“Help me. Help me, Roland.”
The trestle had begun to twist further, screaming, pulling loose from itself, giving—
“Then I shall leave you.”
“No! You shall NOT!”
The gunslinger’s legs carried him in a sudden leap, breaking the paralysis that held him; he took a true giant’s step above the dangling boy and landed in a skidding, plunging rush toward the light that offered the Tower frozen on his mind’s eye in a black still life . . .
Into sudden silence.
The silhouette was gone, even the beat of his heart was gone as the trestle settled further, beginning its final slow dance to the depths, tearing loose, his hand finding the rocky, lighted lip of damnation; and behind him, in the dreadful silence, the boy spoke from too far beneath him.
“Go then. There are other worlds than these.”
Then the trestle tore away, the whole weight of it; and as the gunslinger pulled himself up and through to the light and the breeze and the reality of a new ka, he twisted his head back, for a moment in his agony striving to be Janus—but there was nothing, only plummeting silence, for the boy made no cry as he fell.
Then Roland was up, pulling himself onto the rocky escarpment that looked toward a grassy plain, toward where the man in black stood spread-legged, with arms crossed. The gunslinger stood drunkenly, pallid as a ghost, eyes huge and swimming beneath his forehead, shirt smeared with the white dust of his final, lunging crawl. It came to him that there would be further degradations of the spirit ahead that might make this one seem infinitesimal, and yet he would still flee it, down corridors and through cities, from bed to bed; he would flee the boy’s face and try to bury it in cunts and killing, only to enter one final room and find it looking at him over a candle flame. He had become the boy; the boy had become him. He was become a werewolf of his own making. In deep dreams he would become the boy and speak the boy’s strange city tongue.
This is death. Is it? Is it?
He walked slowly, drunkenly down the rocky hill toward where the man in black waited. Here the tracks had been worn away, under the sun of reason, and it was as if they had never been.
The man in black pushed his hood away with the backs of both hands, laughing.
“So!” he cried. “Not an end, but the end of the beginning, eh? You progress, gunslinger! You progress! Oh, how I admire you!”
The gunslinger drew with blinding speed and fired twelve times. The gunflashes dimmed the sun itself, and the pounding of the explosions slammed back from the rock-faced escarpments behind them.
“Now-now,” the man in black said, laughing. “Oh, now-now-now. We make great magic together, you and I. You kill me no more than you kill yourself.”
He withdrew, walking backwards, facing the gunslinger, grinning and beckoning. “Come. Come. Come. Mother, may I? Yes-you-may.”
The gunslinger followed him in broken boots to the place of counseling. The man in black led him to an ancient killing ground to make palaver. The gunslinger knew it immediately: a golgotha, place-of-the-skull. And bleached skulls stared blandly up at them—cattle, coyotes, deer, rabbits, bumbler. Here the alabaster xylophone of a hen pheasant killed as she fed; there the tiny, delicate bones of a mole, perhaps killed for pleasure by a wild dog.
The golgotha was a bowl indented into the descending slope of the mountain, and below, in easier altitudes, the gunslinger could see Joshua trees and scrub firs. The sky overhead was a softer blue than he had seen for a twelve-month, and there was an indefinable something that spoke of the sea in the not-too-great distance.
I am in the West, Cuthbert, he thought wonderingly. If this is not Mid-World, it’s close by.
The man in black sat on an ancient ironwood log. His boots were powdered white with dust and the uneasy bone-meal of this place. He had put his hood up again, but the gunslinger could see the square shape of his chin clearly, and the shading of his jaw.
The shadowed lips twitched in a smile. “Gather wood, gunslinger. This side of the mountains is gentle, but at this altitude, the cold still may put a knife in one’s belly. And this is a place of death, eh?”
“I’ll kill you,” the gunslinger said.
“No you won’t. You can’t. But you can gather wood to remember your Isaac.”
The gunslinger had no understanding of the reference. He went wordlessly and gathered wood like a common cook’s boy. The pickings were slim. There was no devil-grass on this side and the ironwood would not burn. It had become stone. He returned finally with a large armload of likely sticks, powdered and dusted with disintegrated bone, as if dipped in flour. The sun had sunk beyond the highest Joshua trees and had taken on a reddish glow. It peered at them with baleful indifference.
“Excellent,” the man in black said. “How exceptional you are! How methodical! How resourceful! I salute you!” He giggled, and the gunslinger dropped the wood at his feet with a crash that ballooned up bone dust.
The man in black did not start or jump; he merely began laying the fire. The gunslinger watched, fascinated, as the ideogram (fresh, this time) took shape. When it was finished, it resembled a small and complex double chimney about two feet high. The man in black lifted his hand skyward, shaking back the voluminous sleeve from a tapered, handsome hand, and brought it down rapidly, index and pinky fingers forked out in the traditional sign of the evil eye. There was a blue flash of flame, and their fire was lighted. “I have matches,” the man in black said jovially, “but I thought you might enjoy the magic. For a pretty, gunslinger. Now cook our dinner.”
