At midnight, when Teargeld was in the south, throwing his shadow straight toward the sea and making everything nearly as bright as day, he saw a great tree floating in the water, not far out. It was thirty feet out of the water, upright, and alive, and its roots must have been enormously deep and wide. It was drifting along the coast, through the heavy seas. Maskull eyed it incuriously for a few minutes. Then it dawned on him that it might be a good thing to investigate its nature. Without stopping to weigh the danger, he immediately swam out, caught hold of the lowest branch, and swung himself up.
He looked aloft and saw that the main stem was thick to the very top, terminating in a knob that somewhat resembled a human head. He made his way toward this knob, through the multitude of boughs, which were covered with tough, slippery, marine leaves, like seaweed. Arriving at the crown, he found that it actually was a sort of head, for there were membranes like rudimentary eyes all the way around it, denoting some form of low intelligence.
At that moment the tree touched bottom, though some way from the shore, and began to bump heavily. To steady himself, Maskull put his hand out, and, in doing so, accidentally covered some of the membranes. The tree sheered off the land, as if by an act of will. When it was steady again, Maskull removed his hand; they at once drifted back to shore. He thought a bit, and then started experimenting with the eyelike membranes. It was as he had guessed — these eyes were stimulated by the light of the moon, and whichever way the light came from, the tree would travel.
A rather defiant smile crossed Maskull’s face as it struck him that it might be possible to navigate this huge plant-animal as far as Matterplay. He lost no time in putting the conception into execution. Tearing off some of the long, tough leaves, he bound up all the membranes except the ones that faced the north. The tree instantly left the island, and definitely put out to sea. It travelled due north. It was not moving at more than a mile an hour, however, while Matterplay was possibly forty miles distant.
The great spout waves fell against the trunk with mighty thuds; the breaking seas hissed through the lower branches — Maskull rested high and dry, but was more than a little apprehensive about their slow rate of progress. Presently he sighted a current racing along toward the north-west, and that put another idea into his head. He began to juggle with the membranes again, and before long had succeeded in piloting his tree into the fast-running stream. As soon as they were fairly in its rapids, he blinded the crown entirely, and thenceforward the current acted in the double capacity of road and steed.
Maskull made himself secure among the branches and slept for the remainder of the night.
When his eyes opened again, the island was out of sight. Teargeld was setting in the western sea. The sky in the east was bright with the colours of the approaching day. The air was cool and fresh; the light over the sea was beautiful, gleaming, and mysterious. Land — probably Matterplay — lay ahead, a long, dark line of low cliffs, perhaps a mile away. The current no longer ran toward the shore, but began to skirt the coast without drawing any closer to it. As soon as Maskull realised the fact, he manoeuvred the tree out of its channel and started drifting it inshore. The eastern sky blazed up suddenly with violent dyes, and the outer rim of Branchspell lifted itself above the sea. The moon had already sunk.
The shore loomed nearer and nearer. In physical character it was like Swaylone’s Island — the same wide sands, small cliffs, and rounded, insignificant hills inland, without vegetation. In the early-morning sunlight, however, it looked romantic. Maskull, hollow-eyed and morose, cared nothing for all that, but the moment the tree grounded, clambered swiftly down through the branches and dropped into the sea. By the time he had swam ashore, the white, stupendous sun was high above the horizon.
He walked along the sands toward the east for a considerable distance, without having any special intention in his mind. He thought he would go on until he came to some creek or valley, and then turn up it. The sun’s rays were cheering, and began to relieve him of his oppressive night weight. After strolling along the beach for about a mile, he was stopped by a broad stream that flowed into the sea out of a kind of natural gateway in the line of cliffs. Its water was of a beautiful, limpid green, all filled with bubbles. So ice-cold, aerated, and enticing did it look that he flung himself face downward on the ground and took a prolonged draught. When he got up again his eyes started to play pranks — they became alternately blurted and clear. . . . It may have been pure imagination, but he fancied that Digrung was moving inside him.
