Home Before Dark
by James P. Blaylock
Blake heard the stones clatter down around him -- three circular black stones of quartz-veined basalt that had fallen out of the sky like tiny meteors washed from a celestial river. Why they had fallen on him, was a mystery that failed to engage his mind beyond a momentary puzzlement. Perhaps they were meant to draw his attention, or to hurry him along, although certainly there was no one else visible in the dry arroyo, which rose toward remote and hazy foothills in a broad and revealing vista. Nearer by the scrub-covered canyon walls were steep and rocky, and on the sandy creek bed the sycamores and sparse stands of alder were nearly bare, the last leaves of fall drifting lazily in the still air, piling up in silent drifts among bleached stones and lengthening shadows like autumn recollections.
From where he stood on a small rise, Blake could see for miles to the south and west, where the world he inhabited apparently ended in cloud drift, and beyond which lay a world in which he was a thing of the past, a world in which life went on without him. He couldn’t quite recall what had become of that world, or how long he had been waiting there on the hilltop. It seemed to him that he had merely stopped for a moment in passing, that his way lay farther on, and in the quiet of his surroundings he heard what sounded like the rush and roar of moving water, of subterranean cataracts flowing lightless and unseen beneath the living stone of the arroyo, and he was filled with a lingering fear that the water and the turning seasons were in that very instant pirating away his small accumulation of leftover memories.
He stooped to pick up the three stones, and like wind through a suddenly opened door, there came unbidden into his mind a recollection of his own vanished childhood, and he found himself within the home he had grown up in. He heard the drumming of rain on the porch roof and saw the passing clouds through his bedroom windows, the soft lamplight in the living room, the fire in the hearth, his own reflection in the mantelpiece mirror. As a young man, years later and after months of travel, he had come home unannounced one rainy October evening, and he had lingered in the wet street, possessed by the inexpressible sadness of lost and irretrievable things, silently watching that same homely lamplight shining as ever through the windows, beyond which his parents and his younger brother sat together in the living room: again the flickering firelight, the smoke from his father’s pipe rising above his chair like a ghostly wraith, his mother reading....
He found himself openly and unashamedly weeping now, just as he had wept those many years past, before ascending the porch and opening the door to the happy surprise of his family, and now he found that he had put his hand out as if to grasp a phantom doorknob.
Blake saw a woman walking way off in the distance, although he had the curious and passing notion that she was not in fact distant at all, but that instead he was seeing her through the wrong end of a telescope, as if the weight of the declining afternoon were compressing the remaining daylight into a lens. She flitted abruptly closer, then blinked away entirely before reappearing closer yet again, stooping to pick something up, perhaps a stone.
Her voice drifted down the canyon toward him like siren song, sounding like the voice of his wife, Molly. He found that he could picture her quite clearly: the way she had of pulling her wayward hair back from her face, her dark eyes, her figure the first time he had seen her stepping out of the bath. Beyond where she stood he could to see the roofline of their house, the stone chimney and the big low-limbed sycamore that shaded the yard. It seemed to shimmer in a heat haze despite the cool afternoon, and the drifts of leaves stirred roundabout him so that they shifted and sighed. On the instant, Molly vanished, if indeed it was she, leaving the arroyo empty.
Behind him, farther up the rutted dirt road that followed the creek deeper into the canyon, the peak of a mountain loomed craggy and tree-shadowed against the sky with such startling clarity that it might have been painted on a curtain, and he was struck with the notion that some unseen force might at any moment pull the curtain aside to reveal a sky infinitely more vast than the flat blue ceiling above him. As he walked he listened to the lonesome afternoon stillness, to his own quiet footsteps, and there arose around him again a myriad of voices in a babble of half-discerned conversation, watery echoes leaking out of an uncorked bottle.
A moving dust cloud drifted over the arroyo, some distance to the west, and as soon as he saw it he heard the muted, low-gear rumble and pop of an automobile with a hole in the muffler -- the familiar sound of their old blue Plymouth. When he and Molly had crossed Canada back in ‘65, the muffler had rusted through outside Winnipeg, and the Plymouth had made a popping noise that they’d put up with until they’d driven into Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where they’d spent three Indian summer days at the old Cranberry Inn Guest House. The memory was as fresh in his mind as if the years had been swept away, and he recalled the name of the waitress at the Copper Kettle steak house and the bottled Leinenkugel beer and the dark red of the fall maples that had been so at odds with the warm weather.
He listened now to the muttering of the distant engine and watched the dust cloud to see if it was approaching, but in his mind he was driving down along Lake Superior again, into Wisconsin, with his arm across the top of the seat and his hand on the glass steering wheel knob that encased a shamrock. Molly sat beside him, pointing out a big stilt-legged heron in a
She was Irish, a nurse. They had met after the war, when he was overseas, and she had come back with him to the states where they were married in California. When they’d sold the Plymouth he had kept the steering wheel knob as a memento, but when Molly had died, he had given it away along with a box of souvenirs and keepsakes to their eight-year-old grandson, who understood the seashells and quartz crystals and keepsakes in the box to be a treasure.
