Before and After
The Champion

IT LIVES between. In the spaces misunderstood. It is deep water. You must choose death. You must defy it and cease. Fade to nothing. Cease to . . . I am . . .

FOREMOST I AM AND FOREVER WILL BE faithful to Her Majesty, the Ordinal and the Diviner, Regnant Queen the 888th, whose perfected physical body once contained all distilled wisdom and strength of our spire. It was my duty from plump hatchery softness to the moment of my stillness to attend to Her Majesty's safety while within her sanctum, one of many custodian champions of her household. It is my great sorrow and shame to have failed in this task.

I AM AND FOREVER WILL BE human. Beast. Reificant. Now and forever who am and always was. I serve at the pleasure of Her Majesty, who is gone away, the HISS and the CLICK, Dead Queen of Nothing, Ruin, Nowhere Any More , Forever. I am and was the last of my kind with flesh hard and soft. Last with the will to persevere. Not human but feel the humans pass through the membrane of my absence. Human things soft and clever and short-lived things and each one a species unto itself.

It was Her Majesty who dispatched me to answer TREASON with VIOLENCE. Scouts locate the deep water now. Drones of other spires spread this pheromone. There is war in sudden convulsions. Great swarms and old weapons and the old ways. Whirling skyward with fire and many ways of pain. My shell is pierced, and innards poured out. Carried by the enemy. SELFISH with the water. Dying but not dead. Not ever. Not now.

Otherplace now. Across its water. Poured out upon a new land. SEE the human softness who came first, and they have seen my eyes, real and flesh, seen them and touched the limbs that come from my place but no longer can be there because I am forever and my place is not. They are afraid and bring me things to eat and drink. They possess the deep water. I am not strong or wise here. I try to warn them. They make words with their eating parts. I am very old, and my mind is slow to adopt new patterns. They listen and hear me and fail. With the heavy stone and fire they fail. By their will they cease, but the water endures.

My name is Gideon Long . This always was. He is a man of different sinews. Immune to things the others were not. Weak in ways the others were strong. I am now and forever Gideon. I am now and forever Warren Groves, burning and angry, clenched for violence. His fate like mine. A warrior. A fallen champion. I am now and forever the Mother of flesh, queen of all people, womb of all pasts and presents. I am now and forever forever forever forever non-terminating, hurtling in slippery, soft bodies. Always toward the attenuation of the possible future to the actual of the present.

We await together the flesh and thoughts of the next beast to author its tragedy over our bones. The frost spills up fence posts and has the strength to shatter mountains.


Burrowed within stony crust I am the counting beads drawn over threads. I am otherplace now. Scattering to all the waters.

I am sewn gristlething full of hate. I invade the gory trench and crush and stalk through waves of poison gas. I am pierced by metal. My limbs are burst by heat. I howl my fading fury to the sky.

I am feeble of flesh but strong of mind. I have imprisoned the deep water but remain its slave. My generations travel through the black sky in the quiet belly of a spire without a home. We dwindle in our sorrow. I cease because I cannot stand to face another life.

I am the organ beast, book lung of my people. I throb in languid air for the communal body. The nine-chambered heart circulates silicon acids into the luminous, crystal bell of the head. I have ten thousand eyes that only see warmth. I am lit by the heat of our falling star.

I am the devouring angel of ten feathered wings and seven arms and swords in each hand. I live in fire. I sleep in the black sky. I sleep and do not dream.

I am the brief cloud mind born of swarms of aeroplankton, cohering in midair, deriving meaning from my coequal multitude, dissolving again into unthinking individuals.

I am the squamous crawler in the muck, starving for the flesh of herbivore stock I have hunted to extinction.

I am the fungal cyst that curls in the brain of a thousand-ton abyssal mammal, nourished by its blood, nourishing the beast with my aspirations, perishing together with it in the lonely blackness of the deep.

I am the hook-handed sloth on the bark of the continent tree. Watching it burn. Watching the fire crawl and consume. I am old and wise and without language to express my woe. I dwell in harmony and never fashioned tool or spire or weapon to smite my fellow. I have the heart for songs but cannot sing this ending.

I am a mesh of memories and purpose. I am without fixed flesh. I am the risen, burning bones of peoples past. I am reificant.

