The great mountain range filled the sky, and was the sky. Pitted and scarred, fissured and cracked, it was not white but dark. It had earned Eshlo's name for it not through its tints, but because it seemed to belong to the surface of a dead satellite circling the earth. Anything might lie inside the wall of it. It was impenetrable.
The man who sat in the camp half a mile from the mountains' foot was tall, thinned, and sunburnt by the lion orb of summer. He was thirty-eight. So much he knew, feeling these things sit on him, the frame within which his soul balanced. He looked from his own clear eyes, scanning the dusty plain and the first clawed slopes that pushed out of it. In the etheric sky a pair of vultures dawdled. They had been there about an hour, interested by something on the middle heights, something not yet dead enough to warrant their descent. He had noticed, no bird ever flew toward the summit of the mountains. Nothing came up over them, except rounded drifts of cloud toward sunset, like steam.
He had been here, at the foot, a month, thirty-one days. Before that was the journey, a period not of time but of time's dissolution, an unraveling of dates and seasons, flowing sidelong, nearly backward. There had been sea, a crust of land, a wide river with a belching steamer, at length the long sinuous tributary of the Charda, with its curtains of banks dropped to the water, the masks of its reflected islands. Lions passed, or lay in the sky. A herd of zebra galloped, an alligator raised its artifact of head—such images pinned themselves upon his brain. The man thought he should and must remember such things distinctly. But then he saw that visually they did not matter, that he might let them go from him if they wished; thus they stayed.
At first he had been fearful. So much so that seasickness and mal de terre had almost disabled him. Then, as he began to accept that he was quite adrift, lost and companionless, without hope of assistance, he relaxed, grew stronger, left behind the stomach cramps and blinding migraines, and emerged from his five decades into the newer younger body, which had wasted no years, which had sprung here immediately after Eshlo's song and Klein's echo. Somewhere on the river of the Charda, while the two black men rowed and the black white stared about, his rifle ready, Oberand caught up his younger self, who all that while had been there ahead of him, waiting.
They moved through the land as Eshlo had, as if nothing had altered, save in the villages they could now barter for cigarettes. It was all quite familiar to him, the people colored like coal and the beasts of the plain, and the towering sky and the river, and the mountains finally rising into view. Eshlo had been here, and told him. More, he had himself been here, often.
They made the camp under the Mountains of the White Moon. None of them had before approached the place, apart from Oberand. The man who cooked was superstitious; he had heard something of the region. He made a shrine by his improvised cook house and sank into it a collection of bones and teeth, for the god, the giant. Oberand had tried to question this man. The man then became heated, hysterical. Sweat flew off him and he gesticulated, refusing to look at the mountains or to say anything that was of use. Froth sprayed out of his mouth and Andr'e, the black white, touched Oberand's arm, glancing at him from his odd eyes, one black and one pale gray. «He knows nothing. Best to leave him, monsieur.» Oberand obeyed, and Andr'e ordered the cook back to his rice with sharp staccato words.
Oberand explored the base of the mountains with Andr'e. They climbed a little, Andr'e the guide and adviser. He would never fully meet the eyes of the white man, he had been taught not to.
They found caves, and chasms where smoldering chains of water fell, they found the carcasses of things, one with hyenas feasting on it, the nests of birds abandoned, a defile with old painting on a wall, but these symbols gave no revelation. Every cave had a back. Each access ended against the gut wall of the rock. From boulders they looked down at the tiny camp, and saw the blacks lazing or quarreling over a game, and the river far away like a varnished seam in the ground.
«There is no way through,» said Andr'e.
«Yes,» said Oberand, «of course. There is.»
Andr'e was the first man Oberand had had any prolonged conversation with since Mercile. For this reason Oberand did not trust Andr'e. Andr'e was not like Mercile. He was young, and could have been a prince if his blood had not been mixed. His white drunkard of a father had taught him books, mathematics, and two languages. Andr'e had grown up aware he had been ruined for everything, accepting, wise, and mostly silent. Of the Valley of God he had heard, distantly, now and then. It was one of the dim wandering wisps of myth that go about any continent. It was a white man's myth of the darkness, and as such he gave it a defined and cordoned pen. The white portion of Andr'e's mind suggested to him that only white men would evolve a legend of black men worshiping a white god. But the giantism was not alien. There were stone cities of the jungles, and the size of these cities did not belong with the six-foot men of present days but, like certain temples of Egypt, suggested bigger beings nearer to the sun.
Eshlo's maps, and Klein's maps, brought into the realm of the actual, were a travesty. Though the mountains had been recognizable, they were also altered by reality. Small vital geological clues, essential in locating Eshlo's Hidden Door, were changed or unrevealed, or else had only existed in the imagination of the writer.
