The fox woman; and other stories, by Abraham Merritt

When Old Gods Wake

CHAPTER I. ALTAR OF KUKULKAN

THE SILENCE seemed to be focused within the temple; to have its heart there; a heart that did not need to beat, since all the silence was alive. Outside the heat of the Yucatan midday held the ruins in breathless grip. Barry Manson, crouching at the base of the ancient altar, thought: the silence . . . marched . . . marched into the temple. The shrieks of the parrots were cut off first. .. then the little blue and yellow birds stopped quarreling in the crimson fruited tree at the base of the shattered stairway . . . and then the silence marched up the stairway and into this chamber and crowded against the seaward side . . . and that shut out the swish of the waves.

He looked at Joan. She sat a few paces away, her back against the massive pedestal of a broken pillar. Her hands were clasped around her knees. Her eyes were intent upon the wall behind the altar. A painting once had covered that wall. The fingers of time, working patiently through the centuries, had plucked away most of the stucco that had carried it. But above the altar, as though protected by its shadow, a large and irregular fragment remained. Upon it, colors still vivid, Were the head and shoulders of Kukulkan, God of the Air of the ancient Mayans — and much more than that.

The Feathered Serpent, his symbol and his avatar, floated over him, fanged jaws agape, plumed wings spread wide. The face of Kukulkan was the conventionalized one of the New Empire; the nose grotesquely lengthened like that of a tapir, lips thick and protruding, prognathous-jawed, bat-eared; the ears ringed and the labret through the nostrils; head plumed with the sacred panacho.

The painted gaze of the god seemed fixed as intently upon the girl as hers upon him.

The pedestal against which Joan leaned was covered with carved figures of priests of Kukulkan who had served him when ruined Tuloom had been one of the great cities of the Mayans, and this its holiest temple. On these figures the colors were also bright. Into them Joan's copper hair melted, merged with their reds and ochres so that for an instant Barry had the illusion that her face was all of her.

A disembodied face peering out of the stone and holding communion with the god like a summoned priestess.

Impatiently Barry arose and walked over to her. She dis not look up. She whispered, eyes still absorbed by the painted god:

“Don't break the silence, Barry! It's like the silence that wraps the city of Jade . . . where the thousand sages of T'zan T'zao sit holding fast to the thought that created the world . . . and that the ghost of a ghost of a sound would destroy . . . and with it the world.. ..”

He felt increase of revolt against the fantasies gathering about him. He shook his shoulders and laughed. He said, loudly:

“The silence is broken, Joan — and the world still spins.”

It was true. The silence was broken. It was retreat ing from the chamber, slowly . . . marching away as it had marched in. Faintly came the swish of the waves, growing ever stronger. The silence was marching out of the chamber toward the shattered stairway up which it had come. Joan arose, slowly . . . it was odd, Barry thought, how every movement of hers in rising kept to the rhythm, kept to the beat, of the unseen and unheard feet of the retreating silence.

The silence marched down the stairway. He heard again the quarreling of the little blue and yellow birds . . . then the shrieks of the parrots . . . .

Joan said, unsteadily: “It was time you did that, Barry. It was . . . doing things to me. Look, Barry — look. . .  . . . .!”

He followed her finger, pointing to the painted face of Kukulkan. For a breath he saw it . . . another face looking out from the wall.

An ageless face . . . the nose long and curved and delicate. The lips full but sharply cut, archaically sensuous . . . hair as red as his own and eyes as blue as. Joan's. A face as devoid of human equivalence as it was timeless . . . yet human . . . as though the seed from which it had sprung into godhood had been human. Incalculable, unreadable . . . but still within it something that could be read up to that point where the humanness of it merged into the god . . . might be read more plainly if the god would within it merge more fully into the humanness. Nothing of benevolence in it . . . but neither was there shade of malevolence, cruelty . . . humanless, in human mask.

Barry thought: it is like that mountain peak in the City of Jade of which Joan spoke . . . the peak shaped like the head of a man and all of clearest crystal to which the thoughts of men are drawn . . . all their thoughts . . . and pass from its eyes and mouth cleansed of falsehood and of error, prejudice and hatred and love . . . standing naked and stark before T'zan T'wo to be judged . . . .

Power was in the face, immense power . . . and something of wildness, of freedom . . . the freedom of primaeval things . . . like the wind, the waves, the sun . . . .

And then the face was gone. Upon the wall was the tapir snout of Kukulkan, the protruding lips, the fanged and feathered serpent.

His hand was clenching Joan's wrist. She whispered:

“You saw it! You're hurting me!”

