(Fiction) The Thousand-Eyed Crocodile

After the events in Colorado, the name Annette Dunlop was known to my enemies. Unfortunately, I didn’t have another identity, at least not one that wouldn’t cause more problems than it would solve if there was a run-in with the police, which is always likely when one is mucking about causing trouble. So upon my arrival to the city, I took precautions. I had checked into a hotel under Annette’s name and took everything I needed from my old suitcase, which was less than I had brought, and transferred it to the one I had stolen. I left again wearing the amulet. Anyone checking that room would see my suitcase and some of my personal items and reasonably expect that I planned to return. That left me the better part of the day to meet with Mr. Lucas. After all, if you think you’ve found what you’re looking for, you don’t keep looking.

But I had chosen that hotel, a high-rise, specifically. I paid cash for a second room at a different hotel across the street, one with a good view of the first, and so watched that night from cover of darkness, one dark window in a tower of them, as men with flashlights searched my dummy lodging. I never saw them exit the building. I suspect they remained to wait for me somewhere inside. Still, I slept poorly. I had limited my use of the amulet, but it gave me horrible nightmares all the same. I saw Etude, who warned me inexplicably of a crocodile who visits all men at the dusk of the mind, just before sleep. It lays in the dark, he said, gray-scaled. The midnight sun, that dark star, flies high behind it, shining in bright black and leaving only the crocodile’s eyes to glow in the gloom. It has two, but also a thousand, and they penetrate the heart. The unfathomable slug sags like a giant under the weight of eons and moves not from its bed of sand, for all men come to it. It knows how petty and pointless we are, and we know that it knows, and there is no armor to our ego.

Then, as we quiver and bow, comes a rumble older than words.

I! I am the hunter of beasts, of birds and snakes and beetles and men. I am the devourer. I stalk the banks of the rivers of reason and swim the ocean of dreams. I am the first. I rode the floodwaters of the Nile to the shores of the Yangtze. I have dwelt in caves which are the ruins of great castles. I was hidden in dark towers at the murder of kings. I have been chased, jeered, mocked, feared. My bellow is the trumpet that calls men to war. My scales are the lies which doom them to more. My teeth are the truths they pretend not to see. And my slither . . . My slither is the urge that brings them to me.

When the ancient call ceases, we may each speak our pleasure and it will be granted, even as it consumes us.

I asked him why he was telling me this this, and he served me an omelet made from crocodile eggs.

I woke. I showered and left my hotel before the sun rose. A noisy train carried me impertinently to Gravesend. My encounter with the troll in the train station had given me an idea. Although dim-witted, the under-dwellers have sharp and numerous eyes. Alas, none of them remained. Their encampment had once filled a fenced lot under an overpass and had looked, from the window of a train or moving car, the same as any other homeless community. But now it was abandoned. I found a one-armed, one-eyed doll under the remains of a tarp—just the kind of disconcerting oddity a troll would squirrel away greedily with the rest of its pilfered treasures. I imagined it inside a packed shopping cart pushed about at the hands of a hunchbacked woman whose face was never quite visible under her mounds of filthy clothing and who muttered to herself as she went about collecting our cast-offs: blood-stained tissues, sprung clocks, locks of hair, shards of a mirror broken in anger—each too meager to be of interest to a mage but which, like wasted scraps of food, might in quantity sustain an underling of that ancient race. The doll winked at me persistently, as if it knew something I did not, and I dropped the tarp over it like a funeral shroud and spoke a rite taught to me by the mizzen so that whatever wicked enchantment it now carried would pass from this world unheeded.

From Gravesend, I risked a trip to The Barrows. It seemed certain that Anson’s shop, and indeed the entire remnants of the goblin market, more than any other place in the city, would be under surveillance. But then, if so, I had the means to skirt it. It had been some time since my last visit, however, and I took several wrong turns. Although I caught each error in no more than a handful of paces, I couldn’t shake the suspicion—from the minute stirring of the air around me perhaps, or else simply my own shadow-inspired imagination—that in turning back onto the path at that moment, I had narrowly avoided being lost.

