an excerpt from the novel
by ROD SURRATT
Prologue: The Fusion of Anthrough-Genus
s the thin blade of the executioner’s double-edged sword severed her neck from her shoulders, Muirland Genus acknowledged two final thoughts: the first appreciative, the second inquisitive. Initially, as her head dropped into the crimson-stained wicker basket next to her murderer’s brown boots, she acquiesced a begrudging gratitude for the painlessness of her execution.
Indeed, her killer had carried out the duties of his office with poise and precision worthy of mention; for she had witnessed five public beheadings of thieves and adulterers before suffering her own, and they did not always transpire as gracefully as this one. The condemned were not always blessed with one painless, swift stroke.
In one such hapless instance, though the instrument of death had been sharpened no less compulsively than here, a five-year old Muirland had watched with her kin in sublime horror as a frustrated executioner hacked downward again and again at a screaming thief’s neck as if it were a petrified oak, unable to crack the stiff, tightly-knotted bones beneath the flesh.
The image of this wailing man, tears streaming from his eyes even as they rolled back into whites, as the blade took his head from him an inch at a time, had haunted her for the next fourteen years, and therefore all her life, and the grim memory resurfaced one last time with vulgar potency as the bulk of her sandy blonde hair cushioned her head’s fall into the basket.
The last, mortal contemplation of Muirland Genus, as the world ceased to bring sound to her ears, and she peered with narrowed eyes through the tiny holes between the intersecting layers of the wicker basket, concerned a fascination with her own vitality. She had often wondered, while witnessing the frequent public beheadings which so often served as a poor substitute for entertainment, at what point did a life end? Did a moment of consciousness remain as a head was severed from its body?
Truly, she had theorized, the departed must experience at least one living moment of disorientation; a transitory, surreal surveillance of the world through one’s immobile severed head. Now, with eyes no longer able to bring tears to her face, and a throat unable to cry out, as her vision faded and closed in from the corners, Genus congratulated herself. She’d guessed right, and the moments continued to pass for much longer than she would have imagined.
Time accommodated these introspective, melancholy thoughts, these flashes of grisly memories; granted her the moldy, melted-copper odor of a wicker basket which had caught dozens of heads before hers, before this last sense, that of smell, left her forever. Time allowed for regret and anger. And then the darkness took her. But it was not the end.
In the black, a profound passage of time continued. More time than she would have guessed, and much more than she ever would have wanted. Consciousness remained. As if locked in the darkest room, leagues below the surface, with no ears to hear a silence forever undisturbed, the consciousness that had existed briefly as the woman, Muirland Genus, lived on behind the dead and useless blue eyes of a face that soon began to sag in decomposition.
Genus existed as a solitary, confined being without a body to move or a voice to speak, living in an uncompromising blackness which allowed only thought and memory and emotion. Had she ears to hear it, she would have screamed in panic, for it felt akin to drowning, or being smothered or buried alive.
For the first few hours, she felt as if a child again, locked in the cellar by her older brother Darien while their parents were gone. He called it punishment every time he pinched her upper arm inside his colossal fist, dragged her underground and locked her inside, but she knew in every instance she had done nothing to deserve it. Whether Muirland’s behavior offended him or not, Darien Genus used the cellar as a means of independence.
Once he’d secured his garrulous and annoying younger sister there, he could take solace that she would survive until his parents returned, and he was, of course, relieved of the burden of watching over her. And could she honestly claim she would have acted differently in his stead? She could.
Because Darien is evil, she decided. And I am good. As she had in her previous life, covered in flesh and bones and a nearly flawless complexion, Genus continued to see things in absolute terms: good and evil, black and white, light and dark. I am good, she told herself again. Good enough for the chopping block.
Encumbered with bountiful time for memory, Genus reflected on her brief nineteen years of existence. She remembered her childhood in the Kingdom of Danyubin, the poorest and most vulnerable of the four claustrophobic kingdoms of the known world. Claustrophobic because the known world consisted of a gargantuan scrap of land surrounded by a raging sea in all four directions, and no man had ever returned from exploring it, to tell a desperate people that no, the sea did not stretch on forever; that other lands and other people awaited. Like everyone else in the Four Kingdoms, Genus imagined, she had died believing in no world beyond the sea.
She recalled from the youngest age being taught the meaning of the word “war”, and learning from her father and older brother that it should be revered. The Four Kingdoms of the world: Danyubin, Shards, Anthenock and Menzeneas, had maintained decimating wars since they first carved up the world into four sections, bickering about borders and passing down grievances, curses and promises of vengeance from father to son for eight generations and counting. But their relentless conflict touched Genus’ life only sporadically during her nineteen years. Though untrained farmers, her father and brother had both fought for the King of Danyubin in multiple, border-related skirmishes, and she had felt at times relieved and at times disappointed to see them survive.
She remembered becoming infatuated, a mere two years ago, with the man who would bring about her demise. The arousing, incorrigible and, of course, already married man who grew all the more difficult to restrain when he discovered his obsession with Genus was well reciprocated. And after weeks of locking eyes and crooked smiles across the marketplace, when he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the winding alley behind the pottery maker’s stand, she had done her best to restrain his affections, had she not? Had she not, in spite of her own clenching desires, reminded him of his wife as he entered her?
And when he betrayed her, in his pathetic, sobbing confession to his spouse, and Genus was herself called out as a whore, and condemned to death as an adulterer, did she not accept her non-negotiable fate with dignity, head held high to meet the eyes of her masked executioner? She did indeed.
