Authors: James P. Blaylock
THE PAPER GRAIL
James P. Blaylock
In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:
‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’
Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.
The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.
Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.
Welcome to the SF Gateway.
The author would like to thank some people for their help and their friendship:
Dorothea Kenny, Merrilee Heifetz, Randal Robb, Kirk Schumacher, and Tim McNamara, the Secret King of the North Coast. And especially Lew Shiner, the no-holds-barred story doctor. And Tim Powers, from whose tin shed full of plots, images, and ideas I’ve always stolen ruthlessly.
… that harmony is now broken, and broken the world round: fragments, indeed, of what existed still exist, and hours of what is past still return; but month by month the darkness gains upon the day ….
… to draw out the soul of things with the syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.
G. K. CHESTERTON
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.
skywriting in his dream wasn’t a word or phrase; it was five white clouds drifting in a blue sky. There was no airplane gusting out smoke, only the five clouds very gradually appearing, exactly positioned, like a constellation growing visible in evening twilight. This time there was the heavy, rhythmic sound of the ocean in the distance, and Howard confused it with the sound of the seasons turning like a mill wheel. He knew in the dream that it was autumn. The pattern of the cloudy skywriting was always the same, and always suggested the same thing, but the seasons kept changing, following the course of the waking year.
In the dream, Howard walked into the mill, which was built of stone, and he stood before the fire in the hearth. A cold wind off the ocean blew at his back. There was no heat in the fire at all, and so he stirred the coals with a stick that he found in his hand, only half surprised that leafy green tendrils sprouted from the stick and twined up his arm in the few moments that he held it.
The fire popped and leaped, throwing embers onto the hearthstones. He knew he was dreaming, and he knew that in a moment he would kneel on the hearth and burn his knee on a hot ember, and that he would feel the pain of the burn even though it was a dream and the fire was cold. And then he would touch the clear fluid that seeped from the burn and taste it, only vaguely surprised that it had the piny smell and flavor of tree sap. There would be a message in the five clouds now, spelling out his fate, but when he walked back outside to read it, the mill wouldn’t be a mill any longer. It would be a stone house on a cliffside with the ocean pounding on rocks below and the sky above dark with impending rain.
He woke up this time to the sound of waves breaking along the Point Reyes coastline. It was just dawn. He had slept that night in the back of his camper, parked at Stinson Beach, having driven the few miles from the campground at Mount Tamalpais
yesterday morning. Already the dream was fading from his mind. As always, he couldn’t remember why it had seemed so vastly important to him, but it had left him with the ghostly suggestions of urgency and dread, and with the peculiar certainty that the five white clouds hadn’t been real clouds at all, but had been painted by some unseen hand on the sky above his dream.
driving north out of Point Reyes, Howard stopped at Inverness for breakfast and then used up the rest of his half-frozen anchovies fishing in a big tide pool north of town, throwing chunks of bait at wheeling sea gulls and thinking about his job as assistant curator at a small and dusty museum in southern California. He had come north to pick up a single piece of artwork—what he understood to be a nineteenth-century Japanese woodcut sketch, perhaps by Hoku-sai.
He remembered the sketch as having been faded, with heavy crease lines where some idiot had folded it up, trying to construct, or reconstruct, an origami object. That had been nearly fifteen years ago, when he had spent a rainy weekend at the cliffside house built by Michael Graham, the old man who owned the sketch. Graham had kept it in a curious sort of box, hidden behind the stones of the fireplace, even though there had been prints on the wall, in plain view, that were more valuable.
Howard’s cousin Sylvia had been there, too. She had guessed that the rice paper sketch had actually been folded into any number of shapes, and had wondered if a person could refold it, using the creases as a sort of road map. Every now and then, and especially lately, after his dreams about the mill wheel and the fireplace, it occurred to Howard that the road map metaphor fit better than either he or Sylvia had guessed.
Hanging from the rearview mirror in Howard’s truck was an origami flower, a lily that had yellowed to the color of old ivory. It was dusty and torn, but too delicate by now to clean up or reshape. Young and romantic, he had given Sylvia a lily on the night they decided against making love, and she had given him the paper flower the following morning, folded up out of paper pressed from linen and leaves.
They were just twenty years old then, and the fact of their being cousins meant that they had very nearly grown up together. It also meant that when their feelings for each other began to grow romantic, there was something that made such feelings troublesome, if not impossible. In her junior year at college Sylvia told him she had decided to move north to Fort Bragg,
where her parents lived, and against his own desires he had let her go without arguing.
A month ago he had found the paper lily in a box full of old college memorabilia, and had hung it in the cab of his truck. It turned out to be a sort of catalyst, suggesting Sylvia to him, stirring in him the desire to travel up the coast after all these years and pay her a visit. He told himself now that when he arrived in Fort Bragg today or tomorrow he would take it down before she saw it and misread his intentions—or, perhaps, read them correctly. Who could say what either of them would feel these many years later? Nothing had changed, really.
He thought about this as he fished in the pool above Inverness. Either there weren’t any fish in the pool or else he was a lousy fisherman. A pelican landed on a nearby outcropping of rock and watched him with a dreadful eye. Howard said hello to it, and the bird clacked its beak open and shut, then cocked its head and fixed its eye on the remaining anchovies. One by one Howard fed them to the pelican, finally showing it the empty carton. The pelican stood there, anyway, watching him past its ridiculous beak, until Howard reeled in his line and picked his way across the rocks toward where his truck was parked on the roadside. Then the bird flew north, following the coast, disappearing behind grassy bluffs and then reappearing out over the ocean, skimming along a foot above the swell, while Howard followed in the pickup, driving at erratic speeds in order to keep the bird in sight and trying to remember whether signifying seabirds were good omens or bad.
He wasn’t due in Fort Bragg until tomorrow, but there was no reason at all that he couldn’t drive the few hours north today, maybe stop at Graham’s house this very afternoon and get business out of the way, after which he could head on up to his Uncle Roy’s house and get on with his vacation. He wondered idly whether Sylvia still lived there or had gotten a place of her own, and whether she still saw anything of the man she had very nearly married. What had he called himself then? An animal name of some sort—skunk, maybe, or weasel. Stoat, that was it. Howard had got the news roundaboutly, through his mother, and had insisted to himself that he was happy for Sylvia, that there were no hard feelings. How could there be, after all these years? He was a good deal happier, though, when he heard that Sylvia hadn’t married, after all. So much for taking the long view.
On Highway One, above Point Arena and Elk, the road was cut into the cliff face, barely wide enough for two cars to
edge past each other. He slowed down, hugging the side of the highway, occasionally looking for the pelican, holding out hope even though he hadn’t seen it for two hours. Tangled berry vines snaked down almost onto the asphalt, massed around the bleached pickets of rickety hillside fences. Above him the hills were dry and brown except for stands of cypress and Monterey pine and eucalyptus. Below him were hundreds of feet of rock-strewn, almost vertical cliffs that disappeared into the fog that was drifting ashore now. Here and there, when the road skirted the cliff, he could see the gray Pacific churning below on cathedral-sized rocks.