The dust cloud was diminishing, the sound of the engine dwindling. Because of his singular perspective, and the peculiar distortions of distance, it was impossible at last to say in which direction the car had been traveling, if indeed it were a car at all, and in fact the dirt road along the creek bed was partly washed out by winter rains, and sections of it were green with wild mustard and castor bean plants. Soon, it seemed to him, time and weather might easily obliterate all signs that a road had ever existed.
He walked downhill a ways before once again ascending, the ground rising slowly out of the arroyo and into a narrow canyon, in among the shadows of the alders that grew along the creek. On the first faint breath of evening wind, the words, home before dark, muttered through his head as if someone -- it sounded like Molly, once again -- had spoken to him through a cardboard tube from a roll of wrapping paper. He turned to look at the sun where it hovered over the hills. In half an hour night would descend over the canyon, and it seemed to him that the waning daylight contained a lifetime of memories, that as long as the sun shone and the world was alive around him he might hold onto them. Nightfall promised an end to things, but the idea of letting go dismayed him. If he still had the old Plymouth, he would throw a few things into the trunk, fire it up, and drive back out into the midst of things before the road was utterly impassable.
Just then he heard the clatter of another stone hitting a tree trunk some few feet to his right, followed by the sound of it falling into dead leaves. He bent down to pick it up: the same sort of circular black stone, with its rune-scrawl veins of quartzite like a cryptic x-ray message. He put it into his pocket, and walked farther along the creek-side trail, his mind wandering, haphazardly sorting images and memories. Another stone clattered against a shoulder-high boulder next to him, and a scattering of stones fell from the clear sky, tearing through the limbs of the alders in a rain of leaves and twigs.
He heard voices in the creek water babbling over mossy stones and in the wind rustling the leaves -- his own voice, quite distinctly now, explaining to his sons about winding a piece of string around a wooden top, and then Molly’s voice, clear as anything: “Can I join you?” she asked, and there was the clatter and hum of the top spinning on concrete, and himself
saying, “Do we look like we’re coming apart?” and then laughter, his sons’ laughter and Molly’s laughter and his own. He could recall the very afternoon, the way their old terrier had gone sniffing after the spinning top, the sound of which was as loud in Blake’s ears as the hum of bees in a hive.
He saw something stirring back in among the twilight shadows of the woods, and he paused, hidden by the broad trunk of a sycamore, peering into the gloom. He glimpsed it again -- a furtive shifting against the canyon wall where a little brush-choked defile rose into a leafy and impenetrable darkness. For a brief moment a human figure separated from the background shadows and stood frozen against a pale granite wall like a silhouette cutout. She stood watching him, and he thought he saw her nod, as if they shared some secret knowledge, but then her shadow merged once again with the darkness of the underbrush, and he was left alone, listening to the freshening wind in the treetops and the faraway drone of an airplane invisible in the sky overhead, a lonesome sound that stirred in him a nostalgic regret for remembered places.
Where Molly had stood only moments before sat a wooden box the size of a packing crate with something standing up out of it like an immense black lily. He walked toward it warily – an old gramophone perched on a tree stump in the leaves and sparse weeds, its ornately etched metal cone facing, the familiar circular stones scattered on the ground beneath the cone as if they had dribbled out of its open mouth. A heavy disk of black glass lay on the turntable. He lifted the bent arm of the gramophone, cranked the handle a half dozen times, then lowered the needle into the first deep groove.
At once the woods were filled with music, calling up recollections of the early years of their marriage, when he and Molly had danced on weekends at the old Moonlight Ballroom in Long Beach, how they had put records on their phonograph at home and practiced dance steps in the living room, laughing, breaking off to start the music over and over again and to hell with the casserole growing cold in the turned-off oven.
He stood in the deep shadows, reliving those days, visions of the past revolving in his head like the stars going round in the sky, passing away relentlessly below the horizon of his mind as the breezy music swirled around him. He had read once that if in God’s mercy you awakened to find yourself in heaven, you would realize with a happy shock of recognition that you had been living in a tiny corner of that bright country all your life. But if that were true, how much harder it would be to give up earthbound treasures, to let go of the people, the places, and the things you’d grown to love during your brief span of years.
The song played itself out and the gramophone fell silent. The sun had gone down behind the hills, dusk settling in, and Blake had a growing apprehension of being abroad in the darkness, although he knew that what he feared was not so much the coming of night as it was the loss of the day. He could make out their house sitting in the twilight now, and he hurried toward it. The garage door stood open, revealing the shadow of the old Plymouth, and he could hear the creak and mutter of the engine cooling down, as if the car had just been driven some distance.
