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- special bonus fiction -

ALWYN W TURNER
illustrations by JOHN FLAXMAN
Blackwater Jack


The sky, bruised in a thousand places, sprawled like the broken body of a boxer, clouds bleeding rain as far as human eye could see.

It was a night such as those the old men used to sing of when I was a child, a night of bleakness, a night of intensity and pain, made yet more desolate by contrast with the temporary resurrection that afternoon of a summer long since thought to be dead and buried. Vampire-like, the sun had risen from the tomb of the seasons to proffer once more its false promise of fertility, only to be impaled on the stakes of lightning, driven back to its final resting place by the onslaught of the storm. Now there was no trace left of the day, only the reflected light of the moon, struggling to pierce the blackness.

In the shadow of the gallows tree, I waited, as I had waited these seven nights past, knowing that this night must surely be mine.

I waited.

Like a drawn cross-bow.

I waited.

They had been long and hard, these nights and days of anticipation and preparation. I had taken no chances, had followed the spirit and letter of the law to the last, making no shelter, taking no food or water, sleeping not a second. The rain that now fell through the barren branches of the tree was the first relief for my parched and starved body in over one hundred and fifty hours, rousing me from my idle imaginings and awakening my spent mind.

It washed across my naked body, running in streams down the scars that broke my flesh, the scars that told the story of my life.

For nigh on a year, I had cut my skin each and every day, one cut for each moon that had waxed and waned in the twenty-eight years that separated my baptism from my renunciation of the old ways. Now I took again the blade for the last time, for the three hundred and sixty-sixth kiss of the knife, the ultimate incision, the final penance for my years of faith.

I pressed the tip of the blade to the base of my throat, whispered the words I had overheard so long ago, and pressed firmly. I scarce felt the steel as it punctured my skin, so immune had I become to its soft caress, but as I dragged it slowly downwards, tearing across my chest and stomach, breaking open scars that had long lain dormant, healed by the hand of time, the pain focussed my confused thoughts, brought me to a new awareness of the ripping of my body, and I threw back my head and screamed.

I fell, and the black rain mixed with the blood that flowed freely from my emaciated frame.

I lay, powerless to move, unable to breathe, and it seemed to me that the random rhythm of the rain began to coalesce, to coagulate into the solidity of repetition. At first faint, I doubted my senses, as I had so often doubted the validity of my venture into myth. But this time, this time, the truth must surely dawn.

And the sound intensified.

There could be no question.

No lingering doubt.

There it was.

The clicking of bootheels, beating out a tattoo on my spine.

This time, I would make him mine.

This time.

A hand reached down to me, clad in the remnants of a fingerless, black cotton glove. It closed on my right hand, seemingly oblivious to the bite of the blade I still carried.

I was raised to my feet, pulled upright by a force I could not resist, and my eyes fell at last on the face of Blackwater Jack.

Since the day, the minute, of my birth, I had been immersed in the legends that surrounded this man, tales of fear and wonder, of betrayal, death and beyond. He was the father of the twilight, the embodiment of all that was uncertain, the gatekeeper of the unknown. He was angel, demon, human, beast. He was mystery.

For twenty-eight years, I had been torn between disbelief, distrust and desire- I had doubted, hesitated and at length succumbed to the temptation of knowledge. And for the last twelvemonth, I had thought of nothing else but this moment, this first and last encounter with the man who held the power of life and death in his hands.

I looked upon him.

Silent shadows crawled across his cowled features, not concealing but revealing his true nature. In that face, nothing was fixed, all was fluid in a primeval ocean of creation. Behind the torn veil of flesh lurked a skeletal impression of decay. His eyes seemed an eternity away, sunk at the bottom of fathomless pits of darkness, drawing my gaze inwards into the emptiness of his soul.

And, as I looked, his lips parted and in a slow, guttural voice, tinged with the hint of a lisp, he spoke.

'You know what you must do.'

And, with the fury of a violent storm beating against a solitary tree, enlightenment burst through the last barriers of resistance that I had unconsciously erected in my mind, those barriers built of rationality and religion.

