The Earth was red.
The sky was red.
The whole world was red.
Saul hadn’t seen anything outside of a harsh crimson in quite sometime. It was the arid wasteland before him, merciless and unending. It was the searing red God above, leeching away his essence, salt by salty drop.
Salt of the Earth, made flesh in the here and now.
The red was a river cascading and segmenting down a smooth and downy delta. Its origin was a pair of dark red holes, ringed and speckled with biological blight. Neither he nor Josh had seen the Eastern Brown, all three feet of scales and fangs. Saul had crushed its head beneath his boot laden heel but not before the serpent bitch had left its mark on both man and child.
And now they existed, just barely, two exhausted spectres trudging through the endless waste. He carried his son dutifully, despite the venom coursing its way through the network of his veins as well. A visceral highway overrun by the slow death inflicted upon him, no terminus in sight. He thought it ironic as he hadn’t seen another actual car since theirs had broken down back on the paved road.
True, it would have been logical and more safe to wait for the next passing motorist. But when his little boy had cried out in pain, a different side of him took over. Paternal instinct, generations of strength and fervor blotted out the end result of his brief battle with the snake and he had plunged headlong into the wilderness, seeking whatever help he may find.
Saul had done his research. He knew the Australian Outback could be a dangerous place. He knew all about the infamous array of venomous spiders said to plague the land but he hadn’t thought about those which crawled on their bellies through the red dust. Foolishness on his behalf. Maybe of this whole endeavor?
Thankfully the boy was slight, a mere wisp of a child and therefore easy for his father to shoulder the burden. He had always told the boy to put more meat on his bones, but he was briefly grateful that he hadn’t. Joshua groaned aloud in his father’s arms, even as Saul reached out to grasp the fencepost. He had stumbled across the fence not long after wandering dazedly into the waste. He knew he had located the infamous Dingo Fence, the longest posted fence in the world, constructed specifically to keep out the wild dog population. The thought of feral predation nipping at their heels only fueled his desperate progress. More so though, the thought that a man made construct could only lead back to its creators. Stick to the fence, find a town. Rather akin to following the flow of water when lost in the woods. Yet there was no water out here, no food. And he would have gladly taken a handful of bacteria laden runoff.
He was struggling, no doubt about it. Saul all but knew that his struggle was futile. Death was following and eventually it would catch up. For both of them. He wondered which would catch them first. The spectre of hunger? The ghost of thirst? The phantom of sheer exhaustion? Or most likely, that crimson bastard, the God of the Waste. The toxin seeping through the pair, delivered from the red God’s familiar in scales and fangs. Wasting away, drop by drop, step by step, beleagured gasp by he was a good father wasn’t he?
He’d like to think so.
He could hardly be blamed for the snake. Saul thought, however, that he could be partially be blamed for the events that had lead them to the red waste. After he and Laurie had broken up, he suspected that maybe the boy could use some time away, so lets take a nice vacation, why not? He was grateful that she had let him take Josh out of the country despite her having won custody of the boy. The courts has said “We find you guilty on all counts of child abuse, for not staying near the car and for allowing your child to be attacked by slithering death.”
Wait that wasn’t it.
No, but what they had said had hurt almost as much. They deemed him incompetent to provide for a child. He had risked it all on a writing career that never quite took off. He had quit his job at the brewery and oh what he wouldn’t give, what he wouldn’t give for a nice cold beer. They had those giant cans out here right? “Australian for beer” and whatnot? Just crack one open and guzzle down all who-knows-how-many-ounces-but-damn-that’s-a-good-beer.
He would have a story to tell if they ever got home. Maybe that was it? Maybe the red God had sent the snake to inflict this hardship on them, give them a trial to overcome. He would write his memoirs of their ordeal, it would be optioned into a film. Go through a few rewrites, maybe he could collaborate. They’d get some up and coming young stud to play him and the picture would make millions, maybe billions, of dollars. Then, maybe then, he’d be “competent” to raise a child. Yeah, that had to be it. The God of ink and celluloid, that brilliant golden bastard from the land where dreams are born and crushed equally on a daily basis. He’d have a british accent because of course, God would be cultured and classy. Didn’t…didn’t Australia like, become populated from Britain? It was established as a penal colony, right? Saul had heard the jokes and the stereotypes but all the Aussies they had met on their journey had been lovely people. The only thief out here was either too high above or too far below to strike at.
The red Waste, home of the cruel deity that was thieving away the pair. Spiriting away the son even as his father struggled to grasp the fencepost.
“Amidst the mists and coldest frosts he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he see the ghosts.”
He recalled the line from Curt Siodmak with more than a hint of irony. He loved science fiction and the works of Siodmak, Heinlein and Bradbury had inspired his would-be career. But as for now, he’d take the mist and the frost. That’d be nice. He’d thrust his fists in frustration if they weren’t being used to support both him and the boy. He did however, see the ghosts. They were himself, they were Joshua, they were those four spectres that tailed them ever more intently.
Joshua shuddered and the father grasped him ever tighter. He gazed out at the Outback in bleary resignation. He parted his cracked lips and said one word: “Son.”