He followed the bank of the stream through the gap in the cliffs, and then for the first time saw the real Matterplay. A valley appeared, like a jewel enveloped by naked rock. All the hill country was bare and lifeless, but this valley lying in the heart of it was extremely fertile; he had never seen such fertility. It wound up among the hills, and all that he was looking at was its broad lower end. The floor of the valley was about half a mile wide; the stream that ran down its middle was nearly a hundred feet across, but was exceedingly shallow — in most places not more than a few inches deep. The sides of the valley were about seventy feet high, but very sloping; they were clothed from top to bottom with little, bright-leaved trees — not of varied tints of one colour, like Earth trees, but of widely diverse colours, most of which were brilliant and positive.
The floor itself was like a magician’s garden. Densely interwoven trees, shrubs, and parasitical climbers fought everywhere for possession of it. The forms were strange and grotesque, and each one seemed different; the colours of leaf, flower, sexual organs, and stem were equally peculiar — all the different combinations of the five primary colours of Tormance seemed to be represented, and the result, for Maskull was a sort of eye chaos. So rank was the vegetation that he could not fight his way through it; he was obliged to take to the riverbed. The contact of the water created an odd tingling sensation throughout his body, like a mild electric shock. There were no birds, but a few extraordinary-looking winged reptiles of small size kept crossing the valley from hill to hill. Swarms of flying insects clustered around him, threatening mischief, but in the end it turned out that his blood was disagreeable to them, for he was not bitten once. Repulsive crawling creatures resembling centipedes, scorpions, snakes, and so forth were in myriads on the banks of the stream, but they also made no attempt to use their weapons on his bare legs and feet, as he passed through them into the water. . . . Presently however, he was confronted in midstream by a hideous monster, of the size of a pony, but resembling in shape — if it resembled anything — a sea crustacean; and then he came to a halt. They stared at one another, the beast with wicked eyes, Maskull with cool and wary ones. While he was staring, a singular thing happened to him.
His eyes blurred again. But when in a minute or two this blurring passed away and he saw clearly once more, his vision had changed in character. He was looking right through the animal’s body and could distinguish all its interior parts. The outer crust, however, and all the hard tissues were misty and semi-transparent; through them a luminous network of blood-red veins and arteries stood out in startling distinctness. The hard parts faded away to nothingness, and the blood system alone was left. Not even the fleshy ducts remained. The naked blood alone was visible, flowing this way and that like a fiery, liquid skeleton, in the shape of the monster. Then this blood began to change too. Instead of a continuous liquid stream, Maskull perceived that it was composed of a million individual points. The red colour had been an illusion caused by the rapid motion of the points; he now saw clearly that they resembled minute suns in their scintillating brightness. They seemed like a double drift of stars, streaming through space. One drift was travelling toward a fixed point in the centre, while the other was moving away from it. He recognised the former as the veins of the beast, the latter as the arteries, and the fixed point as the heart.
While he was still looking, lost in amazement, the starry network went out suddenly like an extinguished flame. Where the crustacean had stood, there was nothing. Yet through this “nothing” he could not see the landscape. Something was standing there that intercepted the light, though it possessed neither shape, colour, nor substance. And now the object, which could no longer be perceived by vision, began to be felt by emotion. A delightful, springlike sense of rising sap, of quickening pulses of love, adventure, mystery, beauty, femininity — took possession of his being, and, strangely enough, he identified it with the monster. Why that invisible brute should cause him to feel young, sexual, and audacious, he did not ask himself, for he was fully occupied with the effect. But it was as if flesh, bones, and blood had been discarded, and he were face to face with naked Life itself, which slowly passed into his own body.
The sensations died away. There was a brief interval, and then the streaming, starlike skeleton rose up again out of space. It changed to the red-blood system. The hard parts of the body reappeared, with more and more distinctness, and at the same time the network of blood grew fainter. Presently the interior parts were entirely concealed by the crust — the creature stood opposite Maskull in its old formidable ugliness, hard, painted, and concrete.
