A tribute to the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss
When Uskaal was five years old, phagors raided her village. Her mother and father were among those lost.
The foul-smelling ancipitals took the people by surprise. They swept over the barricades, erect on their leaping kaidaws. They tore through the streets meting death and terror in the way of their kind, unremitting enemy of the human race.
Uskaal’s father managed to hook one of the phagors off its mount. The creature crashed heavily to the old cobbles, flopping like a doll with its curious ahuman joints. But phagors are tough creatures, stronger and more durable than people. Devoid of expression it rolled onto its feet and retrieved its sword. It faced Uskaal’s father, a man better used to netting salmon in the gushing mountain streams than wielding a pike. The phagor charged and caught him squarely with its curved horns. The wooden breastplate was no protection at all. With the immense power of its neck and shoulders, the phagor tossed him high into the air. He was dead before he hit the ground again.
Uskaal saw it happen from the vantage of a secret space within a pile of masonry stones. This was where she and some other children had been sent to hide.
Uskaal’s mother was one of the survivors of the phagor assault, but she did not long evade the creatures. She and many others were rounded up and bound in a long chain to be led away into slavery, destined for one of the vast cave systems which the phagors occupied in the high Quzint mountains.
Thus ended Uskaal’s childhood. Orphaned and destitute, she wandered with the other survivors down the hill paths and through the rocky valleys until they reached the highway that linked Pannoval City with the kingdom of Oldorando. Being Pannovalan, the refugees had intended to turn north, thinking that they might find charity in the holy city. But travellers coming in the opposite direction reported that the Pannoval was in the grip of civil war. And so they went south instead.
That was how Uskaal ended up in the Oldorandan village of Chard, living in the back of an old covered wagon, surviving by hiring herself out to local families by the day.
Uskaal’s home had been a stone house of sturdy construction, with glass in the windows and layers of thatch on the roof. All the dwellings in the village had been similar.
But here was very different to what Uskaal had known. Chard was a place of considerable squalor, a muddy patch where wood-framed hovels with walls of patchwork skin squatted sullenly together against the harsh upland gales. The people were pastoral, and moved from site to site with their fhlebit and other livestock throughout the cycle of the Little Year. They had no interest in the notion of permanent homes. They lived as their ancestors had done long into the unremembered past, and their descendants would do the same.
The people of Chard were suspicious of outsiders. They had accepted Uskaal into their village because she was small and hungry and looked like one of them, dark and sharp-faced, even if she spoke Olonets with a strange accent. But that did not mean they had to be kind to her, and they made her work hard for her keep. She was paid for her labour with food, and of that there was never enough. Her belly was hollow below the ripples of her ribs. Her eyes were dull and she spoke lowly and hoarsely, and then only when speech was necessary. Mostly she was silent and completely alone.
One day there was a wedding in the village. A young man called Pito was marrying a girl from another valley. The bride was borne up the hill on a wickerwork pallet, followed by a crowd of chanting womenfolk. They set her down before the people’s sacred rock. The groom was there already, dressed in robes of red, his hair set in a cone shape with tree resin, so that his head looked like it had a tiny version of one of their hovels on it.
The wedding regalia reminded Uskaal of the colours of her village, of the lovely dresses her mother used to wear, of the quilt Uskaal had slept in on her straw bed close to the hearth. In wonder and grief she followed the wedding party uphill, hanging back in her grimy rags. No one seemed to pay her much heed.
It was while the shamans were dancing around the wedding couple, dispensing fragrant smoke circles of veronikane, that someone saw that they were being watched. Farther up the slope, immobile on kaidaws, was a band of phagors.
As though it took the reaction of the humans to spur them into action, the phagors suddenly launched themselves down the slope. The hoofs of their mounts crunched in the scree-strewn ground. The people scattered in panic. Only a few of the men were armed, and they made a stand around the holy rock.
But it was a curious thing about these particular phagors – and there were only four of them – that they showed no particular ability to fight. Nor were their weapons impressive. They had only short lances and daggers. Just two of the men were killed before arrows brought the phagors off their mounts.
One of the phagors was killed outright. Two were wounded, yellowish blood oozing from their wounds. The wedding crowd circled in around them and stamped them to death. But the fourth, a female not much bigger than Uskaal, sat upright in the grass uninjured. The men held it at bay with their blades, but no one was keen to go near her.
In the end they bound it up, marched it to the village where it was tied to a pole while the elders decided what to do with it. Their decree was that it would be burned to death in the morning, an offering to the god Akhanaba before the wedding ceremony was held again.
