We spent twelve harvests of barley, six of wheat, three of potatoes, one of turnip, the milk from a hundred cows, the meat from fifty pigs, twenty oxen, ten chicken, two whales, three yearly catches of cod, one of salmon, one of eel, the pink bindweed flowers from an entire meadow of long-bladed grass strangled by their vines, half a field of black poppies, a garden of purple violets, ten crops of cotton, five of linen, the wool from six hundred sheep, the fur from three hundred mountain stoats, and nine thousand liters of fresh, clean water. For every year he had been gone, the amount of resources needed to call him back increased sharply, like the outline of a mountain. That is how we awoke Summer Dusk from death.
In the stone casket under the wide colonnade in the mausoleum made of black marble veined with gold at the end of the long icy hallway, Summer Dusk’s time reversed, turning his body from a dried-up corpse to a living, breathing person. His shriveled flesh bulged, then relaxed, infused with life anew, the cheekbones and eye sockets filled out, his skin softened and gained color, warm fluid began running through the blood vessels again, its touch enlivening everything like the sun in spring. Finally, Summer Dusk’s chest moved in a sudden inhalation. Slowly, he opened his eyes and sat up and took in the faces of his family and relatives, mentors and friends, ministers and parliament members, as if roused from a long but pleasant sleep. When he recognized us, he smiled and reached for us like a child.
Yet Death yields nothing without resistance. Just as life was beginning to flow, Death caught hold of Summer Dusk with long and hungry fingers. His golden eyes went black with fear, dark brooks blossomed in his narrow face, and his long, lithe body, as much female as male, shriveled and wilted and withered again in a tug of war between our granted life and Death’s lonely selfishness. We should perhaps have let him go then, but there was no way we could allow that. Instead, we gasped and put our hands to our mouths and dared barely glimpse at the tug of war unfolding before us.
We watched Summer Dusk’s features turn ashen: his nails and lips darkened to purple as if he were very, very cold. Black bled into his sky-blue hair. His lilac filigree armor, which we had buried him in so he would always be ready to defend us, tarnished to the color of night. His slim golden sword, which we had left in his right hand so he would always be able to fight for us, melted like wax and the liquid metal sank into the black marble. Now Summer Dusk looked almost like a corpse again, yet still he gazed at us with an expression of utter terror and took us in, one by one, as if he begged us to release him. He was no longer dead, but not wholly alive either. A terrible silence fell in the room. His relatives wept without a sound.
“Forgive us, beloved hero!” the head of parliament said, and stepped forward. “A terrible foe has entered the land and now we implore you, you who hunted the stone birds of Aa, you who rode the fire waves in Ghoresh, you who crossed the ice forest at Lath, and you who solved the water labyrinth on Velled, to come to our aid once again.”
It was a familiar call, one we had used many times before, and which, at more occasions than we cared to count, Summer Dusk had answered, always with a soft smile and crinkled eyes. But now he simply rose from his cold bedding, without a word, without looking at us. He closed his gauntlet-sheathed hands around the bled-out remains of his sword and wrenched it out of the black marble, the blade now a jagged narrow length of stone. The cloak of soft ermine fur, which we had draped around his shoulders for comfort and warmth, slid to the floor. Then Summer Dusk left the mausoleum, a layer of frost on every surface therein.
None dared step between Summer Dusk and whatever purpose that had called him to suddenly rise without word. To our relief he left the capital, but we were surprised when our hero then traveled north to the region where the crops used to awaken him had been grown, the most fertile area in the realm. There he knelt in a stubbly field and all around him black saplings poked like claws out of the cold and muddy earth. The saplings grew and grasped for one another while they reached for the sky like hungry beasts and rose into a tall black forest with twisted trunks and leafless branches. In one day’s journey around that forest the land turned to marsh and the water that bled from it was dank and black. Here gales blew constantly, the rain lashed sideways, and it was always dark. The farmers and woodcutters who didn’t flee the region turned quiet and listless while their crops drowned in mud.
Since Summer Dusk’s sky-blue hair, golden eyes, and lilac armor had turned as black and glistening as the snow-gleaming nights at December solstice, we renamed him Winter Moon. We sent envoys and messengers to parlay with him, but they could not find their way through the lightless forest. We sent hunters and scouts, but they could not find him in the pathless wood. We sent navigators and explorers, and they followed the direction that the trees and branches hunched and all fluid seeped away from, no matter the elevation, to the center of the forest. There they found Winter Moon kneeling in a clearing covered by grass as sharp and dark as obsidian. The explorers and navigators slung the warm ermine cloak around his shoulders, conveyed our sincerest apologies for imposing upon him again, and begged him to save us, their breath white upon the icy air, but he remained still and silent. We sent poets and bards with more navigators and explorers to fully express how much we loved him and needed him, but he stayed immobile and quiet.
