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By Geoff Hart
For the longest time I lie quiescent, nestled deep in my mother’s belly, nourished by her warmth and feeling the comfort of her life flowing about me. It is enough, though a restlessness grows within me and I begin my own movement, drawing nearer the world that lies beyond. I feel the something that exists beyond my own circumscribed world, but am not yet ready for it, despite the quickening. The gentle rocking of my mother’s body, the susurrus of her steady pulse, reassure me that the time will come—but not just yet.
There comes a time when my restlessness grows intolerable, when my increasingly keen senses crave more and different sensations than reach me here, safely enfolded in my mother. The urge to move, to sense, to know, builds intolerably until at last, amidst a delicious burst of flame, equal parts pain and pleasure, surging ecstatically from the bosom of Mother, I am born. Freed of my rocky womb, I soar majestically towards Father Sun—golden Sun!—on his throne in the heavens, ’til at last, sober gravity halts my rise.
Such marvels surround me! I strive to see and know all, for there is so much to know, and I crave knowledge to fill the void at my core. Sensations of my own growth nearly escape me, half lost amidst the sensory overload, but I am not blind to myself; the soft, pliable flesh of my pre-life hardens to protect me from a new, less hospitable world. The emissions of my birthing gradually fade, surrounding me with silence and cool. It differs from my mother’s warmth, but not unpleasantly.
Before me, well downslope I note with some pride, lie others of my kind, shorter and far less imposing. Each searches as I do, glorying in myriad new sensations, and we joyously share our revelations. A gentle movement of the world around me brushes across my skin, cooling, probing, touching my private and public places alike. “Wind” is her name, and she answers my questions with naught but a gentle, flirting caress. Disappointed but not offended, I return to my revelations, for they are endless in number and fascinating in nature.
Time passes too fast, filled with an unending stream of wonders. Distant comrades tell of a new, swift-moving being that follows silver Moon. This newcomer is much like Wind, only heavier, and bound to Mother as we are. Like Wind, he seems an indifferent friend at best, but I have high hopes for him; after all, Wind is free, while the newcomer and my kin are equally bound. Twice daily the newcomer moves, licking at our feet. Can he be of the same family as the voiceless yet loud Storm, who comes with Wind, and thunders his rage? They are similar, certainly, but the newcomer is far more steady in his comings and goings. Storm rushes over me, vanishing again at my feet, and has no pattern in his travels I can discern.
Unperturbed, I bathe in the sensations that surround me, confident that in time all will become clear as my understanding grows.
Time passes, unheeded save for the changes that come over the land. Throughout the valleys at my feet and those of my friends, new beings emerge. Some soar above us with Wind, others creep across our flesh like Storm, and others anchor themselves shallowly in our flesh, immobile as we are, but far, far more humble. Tiny these beings are, and their span is so much less than ours—they grow and decay with bewildering speed, almost too fast to perceive, though the barrage of stimuli that once nearly overwhelmed me has slowed. Noting their own hasty growth, I perceive with dismay that I myself have stopped growing, and the implications of this contrast obsess me for a time. Afterwards, I realize with some joy that I have begun to mature. And it is inescapable that I am loftier than any of the fast beings can ever aspire to, and I am eternal as they are ephemeral. It occurs to me that each of us is different, and upon reflection, I am content in my strengths. Yet that realization brings me discomfort, for the existence of strength presupposes some offsetting weakness, and I have not yet learned mine.
That train of thought discomforts, so I turn to more pleasant thoughts. My favorite newcomers are the ones most like me; slender as I am broad, they nonetheless reach for the skies as I do, only not so high. They rise from my skin, each one diverging into multitudes as it grows closer to the skies, reaching upwards in myriad ways. They sleep, as I do not, both under the cool light of Moon and for longer periods, when Father grows distant and Storm and Wind lie quiescent. Just as I cast off my own integument, so do they cast off their own ephemeral garb during Storm’s long sleep—but my shedding is gradual and imperceptible, while theirs is sudden, regular, and dramatic. They make good neighbors, quiet and peaceful mostly, as others are not.
Yet another change comes over the land. There is violent shaking, reminiscent of my own birth pangs, and near-disaster. My kin and I have been brought nearer our Mother from whom we sprang, and some have even been lost. The tiny, short-lived beings that once cloaked my lower slopes are gone for a time, and return only in diminished numbers. Of my kin, none, not even I, is so lofty as before, and it is humbling to discover my presumed weakness was no mere theoretical construct. Nonetheless, I persist, and remain the loftiest of my kin, and so can accept this minor metamorphosis if it does not prevent me from continuing in my lofty place.
Over the hunched shoulders of my kin, in the distance, I now see the speechless, restless being who is so like Storm. He is remarkable, this one I shall call “Mover”. The recent changes have disturbed him, and he laps more angrily at the feet of my kin. I speak to him of sympathy, of companionship, of how we two share this place beneath Father. I project empathy towards him, for did I too not feel the pain of the upheaval? I try to soothe his rage, take some of it upon myself, but he is heedless. Well, perhaps his fury will cool soon enough, for there is time enough in this world for everything.