Because Claudius is evil, she thought. And I am good. Though imperfect. Had she eyes, she knew they would be streaming tears. Her memories overlapped, intersected, interrupted and bled into each other like the meaningless images one sees in the mental twilight between awake and asleep. The discipline of her father’s thundering hand. The comfort of her mother’s frail, bird-like arms. Hunting for small beasts with knife and crossbow under the arrogant guidance of her brother Darien, whom she had often admired and sometimes despised. The salty taste of a mysterious, endless ocean; cursed for its insurmountable entrapment and nearly worshipped as an idol for its elegance and power.
Alas, nineteen years amounts to such a short time to live, and her new existence would last far longer. Though similar, she realized she had not arrived in the cellar of her childhood. Darien would not be opening the door, flooding daylight into her eyes. How long, she wondered, could her mind remain intact in the dark, with nothing but memories to distract itself?
Although she could not track the passage of time, just forty-two hours after her beheading, she found herself wailing voicelessly for mercy from whomever or whatever had confined her in this intangible prison. She begged the misanthropic puppet master that had damned her to such a miserable fate to end her existence, to destroy her consciousness, to cause pain, to torture her or touch her in any way that would allow her to feel something and alleviate her eternal and intolerable monotony. But no answer came.
With no stimulus and no response, the mind of Muirland Genus turned on itself like a starving woman forced to eat her own body. She lost the memory of her own voice and her thoughts were spoken with other female voices she had never heard, even as she realized she was creating them herself, gnawing on the skin and bones of her own depleted sanity in a desperate attempt to find anything or anyone with which to interact. They began to converse, then to argue and degrade each other, much as she imagined the four kings of the world she had so recently left would have done, if ever they were trapped in the same room together.
Meanwhile, in that mortal world of kings and borders, beyond Genus’ darkness, cracked and weathered hands wrapped the two severed pieces of her body in a white tablecloth drenched in lamp oil, and long ago dyed burgundy with spilled wine. The rope she’d once used to tie her own horse to its post lowered her body into a rectangular grave nine feet deep. As was their custom with all their beloved departed, Darien Genus and his father dropped a flaming torch in the grave, to burn the flesh off the corpse.
And even when the skin incinerated off her bones, and the sex of her charred skeleton became indistinguishable, the female consciousness of Muirland Genus remained trapped in her cryptic prison, in a realm far removed from the father and brother who buried and burned her with tears, remorse, and just a bit of relief.
Years folded into decades. Then a century. And another. The scorched remains of Muirland Genus withered into dust underground, as did those of her father, her brother Darien, and her brother’s children. Finally, when the insane and frantic consciousness born as Genus had aged three hundred and twenty-nine years, as the female voices of her subconscious continued mumbling and snapping at each other as she suspected they would for millennia, she heard someone else.
Yes. Heard. After what seemed infinite silence, a sound. This voice sounded male, and that quality alone sufficed to convince Genus that she hadn’t created it herself. Though pitched at a mere whisper, the shock of hearing quieted all the squabbling voices of her thoughts.
“What do you think of eternity, Genus?”
A question. Someone is here with me, in the dark. Have I truly been without ears to hear, or has there been nothing to hear until now?
“The latter,” the male voice responded.
A realization, both terrifying and exhilarating, surfaced in Genus’ understanding. The voice had replied because even as she had formed them in her mind, for the first time her own thoughts were also manifested in sound: the crisp and vibrant articulation of a nineteen year-old farmer’s daughter named Muirland, beheaded for adultery over three centuries ago. A moment passed, its length unfathomable, for seconds and minutes had long ago become indistinguishable from years and decades.
“Do you understand this question?” the male voice insisted, louder now and heaving impatience.
Genus uttered a confused, choked sob, bitter and confrontational. “I…think…for eternity.”
“How long have you been with me?”
“From the moment of your deliverance. From the beginning.”
“Why am I here? Why do I still exist?”
Her questions were met with a brief silence; one which suggested to Genus that this new presence understood the weight of her inquiry, the furious anguish of her excruciating solitude, the misery of her undying, incarcerated existence.
“To be observed,” the male voice said.
“Is this what happens to us all when we die?”
“Why? Would it comfort you to know that billions have suffered before you?”
“Then who decided my fate?”
“If it was decided, then it was not fate, was it? The decision was made by the same gods you have remained oblivious to your entire life.”
“Have they confined you here with me?”
“I suffer no confinements nor limitations. At least…not as you have known them. I can transcend the world from whence you came in any form I wish. Given a choice, would you prefer to exist in such a state, or remain alone in the dark?”
Overwhelmed, conflicted, Genus’ tone grew contemptuous and sarcastic. “Given your choice, I would prefer to not exist.”
“You have not the luxury of that option, Genus. There is, in fact, no such state as non-existence. Have you not amassed sufficient time for pitying yourself? Do you require another century?”
“I require nothing from you.”
“Are you certain? Has your spirit so withered as to forget the colors beyond the dark, the warmth of the sun, the intoxication of a human touch?”
“What are you?”
“I am Anthrough. I offer you the chance to be absorbed into my divinity. I offer you everlasting retribution against the world from which you have been delivered.”
And so it ensued that two beings once relative and separate were joined into an interdependent absolute – neither male nor female, but both at once. And could Genus be condemned for accepting this offer of sanctuary; the chance to avenge the injustice of her now ancient execution, to punish the world in which her young life was cut short, betrayed by Claudius and his sanctimonious bitch under a blatantly misogynistic system of criminal law, when the alternative was interminable isolation, ageless seclusion? She could not.
“Because the world is an Absolute Evil,” Anthrough-Genus whispered. “And I am an Absolute Good.”
Rod Surratt is the author of the short story SPARTAN SHELL and the full-length dark fantasy novel SHARDS, available for purchase on Amazon, as well as numerous stage plays and essays. He can be reached at www.authorsurratt.com.
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