In our towns and cities, the printing presses roared and shook, and spat out stack upon stack of journals and magazines that were brought to crowded squares and busy street corners, debating whether Winter Moon was still a friend or had become a foe, and what might happen if we failed to re-awaken his compassion. We had exhausted all our other saviors.
In the meantime, the horror, the amorphous mass of spine-covered tendrils and gnashing mouths that had eaten all the cod and halibut and herring and crabs and sea urchins and mussels along our southern coast and sent the fishermen and shellfish divers in five regions into starvation, necessitating aid in the form of flour and grain from the capital, had crawled up on land and started to consume the fields and forests and everything that lived there, leaving nothing but a glistening slug-trail in its wake. And while doing so, the horror grew in size and hunger. Local authorities reported that the horror was on its way inland, and that somewhere during its journey had gained a taste for meat. Now it moved directly towards meadows with livestock instead of the fields of crops and copses of trees it had previously targeted.
At first we tried to direct the horror with straw lures of cows and sheep dressed in hide or fur from the appropriate species, but the horror didn’t always crawl in that direction. Then we made cow and sheep-shaped sculptures from meat that was off or otherwise unfit for human consumption, and our control of the horror’s wanderings became more accurate. What worked best of all, however, were live animals, which made the horror go exactly where we desired. But with the fish and crops in several regions gone, we could only afford to use real livestock to lead the horror away from the region’s largest villages and towns. Unfortunately, our ruse worked for just a limited amount of time. As the horror gained in size, it too seemed to become hungrier and more powerful. A few cows and sheep were no longer enough to tempt it away from population centers. Instead, the horror began following paths and roads to the next town or village.
We reported all of this to Winter Moon through navigator-emissaries who read to him aloud clippings from the most recently printed magazines and journals, but he remained quiet and immobile.
We sent fusiliers and cavaliers, but the horror from the sea just swallowed them up, spat their metal parts out, and swelled further in girth. Grenadiers and cannoneers merely slowed the horror. Now it seemed to have acquired a taste for human flesh. More lures were made, but this time we shaped animal skin into anthropomorphic statues. All seemed in control once again until the horror consumed a scientist’s apprentice that ventured too close and a coach of tourists on their way to the capital. Still Winter Moon kneeled idle.
We needed help, and fast. It was not long until we began sacrificing the destitute and sick, the addicted, and the deranged, by offering help to their dependents if they were willing to make the journey voluntarily. When they ran out, we sent the fishermen and shellfish divers that had fled inland to seek new jobs. Lastly, we ordered the local villagers and farmers who had lost their fields and meadows to the horror. Experiments with various formations and patterns showed that dense clusters of people were not necessary to move the horror in the desired direction. It wasn’t even pertinent for the bodies to stand close together. Instead, a long, thin row of soft and easily digestible flesh was enough, like a line of breadcrumbs snaking to the witch’s house. In open areas the unfortunates could be spread out with a distance of up to ten meters.
Finally the horror approached the fertile lands, closed its gelatinous mass around the twisted trunks and leafless branches, and subsumed them into itself with a terrible snapping and cracking and creaking. Slowly, the horror ate its way through the dark forest, to the black heart where Winter Moon yet knelt upon the obsidian grass, the ermine cloak still around his shoulders, the fur now grey from sleet and mud. We prayed that when the horror discovered Winter Moon, our hero would be forced to defend himself, and by extension, us. The moment rushed close, the horror was almost upon him, taller than what cruel trees remained and wider than the clearing in which he sat. Now, now, nearer and nearer, soon our hero would leap into action as he had done so many times in the past. Closer and closer, until the horror blotted out our view of Winter Moon completely, and we couldn’t see what went on behind its trembling bulk. Our journalists and scientists stretched their necks and stood on their toes. Who would have the honor of first sending their report about Winter Moon’s reawakened heroism back to their editor? Beyond the line of scientists and journalists, the rest of us waited. But the horror from the sea simply slid past Winter Moon, so close that the sticky edges of its slimy trail lapped against Winter Moon’s tarnished greaves and glued the hairs on the hem of his ermine cloak together.
But now the horror stopped and reared up and sampled the air with its innumerable mouths and pale tongues, shivering in expectation. It was just three days’ travel from the capital. The horror promptly turned in that direction, with renewed purpose and speed. Frantically we pooled all we had left of meat and fur and leather, but now nothing could tempt the horror away from our densest population center. We sounded the alert to evacuate the capital, and started transporting the merchants and craftsmen and soldiers and academics and government officials and parliament members in overfilled coaches and people-spilling barges.
