you are here, Mr. Denig?”
A sigh of – was it relief? Perhaps it was merely an appreciation for some context to this dreadful encounter. Lyril hadn’t been given any context for the meeting, but being the old corpse’s accountant, and a well paid one at that, he wasn’t going to ask questions.
“Well Mister Berghe, I had assumed…”
The eyes flashed. Berghe spat up a wracket of coughs around his pipe, silencing Lyril.
Lyril shut his mouth. He didn’t like being ordered around by this troglodyte, but he disliked arguing even more. “I’m running out of time Mr. Denig, I’m sure you can see that?” The younger man hesitated, unsure if the question was rhetorical, before giving a slight nod to goad the old man to continue speaking. “You have managed my accounts for some time Mr. Denig, and your diligence and obsequiousness has been appreciated.”
Another cough shook Berghe’s body, and his lips became more tar-stained by some filth that stewed in his lungs. “I have one final task for you, an easy one,” The eyes flashed again, those youthful eyes. “Easy, if done correctly…”
There was fear in those eyes. The emotion of youth: to grow old was to lose fear, to abandon the horror of un-being and notdoing. This was not an old man, it was a newborn swaddled in the flesh of animals, eyes wide at the realization of its cradle death.
With a nod of his head he directed Lyril’s gaze to a nightstand, covered in dust, with an ebony case – about the size of a cigar box – resting on top. Atop the box, like a pinned butterfly, lay a yellowed envelope. Hesitantly he picked up the paper, leaving a dark rectangle in the center of the pale dust. Lyril had never been afraid of paper, it surrounded him every day, and he had happily thrown himself into a sea of paper cuts and calligraphy for his work. The other accounts of Mr. Berghe had been strange for sure, but this, this envelope, it didn’t feel right.
It was addressed to him with Mr. Berghe’s usual penmanship – Lyril had grown used to seeing it over the years, with the angular “t”s and the harsh “r”s – and it had been sealed with a crusty red wax. Lyric wasn’t sure how Mr. Berghe managed to write such letters, drowning as he was in animal flesh.
“Take that letter and the box away from here, and make sure you are outside my door when you break the seal. Whatever you do, do not open the box before reading the letter.” The smoke from his pipe was twisting and billowing in ways that Lyril was sure they hadn’t before.
“You must follow my instructions to the letter.”
Pale grey streams of smoke curled from his mouth, nearly transparent like the surface of a stream.
“Do… this… and…”
His breaths creaked and cracked, his words being strangled by the smoke – now pouring out of his mouth, his nose, his ears, even his eyes as some demonic teardrops. Flesh shrieked like ripped parchment as he spasmed, tearing himself apart in his cocoon,
skinning himself as his bones splintered through his sinews.
In a hopeless, desperate attempt to save the poor creature Mr. Denig grasped the dreadful pipe and tried to pull it from the bleeding lips of the mass-becoming man, but the mouth would not let go. There was no longer any smoke emanating from the pipe, all of it was pouring into the remains of Mr. Berghe, as though his insides had been replaced with some horrendous vacuum. From under his rags his corpse bled smoke, surrounding him in a coffin of putrid air.
Once he had returned safely to his office, Mr. Denig found his mind occupied with the events that had transpired in the old man’s estate. The mounds of paperwork only served to remind him of the sealed envelope and its mahogany companion. Part of him wanted nothing more than to discard the box and its mysterious contents, to burn it in a fireplace, or bury it on some hillside far away. But a dark curiosity itched inside his brain. Surely, the day had been strange enough to warrant some sort of explanation? It was a dying man’s wish after all.
After an hour had passed Mr. Denig finally gave up on attempting any work. He cancelled his only remaining appointment – he told Mrs. Hogswallop that a client had passed and left him with a considerable amount of work to do – and decided to attempt no more work until the mystery of the box was over and his nerves settled.
Haunted by the heat and the stench of that smoky room, Lyril took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and opened the one window that connected his office to the outside world. Basking in the fresh air he glanced down at the streets of Turisall; taking in the grey cobblestones and the shadowy ants dancing below, he realized how truly strange today had been. He had seen a man die. And nobody below had any reason to care. The ants would march, march, march until the cobblestone path ended and there was nowhere left to go.
What was one death to them? Lyril pulled his head from the window frame and began to clear papers and pens from his desk. Gingerly he placed the box on the desktop and broke the seal on the yellowed envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper, long and thin like the receipt from an adding machine, but instead of a string of numbers there was a list of instructions written in the hand of the late Mr. Berghe.
1) The box must not be opened outside. The smoke must always be contained.
2) The smoke will drift upwards; ensure there roof above is sound.