The folds of his robe shivered, and the plucked and gutted carcass of a plump rabbit fell on the dirt.
The gunslinger spitted the rabbit wordlessly and roasted it. A savory smell drifted up as the sun went down. Purple shadows drifted hungrily over the bowl where the man in black had chosen to finally face him. The gunslinger felt hunger begin to rumble endlessly in his belly as the rabbit browned; but when the meat was cooked and its juices sealed in, he handed the entire skewer wordlessly to the man in black, rummaged in his own nearly flat knapsack, and withdrew the last of his jerky. It was salty, painful to his mouth, and tasted like tears.
“That’s a worthless gesture,” the man in black said, managing to sound angry and amused at the same time.
“Nevertheless,” the gunslinger said. There were tiny sores in his mouth, the result of vitamin deprivation, and the salt taste made him grin bitterly.
“Are you afraid of enchanted meat?”
The man in black slipped his hood back.
The gunslinger looked at him silently. In a way, the face that the hood had hidden was an uneasy disappointment. It was handsome and regular, with none of the marks and twists which indicate a man who has been through awesome times and has been privy to great secrets. His hair was black and of a ragged, matted length. His forehead was high, his eyes dark and brilliant. His nose was nondescript. The lips were full and sensual. His complexion was pallid, as was the gunslinger’s own.
The gunslinger said finally, “I expected an older man.”
“Why? I am nearly immortal, as are you, Roland—for now, at least. I could have taken a face with which you would have been more familiar, but I elected to show you the one I was—ah—born with. See, gunslinger, the sunset.”
The sun had departed already, and the western sky was filled with sullen furnace light.
“You won’t see another sunrise for what may seem a very long time,” the man in black said.
The gunslinger remembered the pit under the mountains and then looked at the sky, where the constellations sprawled in clockspring profusion.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said softly, “now.” The man in black shuffled the cards with flying hands. The deck was huge, the designs on the back convoluted. “These are Tarot cards, gunslinger—of a sort. A mixture of the standard deck to which have been added a selection of my own development. Now watch carefully.”
“What will I watch?”
“I’m going to tell your future. Seven cards must be turned, one at a time, and placed in conjunction with the others. I’ve not done this since the days when Gilead stood and the ladies played at Points on the west lawn. And I suspect I’ve never read a tale such as yours.” Mockery was creeping into his voice again. “You are the world’s last adventurer. The last crusader. How that must please you, Roland! Yet you have no idea how close you stand to the Tower now, as you resume your quest. Worlds turn about your head.”
“What do you mean, resume? I never left off.”
At this the man in black laughed heartily, but would not say what he found so funny. “Read my fortune then,” Roland said harshly.
The first card was turned.
“The Hanged Man,” the man in black said. The darkness had given him back his hood. “Yet here, in conjunction with nothing else, it signifies strength, not death. You, gunslinger, are the Hanged Man, plodding ever onward toward your goal over the pits of Na’ar. You’ve already dropped one co-traveler into that pit, have you not?”
The gunslinger said nothing, and the second card was turned.
“The Sailor! Note the clear brow, the hairless cheeks, the wounded eyes. He drowns, gunslinger, and no one throws out the line. The boy Jake.”
The gunslinger winced, said nothing.
The third card was turned. A baboon stood grinningly astride a young man’s shoulder. The young man’s face was turned up, a grimace of stylized dread and horror on his features. Looking more closely, the gunslinger saw the baboon held a whip.
“The Prisoner,” the man in black said. The fire cast uneasy, flickering shadows over the face of the ridden man, making it seem to move and writhe in wordless terror. The gunslinger flicked his eyes away.
“A trifle upsetting, isn’t he?” the man in black said, and seemed on the verge of sniggering.
He turned the fourth card. A woman with a shawl over her head sat spinning at a wheel. To the gunslinger’s dazed eyes, she appeared to be smiling craftily and sobbing at the same time.
“The Lady of the Shadows,” the man in black remarked. “Does she look two-faced to you, gunslinger? She is. Two faces at least. She broke the blue plate!”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” And—in this case, at least—the gunslinger thought his adversary was telling the truth.
“Why are you showing me these?”
“Don’t ask!” the man in black said sharply, yet he smiled. “Don’t ask. Merely watch. Consider this only pointless ritual if it eases you and cools you to do so. Like church.”
He tittered and turned the fifth card.
A grinning reaper clutched a scythe with bony fingers. “Death,” the man in black said simply. “Yet not for you.”
The sixth card. The gunslinger looked at it and felt a strange, crawling anticipation in his guts. The feeling was mixed with horror and joy, and the whole of the emotion was unnameable. It made him feel like throwing up and dancing at the same time.