As the crowd was dispersing, someone grabbed Uskaal by the elbow. It was the woman called Ithro, whose household gave Uskaal most of her work. The woman’s hair was coarse, greying from a sort of honey colour, and her eyes were those of a lowlander. But she spoke like a local and certainly acted like one. She had little regard for Uskaal.
“I saw you at nosing around at the wedding,” she said.
Uskaal shook her head, tried to jerk free of Ithro’s grip.
“Yes, you little Nondad. I saw you. None of your business, that’s what that wedding was.”
Ithro pushed her. Uskaal stumbled on the muddy ground.
“Go right to my house and get to your work,” the woman said.
A huge tiredness came over Uskaal. She’d felt cold all day, colder than she normally did, and all she wanted to do was go and lie under her skins. But she could never refuse work, and especially not from a family such as Ithro’s, who had what passed here for wealth and influence. Their tall tent was decorated with colourful pennants that whipped in the wind, and clan regalia hoisted high on tall poles.
Uskaal went to Ithro’s tent. The children saw her coming and began teasing her as they always did, playing tricks while she tried to get on with her cleaning and mending, hauling buckets of water for the cauldron, cleaning and chopping vegetables for a meal she would not share.
Yet when she went back to her wagon in the half light at the end of dimday, just before full dark, she could not sleep. The phagor was on her mind.
She crept through the village in the dead of full night and stood before the creature. It sat with hands bound behind, its back against the post to which it was tied. The villager designated to guard it was asleep, slumped close the remnants of a fire. Uskaal had a knife in her hand, her own knife, a blade of quartz which she’d found on the road while stumbling down the mountainside after the destruction of her town.
“Phagor, do you understand my words?”
It rolled its eyes to her slowly.
“Yezz,” it said in the thick ancipital voice, so unsuited to human language. “Olonets I know.”
Its hard dark tongue flicked out, then upwards into one of its nostrils.
“Beg for mercy then. I’m going to kill you with this blade.”
“Humans kill phagors,” it said.
As with much of the interaction that took place between the two species, its meaning was not clear. Human and ancipital mental processes were too different for successful direct communication. A considerable amount of inference was always necessary.
“Phagors killed my family,” said Uskaal.
“Hunters, my mother, father, brother. Hunt animals in trees. Now dead, all.”
“They said they will burn you tomorrow.”
“Free this small one. You help.”
“I’ll kill you.”
“Tether for all my blood is gone if I burn.”
“They’ll cook you.”
“Cut the rope, human girl. I girl like you. Small.”
She ran away, confused by the phagor she’d come to kill.
They burned the phagor alive in the morning. It struggled in the flames but made no noise. Its stomach burst in the heat, and when the fire died there was nothing left of the creature except bits of bone.
In the days after that, the word tether stayed with Uskaal. Tether. Uskaal knew what tether was.
Whereas humans communed with the dead by means of the trance of pauk, which enabled a soul to travel into the obsidian realm of the underworld, the phagors carried their dead with them as keratin totems. A phagor lucky enough to avoid unnatural death and grow ancient eventually shrank and set into what they knew as tether, a faded semi-existence that might last centuries. Living phagors communed with those in tether much as humans communed with the gossies and fessups of the underworld.
By communing with their ancestors in tether, the phagors retained comprehension of the past and how it related to the future. They understood where the present moment was situated between these two vastnesses. They knew that the cycle of the Great Year was swinging towards Summer. Although the worst of it was still centuries ahead, even now the ice-loving phagors were everywhere in retreat in the face of resurgent humanity.
Tether and pauk. What if Uskaal could learn the ways of pauk? Maybe her mother and father were not completely lost to her. Her father was certainly dead. In pauk she’d be able to find him again, or at least the gossie he’d become. And her mother. Well, her mother might still be alive somewhere under the mountains, but human slaves of phagors never lived long. If Mother was not dead by now, she would be soon. Uskaal would be able to see her again too.
And so in the freezing bite of evening, huddled under old skins in her wagon, Uskaal tried to find the place in herself that pauk came from.
But she didn’t know how to do pauk. She’d been too young to learn while she still had her parents, and anyway people in her village never spoke of it openly very much. There was always a slight taint to pauk, a vague sense of shame surrounding the practice. But most people did it at least a few times in their lives, though few enough ever found the comfort in it that they sought. There was a horror in that slow descent into the spaceless space of below, and invariably a panic in one’s ascent back to the physical body. And there were perils below. One could never trust a gossie, no matter how benevolent it might be while you were beyond its reach. A gossie would always snap at a chance to capture a living soul and take over its body.
