Authors: Fritz Leiber
OUR LADY OF DARKNESS
Copyright © 1977 by Fritz Leiber.
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
But the third Sister, who is also the youngest—! Hush! whisper whilst we talk of
! Her kingdom is not large, or else no flesh should live; but within that kingdom all power is hers. Her head, turreted like that of Cybele, rises almost beyond the reach of sight. She droops not; and her eyes, rising so high,
be hidden by distance. But, being what they are, they cannot be hidden; through the treble veil of crape which she wears the fierce light of a blazing misery, that rests not for matins or for vespers, for noon of day or noon of night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very ground. She is the defier of God. She also is the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides. Deep lie the roots of her power; but narrow is the nation that she rules. For she can approach only those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions; in whom the heart trembles and the brain rocks under conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within. Madonna moves with uncertain steps, fast or slow, but still with tragic grace. Our Lady of Sighs creeps timidly and stealthily. But this youngest Sister moves with incalculable motions, bounding, and with tiger’s leaps. She carries no key; for, though coining rarely amongst men, she storms all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all. And
—our Lady of Darkness.
------Thomas De Quincy
“Levana and Our Three Ladies of Sorrow”
Suspiria de Profundis
steep hill called Corona Heights was black as pitch and very silent, like the heart of the unknown. It looked steadily downward and northeast away at the nervous, bright lights of downtown San Francisco as if it were a great predatory beast of night surveying its territory in patient search of prey.
The waxing gibbous moon had set, and the stars at the top of the black heavens were still diamond sharp. To the west lay a low bank of fog. But to the east, beyond the city’s business center and the fog-surfaced Bay, the narrow ghostly ribbon of the dawn’s earliest light lay along the tops of the low hills behind Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda, and still more distant Devil’s Mountain-Mount Diablo.
On every side of Corona Heights the street and house lights of San Francisco, weakest at end of night, hemmed it in apprehensively, as if it were indeed a dangerous animal. But on the hill itself there was not a single light. An observer below would have found it almost impossible to make out its jagged spine and the weird crags crowning its top (which even the gulls avoided); and breaking out here and there from its raw, barren sides, which although sometimes touched by fog, had not known the pelting of rain for months.
Someday the hill might be bulldozed down, when greed had grown even greater than it is today and awe of primeval nature even less, but now it could still awaken panic terror.
Too savage and cantankerous for a park, it was inadequately designated as a playground. True, there were some tennis courts and limited fields of grass and low buildings and little stands of thick pine around its base; but above those it rose rough, naked, and contemptuously aloof.
And now something seemed to stir in the massed darkness there. (Hard to tell what.) Perhaps one or more of the city’s wild dogs, homeless for generations, yet able to pass as tame. (In a big city, if you see a dog going about his business, menacing no one, fawning on no one, fussing at no one—in fact, behaving like a good citizen with work to do and no time for nonsense—and if that dog lacks tag or collar, men you may be sure he hasn’t a neglectful owner, but is wild—and well adjusted.) Perhaps some wilder and more secret animal mat had never submitted to man’s rule, yet lived almost unglimpsed amongst him. Perhaps, conceivably, a man (or woman) so sunk in savagery or psychosis that he (or she) didn’t need light. Or perhaps only the wind.
And now the eastern ribbon grew dark red, the whole sky lightened from the east toward the west, the stars were fading, and Corona Heights began to show its raw, dry, pale brown surface.
Yet the impression lingered that the hill had grown restless, having at last decided on its victim.
TWO HOURS LATER,
Franz Westen looked out of his open casement window at the 1,000-foot TV tower rising bright red and white in the morning sunlight out of the snowy fog that still masked Sutro Crest and Twin Peaks three miles away and against which Corona Heights stood out, humped and pale brown. The TV tower—San Francisco’s Eiffel, you could call it—was broad-shouldered, slender-waisted, and long-legged like a beautiful and stylish woman—or demigoddess. It mediated between Franz and the universe these days, just as man is supposed to mediate between the atoms and the stars. Looking at it, admiring, almost reverencing it, was his regular morning greeting to the universe, his affirmation that they were in touch, before making coffee and settling back into bed with clipboard and pad for the day’s work of writing supernatural horror stories and especially (his bread and butter) novelizing the TV program “Weird Underground,” so that the mob of viewers could also read, if they wanted to, something like the melange of witchcraft, Watergate, and puppy love they watched on the tube. A year or so ago he would have been focusing inward on his miseries at this hour and worrying about the day’s first drink—whether he still had it or had drunk up everything last night—but that was in the past, another matter.