A short distance from the city, right before Capital Road turns away from the ocean and reaches inland, there is a narrow but deep canyon. That crevice is a scar left from the attacks of the last horror Winter Moon defeated, but whose venom killed him in the end. Here, fresh water fell like veils from the steep edges of the chasm down to a large transparent pool as cold and pure as the eternal snow in the north. Vines of fragrant purple honeysuckle draped the stone walls and filled the air with perfume. Slowly, the horror began seeping into the canyon to consume the liquid and vegetation in its heart. But at that moment Winter Moon’s all-black eyes flew open and he started running.
The journalists and scientists that trailed the horror later reported that as it reached the inner aromatic corner of the canyon and started draining the icy water, something as bright as moonlight sparkles on snow shot up over the mass of lapping, smacking mouths and a keening noise sliced the air. Winter Moon’s tarnished armor gleamed dully in the faint light from the stars, and with his black sword raised like the gate to the underworld, he pierced the horror in one leap. The mouths shrieked and wailed and the tendrils lashed at their assailant with long sharp spines.
There, in the subterranean darkness, beneath the falling water and the fragrant flowers, Winter Moon fought the horror for five days and five nights. He cut and sliced and severed each sharp and muscular tendril, but for each one he hacked off, three new arose. The horror shook and roared and whipped. On the sixth day Winter Moon was hunched and staggering, with gashes and lacerations scarring his armor. His black blood dripped down on the horrid mass and the thousand mouths lapped it up while they moaned and groaned in endless hunger. But where Winter Moon’s blood fell, the gelatinous mass stopped moving and became as hard and still as stone. Winter Moon glanced down at the petrified flesh and fought with renewed vigor.
Finally, he had cut his way into the center of the shivering, reeking mass. Here, instead of mouths, the horror had a multitude of human-looking, blue, green, gray, and brown eyes that rolled and glared as if they were bringing down a thousand curses upon Winter Moon. But also they turned to stone when he bled upon them. Winter Moon stopped and stood for a moment, swaying slightly in the star-pierced gloom. Then he threw his black sword away. It spun and glittered through the air, hit the surface of the pool en pointe, and shattered into a thousand pieces before it sank into the cold depths. Dense clusters of spine-covered tendrils shot up and coiled around Winter Moon’s wrists and ankles. He bucked and thrashed like the oracles that shiver and shake in the temples, but the tendrils embraced his chest and head and bent him slowly backwards, exposing his throat. Some of us realized what would happen next and they averted their gaze in respect. Others could not turn away from the spectacle. The glaring eyes and gnashing mouths passed the sharp spine of a tendril across the ashen skin, unhurriedly and lazily, almost like an afterthought. Winter Moon stiffened, but made no sound. At first nothing happened, and a black crescent grew across his pale throat, a few drops seeping out from the gash. Then the dam broke and a spray of cold blood spurted high and rained down on the trembling mass.
Before our eyes the horror turned to stone. The mineral spread quicker than pox, transforming the fetid flesh to hard, gray granite. Sharp fissures gouged through the mineral until the entire horror cracked like an egg, and fell down on the golden shore in the heart of the canyon.
We picked Winter Moon up from the stinking, slime-covered shards and brought him home to the mausoleum made of black marble veined with gold at the end of the long icy hallway. His head was almost severed from his neck, but we stitched it back on with our thinnest needles and our finest silk thread, and when we were done the seam was barely visible at all. We washed Winter Moon’s face and armor with honeysuckle-scented water, combed and oiled his hair, and pulled a cloak of shiny black ermine around his shoulders. Then we lowered him into a coffin made from crystal, which blurred the cuts on his face and armor but allowed us to still see him. All his family and relatives, mentors and friends, ministers and parliament members were present. Finally, we pushed the transparent lid into place and stepped back to take our hero in, while the tears that rolled down our cheeks were as crimson as the dusk in summer. That is how we buried Winter Moon the second time.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose work has appeared in Birkensnake, SmokeLong Quarterly, Requited, elimae, Metazen, decomP, Everyday Genius and elsewhere. She is the author of Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio), Beneath the Liquid Skin (firthFORTH Books/Queen’s Ferry Press) and The Empty City (Jnana Press), which was translated by François Bon and published in French as Une Ville Vide (PublieMonde/PublieNet).
An earlier version of “Summer Dusk, Winter Moon” originally appeared in Transactions of the Flesh – A Homage to Joris-Karl Huysmans (Zagava).