Over days and weeks, in the silence before sleep, Uskaal started to discern how pauk was done, how one slipped the moorings of time and space and joined with that lifeless host descending towards the Original Beholder at the centre of things.
She recoiled at that first transition, returned to her body crying and gasping for air.
But after some more attempts she was capable of hovering in the lightless yet endlessly clear medium of the dead. She could hang in that space infinite yet enveloping, and peer down into the depths below where shards of amber, sparks like fireflies, converged in hosts receding along the asymptotic path towards non-existence.
There was no sensation of motion, yet it was possible to descend, to find one’s way through the ordered ranks of gossies to the soul one sought.
She found her father.
How it was possible to identify him she did not know, yet there he was. He was an impression of a human being and no more. Luminescent dust emanated in clouds like breath from the loose outline of human jaws. There were tracings of a canopy like hair above it, pinpricks of light where eyes might have been. And a cage suggestive of ribs with a flickering source within.
“Oh Father,” her soul called out. “Have pity on your daughter, who has suffered so much in life since you went away.”
“Beloved daughter Uskaal,” replied the gossie. It radiated a joy that was real. Yet she quaked. Or her body quaked, far away in a different place, reachable with a twist of the mind.
“Tell me your sufferings, my dear beloved,” the gossie said. “Although I also have suffered. Not only the painful manner of my death, but also the suffering of this place where one must wait so long to be visited by one’s family. Yet it’s so much better here than life, my love. I pity the living. If you only knew the bliss of being dead.”
She told him of her arduous journey through the mountains, of her arrival at Chard, how she worked so hard to stay alive yet was always hungry and cold, how she was just a child yet no one alive loved her.
“Yes, my precious girl. I, your father, would never have allowed such things to happen had I lived. You were all to me. I loved you more than life, with all my strength. And now I have no life to give, no strength left. But still I love you. Alas, I am powerless to protect you. How this pains me. Yet I have other sufferings too. For instance, your mother apparently still lives, for she has not joined the ranks of the gossies yet. But she has not troubled herself to visit me. You, a simple child, I can make allowances for. But your mother knew pauk. She visited the gossies of her own parents often, let me tell you…”
The gossie of her father went on. She let it witter. It was enough for now to be close to her father, for it was him, the same presence she had known in life.
The urge to go closer and embrace the guttering wisp was strong, yet a deep instinct held her back.
She emerged from that first successful pauk exhausted, but even then sleep would not come. She was sleeping so little these days, and the days for her were getting harder and longer. Yet each night she went into pauk anyway.
"I pity you for your miserable, limited life, my daughter. If only you understood what is to be gained by dwelling in the underworld. Yet I do love you all the same. Tell me of your life up there in that realm which I do not miss at all. Oh, how I wish I had understood in those days under the light of the two suns what a thin existence that was! At the time I was terrified of death. Now I understand that the phagor who murdered me did me a service.”
“Oh father, he did not. Do you not remember what I told you before? My life is pain without end since you and Mother were taken away. I’m always hungry and cold. I have to work for other families for a meagre keep. When I cough there’s blood, Father. I’m sick.”
“Blood. You’ll have no need of blood when this is your home. If you are sick, your passage beyond life may be hastened. We can be truly together again. Come here and embrace your father.”
How she wanted to do just that. The weakness of her physical body was leaking through to the tiny suspended spirit that was all that comprised her in this eternal place. If she could weep here, she would.
“Mother is not dead yet, you said.”
“No, child. She is still somewhere in the world above. The unfaithful woman still has not visited me.”
No one ever emerged from pauk untouched by the fingers of slow entropic dread. It was said that one’s first pauk was the beginnings of one’s own death. Through pauk one came to realise that life in the world of physical things was but an anomalous passage, a brief eddy in the quiet ocean of entropy, an interlude between non-existence and re-absorption into the universal principle. This Uskaal understood now deeply her marrow. Her attachment to life was loosening, and not only because of this understanding, but also because the living force of her flesh ebbing. She was sick and getting sicker. Her life would be a short one, she knew. And she would not miss it when it was gone.
One day she was filling one of Ithro’s clay pots with water. The pot fell on the ground and smashed. Ithro came around the side of the hovel to see what the noise was, and when she saw Uskaal standing blankly over the shards, she fetched a black stick and began to beat Uskaal around the arms and legs. Ithro’s children ceased their play and watched with solemn eyes. Uskaal heard herself scream and cry. The searing pain of each strike seemed to drive her further out of the world.
