Weiroot, you mad man, what do you think you’re doing, sitting in the chill of the night, winking at the winking stars? Are you sending them a message? Come visit me? And what if they were to? What if in say a year or two a star fell, swept down out of the dark, trailing green fire, and smashed with an explosion of sparks and black diamond debris into the dunes surrounding your wooden plank palace? What would you do then? Oh sure, you’d call for your four marble men without faces, those savage quadruplets whose stone sculpted arms move with supple grace. “If they get obstreperous, let them have it,” you’d whisper and the four white dolts would nod and flex. But then, imagine your surprise, when the rock from space breaks open and out crawls a little fat baby, purple as a plum with a ridge of webbed spikes like a ladies open fan running from the crown of its head back to the base of the skull, orange eyes and a little “o” of a mouth. You know you’d gasp and wave your arms in the air…well; at least you’d wear a look of consternation and shake your head, and who wouldn’t? But then, even the four stone flunkies would make amazed faceless expressions when the little fellow from beyond the moon says “Feed me, Weiroot,” in a psychic voice that sounds between the ears. That would snarl your line of thought. So, I can see it now, you’d scoop that star baby up in your robed arms and shuffle with your lame stride back into that cockeyed palace. Then what? A cold leg of mutton? A rasher of game hens from the forest beyond the dunes? Octopus and eel heads you purchased that morning from Yakus, The Bold But Battered? And the miracle is the babe devours all of it. That’s right, that cute little mouth holds rows of needle teeth, and he’s got an appetite. He takes off one of the stone goons’ index fingers in the feeding. Then surprise and a portion of horror when the mewling fright drops a neat little pile of space scat onto the clean swept floor of the dining room. You’d be screaming orders like a second lieutenant in the pontiff’s royal guard, “Drop the rose petals!” “Man the shovel! Haste and earnest effort in the name of all that’s holy!” And after the tumult and chaos of the exigencies of biologic existence, then the quiet time, holding the snoozing fin-head cradled in your arms, rocking in the rocker next to your telescope out on the open air observatory while the wind transforms the face of the dunes to a whole new physiognomy, the ocean laps the shore in the distance to the south, and the night birds sing in the forest. In that peaceful time, that’s when the deal will be sealed and you’ll promise your life in protection and care for the helpless fellow. Because, Weiroot, even though your face is a rippling moonscape of healed wounds, your posture is worse than that of your listing home, and you’re feared by those who don’t know you as a strange and cantankerous entity outside of society, The Man Who Escaped Hell, you are no more nor less than any man—a hungry heart and a wavering will. That’s right, don’t deny it. You’re thinking, “Here’s my family. Here’s my opportunity to care and have someone return the emotion.” I see right through your schemes. Your thoughts are utterly transparent to me. And oh, what great pleasure you will derive from naming the wee beast, like it’s a puppy, like it’s your own invention. You’ll try Hartvill, Tharnweb, Wenslav, to see how they roll off the tongue, every now and then checking the child’s countenance to see if the word fits the face like a tailored mask. But all along, all along, you know you’re slowly but resolutely spiraling in a decreasing orbit toward Weiroot Junior or Weiroot II, and the excitement of that has your big toe itching in your eel skin ankle boot. When you’re just about to grasp for one of these narcissistic monikers, something grabs you instead, some dim glimmer of reason, and you veer off and christen the child Oondeshai, which was the name of an island in Hell. Then a kiss to that purple brow and you lean back in your rocker and rock beneath the stars from whence he came, closing your eyes and falling into a dream of the future. Beautiful. Or so you think, but wait, Weiroot. Just a second. Dreams are dreams and the future is like a hall of mirrors reflecting the past and offering up wavering illusions until everything shatters and you’re cut to ribbons by shards of reality. Allow me to suggest where all this is leading. Little Oondeshai will be both a pleasure and a trial for some time, and, though difficult at first, you’ll learn to give of yourself, to feed, comfort, and care for your charge. Your stone men will be put through their paces as they’d never been, even in the ancient time when they were created to serve and protect Satan, long before you found them in the cave in the sea cliff and brought them to life with an inadvertent sneeze. There will rise up a hurricane of activity in the wooden palace, all centered on the child, and every action will embrace him as its eye. This won’t necessarily be bad, for it will take you away from your melancholic study, it will resurrect you from your pointless pondering of the stars. I don’t deny there will be long walks among the dunes in which you will tell the boy stories, half true, half the product of your own skittering imagination, like the one about the man who teaches the monkey to be a man while the monkey teaches the man to be a monkey and they switch places only to discover deep philosophical truths they’d never before conceived of until the man puts the monkey in a cage and the monkey escapes and kills the man and then is shot by the man’s wife, who loved the monkey turned man more than the man turned monkey. Yes, you’ll fill the child’s head with that kind of simplistic clap trap to make him a dreamer, and he’ll show no revulsion when he runs his fingertips over your scarred, tree bark face. Together you’ll fly dragon kites, running over the dunes, in the slanting light of cool evenings. You’ll fish for Tillibar skeeners off the ocean cliffs with a long rope, a hook to snag Leviathan, and the stone quadruplets heaving and ho-ing, hoisting the wriggling silver behemoths of the deep high up the cliffside in the full moonlight. You’ll teach him something like right from wrong, and punish him by confining him to his room. He’ll stamp and howl like a fox in a leg trap and pass through the walls a hundred times, for this will be one of his special powers, and you’ll patiently catch him and put him back and tell him NO! He’ll, of course, say, “I hate you Weiroot, you turd.” You’ll know he doesn’t mean it, but still, these words will prick your heart like a thistle in the thumb. Later, there’ll be the reconciliation and you’ll give him an orange sugar god on a stick for apologizing. Time will change you both like the wind changes the dunes. Both of you will grow, he physically, you inwardly, expanding to care for two. His purple complexion will lighten to a pale violet. His fin will recede to become a mere ridge of lumps. He’ll lose the webbing on his fingers and toes, the split in his tongue will meld to a single point. He’ll grow taller than you, and his alien abilities will manifest themselves—his ability to detect a lie, to see in the dark, to speak to the dead and know the secret thoughts of the marble quadruplets. All of this will have a profound effect upon you. Just to know that your stone servants have had inner-lives, dreams and anguish, all along will weigh upon your conscience, and you’ll finally be forced to give them their freedom and bid them well in the world. They’ll leave you one day at the end of summer when the leaves in the forest have begun to change and each will choose a direction of the compass and strike out on his own. You’ll extend them each the favor of a pouch of coins, a knife, and a painted expression you or Oondeshai will draw upon their blank faces with the indelible ink of the red octopus. A smile for one, a frown for another, a quizzical look for his brother, and the last will be marked to show compassion. Then they’ll be gone and it will be you and Oondeshai. And he’ll ask you about your past, and there will be no way to lie to him. So you’ll have to say, “I’m the man who escaped from Hell.” But this answer will only give birth to a hundred more questions and you’ll walk with him on a bright morning over the dunes to the edge of the ocean and there you’ll sit as the waves lap your feet and you’ll tell him everything. “I, Weiroot, committed an unpardonable sin,” you’ll say. “Why?” he’ll ask. And you’ll begin, hemming and hawing at first, and then your confession will flow like blood.
Originally appeared in print in Weird Tales #353, fiction editor Ann VanderMeer; reprinted in ODD?, volume 1, available here.