Disliking something about him, the crustacean turned aside and stumbled awkwardly away on its six legs, with laborious and repulsive movements, toward the other bank of the stream.
Maskull’s apathy left him after this adventure. He became uneasy and thoughtful. He imagined that he was beginning to see things through Digrung’s eyes, and that there were strange troubles immediately ahead. The next time his eyes started to blur, he fought it down with his will, and nothing happened.
The valley ascended with many windings toward the hills. It narrowed considerably, and the wooded slopes on either side grew steeper and higher. The stream shrunk to about twenty feet across, but it was deeper — it was alive with motion, music, and bubbles. The electric sensations caused by its water became more pronounced, almost disagreeably so; but there was nowhere else to walk. With its deafening confusion of sounds from the multitude of living creatures, the little valley resembled a vast conversation hall of Nature. The life was still more prolific than before; every square foot of space was a tangle of struggling wills, both animal and vegetable. For a naturalist it would have been paradise, for no two shapes were alike, and all were fantastic, with individual character.
It looked as if life forms were being coined so fast by Nature that there was not physical room for all. Nevertheless it was not as on Earth, where a hundred seeds are scattered in order that one may be sown. Here the young forms seemed to survive, while, to find accommodation for them, the old ones perished; everywhere he looked they were withering and dying, without any ostensible cause — they were simply being killed by new life.
Other creatures sported so wildly, in front of his very eyes, that they became of different “kingdoms” altogether. For example, a fruit was lying on the ground, of the size and shape of a lemon, but with a tougher skin. He picked it up, intending to eat the contained pulp; but inside it was a fully formed young tree, just on the point of bursting its shell. Maskull threw it away upstream. It floated back toward him; by the time he was even with it, its downward motion had stopped and it was swimming against the current. He fished it out and discovered that it had sprouted six rudimentary legs.
Maskull sang no paeans of praise in honour of the gloriously overcrowded valley. On the contrary, he felt deeply cynical and depressed. He thought that the unseen power — whether it was called Nature, Life, Will, or God — that was so frantic to rush forward and occupy this small, vulgar, contemptible world, could not possess very high aims and was not worth much. How this sordid struggle for an hour or two of physical existence could ever be regarded as a deeply earnest and important business was beyond his comprehension The atmosphere choked him, he longed for air and space. Thrusting his way through to the side of the ravine, he began to climb the overhanging cliff, swinging his way up from tree to tree.
When he arrived at the top, Branchspell beat down on him with such brutal, white intensity that he saw that there was no staying there. He looked around, to ascertain what part of the country he had come to. He had travelled about ten miles from the sea, as the crow flies. The bare, undulating wolds sloped straight down toward it; the water glittered in the distance; and on the horizon he was just able to make out Swaylone’s Island. Looking north, the land continued sloping upward as far as he could see. Over the crest — that is to say, some miles away — a line of black, fantastic-shaped rocks of quite another character showed themselves; this was probably Threal. Behind these again, against the sky, perhaps fifty or even a hundred miles off, were the peaks of Lichstorm, most of them covered with greenish snow that glittered in the sunlight.
They were stupendously high and of weird contours. Most of them were conical to the top, but from the top, great masses of mountain balanced themselves at what looked like impossible angles — overhanging without apparent support. A land like that promised something new, he thought: extraordinary inhabitants. The idea took shape in his mind to go there, and to travel as swiftly as possible, it might even be feasible to get there before sunset. It was less the mountains themselves that attracted him than the country which lay beyond — the prospect of setting eyes on the blue sun, which he judged to be the wonder of wonders in Tormance.
The direct route was over the hills, but that was out of the question, because of the killing heat and the absence of shade. He guessed, however, that the valley would not take him far out of his way, and decided to keep to that for the time being, much as he hated and feared it. Into the hotbed of life, therefore, he once more swung himself.