Faint, dismal foghorns cautioned each other in the distance. Franz’s mind darted briefly two miles behind him to where more fog would be blanketing San Francisco Bay except for the four tops thrusting from it of the first span of the bridge to Oakland. Under that frosty-looking surface there would be the ribbons of impatient, fuming cars, the talking ships, and coming from far below the water and the mucky bottom, but heard by fishermen in little boats, the eerie roar of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains rocketing through the tube as they carried the main body of commuters to their jobs.
Dancing up the sea air into his room there came the gay, sweet notes of a Telemann minuet blown by Cal from her recorder two floors below. She meant them for him, he told himself, even though he was twenty years older. He looked at the oil portrait of his dead wife Daisy over the studio bed, beside a drawing of the TV tower in spidery black lines on a large oblong of fluorescent red cardboard, and felt no guilt. Three years of drunken grief—a record wake!—had worked that all away, ending almost exactly a year ago.
His gaze dropped to the studio bed, still half-unmade. On the undisturbed half, nearest the wall, there stretched out a long, colorful scatter of magazines, science-fiction paperbacks, a few hardcover detective novels still in their wrappers, a few bright napkins taken home from restaurants, and a half-dozen of those shiny little
Knowledge Through Color
books—his recreational reading as opposed to his working materials and references arranged on the coffee table beside the bed. They’d been his chief—almost his sole—companions during the three years he’d laid sodden there stupidly goggling at the TV across the room; but always fingering them and stupefiedly studying their bright, easy pages from time to time. Only a month ago it had suddenly occurred to him that their gay casual scatter added up to a slender, carefree woman lying beside him on top of the covers—that was why he never put them on the floor; why he contented himself with half the bed; why he unconsciously arranged them in a female form with long, long legs. They were a “scholar’s mistress,” he decided, on the analogy of “Dutch wife,” that long, slender bolster sleepers clutch to soak up sweat in tropical countries—a very secret playmate, a dashing but studious call girl, a slim, incestuous sister, eternal comrade of his writing work.
With an affectionate glance toward his oil-painted dead wife and a keen, warm thought
toward Cal still sending up pirouetting notes on the air, he said softly with a conspiratorial smile to the slender cubist form occupying all the inside of the bed, “Don’t worry, dear, you’ll always be my best girl, though we’ll have to keep it a deep secret from the others,” and turned back to the window.
It was the TV tower standing way out there so modern-tail on Sutro Crest, its three long legs still deep in fog, that had first gotten him hooked on reality again after his long escape in drunken dream. At the beginning the tower had seemed unbelievably cheap and garish to him, an intrusion worse man the high rises in what had been the most romantic of cities, an obscene embodiment of the blatant world of sales and advertising—even, with its great red and white limbs against blue sky (as now, above the fog), an emblazonment of the American flag in its worst aspects: barberpole stripes; fat, flashy, regimented stars. But men it had begun to impress him against his will with its winking red lights at night—so many of them! he had counted nineteen: thirteen steadies and six winkers—and then it had subtly led his interest to the other distances in the cityscape and also in the real stars so far beyond, and on lucky nights the moon, until he had got passionately interested in all real things again, no matter what. And the process had never stopped; it still kept on. Until Saul had said to him, only the other day, “I don’t know about welcoming in every new reality. You could run into a bad customer.”
“That’s fine talk, coming from a nurse in a psychiatric ward,” Gunnar had said, while Franz had responded instantly, “Taken for granted. Concentration camps. Germs of plague.”
“I don’t mean things like those exactly,” Saul had said. “I guess I mean the sort of things some of my guys run into at the hospital.”
“But those would be hallucinations, projections, archetypes, and so on, wouldn’t they?” Franz had observed, a little wonderingly. “Parts of
reality, of course.”
“Sometimes I’m not so sure,” Saul had said slowly. “Who’s going to know what’s what if a crazy says he’s just seen a ghost? Inner or outer reality? Who’s to tell then? What do you say, Gunnar, when one of your computers starts giving readouts it shouldn’t?”