I return to my reflections, for there is still much to see and understand, and I find that my insights increasingly profound over time.
For the first time in memory, I find myself wrong, and am shamed it took so long to recognize this.
Mover is more enraged than before, and try though I might, I cannot reach him. Those of my kin who lie nearer to him have become uncomfortable, for as he laps at their feet, he causes them to shed their integument more rapidly than is natural and right. It is painful, they tell me, for the new skin scarcely forms before it is stripped away. Why so bitter, Mover? Why do you not speak to us, that we might share and soothe your pain?
I note yet another change: as Father has grown brighter, so too has Mover risen against us. I know we are not diminished, for our contact with Mother is strong and constant, and there has been none of the violence that cast us down and diminished us before. Nothing in my experience explains these changes, and though this disturbs me, yet does it provide food for thought. I content myself with this new puzzle, but continue to heed the changes around me.
He comes, lycanthropic with Moon, and leaves. Slowly yet relentlessly, Mover strips away my siblings, drawing perceptibly nearer as time passes, and there are fewer of us than once there were. I shudder involuntarily as the wails of my kin reach a crescendo, their voices falling silent as they are overwhelmed. There is no joy in contemplation now, for all my efforts are bent on reaching him, persuading him to leave us in peace—for is there not world enough and time for all to share? Periodically, I call out to Wind and Storm, beg them to intercede on our behalf, but I realize with some horror that they are not my friends; unnoticed, they have been aiding Mover all along, their caresses slyly wearing away at my integument. Now their touch sends shivers down my spine, for I know—how I know!—they are deceivers.
What can we do? Our united front is of no avail, save to comfort the dying, to ease their passage. Even this is futile, for there are ever fewer of us to sing their death songs and mourn them.
I can no longer comprehend this; even the effort brings madness fluttering about me. Mover... please!
I am alone. Even the beings that once grew upon me in mockery of my grandeur are no more, stripped from me and carried somewhere unknown.
Close at hand, I see Mover, where he gnashes his teeth and gnaws the bones of my fallen loved ones. Each coming of Moon, he draws closer. I feel sure he glories in this, revels in my impotence, though he refuses to speak, and I wonder if perhaps I anthropomorphize. I lose track of all save his inexorable approach, so slow, so excruciating. It occurs to me that perhaps Mover is not alive as my kind know life, that he is some other force outside life, like time itself, and that even such as I must be mortal.
But such thoughts cannot hold my attention for long. I plead with Wind, I plead with Moon, I plead with Storm... and finally, I even implore Father and Mother to help me. They are silent, and I have no one else to turn to. It takes all my will to choke down a scream of horror, for I fear that if I start, I shall never stop until Mover strips me of the ability even to scream.
Help me, oh help me, someone!
He has arrived.
It begins with a deceptively sensual touch, making Wind seem an amateur. There is a seductive feel to Mover’s caresses, as if he feels some tenderness for the last of us. Almost, I feel excited, for if he overcomes me as he overcame the rest of my kin, then surely there must be something new afterwards, some new world to explore. In my youth, I had pondered no life save the present, yet now that this inevitably draws to its end, I think beyond what I knew. Surely there is more to the world than what exists and what has passed? I find some comfort in this knowledge.
Mover’s touch becomes rougher, and he laps higher along my slopes. His passion blinds him to any subtlety, and he strips away my integument, heedless of my pain. And now that he touches me so intimately, I feel sure I can hear his voice, lulling me in an ebbing monotone, urging me to surrender. The pain grows, but I am the last of my kind, and I shall not grant him the victory of my cries. I keep them within me, turning the pain to my own ends, transforming it to rage and using it to feed my resistance. Increasingly, I dwell on the thought of a life after this one, and the thought sustains me. I feel parts of me falling away, mourn what they once were, and I feel the subtleties of my consciousness fading. But within me lies a core, hot and eternal as it once was at the time of my birth. I feel certain it will endure, even when I am no more.
In the end, my consciousness in tatters, I feel the void pulling at me. I am beyond pain, and the exquisite terror that once nearly vanquished me is a distant memory, then gone, for there is not enough left of me to hold it. I am only peripherally aware of Mover wholly encompassing me, then there comes surcease, the end of pain. And I fade, becoming one with Mover, feeling a final surge of excitement that something new has begun...
A young child squalls in frustration and anger as his parents lift him, prizing him away from his sandcastle. And as the young couple leaves the beach, vainly trying to soothe their child, gentle waves lap across the sand in the rising tide, and gradually erase all traces of what once stood there.
This one is, of course, transparently about the ongoing battle between plate tectonics (mountain building) and the erosion of the land by the ravenous ocean. It’s kind of like the battle of the sexes, but for geology. The story is the first part of a planned triptych that envisions what is familiar and unquestioned from an unfamiliar perspective; Ecdysis is the second.
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