Once down, he continued to follow the windings of the valley for several miles through sunlight and shadow. The path became increasingly difficult. The cliffs closed in on either side until they were less than a hundred yards apart, while the bed of the ravine was blocked by boulders, great and small, so that the little stream, which was now diminished to the proportions of a brook, had to come down where and how it could. The forms of life grew stranger. Pure plants and pure animals disappeared by degrees, and their place was filled by singular creatures that seemed to partake of both characters. They had limbs, faces, will, and intelligence, but they remained for the greater part of their time rooted in the ground by preference, and they fed only on soil and air. Maskull saw no sexual organs and failed to understand how the young came into existence.
Then he witnessed an astonishing sight. A large and fully developed plant-animal appeared suddenly in front of him, out of empty space. He could not believe his eyes, but stared at the creature for a long time in amazement. It went on calmly moving and burrowing before him, as thought it had been there all its life. Giving up the puzzle, Maskull resumed his striding from rock to rock up the gorge, and then, quietly and without warning, the same phenomenon occurred again. No longer could he doubt than he was seeing miracles — that Nature was precipitating its shapes into the world without making use of the medium of parentage. . . . No solution of the problem presented itself.
The brook too had altered in character. A trembling radiance came up from its green water, like some imprisoned force escaping into the air. He had not walked in it for some time; now he did so, to test its quality. He felt new life entering his body, from his feet upward; it resembled a slowly moving cordial, rather than mere heat. The sensation was quite new in his experience, yet he knew by instinct what it was. The energy emitted by the brook was ascending his body neither as friend nor foe but simply because it happened to be the direct road to its objective elsewhere. But, although it had no hostile intentions, it was likely to prove a rough traveller — he was clearly conscious that its passage through his body threatened to bring about some physical transformation, unless he could do something to prevent it. Leaping quickly out of the water, he leaned against a rock, tightened his muscles, and braced himself against the impending charge. At that very moment the blurring again attacked his sight, and, while he was guarding against that, his forehead sprouted out into a galaxy of new eyes. He put his hand up and counted six, in addition to his old ones.
The danger was past and Maskull laughed, congratulating himself on having got off so easily. Then he wondered what the new organs were for — whether they were a good or a bad thing. He had not taken a dozen steps up the ravine before he found out. Just as he was in the act of jumping down from the top of a boulder, his vision altered and he came to an automatic standstill. He was perceiving two worlds simultaneously. With his own eyes he saw the gorge as before, with its rocks, brook, plant-animals, sunshine, and shadows. But with his acquired eyes he saw differently. All the details of the valley were visible, but the light seemed turned down, and everything appeared faint, hard, and uncoloured. The sun was obscured by masses of cloud which filled the whole sky. This vapour was in violent and almost living motion. It was thick in extension, but thin in texture; some parts, however, were far denser than others, as the particles were crushed together or swept apart by the motion. The green sparks from the brook, when closely watched, could be distinguished individually, each one wavering up toward the clouds, but the moment they got within them a fearful struggle seemed to begin. The spark endeavoured to escape through to the upper air, while the clouds concentrated around it whichever way it darted, trying to create so dense a prison that further movement would be impossible. As far as Maskull could detect, most of the sparks succeeded eventually in finding their way out after frantic efforts; but one that he was looking at was caught, and what happened was this. A complete ring of cloud surrounded it, and, in spite of its furious leaps and flashes in all directions — as if it were a live, savage creature caught in a net — nowhere could it find an opening, but it dragged the enveloping cloud stuff with it, wherever it went. The vapours continued to thicken around it, until they resembled the black, heavy, compressed sky masses seen before a bad thunderstorm. Then the green spark, which was still visible in the interior, ceased its efforts, and remained for a time quite quiescent. The cloud shape went on consolidating itself, and became nearly spherical; as it grew heavier and stiller, it started slowly to descend toward the valley floor. When it was directly opposite Maskull, with its lower end only a few feet off the ground, its motion stopped altogether and there was a complete pause for at least two minutes. Suddenly, like a stab of forked lightning, the great cloud shot together, became small, indented, and coloured, and as a plant-animal started walking around on legs and rooting up the ground in search of food. The concluding stage of the phenomenon he witnessed with his normal eyesight. It showed him the creature’s appearing miraculously out of nowhere.