“That it’s got overheated,” Gun had answered with conviction. “Remember, my computers are normal people to start out with, not weirdos and psychotics like your guys.”
“Normal—what’s that?” Saul had countered.
Franz had smiled at his two friends who occupied two apartments on the floor between his and Cal’s. Cal had smiled, too, though not so much.
Now he looked out the window again. Just outside it, the six-story drop went down past Cal’s window—a narrow shaft between this building and the next, the flat roof of which was about level with his floor. Just beyond that, framing his view to either side, were the bone-white, rain-stained back walls—mostly windowless—of two high rises that went up and up.
It was a rather narrow slot between them, but through it he could see all of reality he needed to keep in touch. And if he wanted more he could always go up two stories tome roof, which he often did these days and nights.
From this building low on Nob Hill the sea of roofs went down and down, then up and up again, tinying with distance, to the bank of fog now masking the dark green slope of Sutro Crest and the bottom of the tripod TV tower. But in the middle distance a shape like a crouching beast, pale brown in the morning sunlight, rose from the sea of roofs. The map called it just Corona Heights. It had been teasing Franz’s curiosity for several weeks. Now he focused his small seven-power Nikon binoculars on its bare earth slopes and humped spine, which stood out sharply against the white fog. He wondered why it hadn’t been built up. Big cities certainly had some strange intrusions in them. This one was like a raw remnant of upthrust from the earthquake of
1906, he told himself, smiling at the unscientific fancy. Could it be called Corona Heights from the crown of irregularly clumped big rocks on its top, he asked himself, as he rotated the knurled knob a little more, and they came out momentarily sharp and clear against the fog.
A rather thin, pale brown rock detached itself from the others and waved at him. Damn the way these glasses jiggled with his heartbeat! A person who expected to see neat, steady pictures through them just hadn’t used binoculars. Or could it be a floater in his vision, a microscopic speck in the eye’s fluid? No, there he had it again! Just as he’d thought, it was some tall person in a long raincoat or drab robe moving about almost as if dancing. You couldn’t see human figures in any detail at two miles even with sevenfold magnification; you just got a general impression of movements and attitude. They were simplified. This skinny figure on Corona Heights was moving around rather rapidly, all right, maybe dancing with arms waving high, but that was the most you could tell.
As he lowered the binoculars he smiled broadly at the thought of some hippie type greeting the morning sun with ritual prancings on a mid-city hilltop newly emerged from fog. And with chantings too, no doubt, if one could hear—unpleasant wailing ululations like the yelping siren he heard now in the distance, the sort that was frantic-making when heard too close. Someone from the Haight-Ashbury, likely, it was out that way. A stoned priest of a modern sun god dancing around an accidental high-set Stonehenge. The thing had given him a start, at first, but now he found it very amusing.
A sudden wind blew in. Should he shut the window? No, for now the air was quiet again. It had just been a freakish gust.
He set down the binoculars on his desk beside two thin old books. The topmost, bound in dirty gray, was open at its title page, which read in a utilitarian typeface and layout marking it as last century’s—a grimy job by a grimy printer with no thought of artistry:
Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities
, by Thibaut de Castries. Now that was a funny coincidence! He wondered if a drug-crazed priest in earthen robes—or a dancing rock, for that matter!—would have been recognized by that strange old crackpot Thibaut as one of the “secret occurrences” he had predicted for big cities in the solemnly straight-faced book he’d written back in the 1890s. Franz told himself that he must read some more in it, and in the other book, too.
But not right now, he told himself suddenly, looking back at the coffee table where there reposed, on top of a large and heavy manila envelope already stamped and addressed to his New York agent, the typed manuscript of his newest novelization—
Weird Underground #7
Towers of Treason
—all ready to go except for one final descriptive touch he’d hankered to check on and put in; he liked to give his readers their money’s worth, even though this series was the flimsiest of escape reading, secondary creativity on his part at best.
But this time, he told himself, he’d send the novelization off without the final touch and declare today a holiday—he was beginning to get an idea of what he wanted to do with it. With only a flicker of guilt at the thought of cheating his readers of a trifle, he got dressed and made himself a cup of coffee to carry down to Cal’s, and as afterthoughts the two thin old books under his arm (he wanted to show them to Cal) and the binoculars in his jacket pocket—just in case he was tempted to check up again on Corona Heights and its freaky rock god.