He couldn’t see anything but the fence, some sparse vegetation. The monolithic rocks stretching from the ground; more red upon red and this time he could imagine these towering domes as the breasts of a red Goddess. Mother Earth, trapped here with cruel man, unable to grasp the embrace of her lover in the sky. Why wouldn’t there be lovers separated by eons and space? Everything out here seemed to pertain to him and
Out there, in the waste, at the base of the great red Goddess. It was real, it had to be! Someone was out there and they’d provide the providence and safety and food and water and first aid and
It throttled his raw throat just to yell louder than a whisper. The child cringed at the sudden outburst. The light flickered again. Slight reluctance, slight hesitation as Saul slackened his grip on the Dingo Fence. It had been his life raft through this trek and the only thing separating him and his son from the ghosts at their heels. He had risked everything before for naught, but he knew he would have to throw himself back into the unknown. One last chance at redemption, here we go.
And so the father staggered out into the further Waste, seeking a minuscule lighthouse in the midst of the red sea. The dust parted as he trudged along and he found himself wondering if the snake venom had any hallucinogenic properties. He could just be chasing a mirage, the conspiring Gods around him would be so cruel, wouldn’t they? But then, what else did they have to lose?
Had he any tears left, Saul would have sobbed in relief. He arrived at the base of the monolith and was greeted with the very welcome sight of a fire burning within a small opening in the rock. As he stepped inside, he was met with bone chilling cold and suddenly the fire and the heat became welcome friends once more. He gently set the near-unconscious child down on the hard packed ground and ran his dusty fingers through the boy’s hair, lovingly and gently. Saul sat at the fire, sniffling gently, and looked around. The cave was small, barren. The walls were decorated with odd drawings, stick figures and orbs and undulating waves. He was simply happy to see anything other than dust and sky.
And then, there was the man. He sat before Saul and the unconscious boy. Where once had been none now there was he. And he was… not quite a man. What exactly was he? He – it? – gazed back at Saul with black eyes. Eyes rimmed in red, set far, far, oh-why-so-far back into a pale face. The pallor of the man was near albino. He had a tiny, unpronounced nose. No ears to be seen. The mouth was a dry, sucking thing cracked and peeled unlike Saul’s own. The figure was tiny, gaunt, hardly the barometer of a healthy existence. The man wore no clothing and was pale and hairless throughout the insignificant expanse of his skin. The hair… the hair was but an extension of his scalp. Rows of pale skin stretched unnaturally back from a sloping forehead and coalesced down the exposed spine of the being. Elsewhere, they’d be called dreadlocks, here Saul immediately thought of them as weird as shit and uncomfortable to behold.
The being held its pale hands out over the fire. The arms were stick thin and covered in scratches and hashes. They resembled an arcane and unknown language that Saul didn’t bother to try and recognize. The fingers were tapered into tiny triangular points and they looked for all the world like the tips of a calligraphy pen. Saul wondered exactly how the slashes ended up on the being’s arms.
It spoke: “Enoch”.
Saul sat there, by the fire in the unnaturally cold cave, present company consisting of this strange individual. Saul hadn’t responded and he thought his host might consider it rude.
It spoke again: “Enoch. Son of old flesh.” It bobbed its head, flesh-hair waving slightly. When it spoke, its chapped mouth opened and a strand of dark bile ran out. It piddled black and thick into the fire, disappearing with a haze and a hush and Saul thought immediately of ink.
Saul introduced himself with only his first name. Enoch, of the Old Flesh said nothing. It continued to hold its hand over the flames. It stuck its hands INTO the flames. It snatched forth with alarmingly familiar speed (they had never seen it coming..) and pulled Saul’s own hands over the fire.
“Here we dwell, dead men lie here,” Enoch said.
Saul understood. He had read the poem before they had set out of San Francisco. He had planned to use it to inspire him, take in the sights. Write that story, infuse it with a bit of cyberpunk maybe. But now, he understood that he was not to leave this cave. “We are Earth’s Loved Sons,” he whispered in response; a broken echo. “Of the Goddess below and the God above.” His snake bite throbbed but his hands, they did not burn.
Enoch, Son of Old Flesh and Earth’s Loved Son nodded and tightened his grip. Saul glanced at the cave wall and saw that their hands together formed four smoldering shadows. He balled his tightly held hands into fists, even as Enoch squeezed tighter and pierced his flesh with his sharpened, diamond shaped digits. Saul insisted he saw the ghosts for they were present here in the cave, as they had been and always will be. In sitting at the red flame, Saul had conceded defeat to the spectres of hunger, thirst, exhaustion and Waste. Yet he felt no remorse.
Grinning toxic skulls, baying wild dogs, the joining of the red Waste and Death to produce this grim being before him. Joshua, the boy was suddenly gone from his side but the father saw something familiar in the shrunken eyes of Enoch, the Loved Son. The being smiled and Saul was no longer afraid. The four shadows quivered as Enoch pulled him further into the flames. As he lay in the fire, the pale being lay upon him, pressing his thin arms upon Saul’s face even as the red consumed him
There, from this vantage point, he could read the words etched on the Loved Son’s skin. And as he succumbed to the heated embrace of the red Gods he knew he had seen his life’s work at last. It had been there all along, waiting for him in this country across the world, in this small cave. He had found what he would write to the masses from this realm and the one beyond. His son was safe. The baying of the wild ones subsided, the flames began to smolder and the shadows died.
And at last, at the end of his ordeal and his trail, Saul felt boundless and unending joy.
His world was red and he was happy.
Witness Herein the poem that inspired this tale…..