3) Never inhale more smoke than is necessary. Once you have taken the
required amount, the box should be closed.
4) To return the smoke to the box, speak: ‘Kax Snu Tarr’ and close the lid.
5) To open the box, speak: ‘Kax Snu Ilk’ and open the lid.
6) Find me.
The scent of that terrible smoke returned to the room, a husky, palpable stench that hung in the air like dust. Fear gripped at Lyril’s heart. He thought of the smoke pouring down his throat, infesting him like it had infested that shriveled old mummy. But it was not a paralyzing fear that held him; it was a driving fear, a curious fear, a fear that would not be assuaged until he knew what exactly was in that box. If he did not face this terrible secret, it would haunt him to the grave.
With trembling fingers, Lyril picked up the box. With deep breaths he uttered the words from the paper: “Kax,” at the first word the box shook and heaved, “Snu,” a cold wind blew through the room, “Tarr,” the lid of the box opened wide, and a plume of dark smoke shot into the air. Heaving and billowing with a life of its own, the smoke rose to the ceiling until the rafters where filled with its purplish haze. The sickly scent of licorice and tobacco hung in the air, Lyril began to feel dizzy. Smoke continued to flow from the box, unending and hungry. Driven by that damnable curiosity Lyril stuck his hand into the phantasmal stream, feeling for something real in the shadow. To his surprise, he pulled away with a ball of smoke clenched in his fist.
Writhing in his grasp, the wisp licked around the cracks between his fingers, unable to escape. Pale and translucent, the smoke had no body, no tangible realness, but nevertheless it stayed clenched within his hand. Though its edges would flicker and twist and fade, as all smoke does, it never seemed to lessen or shrink, as though it reconstituted itself from some invisible, internal source. It was like holding a ghost. Like holding the air itself.
Slowly, the awestruck man lifted his prize up to his eyes. He looked into its dark nothingness, tasted its pungent scent. Visions flickered deep inside the ethereal spring; terrible, wondrous images buried themselves into the dark night sky behind his eyes. His head filled with what he knew was the future; he could feel it, taste it. He felt the world move under his feet – he was flying, but not like a bird. He flew like a bee – tumbling and drifting, a stranger on the wind. Turning and heaving he was tossed through indigo fields of starlight, beneath him a black city choked on flame, windows burned with spiteful radiance. As he tumbled lower the city’s great towers launched past him into the obsidian sky and the city streets grew into red and grey rivers harboring the flow of corpses.
A strong wind cut his tumbling short, throwing him into a radiant window. Inside the veiled tower was a room of sooty brick, covered from floor to ceiling with crimson vines. The vegetation crossed and intersected into a tapestry, a spider web of veins that throbbed and convulsed with an ancient, powerful life force. Magnificent, luminous flowers budded from the vines; lighthouses cutting through a red sea. Their petals, glassy and obtuse, crowned their beaming faces. As Lyril drifted into the room he felt the light pry at his eyes. He closed them, sought to shut the burning out, but the light clawed at him greedily. He tried to turn to the window, but blind and ungainly he could not overcome the wind from the window. Eventually, the clawing became too much and he opened his bruised lids and stared into the unholy light.
Mr. Berghe stared back.
Lyril awoke to a cold wind, made colder by the sweat that stained his clothes. Slowly, as though overcoming a great weight, his eyes opened. The ceiling was still smoke, more than half the room was smoke. It was not getting lower. It was going out the window. Slowly, mechanically, Lyril lifted himself onto his feet. He crouched low to avoid inhaling any more of the visions. The cold wind blew in from the window, it was not a strong wind, but Lyril was now nothing more than a paper doll. The wind cut him and crushed him. He fought it, pushing his withered body into it, forcing it away from him. The wind howled in protest, but Lyril slowly fought his way to the window.
The grey cobblestone streets ran with red. Dead ants clogged the gutters, living ants ran riot. A thousand dots partook in a thousand horrors. Up above the smoke filled the sky. Indigo stars gazed down in pleasure. Fire ate Turisall’s towers, staining them with ash. The red streets crawled upward, reaching for the blessed void of the sky and smoke, crawling like vines. Lyril struggled to shut the window, tried to defy the world with its horrible smoke, but in his struggle the wind took hold. The towers shot up into the sky, and the red and grey streets reached out to him. Lyril laughed as he tumbled, he breathed in smoke and felt visions play at the edges of his eyes. He remembered the secrets that Mr. Berghe had whispered, the old raspy voice echoed in his ears. He collapsed into a dream and, carrying the whispered secrets nestled in his heart, disappeared into the madness of Turisall