Finally she ran. She ran until her bony legs could run no longer. She struggled up the rocky slope, through the gorse where wild fhlebit chewed on tough needley leaves. At the flat summit she came upon a huge boulder taller than any of the village hovels. Against this boulder leaned a flat, wide rock like a huge misshapen wheel. It had been placed there many Great Years ago by primitive men so long dead that they were no longer even fessups.
It was shelter. She crawled into the space between the rocks and curled into a ball. The welts from the stick still throbbed. Pauk came almost immediately.
“What happened to you, my beloved daughter?” said the gossie.
“Father, I have suffered too much. Please comfort me.”
“My dear, what did they do to you? The living world is a cruel place, as I well know. I never told you of the torments I endured in my own childhood. I remember them well, and think of those times often. There’s plenty of time to think when you’re dead. Plenty of time to pity the living, and pity oneself. But you see things differently in this place. There’s joy here such as you can’t know until you die. And every new arrival here is welcomed as a gift.”
“She beat me with a stick, father. I ran away. I can’t go back. But I have nowhere else to go. And oh, I am sick, father. Sicker than before. I’ll die.”
“Oh, my love, I am so pleased to hear it.”
“I don’t want to suffer any more, father.”
“Your suffering will end, daughter. Come here and embrace me. I am your father and I love you.”
Her strength was gone. She didn’t care anymore. She drifted to within reach of the gossie.
Eagerly it lunged.
kaidaw it’s kaidaw streaking across that raw sky like the mount of a phagor oh i know it kaidaw look how fast it flies with tiny lights around it like pilot fish it’s like none of the other worlds up there we never see the worlds of the sky down there where it’s so dark and yet too clear and up here oh forgive me my daughter i did love you and do yet your body i’ve taken it i had to i didn’t want to but to live again and have flesh it’s your body i stole and i feel the sickness in it my little girl i took your weak body and i stand here cold at the top of the hill in the dark and kaidaw streaks by the eye that watches the world that’s what the old ones said it is and it streaks over your head and your long hair and i peer out through your eyes uskaal my love where are you now are you down there in place of me
High above, Kaidaw streaked. It was indeed an eye that watched the world, but not in the way that the ancients had imagined.
Kath Pin Tan was walking along one of the space station’s many undulating corridors. To its inhabitants, the station was called Avernus, not Kaidaw. Holographic projections filled the route with dynamic imagery of animals and landscapes, real and fantastical, always changing. There were sudden bursts of music and voice, occurring randomly as she went. There were even illusory forks on the path. It did not matter which one she took; she would still be on the corridor, and would still end up where she was going. It had been the intention of the designers of Avernus to provide constant stimulation for the generations of people who would be confined in it, unable to ever travel to the surface of Helliconia just a few hundred kilometres below. Their idea was that it would help to guard against the kind of spiritual torpor that might lead to the death of an enclosed society.
Kath entered the office of her Advisor. She bowed. The Advisor was in lotus position on a pile of red cushions, surrounded by hanging gossamer drapes and enveloped in perfume cloud emanating from a vapouriser. He was not a thin man, and his bald head came to a point. He looked not unlike a great sagging pyramid.
“I need to talk to you again about Uskaal,” said Kath. Her voice shook. She was close to crying.
“Yes.” The Advisor sighed as though this was expected and burdensome news.
“Can we watch?”
The Advisor waved a chubby arm and the wall opposite turned into a huge screen. Kath spoke to the screen and the image of Uskaal appeared. It was a heat image. Uskaal was standing still in the dark of full night, staring at the night sky.
“Hmm,” said the Advisor.
“She’s been watching us,” said Kath. “Watching Kaidaw.”
“What if she has? Helliconians observe Avernus. It’s in their sky.”
Kath opened her mouth, hesitated, shook her head. It seemed as though she was afraid to express her thought out loud.
“You have a point, Kath?”
Kath was the Avernan assigned to the study of the village of Chard, a village typical of its kind in the vast kingdom of Oldorando. The station had just a few minutes ago passed directly over the region where the village was located. Now its rapid orbit was taking it north-eastwards towards the isthmus of Chalce.
“Please just watch her with me for a minute.”
“Tell me why.”
“It’s to do with pauk.”
The Advisor sighed again.
“The issue of pauk is a philosophical parlour game. You know my view on it.”