Maskull was shaken. His cynicism dropped from him and gave place to curiosity and awe. “That was exactly like the birth of a thought,” he said to himself, “but who was the thinker? Some great Living Mind is at work in this spot. He has intelligence, for all his shapes are different, and he has character, for all belong to the same general type. . . . If I’m not wrong, and if it’s the force called Shaping or Crystalman, I’ve seen enough to make me want to find out something more about him. . . . It would be ridiculous to go on to other riddles before I have solved these.”
A voice called out to him from behind, and, turning around, he saw a human figure hastening toward him from some distance down the ravine. It looked more like a man than a woman. He was rather tall, but nimble, and was clothed in a dark, frocklike garment that reached from the neck to below the knees. Around his head was rolled a turban. Maskull waited for him, and when he was nearer went a little way to meet him.
Then he experienced another surprise, for this person, although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand. In order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull’s mind by the stranger’s physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of “he,” “she,” or “it,” therefore “ae” will be used.
He found himself incapable of grasping at first why the bodily peculiarities of this being should strike him as springing from sex, and not from race, and yet there was no doubt about the fact itself. Body, face, and eyes were absolutely neither male nor female, but something quite different. Just as one can distinguish a man from a woman at the first glance by some indefinable difference of expression and atmospheres altogether apart from the contour of the figure, so the stranger was separated in appearance from both. As with men and women, the whole person expressed a latent sensuality, which gave body and face alike their peculiar character. . . . Maskull decided that it was love — but what love — love for whom? it was neither the shame-carrying passion of a male, nor the deep-rooted instinct of a female to obey her destiny. It was as real and irresistible as these, but quite different.
As he continued staring into those strange, archaic eyes, he had an intuitive feeling that her lover was no other than Shaping himself. It came to him that the design of this love was not the continuance of the race but the immortality on earth of the individual. No children were produced by the act; the lover aerself was the eternal child. Further, ae sought like a man, but received like a woman. All these things were dimly and confusedly expressed by this extraordinary being, who seemed to have dropped out of another age, when creation was different.
Of all the weird personalities Maskull had so far met in Tormance, this one struck him as infinitely the most foreign — that is, the farthest removed from him in spiritual structure. If they were to live together for a hundred years, they could never be companions.
Maskull pulled himself out of his trancelike meditations and, viewing the newcomer in greater detail, tried with his understanding to account for the marvellous things told him by his intuitions. Ae possessed broad shoulders and big bones, and was without female breasts, and so far ae resembled a man. But the bones were so flat and angular that aer flesh presented something of the character of a crystal, having plane surfaces in place of curves. The body looked as if it had not been ground down by the sea of ages into smooth and rounded regularity but had sprung together in angles and facets as the result of a single, sudden idea. The face too was broken and irregular. With his racial prejudices, Maskull found little beauty in it, yet beauty there was, though neither of a masculine nor of a feminine type, for it had the three essentials of beauty: character, intelligence, and repose. The skin was copper-coloured and strangely luminous, as if lighted from within. The face was beardless, but the hair of the head was as long as a woman’s, and, dressed in a single plait, fell down behind as far as the ankles. Ae possessed only two eyes. That part of the turban which went across the forehead protruded so far in front that it evidently concealed some organ.
Maskull found it impossible to compute aer age. The frame appeared active, vigorous, and healthy, the skin was clear and glowing; the eyes were powerful and alert — ae might well be in early youth. Nevertheless, the longer Maskull gazed, the more an impression of unbelievable ancientness came upon him — aer real youth seemed as far away as the view observed through a reversed telescope.
At last he addressed the stranger, though it was just as if he were conversing with a dream. “To what sex do you belong?” he asked.