Foremost and forever I submit to the deep water, the Mother, the always thing of all peoples, and those who shun her cease. Only through her are we tomorrow. Only through the mother will we always be, pouring out and imbuing meaning to all places and all spheres and every trillion-year calamitous beauty sure as cool, refreshing water is the purpose of its vessel.

Her promise is true: Everything you touch and communicate in your life is and was in her if you let it be. Each story of your flesh multiplies within her womb. Each dream and waking moment preserved and duplicated. The ghost of your favorite dog forever lifts its head at the sound of your feet upon the step. The words of young love you carve into the tree will grow in its bark for ten billion years. The pleading, final sickbed gasping I?m so afraid I?m not ready I?m not ready God please of your beloved?s flesh will never be silent. Their life may slip from your hands and be reborn, bright and terrible. Every joy and sorrow and softer things between: preserved to be revived when they are needed. You are so fortunate to be alive at this moment, reading this, forever reading this.

IT LIVES between here and there. In the spaces easily missed and misunderstood. It is life without flesh. It is body without organs. It is vitality craving intent.

It was my duty to bring you this message, and I am too late. I have failed. Treason is and will always be answered with violence. My queen lies broken of carapace. My spire is in ruin. My ichors run out. My strong tarsi melt to jelly. My foe is victorious. I will seek new flesh and begin again. My words are too few. I will remember what has happened and who I am and carry these thoughts to new flesh. May I meet you again. May we flow together and reform through the waters between. May we choose to die together and journey into the great darkness.

In the mouth-sound of those humans I knew by shape and face, who live with me now and always . . .


The Builder

Chapter One

It was the stone horse called Apollyon that stomped cruelty into him. The beast stood nineteen hands, and every man was afraid to go near, its hooves and mane wild and black, black and untamed as its eyes. It was not ridden. It did not toil in the field. The unbroken giant was proof that man could not subject every beast to his will. By its size and defiance it became a mystical creature. Apollyon breathed morning's smoke, exhaled and snorted in such great gusts, it seemed it could breathe fire as well.

Gideon Long was never more afraid than when he stood before Apollyon.

His father watched from behind the gate, one foot up on the second rail, a gentle smile in place to hide what he was doing. "Go on," he said. "Go on in there, boy. Brush his hide."

Placed between the forces of his raw fear of this enormous beast and his fear of his father?s disappointment, Gideon ducked beneath the railing and entered the stall. He took with him the camel brush and the metal curry comb. Apollyon watched and snorted and crowded him with its muscular presence.

Gideon slowly put the comb to the horse's flank. He brushed away a year of rolling in dust. He combed out the burrs and scabs and every bit of filth that had clung to Apollyon's hide. The beast tensed beneath the teeth of the comb but did not move or lash out.

When Gideon was done, he looked to his father, still on the other side of the gate.

Harlan Long said to his boy, "Go on. Go on and comb his mane."

Apollyon?s mane was badly tangled. Gideon climbed the stool and stood beside the snorting beast. With tiny hands he lifted the bone teeth of the comb to the hair, and with slow, deliberate, terrified strokes he smoothed the knots from Apollyon's mane.

At last he finished the task, and he looked again to his father, still with one boot up on the second rail.

Harlan smiled gently at Gideon, though the he knew exactly the sort of devil he was tempting. "Go on," he said. "Go on and pick his hooves. It's been so many months."

It had been many months since Apollyon's massive black hooves had been seen to. With these Apollyon had injured so many unlucky stable boys that none would brave this most perilous task of grooming. The nervous lads who worked the barn climbed up the railings of other stalls and observed the spectacle of Gideon?s torment from the surrounding darkness of the barn.

Apollyon?s hooves were grouted with rotten manure and piss. This foul clay required strength and a steady hand with the metal pick to remove. Gideon could feel the power of the beast as he took hold of one of its legs. By pressure he urged the beast to lift that leg, big around as a jug, and he carefully chiseled and levered the stinking muck from the beast's hoof. The hooves were unshod, overgrown, and split. Tender, no doubt, and yet Apollyon stood and snorted and allowed his hooves to be picked clean by the terrified boy.