“You’re my Advisor, aren’t you?” she said. Now her tears started flowing. “Just do this one thing.”
It was commonly held on Avernus that the Helliconians’ practice of pauk was simply quasi-religious delusion, that they were no more contacting the dead than the spiritualists of long-ago Earth had been. Yet there were those who had their doubts about that, and Kath was one of them.
She’d been drawn to the little girl from the very first day she’d seen the scrawny thing hobble up the stony track to the village. She’d watched her closely ever since, more closely than any other villager. Her interest in Uskaal perplexed the Advisor and all her friends and family. After all, what was there to be interested in? The girl just did her work, ate and slept. The tiny floating cameras dispersed in Helliconia’s atmosphere meant that even when Uskaal was asleep in her wagon, Kath could still watch her. She’d come to love the girl.
A very bad idea, to become emotionally engaged like that, as the Advisor kept mentioning to her. It was not as though Kath could fly down to rescue her.
“Advisor, she fled from a beating and went into a traumatic pauk. It was short, but since she came out of it she’s been like that.”
They both watched the screen. Uskaal was still staring at the sky. She seemed almost completely frozen.
“See the look on her face,” Kath said.
The Advisor shook his head. He saw nothing different about it.
But Kath, who knew Uskaal better than any other living being, could see the difference.
the damp air flowing over this body cleansing it and now the stink of the place below is going away where is the joy gone that i shared in that deep place so terrible the place beyond death and worse than death yet still joy there and not here in the world the face of uskaal keeps coming but i have her memories in here with my own i remember myself in her memory i know what happened to her after i died it rips me open to think about it to not stop it happening but my poor girl far worse the worst sin there is i stole her body i swallowed her soul no father ever sinned so but to be back in the world it was the gossie that did it my soul trapped in that gossie shell it was not me it was the gossie
The Advisor sent her away before she’d collected herself enough to say what she’d intended to say. She went straight back to her apartment.
And when she turned on the screens, Uskaal still hadn’t moved. She’d been standing in the same spot in the dark for half an hour, only her head moving, tracking the path of Kaidaw all the way to the dark horizon. Now the station was gone from view. It had curved around the fringes of the polar cap and was on the day side of the planet, nearing the coastline of Carcampan and the glittering Sibornal Sea beyond.
Uskaal stepped forward suddenly and fell into the gorse. She seemed to have trouble picking herself up. Her movements were jerky and strange.
“Oh Uskaal,” Kath whispered.
She sent in one of the microscopic cameras to get a close view of the girl’s face. The forehead was thick in frown, the eyes wide and so dilated that they seemed like a Madi’s eyes. The whole set of her face had changed so that it seemed no longer to be the face of a child. And the hands, now that she was standing again, were clawed.
Kath knew the terrible thing that had happened to the girl. As much as a human from Earth could understand about it, she understood.
The girl stumbled downhill, pitching back and forth as though she could not properly bend her knees.
It was the dawn of dimday, the rise of the sun called Batalix. She reached the floor of the valley. Kath had switched the cameras to visible light, and saw that the eyes were yellowed and wept bloody tears. She was coughing too, spitting out blood as she lurched along the stony track to the village.
A shepherd saw her from a distance and called to her. She heard and looked, but did not stop. The shepherd called out again, then began to follow, leaving his flock to mind itself while he investigated the strange behaviour of the girl from beyond the hills.
She was nearing the hovel of Ithro by the time the shepherd recognised what the girl had become. All Helliconians instinctively knew the signs of an escaped gossie. He shouted out a warning to the family just waking from their sleep. But too late. The girl burst into the hovel and there were screams.
there she is that vicious scumble that cruel hag that crabbed witch who tormented my girl it’s her fault all this happened i know what i am i know what i can do yes scream hag i mean to cause you pain this is a little body but i know what to do i know what i am and i know what i can do
Anyone unwise enough to get in the way of an escaped gossie was likely to be swiped by its withering claws. The wound would become a spreading putrescence that led in all cases to painful death, followed by a restless, comfortless suspension in the underworld thereafter.
So it was for Ithro.
But the gossie, perhaps through some trace of pity, left her children and husband alone and stumbled back out into the brightening dimday. The villagers who had come to investigate the noise now ran for it.
The gossie stumbled on.
They brought it down with arrows a short time later. But it reached the stream and fell in; a disaster, an utter disaster. The villagers fought savagely over whose fault it was.
But they could not evade the reality of the situation. The villagers of Chard had to dismantle their homes, pack everything up and move to another spot. The stream here was poisoned forever.