The voice in which the reply came was neither manly nor womanly, but was oddly suggestive of a mystical forest horn, heard from a great distance.
“Nowadays there are men and women, but in the olden times the world was peopled by ‘phaens.’ I think I am the only survivor of all those beings who were then passing through Faceny’s mind.”
“Who is now miscalled Shaping or Crystalman. The superficial names invented by a race of superficial creatures.”
“What’s your own name?”
“Leehallfae. And yours is Maskull. I read in your mind that you have just come through some wonderful adventures. You seem to possess extraordinary luck. If it lasts long enough, perhaps I can make use of it.”
“Do you think that my luck exists for your benefit? . . . But never mind that now. It is your sex that interests me. How do you satisfy your desires?”
Leehallfae pointed to the concealed organ on aer brow. “With that I gather life from the streams that flow in all the hundred Matterplay valleys. The streams spring direct from Faceny. My whole life has been spent trying to find Faceny himself. I’ve hunted so long that if I were to state the number of years you would believe I lied.”
Maskull looked at the phaen slowly. “In Ifdawn I met someone else from Matterplay — a young man called Digrung. I absorbed him.”
“You can’t be telling me this out of vanity.”
“It was a fearful crime. What will come of it?”
Leehallfae gave a curious, wrinkled smile. “In Matterplay he will stir inside you, for he smells the air. Already you have his eyes. . . . I knew him. . . . Take care of yourself, or something more startling may happen. Keep out of the water.”
“This seems to me a terrible valley, in which anything may happen.”
“Don’t torment yourself about Digrung. The valleys belong by right to the phaens — the men here are interlopers. It is a good work to remove them.”
Maskull continued thoughtful. “I say no more, but I see I will have to be cautious. What did you mean about my helping you with my luck?”
“Your luck is fast weakening, but it may still be strong enough to serve me. Together we will search for Threal.”
“Search for Threal — why, is it so hard to find?”
“I have told you that my whole life has been spent in the quest.”
“You said Faceny, Leehallfae.”
The phaen gazed at him with queer, ancient eyes, and smiled again. “This stream, Maskull, like every other life stream in Matterplay, has its source in Faceny. But as all these streams issue out from Threal, it is in Threal that we must look for Faceny.”
“But what’s to prevent your finding Threal? Surely it’s a well-known country?”
“It lies underground. Its communications with the upper world are few, and where they are, no one that I have ever spoken to knows. I have scoured the valleys and the hills. I have been to the very gates of Lichstorm. I am old, so that your aged men would appear newborn infants beside me, but I am as far from Threal as when I was a green youth, dwelling among a throng of fellow phaens.”
“Then, if my luck is good, yours is very bad. . . . But when you have found Faceny, what do you gain?”
Leehallfae looked at him in silence. The smile faded from aer face, and its place was taken by such a look of unearthly pain and sorrow that Maskull had no need to press his question. Ae was consumed by the grief and yearning of a lover eternally separated from the loved one, the scents and traces of whose person were always present. This passion stamped her features at that moment with a wild, stern, spiritual beauty, far transcending any beauty of woman or man.
But the expression vanished suddenly, and then the abrupt contrast showed Maskull the real Leehallfae. Aer sensuality was solitary, but vulgar — it was like the heroism of a lonely nature, pursuing animal aims with untiring persistence.
He looked at the phaen askance, and drummed his fingers against his thigh. “Well, we will go together. We may find something, and in any case I shan’t be sorry to converse with such a singular individual as yourself.”
“But I should warn you, Maskull. You and I are of different creations. A phaen’s body contains the whole of life, a man’s body contains only the half of life — the other half is in woman. Faceny may be too strong a draught for your body to endure. . . . Do you not feel this?”
“I am dull with my different feelings. I must take what precautions I can, and chance the rest.” He bent down, and, taking hold of the phaen’s thin and ragged robe, tore off a broad strip, which he proceeded to swathe in folds around his forehead. “I’m not forgetting your advice, Leehallfae. I would not like to start the walk as Maskull and finish it as Digrung.”