It was the splitting off from Mercile, the betrayal by Mercile, which had brought Oberand to the Mountains of the White Moon, more than Eshlo or Klein, more than fourteen years of waste, and fermenting humiliation.
Oberand did not miss Mercile. At first there had been no time, for within a week of their dinner, Oberand had been making arrangements to travel out from Paradys into the wide world. Presently, looking back, there was only a slight disgust that such a man as Mercile had been permitted to deceive him. At last, and very soon, Mercile was a shadow. Beneath the Mountains of the White Moon, however, it was Eshlo that Oberand began to miss, and Klein, although Klein less painfully and clearly.
The sun was setting on the rim of the plain, and the mountains flared up, then turned suddenly to ash, lit only at their tips. There came a curious half-heard whirring note, perhaps the sunset wind passing through some hole or crevice higher up, sound carrying in the glassy air. Transparently the night came to Africa, without subterfuge, bearing the bone moon from which the mountains had been transposed. If the sun was a lion, the moon was a white-faced buck. It peered, vulnerable and savage, above the plain, lighting it as bright as day. The mountains glowed. The fire of the cook house became the center of the earth, marking, like a cross on Eshlo's map, their place in things.
«I am here,» Oberand said aloud. «Here.» But that was not enough. Yet the excitement stirred in him, properly, the first occasion. It had taken so long, for he had been so long coming to it, he had kept it waiting, like his younger self.
Andr'e stood smoking, looking at the mountains, thin and still in his European clothes. The blacks squatted at the fire, where the pot hung, full of God knew what jumble.
Speak to Andr'e , Oberand thought. Why was that important? Andr'e knew nothing, less than the cook, who feared.
Oberand watched the camp from his tent, the pale dust and the moonlight, patches of sand between the mountains' claws, shining. The strange sound had died out from the mountains, and the reflection from their tops. Miles off a lion roared. The stars were liquid, like mercury, in the bulb of sky.
Here I am.
«My father taught me that men have no souls,» said Andr'e, «that this life is all we can expect, and that it will probably be unpleasant.»
The moon had set; it was darker, and somewhere hyenas were busy. The night was not the same, and Andr'e had begun to talk at the fire. He had started by saying he thought the two blacks might run away tonight. He said they were not so much afraid as anxious, a kind of anxiety attack that, because they did not see it as nervous in origin, they attributed to bad spirits of the plain and mountains. Oberand said that if this happened, it must be accepted, but would the two men steal very much? Only enough, said Andr'e, to support them on their journey back down river. Let them go, then, said Oberand, they would manage, but what of Andr'e? Andr'e had said he would remain. He was not afraid, since he did not believe that anything lay over the mountains, even if a way to it were to be found. A dry crater perhaps, an extinct volcano, poisonous and dead. Oberand was not offended by Andr'e's pragmatism. His truthfulness, coming in a straight line after Mercile's years of deception, was nearly appealing. Because he had wanted to, Oberand indulged himself, beginning to attempt the drawing out of Andr'e, whom he had judged as clever, and almost in his way as educated as anyone met with in the vanished metropolis. Andr'e had alarming potential that, since he was black, could never be realized—Andr'e was not strong enough, evidently, to evolve solely for himself, as so many were not.
In the background the hyenas had commenced, and then the two blacks initiated a vague annoying chanting from a stand of trees a hundred feet off. Andr'e opened a little like a crumpled paper. He spoke of the ancient cities of giants, the legends of white gods. He explained he could not believe in anything like that, although its metaphysic intrigued him.
«But why, Andr'e, is it necessary for men to have souls, in order that there be gods? Can't this be something of a different order?»
«Man tries,» said Andr'e, «to find something greater than himself, promising himself he will one day become such a thing. Is that not the basis of the religion of Christ?»
«I think that the religion of Christ offers a chance that we are already such a thing, and have only lost the way.»
«Without a soul,» said Andr'e, «where is the need for a god?»
«But this is a god with a valley like the Garden of Eden, the Garden before the Fall. This is a god so large that he could cover the bodies of thirty men with his palm, and crush them. What are men to such a god?»
Andr'e did not reply. He smoked his cigarette. Then he said, «What would you give to find this secret valley?»
«Everything,» said Oberand. He said, «Already, I've given most of it. From the first, the idea possessed me. I sacrificed all I had, and followed it.»
«Be wary, perhaps something listens.»
«But,» said Oberand, «what could that be, if there are no gods?»