By the time Gideon finished with this task, his arms and legs were shaking. Sweat clung to his body and ran into his eyes. He could bear no further chore, could scarcely stand, and yet when he looked to his father, his father only smiled and said, "Go on. Go on and climb onto his back. Go on and ride him and tame him. Make this beast your horse."

Gideon climbed the stool beside Apollyon. He placed one palm against the gray stone pelt and said, "Please." Apollyon switched his ears and looked back at Gideon with black eyes that reflected Gideon?s stricken face. The boy took a deep breath and began to climb atop Apollyon's back. There was a moment, from atop the back of the giant Percheron, that Gideon could see all the stable hands staring in amazement and awe. Awe! At a boy only nine.

Apollyon's patience was exhausted. It was not hate or evil that made the horse do what it did. It was not malice that motivated Apollyon to throw Gideon into the straw, to kick his side, to crush his child's ribs. It was not even cruelty itself that caused Apollyon to stomp a great black hoof onto Gideon's knee so that it broke like dry clay and the child?s blood ran out into his trousers. Not cruelty, and yet this was the affliction Gideon received. Cruelty was the venom injected into his marrow that day.

Gideon would forever recall what his father said to him that day.

"I knew you could not do it, but I hoped you would prove me wrong."

Gideon imagined he heard his father laughing. He lay there in a state of cold agony, reaching for his father, reaching for nothing until the terrified stable boys dragged him from beneath the hooves of Apollyon.


In came Father's nurse, Adelaide. She was a shrill doll of aprons and scowls and greeted Gideon in the walnut-paneled anteroom with her usual disdain. She had once been Father's doting secretary, perhaps more, and her transformation into nurse was only a matter of setting. Gideon's father had been moved from the office he had occupied above the copper foundry to be ensconced for his miserable remainder in his bedchamber, surrounded by his precious treasures of his tyrant's life well lived.

Adelaide took an appraising look at Gideon and shook her head. "No, no, he will have a fit. Do you plunder the cemetery for your wardrobe?"

"Good evening, Adelaide. Always a pleasure to see you, as well."

"Do not bear false witness," she said. Her piggish nose crinkled. "Do you ever bathe? Or should I ask what you bathe in??

She began grooming Gideon there in the anteroom. She smoothed his greasy hair and clucked at his missing vest buttons. She cursed at the bits of licorice root stuck in his teeth. There was nothing to be done about his overgrown beard and mustache, nor could she repair the tear in the leg of Gideon's corduroy trousers. She could at least straighten the black ribbon of his tie, and this she fussed over at length.

"I'm doing this for his health,? she said. ?You would have done it yourself if you cared one speck about that man. As it is you scarcely?oh, your shoes, scuffed and ratty as a child's. Playing in the privy? I'll fetch the shine. But you will do it yourself. I?ll not stoop."

Adelaide disappeared down an adjoining hall, and Gideon could hear the receding thump of her shoes on the carpet.

A rasping voice called out through the door of the bedchamber. "Adelaide, I need you."

"It is me, Father," said Gideon.

"Junior? Is that . . . my Junior . . . who . . .? Father?s voice trailed off into half-heard muttering.

Junior was Harlan Long II, Gideon?s older brother, dead on the battlefield nearly ten years prior. Gideon accepted his own fate and limped to the door. His cane clicked against the floor, and his leg brace squeaked with each turn of the joint. He took a last deep breath before stepping through the threshold into Father?s shrinking domain.

The stench of endings filled the room. Father lay withered by time and a procession of disease. He was a fragile thing beneath the overstuffed down comforter, shrunken in every measurement and capacity. Though waning, he existed still as a fearsome spirit at the outer edges of the world. Gideon wondered if the dead could restlessly seek to pursue their evils. Though he knew the man could no longer strike him with his fists, it was no coincidence that he recalled the horse Apollyon whenever he thought of his father.

The bedchamber was crowded. Books and ledgers were piled over what windows might have provided at least a scrap of moonlight. The room was made to seem smaller still by the few oil lamps burning at this late hour. The walls were papered with pictures of pheasants, father's favorite beast to shoot, and festooned with Hindoo knives and German landscapes, finished with the garish portraits of ten generations of Longs. The painted eyes of Gideon's ancestors were uniformly dark , as though something had prevented each painter throughout the many years from finishing their depictions with believably human eyes.