The phaen gave a twisted grin, and they began to move upstream. The road was difficult. They had to stride from boulder to boulder, and found it warm work. Occasionally a worse obstacle presented itself, which they could surmount only by climbing. There was no more conversation for a long time. Maskull, as far as possible, adopted his companion’s counsel to avoid the water, but here and there he was forced to set foot in it. The second or third time he did so, he felt a sudden agony in his arm, where it had been wounded by Krag. His eyes grew joyful; his fears vanished; and he began deliberately to tread the stream.
Leehallfae stroked aer chin and watched him with screwed-up eyes, trying to comprehend what had happened. “Is your luck speaking to you, Maskull, or what is the matter?”
“Listen. You are a being of antique experience, and ought to know, if anyone does. What is Muspel?”
The phaen’s face was blank. “I don’t know the name.”
“It is another world of some sort.”
“That cannot be. There is only this one world — Faceny’s.”
Maskull came up to aer, linked arms, and began to talk. “I’m glad I fell in with you, Leehallfae, for this valley and everything connected with it need a lot of explaining. For example, in this spot there are hardly any organic forms left — why have they all disappeared? You call this brook a ‘life stream,’ yet the nearer its source we get, the less life it produces. A mile or two lower down we had those spontaneous plant-animals appearing out of nowhere, while right down by the sea, plants and animals were tumbling over one another. Now, if all this is connected in some mysterious way or other with your Faceny, it seems to me he must have a most paradoxical nature. His essence doesn’t start creating shapes until it has become thoroughly weakened and watered. . . . But perhaps both of us are talking nonsense.”
Leehallfae shook aer head. “Everything hangs together. The stream is life, and it is throwing off sparks of life all the time. When these sparks are caught and imprisoned by matter, they become living shapes. The nearer the stream is to its source, the more terrible and vigorous is its life. You’ll see for yourself when we reach the head of the valley that there are no living shapes there at all. That means that there is no kind of matter tough enough to capture and hold the terrible sparks that are to be found there. Lower down the stream, most of the sparks are vigorous enough to escape to the upper air, but some are held when they are a little way up, and these burst suddenly into shapes. I myself am of this nature. Lower down still, toward the sea, the stream has lost a great part of its vital power and the sparks are lazy and sluggish. They spread out, rather than rise into the air. There is hardly any kind of matter, however delicate, that is incapable of capturing these feeble sparks, and they are captured in multitudes — that accounts for the innumerable living shapes you see there. But not only that — the sparks are passed from one body to another by way of generation, and can never hope to cease being so until they are worn out by decay. Lowest of all, you have the Sinking Sea itself. There the degenerate and enfeebled life of the Matterplay streams has for its body the whole sea. So weak is it’s power that it can’t succeed in creating any shapes at all but you can see its ceaseless, futile attempts to do so, in those spouts.”
“So the slow development of men and women is due to the feebleness of the life germ in their case?”
“Exactly. It can’t attain all its desires at once. And now you can see how immeasurably superior are the phaens, who spring spontaneously from the more electric and vigorous sparks.”
“But where does the matter come from that imprisons these sparks?”
“When life dies, it becomes matter. Matter itself dies, but its place is constantly taken by new matter.”
“But if life comes from Faceny, how can it die at all?”
“Life is the thoughts of Faceny, and once these thoughts have left his brain they are nothing — mere dying embers.”
“This is a cheerless philosophy,” said Maskull. “But who is Faceny himself, then, and why does he think at all?”
Leehallfae gave another wrinkled smile. “That I’ll explain too. Faceny is of this nature. He faces Nothingness in all directions. He has no back and no sides, but is all face; and this face is his shape. It must necessarily be so, for nothing else can exist between him and Nothingness. His face is all eyes, for he eternally contemplates Nothingness. He draws his inspirations from it; in no other way could he feel himself. For the same reason, phaens and even men love to be in empty places and vast solitudes, for each one is a little Faceny.”