He was swept with another moment of dizzy confusion. He and Molly had sold the Plymouth, hadn’t they? – a long time ago, to be sure. They had bought a Buick and then a couple of other cars after that. But the Plymouth dated from that part of their lives when they had been – what? He would have said when they had been happiest, but that wasn’t true. They had always been happy in their marriage, even when things had been troubled. Happiness wasn’t a day to day thing so much as something that you saw most clearly looking back, having found the right perspective. It was simply that they had put the most road miles on that Plymouth – road trips east to Colorado and Iowa, day trips to Palomar and Ramona and Joshua Tree, weekend runs to his sister’s place up to Lone Pine. Now here it sat, like gift horse, and he was happy to see it.
He hurried into the dim interior of the garage, which was a lumber of disorienting shadows in the dusky light, and he switched on the overhead bulb hanging from a rafter. For an instant it appeared as if Molly herself sat in the front seat, as if once again they were setting out for parts unknown, and he could hear her voice again, clear as rainwater, saying something about what he shouldn’t forget to bring along. He ran his hand across the front fender, the cool steel solid under his palm. The paint was like new after all these years, a robin’s egg blue as deep as the sky. The key was in the ignition.
“Nearly ready to go,” he said out loud, and for one rash moment he considered simply backing out of there and driving away down the arroyo.
But he had things to settle yet, compelling but indefinable things, and he was swept with the notion that it was a long time since he had been home, a long time that he had been wandering in the canyon. He went out into the open air again, feeling the cold and damp of nightfall. The house was lamp-lit now, smoke tumbled up out of the stone chimney. He heard the sound of activity in the kitchen, the muffled clank of pots and pans, the sound of water running in the sink.
He went in through the screen door, and stood for a moment in the room that Molly had always called the breakfast porch. It ran the length of the front of the house, its screened windows looking out onto the canyon. There were faded Navajo rugs on the floor, patterned with gray zigzags the color of weathered asphalt, shapes that suggested the pale runes on the stones in his trouser pocket. The painted parchment shades on the wall sconces and standing lamps threw a sunset glow over the rugs and the old wooden furniture and the glass-fronted case that housed souvenirs of back
country highways: broken geodes and iron-red chunks of desert rose, hand-sized slabs of amethyst and quartz crystal. There were seashells, too, black murex and top shells that entombed the faintly audible spirits of seacoast dreams, ghosts that seeped up through the floor like water through sand, immersing him in whispered memory.
He took the fallen stones out of his pocket and set them atop the case, hearing their low voices fabricating dusty conversations, and he heard the sound of singing from some far room in the house, and he caught a brief glimpse of Molly, or perhaps her shadow, crossing the open door of the kitchen.
In the living room the fire burned in the stone hearth, and he piled on the last of his oak logs and fanned them to flame, not yet ready to give up the heat and the light. It seemed to him that only yesterday there were half a cord of split logs stacked behind the house. But what he pictured in his mind -- their spacious backyard with its shade trees and patio, its vegetable garden and tiki torches -- was inconsistent with the looming darkness of the cliff face just beyond the lamp-lit window in the far wall.
The house was increasingly full of voices, his own among them, murmuring the tale of his life in halting fragments, the utterances shifting into place like puzzle pieces moved about on a table top, the picture increasingly filled out, very nearly finished. He put his hand to his chest, catching his breath, the firelight casting staccato silhouettes across the walls like a shadow play. He stoked the fire with the iron poker until a nebula of sparks flew up the chimney. The room brightened, and in the glowing moment before it dimmed again, he looked around one last time at the fading souvenirs of his life, the photographs and books, the stones and seashells, the sheet music on the piano, the old photographs.
He was happily conscious that in some far room of the house Molly was getting ready to go, perhaps checking her purse, looking into the mirror to get her hair right. He heard her footsteps echoing on the hardwood floor, heard her singing as she descended the porch steps outside, and at last he turned to follow her, leaving behind him the dying fire and all the rest of what he had been.
He heard the echo of the door shutting on the passenger side of the Plymouth, and he opened the driver’s side door and slid in behind the wheel, looking carefully ahead, sensing Molly’s presence on the seat next to him, hardly daring to believe that this time she would linger. He pumped the accelerator twice, all the way to the floor, and turned the key. The car started easily, and he let it idle itself smooth before he backed out of the garage, looking over his shoulder, his hand clutching the steering wheel knob with its frozen shamrock.
He glanced at her hopefully now, and there she sat, smiling beside him as ever. She patted his knee. “I can drive if you’re tired,” she said. But he wasn’t tired, not in the least. Although he had always loved driving at night, he had never looked forward to it more than he did right now. The headlights shone on trees and stones and scrub plants, and as he angled the
car out onto the road, he saw that what appeared to be impenetrable darkness behind them was actually the high mountain that shadowed the canyon. And now, as Blake accelerated up the long rise that would lead them down the hill, he saw the mountain slide sideways in the rearview mirror like a theater curtain on a wheeled traveler, revealing at last the starry radiance of the infinite night sky.
World Fantasy Award winning author James Blaylock, one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre, has published 30 novels and story collections as well as scores of essays and articles. Despite his close association with steampunk, most of his work is contemporary, realistic fantasy set in southern California, typified by novels like The Last Coin, The Rainy Season, and All the Bells on Earth, which have lead to his being referred to as a California regional writer.