«I don't know, monsieur. But I sense it. The way a man whose hand has been cut off will feel the hand at the end of his arm, itching him. Like that. It isn't real, but it affects him. What listens may not be real either, yet it may hear.»
Oberand felt a sudden emotional liking for Andr'e. Why in God's name had this man not been given him to argue with, to wrestle with, this black angel in the night, over the body of Eshlo, on the ladder of light? But it was too late now.
«Let it hear me,» said Oberand, «please God.»
After a while longer, Andr'e put his cigarette into the fire.
«If we go to sleep, monsieur, the men will have their chance to run away. I will take the sugar and hide it, or they may have that too, for barter.»
Oberand got up, half tranced. His muscles ached as if a heavy wine were swirling through his system. He held out his hand. Andr'e shook it solemnly. They parted without further words, the black man to his shelter, Oberand to his tent.
He lay on his back for half an hour, and the chanting ceased. The night was silent as an open bowl of space upturned upon the land.
In the night's middle darkness, sound awakened Oberand. It was as if he had been expecting it, had been prepared by a lesser sound of the evening, the huge silence that had domed in the plain as he slept.
What he heard was a sort of low rumbling, and at first he took it for lion in the distance, then for the movement of a herd of animals, shaking the plain. Then, thinking of some tremor of the earth, he sat up suddenly, but although there was the faint sense of vibration, it was not that of an earthquake. Nothing moved, rattled, or fell. After a moment, Oberand got up and went out of the tent, to see what Andr'e made of this.
Outside, the night was incredible. It had changed itself yet again, the way no night of the north ever did, or so it seemed to him. The clarity of the darkness was wonderful, like crystal, the sky miles high, drawn back like a blind to reveal the world. On the horizon something vaguely shifted about, probably deer feeding. The other way, the wall of the mountains, lunar, frozen.
Nothing stirred in the camp. Perhaps the runaways were already off. But neither had Andr'e emerged. And the sound— it was real and definite—could not be ignored.
Oberand took a step, meaning to wake Andr'e, then instantly checked.
Andr'e had not woken, or had not come out. The sound was not a summons to Andr'e, who did not believe. And the men who were afraid had already run away.
Oberand's heart gave a great leap, catching him like a spear in the breast.
He ducked back into the tent, and picked up the knife and the pistol he had not yet used, some ammunition, water. It was not a careful readying for any vast expedition, it was a token. The token of the traveler. It was ritual, as if before an altar of the night.
When Oberand emerged again, he stood, staring up at the Mountains of the White Moon. They were charcoal gray now, with pale frills of silver from the stars. To climb without ropes would be impossible. Even roped, with the expert advice of Andr'e, to reach the crest had been thought out of the question.
The rumble of sound went on, becoming part of hearing. It emanated from within the mountains, borne upward on a column of stillness, opened like an umbrella into the bowl of the sky.
Oberand walked away from the camp, crossing through the shrub and boulders, to the foot of the rock. He came among the patches of sand. He began to climb diagonally, going along the base of the wall, moving south to north, circling. He did not investigate the upright slopes of the wall, as he had been doing, he climbed up and over, and down, and up again. The starlight sliced out swaths of rock, and made pits of luminous blackness between them. He got down into these, and each time, without words he thought, It will be this one , but it was not. He did not know what he anticipated, some crack in the rock, something so evident as an avenue with pillars of stone…. The camp disappeared around the curve of the mountains.
As he was climbing down, the sound stopped. He felt a moment of deafness, almost disorientation. As if the sign had been taken from him, the promise. He hesitated, and after a moment, the sand on which he stood tipped and settled, lurched and lay flat again. And then gave way completely.
There was no time for Oberand to think. He was falling as the earth caved in. He knew what this was. It was a quicksand. It sucked him under and he caught at the land, but it slipped sideways and nothing would stay put or firm, nothing would hold him. He knew instantly reasonless mad terror and cried out, but his cries hit the void of space, and the gleaming stars swallowed them. Terror and despair, without thoughts. Screaming, he was sucked into turmoil. The sand filled his nostrils and mouth, and he struggled, choked, his eyes were put out, his ears were full of miasma, and panic began to recede into a ringing emptiness. But something struck his heels a blow like a mace. His whole spasming, suffocating body was jolted and spun. In a rush of mass he seemed catapulted down into the stars. He saw them, burning and mocking him. This was death. He lay in the belly of death and vomited out the sand, and as he did so, the grains of other sand sprayed down on him in the dark. He could breathe, he heard the noise he made, but the thing which had smote his heels struck him across the skull. He slid with the darkness closing. Thought had not yet returned. He thought nothing, and nothing. Nothing.