“That rings true,” said Maskull.
“Thoughts flow perpetually from Faceny’s face backward. Since his face is on all sides, however, they flow into his interior. A draught of thought thus continuously flows from Nothingness to the inside of Faceny, which is the world. The thoughts become shapes, and people the world. This outer world, therefore, which is lying all around us, is not outside at all, as it happens, but inside. The visible universe is like a gigantic stomach, and the real outside of the world we shall never see.”
Maskull pondered deeply for a while.
“Leehallfae, I fail to see what you personally have to hope for, since you are nothing more than a discarded, dying thought.”
“Have you never loved a woman?” asked the phaen, regarding him fixedly.
“Perhaps I have.”
“When you loved, did you have no high moments?”
“That’s asking the same question in other words.”
“In those moments you were approaching Faceny. If you could have drawn nearer still, would you not have done so?”
“I would, regardless of the consequences.”
“Even if you personally had nothing to hope for?”
“But I would have that to hope for.”
Leehallfae walked on in silence.
“A man is the half of Life,” ae broke out suddenly. “A woman is the other half of life, but a phaen is the whole of life. Moreover, when life becomes split into halves, something else has dropped out of it — something that belongs only to the whole. Between your love and mine there is no comparison. If even your sluggish blood is drawn to Faceny, without stopping to ask what will come of it, how do you suppose it is with me?”
“I don’t question the genuineness of your passion,” replied Maskull, “but it’s a pity you can’t see your way to carry it forward into the next world.”
Leehallfae gave a distorted grin, expressing heaven knows what emotion. “Men think what they like, but phaens are so made that they can see the world only as it really is.”
That ended the conversation.
The sun was high in the sky, and they appeared to be approaching the head of the ravine. Its walls had still further closed in and, except at those moments when Branchspell was directly behind them, they strode along all the time in deep shade; but still it was disagreeably hot and relaxing. All life had ceased. A beautiful, fantastic spectacle was presented by the cliff faces, the rocky ground, and the boulders that choked the entire width of the gorge. They were a snow-white crystalline limestone, heavily scored by veins of bright, gleaming blue. The rivulet was no longer green, but a clear, transparent crystal. Its noise was musical, and altogether it looked most romantic and charming, but Leehallfae seemed to find something else in it — aer features grew more and more set and tortured.
About half an hour after all the other life forms had vanished, another plant-animal was precipitated out of space, in front of their eyes. It was as tall as Maskull himself, and had a brilliant and vigorous appearance, as befitted a creature just out of Nature’s mint. It started to walk about; but hardly had it done so when it burst silently asunder. Nothing remained of it — the whole body disappeared instantaneously into the same invisible mist from which it had sprung.
“That bears out what you said,” commented Maskull, turning rather pale.
“Yes,” answered Leehallfae, “we have now come to the region of terrible life.”
“Then, since you’re right in this, I must believe all that you’ve been telling me.”
As he uttered the words, they were just turning a bend of the ravine. There now loomed up straight ahead a perpendicular cliff about three hundred feet in height, composed of white, marbled rock. It was the head of the valley, and beyond it they could not proceed.
“In return for my wisdom,” said the phaen, “you will now lend me your luck.”
They walked up to the base of the cliff, and Maskull looked at it reflectively. It was possible to climb it, but the ascent would be difficult. The now tiny brook issued from a hole in the rock only a few feet up. Apart from its musical running, not a sound was to be beard. The floor of the gorge was in shadow, but about halfway up the precipice the sun was shining.
“What do you want me to do?” demanded Maskull. “Everything is now in your hands, and I have no suggestions to make. Now it’s your luck that must help us.”
Maskull continued gazing up a little while longer. “We had better wait till the afternoon, Leehallfae. I’ll probably have to climb to the top, but it’s too hot at present — and besides, I’m tired. I’ll snatch a few hours’ sleep. After that, we’ll see.”
Leehallfae seemed annoyed, but raised no opposition.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11