“The Tower,” the man in black said softly. “Here is the Tower.”
The gunslinger’s card occupied the center of the pattern; each of the following four stood at one corner, like satellites circling a star.
“Where does that one go?” the gunslinger asked.
The man in black placed the Tower over the Hanged Man, covering it completely.
“What does that mean?” the gunslinger asked.
The man in black did not answer.
“What does that mean?” he asked raggedly.
The man in black did not answer.
“Then be damned to you. What’s the seventh card?”
The man in black turned the seventh. A sun rose in a luminously blue sky. Cupids and sprites sported around it. Below the sun was a great red field upon which it shone. Roses or blood? The gunslinger could not tell. Perhaps, he thought, it’s both.
“The seventh card is Life,” the man in black said softly. “But not for you.”
“Where does it fit the pattern?”
“That is not for you to know now,” the man in black said. “Or for me to know. I’m not the great one you seek, Roland. I am merely his emissary.” He flipped the card carelessly into the dying fire. It charred, curled, and flashed to flame. The gunslinger felt his heart quail and turn icy in his chest.
“Sleep now,” the man in black said carelessly. “Perchance to dream and that sort of thing.”
“What my bullets won’t do, mayhap my hands will,” the gunslinger said. His legs coiled with savage, splendid suddenness, and he flew across the fire at the other, arms outstretched. The man in black, smiling, swelled in his vision and then retreated down a long and echoing corridor. The world filled with the sound of sardonic laughter, he was falling, dying, sleeping.
He dreamed. The universe was void. Nothing moved. Nothing was.
The gunslinger drifted, bemused.
“Let’s have a little light,” the voice of the man in black said nonchalantly, and there was light. The gunslinger thought in a detached way that light was pretty good.
“Now darkness overhead with stars in it. Water down below.” It happened. He drifted over endless seas. Above, the stars twinkled endlessly, yet he saw none of the constellations which had guided him across his long life.
“Land,” the man in black invited, and there was; it heaved itself out of the water in endless, galvanic convulsions. It was red, arid, cracked and glazed with sterility. Volcanoes blurted endless magma like giant pimples on some ugly adolescent’s baseball head.
“Okay,” the man in black was saying. “That’s a start. Let’s have some plants. Trees. Grass and fields.”
There was. Dinosaurs rambled here and there, growling and whoofing and eating each other and getting stuck in bubbling, odiferous tarpits. Huge tropical rain-forests sprawled everywhere. Giant ferns waved at the sky with serrated leaves. Beetles with two heads crawled on some of them. All this the gunslinger saw. And yet he felt big.
“Now bring man,” the man in black said softly, but the gunslinger was falling . . . falling up. The horizon of this vast and fecund earth began to curve. Yes, they had all said it curved, his teacher Vannay had claimed it had been proved long before the world had moved on. But this—
Further and further, higher and higher. Continents took shape before his amazed eyes, and were obscured with clocksprings of clouds. The world’s atmosphere held it in a placental sac. And the sun, rising beyond the earth’s shoulder—
He cried out and threw an arm before his eyes.
“Let there be light!” The voice no longer belonged to the man in black. It was gigantic, echoing. It filled space, and the spaces between space.
The sun shrank. A red planet stamped with canals whirled past him, two moons circling it furiously. Beyond this was a whirling belt of stones and a gigantic planet that seethed with gases, too huge to support itself, oblate in consequence. Further out was a ringed world that glittered like a precious gem within its engirdlement of icy spicules.
“Light! Let there be—”
Other worlds, one, two, three. Far beyond the last, one lonely ball of ice and rock twirled in dead darkness about a sun that glittered no brighter than a tarnished penny.
Beyond this, darkness.
“No,” the gunslinger said, and his word on it was flat and echoless in the black. It was darker than dark, blacker than black. Beside this, the darkest night of a man’s soul was as noonday, the darkness under the mountains a mere smudge on the face of Light. “No more. Please, no more now. No more—”
“No more. No more, please—”
The stars themselves began to shrink. Whole nebulae drew together and became glowing smudges. The whole universe seemed to be drawing around him. “Please no more no more no more—”
The voice of the man in black whispered silkily in his ear: “Then renege. Cast away all thoughts of the Tower. Go your way, gunslinger, and begin the long job of saving your soul.”
He gathered himself. Shaken and alone, enwrapt in the darkness, terrified of an ultimate meaning rushing at him, he gathered himself and uttered the final answer on that subject:
“THEN LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
And there was light, crashing in on him like a hammer, a great and primordial light. Consciousness had no chance of survival in that great glare, but before it perished, the gunslinger saw something clearly, something he believed to be of cosmic importance. He clutched it with agonized effort and then went deep, seeking refuge in himself before that light should blind his eyes and blast his sanity.
He fled the light and the knowledge the light implied, and so came back to himself. Even so do the rest of us; even so the best of us.