It was Einstein, supposedly, who taught the world that space was not a featureless plain but rather a warped and crannied canyon distorted by the weight of the objects it contained. But the old sages, while they would not have described it that way, nor measured it precisely with mathematics, were aware of the effect. It had been known since ancient times, and later forgotten, that there were creases in the world whose insides could not be reached directly, simply by traversing a line between here and there; that certain clefts in the forest or under the sea would, if approached, say, from the east, deposit you back on the path, but if from the west, worm you someplace else entirely; that there existed entire kingdoms that, like heartbreak, you cannot find if you are looking for them but cannot avoid if you are not.

Like most modern theories, which tend to describe more than explain, Einstein’s was powerful but sterile, high in stature but short in reach. It imagines the universe curved and smooth like the legs of a well-polished table, or perhaps a record left too long in the sun. But peer closely under a microscope and you won’t see a flat surface. At the narrow scale there are mountains and valleys and ridges and wrinkles and gaps. Even holes. Entering such furrows requires more than just the proper trajectory. You have to perceive where you are going. Thankfully, one can, through various methods of disorientation, open even the untrained mind—albeit briefly—to different structures of space than the one regarded by our senses, which is why the most peculiar destinations, the ones anyone cared to record in the time before writing, tended to be preceded by mazes and labyrinths, or were only reached through trance or meditation. The designers of modern cities, without ever intending it, have replicated this effect accidentally in, for example, the winding, branching paths of subway exits, which turn the traveler about without reference. Once we reach the street, we find the entire city has twisted on its axis, like the wild swing of a compass needle. Or else it’s its own a mirrored reflection, with north turned south and west east. If, like most people, you do nothing but stand and indulge a few befuddled blinks of your eyes, the wrinkle squeezes you out, the city returns to what it was, and you walk on. But if you can hold that state in your mind, ephemeral as laughter—more importantly, if you can move against it, push on through—then you can step almost anywhere.

Wilm once told me of a wizard named Shahzere, with whom he had traveled as a young man, who was exceptionally skilled at this effect. According to Wilm, Shahzere’s mind had, over years of practice and experience, gradually become as warped as the spaces he invaded, and he appeared always discombobulated, like a man searching high and low for the glasses on his head. He would sometimes forget his name but remember events that happened tomorrow. When it came time to step elsewhere, he would turn about confusedly and say “No, no! It’s all wrong!” and storm off to find some location more suitable to his inscrutable talent, there to walk to and fro, to turn and descend and climb and descend again, all with his poor befuddled ward clinging desperately to his cloak, and by that grip finally be pulled through to someplace else, whence Shahzere would appear very proud of himself, regardless of whether it was actually the place the two of them had wanted to go.

I stopped when I saw the front door of The Barrows—or rather when I didn’t see it, for it had been torn away. I took out the amulet and put it on immediately, albeit with some hesitation.

The subterranean interior was dark, with dim, pale light reflected off shards of broken glass from some unknown source. By it, I could see little more than that everything was twisted and broken. The entire shop had been wrung like a wet rag. The cracked cabinets and hardwood slats turned over each other in a spiral, as if the ends of the room had been twisted in opposite directions by giant hands. There were shards of broken glass everywhere, and several of the splintered planks and shelf boards were turned up like defensive spikes. After stepping wide to avoid one such snaggled tooth, my foot fell on something hard and flat and unforgiving and I stopped suddenly and nearly lost my balance, as one does when fumbling for the light switch in the middle of the night. I knelt to examine the object, which caused the amulet’s collar to shift slightly, and I grimaced as it spokes slid across my skin. The object was hard and flat—cast iron, it seemed—and cool to the touch. I ran my hand around it and found square edges. I tried to lift it, but it was heavy and I had to shift my stance before I could try again. With a grunt, I heaved it up such that the faint light caught the letters.

a rough cut from Bright Black, the fifth and final course of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

cover image by Te Hu