He dropped her wrist. He said: “It is another painting beneath this one. An older painting. Some trick of the light brought it out.”

She said, doubtful: “Maybe. But I think it was Kukulkan as the first Mayans knew him. Kukulkan who came to them from still an older race. Kukulkan when he was worshipped with flowers and fruits and incense and prayer. Before his worship was debased and the cruel human sacrifices began. That was when and why he turned from the Mayans. And so their doom came swiftly upon them. For it was never he who came to them thereafter, Barry. It was an evil god hiding behind his mask and name — ”

She hesitated, seemed listening: “But yes — he did come. Came even to the Aztecs, who steeped his rites in even greater cruelties and renamed him Quetzalcoatl . . . came again and again to thwart that other god when his evil grew too strong . . . the Lord of Darkness, the Lord of the Dead. . . . ”

Her voice died; she stood with eyes rapt, face colorless, bent as though listening. He took her by the shoulders, shook her:

“Snap out of it, Joan. What's the matter with you? You're talking nonsense.”

“Am I, Barry? It was what Kukulkan was telling me.”

She dropped her head on his shoulder; clung to him, trembling. His hands slipped from her shoulders, drew her to him. He said huskily:

“Coming any closer to loving me, Joan?”

She raised her eyes to his frankly, yet with something of regret lurking in them.

“Sorry, Barry dear. But it's still the same. I— ”

He interrupted her, speaking monotonously: “Like you better than any other man I know, except Bill, of course, and I wish I could love you the way you want, but — yes, Joan, I know all that by heart now.”

She flushed and said: “That's not fair. After all, Bill's my brother and why shouldn't I love him? And I do like you better than anyone else. So much so that at times — ” she stopped; he repeated eagerly:

“That at times?”

“Never mind. Barry, why do you want me? There are plenty of nice girls who like just the things you do. I know a dozen who would love you — and any one of them would make you a perfect wife. I don't like the 'things you do. Or if I do, to me they're only brief amusements. Why, I'd rather help Bill dig up a cup from some ruin that spans the gap of knowledge between its maker and us than win a thousand sporting trophies.”

He said: “If you loved me that wouldn't make any difference.”

She shook her head: “We've been brought up differently, Barry — and we're both too set in our ways to change. I am anyway . . . .” Suddenly she laughed:

“And you haven't fooled me by this trip, Barry Manson. I know damned well that it wasn't any abrupt interest in the Mayans that prompted it. I'm mighty grateful to you for giving Bill the chance he's always wanted. But I wouldn't marry you out of gratitude, and I don't think you'd want me to — would you, Barry?”

His gray eyes narrowed: he said, brutally: “Listen, redhead. You don't fool me any either. It's damned little of highbrow or blue-stocking you'd be if you fell in love with a man. Nature didn't build you that way. And it would be damned little you'd be thinking of fossils if that happened. You'd be too busy having babies.”

She said, coldly: “I think that's rather — beastly!” He said, hotly: “Is that so? What's beastly about babies? You'd be getting a slant on the present day with some outlook on the future — instead of burying your red head in the past. What I'm afraid of is that you'll marry some dusty-dry, mummy-minded, scientific grave robber and spend the rest of your life nursing fossils instead of what you are obviously designed for — ”

She interrupted, furiously, eyes snapping blue sparks:

“I'll let nobody pick my husband! Least of all — you!”

“Won't you!” Barry's too-quick anger flared. “It seems to me you were ready enough to pick wives for me just now. Not one but a dozen — “ He gripped her arms and swung her to him. “You — the highbrow scientist? Like hell you are! Look at that mop of red hair. Those eyes of yours with the devil's twist to the ends of them, that mouth of yours — and I've seen you in your rag of a bathing suit! I tell you again, by God, that once you're awake it's not fossils you'll be thinking of! And maybe this will help wake you — ”

He held her close, kissed eyes and throat, pressed his lips to hers. She lay in his arms, passive, unresisting. She said at last, indifferently:

“Cave-man stuff, Barry. Too crude. It doesn't interest me at all.”

He released her, stepping back as though out of a dash of cold water. She raised her arms and began to coil her disordered hair. She laughed at him, a little too sweetly — though he did not know it.

“You see, Barry dear, we're as far apart as the poles. You make love to me by enumerating my — ah, charms, is the cliche for it, I think. You are an — ah, anatomical lover. It is a viewpoint, certainly. A Sultan's viewpoint, but I do not care for Sultans. Nor,” went on Joan, still far too sweetly and reasonably, “do I think that my worthinesses are wholly anatomical. But then — you've always been rich — ”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09