Manchester-in-the-Gulch

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

There are rocks that fall. There are flames that rise. There are beasts in the night.

And there are eggs.

Annie wakes up there, sprawled in her daisy-print dress upon a viscous bog. She wakes up already sinking into the mud and in a panic, but there are hands grasping for her, the hands of men and women standing on the stable places in the bog. They are lifting her. They pull her up.

“Hello,” she says. “My name is Annie.”

“Annie,” murmur the people, in acknowledgment.

“Where am I?” Annie asks.

Then Minister Brown steps forward, and his hand is gentle on her arm, and he says, “Annie, you have been damned.”

“Oh,” Annie says. “Oh.”

Then Annie curls tightly around the egg so that none may take it from her.

“Peace,” says Minister Brown. “There is no one here who will hurt you. We are a sad lot, an unpleasant lot, but there is not the least of us here that would ever hurt your egg.”

There is an odd ring of truth to these words, and Annie peers at him.

“Oughtn’t you lot be horrid ruffians?” she says.

“Such was also my theory,” says Minister Brown. “But it does not seem the case. I thought on the matter, and here is my conclusion: if this is Hell, we are suffering immeasurable agonies and torment, which we tune out reflexively as the nature of our condition. In such light, the only greater harm that we could suffer is the shattering of our eggs. In all history there have been no humans, or at least few humans, so depraved as to exceed in their actions the torments offered by Hell. Thus, against the background evil of this place, all people stand out as good.”

“I see,” Annie says.

She takes a few steps away from them, feeling her way through the bog. “I don’t remember being terribly evil,” she says. She looks up at the sky. “I suppose I could have been a sociopath who just didn’t recognize the truth of all my deeds.”

Minister Brown sizes her up.

“More likely a contributor to the background ignorant malice of the world,” says Minister Brown. “But it is a question that others do not investigate, here. If you should like to know, you may ponder it in your egg. If you do not, we shall not inquire.”

“I understand,” says Annie.

They take her to their community, Manchester-of-the-Gulch, and there she spends some years. She learns, of her own accord, to plait yarn from the wispy, smoky matter that trails from the branches of the trees. She learns to knit clothing using needles made of the great bones, shed by long-forgotten beasts, which from time to time surface in the bog. She joins the people on their excursions to hunt the food, the water, and the sparkling foxfire-globes of electric power that help their town to live. And for years she holds her egg close, in her hand and later a pocket of her dress, but she does not look inside it.

Sometimes she sees the great stony creatures walk by, silent in the mist. The people call them the Demon Princes, for they are eidolons of fear and mystery to them.

They pass, great and terrible in the night, and they do not speak.

“I am minded to take up religion,” Annie says, one day, to Minister Brown. “But I am not sure how to proceed, this being Hell.”

“There is no proviso in the Good Book,” says Minister Brown, “that the damned cannot take up the faith. There is only the implication, apparent to certain learned theologians, that we cannot master it. Given that we are bound by our nature and unable to accept God, we cannot know the Word; the Word that we know is not the true Word; we cannot ever truly understand the majesty of the Lord. But we may come close.”

Annie is stricken. “To study, Minister, and aspire, always knowing that the truth by definition eludes us?”

“It is a burden,” Minister Brown agrees easily. “Some take up other faiths, of course. It is the Asian perspective that this Hell is a temporary place of torment, and that by apprehending the truth we lighten the burden of our karma. Some Christian sects would have it that even the damned are vulnerable to salvation, although the nature of the transition is not entirely clear—as we are dead, we cannot change our natures, but surely God’s light can breach that gap? And then there are the various rationalist faiths.”

“Why, then, Minister, are you a man of the Book?”

Minister Brown shrugs. “Because I cannot apprehend the truth does not mean I may not seek it.”

Annie scratches at the side of her face.

“I suppose,” Annie says, “that you might manage some epistemological sleight. Some manner of knowing-without-knowing, faith-without-faith, witness-by-implication.”

“I have time,” says Minister Brown.

So Annie studies with him, and they stare around the enigma of the belief they may not hold; but in her hour and in her day, it is Annie’s decision to part ways, saying, “Lo, I have found faith, in this simple place; and I cannot deny this flame I feel inside me on the doctrinal basis of its impossibility.”

“May you be wiser in this than I,” says Minister Brown.

And it is driven by that faith, supported by that tender reed of God, that, three months later, Annie finally finds it in herself to draw aside from the others, travel out beyond the borders of Manchester-of-the-Gulch, walk into the bog. There, she makes inquiry of her egg after the sin that damned her.

Now her egg is a filigree of gold that wraps around a pulsing core of red. And there are numbers in the egg and there are sounds and there is whiteness and there is fire. And there is an ancient wind and shouts of war and more of these things besides, and in its heart, she sees the sin that damned her.

Annie shrieks, as is typical of the damned, and casts the egg aside onto a tuft of grass; and she cowers there, in the bog, shaking and trembling, biting on her lip until there is blood, scratching at her arms.

“Leave her,” says Minister Brown, when a hunting party finds her there. “She will recover.”

He bends down and tries to touch her arm, but she rebuffs him with flailing blows, and he rises and nods.

But they have not gotten thirty paces thence when the rocks begin to fall.

There is something nagging at Annie’s mind. There is something twisting in it. And then she suddenly flounders to her feet, and begins to cast frantically about her, crying, “My egg!”

And all around her there are great stones falling from the sky, falling from the heights of stone that are the roof of Hell, and she does not know where the egg was cast, or whether it is vulnerable on the surface of the ground or deep and sheltered in the bog.

The others are hurrying back already as she sees it. She is grasping for it, a scream bubbling from her throat like nothing known on Earth. But she is too late; a stone is falling.

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

It is the hand of a Demon Prince that saves her; a great and steel-skinned hand. It passes over the bog like a shadow, and the stone shatters on that skin.

And there is a wonder in that, and an awe, but mostly the jagged residuals of fear.

Clutching her egg tightly to her chest, mumbling a mix of frantic blessings and terrible strangled sounds, Annie stumbles back to Manchester-in-the-Gulch.

8 thoughts on “Manchester-in-the-Gulch

  1. For a story about Hell, that seems oddly beautiful.

    I don’t know why it strikes me that way. But it does.

    -Eric

  2. I suspect it’s Rebecca’s writing; it usually seems “oddly beautiful”, even (especially?) when disturbing!

    Hm. So, in this Hell– are the eggs what them there, or, rather, their fear for the eggs– the one thing they have left to lose? That would offer one explanation for the Demon Prince’s seeming intervention…

    If that were so, this would be another Hell of Attachment– though in a decidedly different way than the one Ink Catherly seeks….

  3. I’m reminded of Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Called Shayol”, in which we learn that Hell itself is not much to fear, if the people in it are good to one another.

    I can’t help, also, wondering what Annie’s sin was, although it makes narrative sense that we don’t get to learn it.

  4. I’d definitely call it beautiful. This day’s story exemplifies my main reason for reading Hitherby Dragons.

    I’m pleased to hear anyone recall Cordwainer Smith – a great writer – these days.

    – S –

  5. Actually, I think that knowing about Smith isn’t all that rare among geeks. I mean, I’ve got everything he’s written, and generally when I mention him online at least some of the people know his stories.

    -Eric

  6. Actually, I think that knowing about Smith isn’t all that rare among geeks. I mean, I’ve got everything he’s written, and generally when I mention him online at least some of the people know his stories.

    Do you have the NESFA Press books?

  7. Another paralell comes to me today as I review Fair Folk Material— each Raksha has a Heart Grace that is the center of their existence; the form of that Grace is usually an Adamantine Egg…

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