Here, I knew, my search had ended. The restless years of my youth, the lost years of futile worship, the stagnation of the spirit the dissatisfaction and the sorrow - all melted into nothing, absorbed into the endless changelessness of those fearful eyes. I felt an overpowering sense of homecoming; this was where I belonged, this was where I could rest forever, this was heaven.

In a barely audible voice, I began the liturgy learnt at the feet of the old men, repeated the words of sacrificial offering expected of me. He stood impassive and brooding as the words came tumbling out of me, gaining in strength as they took on a life of their own:

'. . . and I am come to celebrate, to honour and obey, to lay down my life in praise. Take me and use me. Take this body, offered willingly. Take this mind, which I give to you. Take this heart, which is yours forever.'

As I finished, the sound of the rain faded to silence. I could no longer feel the cold or the damp or see anything but the figure of my saviour. My self was stripped away and, denuded of my thoughts and memories, I slipped into the awesome oneness of Blackwater Jack.

And still he held my gaze.

As the silence doubled and redoubled, he raised his right hand, pointing at me, and spoke:

'The time is come.'

A bolt of lightning split the heavens, seemed to strike Blackwater Jack and to pass through his body, redirected through his outstretched fingers to where I stood.

A ball of flame exploded at my feet. For a split second, I felt the intense heat of the fire as it seared my flesh, then the pain passed, and I knew that I had reached the final stage of the metamorphosis. I had no need any more of this fragile frame.

The flames took hold, began to lick at my shins and to eat at my calves. I felt no fear, no regret, just an overwhelming sense of love for Blackwater Jack, in whose hands all was possible.

I looked down and could see the flesh of my thighs blackening and bubbling, dripping down and feeding the flames with their molten fat. Detached from the physical world, I watched, fascinated by the destruction, worshipping the sacred flame to which I offered myself. Muscles popped and exploded in microcosmic parody of the storm - the flesh fell away and I saw through to the charred bones. Still I felt no pain, just a vague wave of warmth that flowed through and filled me. The heat curled around the top of my thighs - it licked the underside of my erect penis with the daemonic passion of a succubus as my scrotum, shrivelled like shrinking leather, blistered and burst.

And I fell to the ground, unable to support myself any longer on the blackened sticks of my legs, and the fire spread.

I reached down to caress the disintegrating remnants of my body. Through the flames, I could feel my stomach distend as the furnace caused the gas inside to expand. My skin was withered and brittle, stretched taut under the pressure. The scars that had left hardly an inch of my torso unmarked were beginning to split open, oozing blood and pus that crackled and hissed and spat in the heat. I raked my flaking fingers across the flesh, and they sank into the bubbling caldron beneath the skin.

The inferno swept upwards, racing across my face, and I revelled in its violent beauty, shrieking with joy as it set my hair alight. Crowned with fire, I could feel the living power of the flame, urging me on to my destiny. I breathed fire, I let it fill my undernourished stomach.

And, as my eyeballs melted and dripped into the ruined caverns of my cheeks, the last sight I saw was Blackwater Jack leaning over me, the flames reflected in his eyes, dancing with the wild abandon of death.

I felt his hand, oblivious to the heat, break through my ribs and plunge into my chest. And in a single, climactic moment of eternal agony, I felt his fingers curl around my still pumping heart and, with one wrench, pull it loose, rip it out intact from the cinders of my carnality.

* * *

A millennium passed.

Then another.

I hung, suspended in the mind of Blackwater Jack, remote from the reality of the world. Eternity no longer an abstract concept, but a lived truth, I knew that the hour of my rebirth was but a breath away.

And I waited.

Like a drawn cross-bow.

I waited.

Soon, very soon, the moment would come, and it would be my time to serve. I would return, if not to this world, then to another. I would carry the message of my master to all who doubted, all who sought in vain for fulfilment. And I would offer them too the chance to share with me in the willing surrender to an individual greater than oneself.

© 1991 Turner/Flaxman


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