Perhaps not so unfinished, Gideon thought as he looked upon the sickly remnants of his father. The old man's eyes were dark, sunken, glittering coal in the pallid face. Father looked at Gideon with the cold envy of a man unwilling to relinquish history to the next generation.

Gideon did not doubt that, were Mephisto to appear to offer his father a bargain, Gideon would find his soul caged in his father's rotting carcass, while his father lived out a full life in Gideon's body. Such a trade would suit his father well.

"Ah, it?s only you,? said Father. He lifted a palsied hand and motioned Gideon to his bedside. ?This long wait for the reaper tests my patience. I nightmare away the hours sweating and pissing myself, yet the true terror is conjured when I imagine what ruin you have brought to my lifetime?s enterprise.?

Gideon said nothing. He reached to take his father?s hand, but the invalid dragged his speckled claw away.

?This land remembers me, what I did. I carved civilization from it. I beat back the savage, god damn him. I? ? Father?s cough interrupted him. His lungs rattled, and he spilled phlegm down his chin. ?Civilization."

"Please, Father, you are unwell. Try to calm yourself. Perhaps some sleep."

"Perhaps sleep,? Father said in a voice that mocked Gideon's tone. "Sage counsel to be sure. History is written by the sleeping.?

Father raised his gnarled hand once more and pointed a bony finger up at Gideon. ?You?ll not raise my hackles on this day. I called you here to be spoken at, so listen."

"I brought you the accounts," Gideon said. "I have detailed everything with??

Gideon brought forth the heavy ledgers he carried beneath his arm. Each was carefully crafted to tell a story of vitality to his father. Each was an increasingly difficult deception. Father pushed them away with surprising vehemence.

"You brought me scrap paper and numbers written down by liars." Father sat up in the bed. "I yet have faithful men within your midst, men whose loyalty to my enterprise compels them to report your mismanagement. You can bring in your Dutchman and your fancy machine. Replace white men practiced at the trade with stinking Slavs and all those gutter Chinese. Cheaper, but they will ruin you. Those mongrel peoples are parasites gathering upon the body of this nation."

The old man's eyes bulged, and foam gathered at the corners of his lips. His hair was long and gray and as thin as spun sugar around the spotted dome of his head.

"Father, try to calm yourself," Gideon said as he took a step forward.

"Your brother, God rest him, was brought up for this. He had the spirit of a Long in him."

Father fought to catch his breath.

?You have already met Mr. Horten,? Gideon said with a pleading tone. ?I have explained the wireworks. It is an investment that will pay dividends over?"

"We're in copper, boy. Not iron." Father sighed and allowed himself to settle back in the cushioned bed. "Your excuses no longer matter to me. I have sent for my attorney."

Gideon felt a fearful lurch and clenching in his gut. He steadied himself by leaning against his cane and tried not to show his fear. It was too late. His father's smile revealed a mouthful of teeth so decayed, they were nearly gray.

"Yes, Gideon. My attorney is come from Memphis. He will be arriving in Jessup in two days by railway. Robert Broken Horse can take care of sending a coach to retrieve him."

Father gleefully wallowed in Gideon's dismay.

"He will want to see everything. The accounts themselves, not just these ledgers. What you have done to my foundry, to the mine. To our family."

"I have done nothing."

"Nothing would be bad enough, a failure by inaction, but I suspect you are lying to me. I fear Pearce has not been put in his place, as you claim. Profligacy, perhaps criminal acts of accounting. Mr. Surebow will sniff it out, and your goose will soon be cooked."

"Yes, Father."

"Should any of my suspicions prove true, I have already alerted your sister's husband to be ready to take over the business."

Gideon began to protest, but Father held up a hand to stop him.

"He has already proven himself in his own enterprise. I should rather my life's work pass to another name than have it ruined by my own. By this method my industrious ancestors will at least enjoy some benefit of all my labors."

Father clapped his hands together to punctuate his declaration. He seemed rejuvenated by Gideon's reaction. He took the edge of the comforter in his left hand and flung it back from his body. An orange brine of liquid surrounded him on the mattress.

"I will be needing you to clean my piss."

Copyright © 2012 by Zack Parsons. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp.