“You,” said the stout man as he returned with two very full pints to their table in the corner, “are lugubrious.” He had to place his own beer on the table as well as his companion’s and use both hands to slide his considerable and muscular girth behind the table without jostling it and perhaps losing a few drops of the precious liquid.
“I am not,” replied the other man, who had been waiting at his usual seat at the table. He took a long sip of the strong dark brown ale, waiting to put it down till he was sure the stout man was settled. Outside the window, a gibbous moon cast a sickly light onto the streets below.
“You are,” the stout fellow, asserted. He threw back his own pint with obvious relish. You’re lugubrious.”
“No, I’m not,” came the retort. He frowned at the dark-stained wood of the table. He was not stout, but tall and thin, with great purple-bruised circles under his eyes. He wondered if his so-called friend would win the Trials next year, and take his place. He had lost a lot of weight over the past few months—much to the dismay of the town Aldermen. He was probably the sorriest looking Honorable ever to lead the Ceremony, but it couldn’t be helped. Once very well muscled—handsome even, Pickman had wasted away over the last year in the luxurious condo the town reserved for the Honorable every year. He glanced up and sneered, “You don’t even know what the word means.”
“I do, too,” replied the stout man in an injured tone.
“No, you don’t. If you’re going to be insulting, stick with words you understand.”
“Shut up, Pickman, or I’ll punch you in the mouth.”
“Sure you will,” Pickman agreed, for that was his name, “it’s just your style. But I’m not lugubrious and you still don’t know what it means—Ow!!”
It wasn’t really a punch, more of a firm tap with the tips of the fingers, but it was the principle of the thing. Pickman stared at Carter as he rubbed his cheek. Carter stared back at him severely, and Pickman dropped his gaze. With one hand, Carter rummaged in a black messenger bag he’d left by his chair when they’d arrived.
“It means ‘mournful, dismal, or gloomy to a ridiculous degree.’”
“No it doesn’t,” Pickman said, but there was doubt in his voice.
Carter extracted his hand from his bag to reveal a pocket dictionary. He opened to a page marked with a Post-It and handed it to Pickman. “Yes it does, moron. See?”
“Oh,” said Pickman. He took a moment to sip his beer. It had a rich taste, with hints of molasses. He handed back the dictionary. “So, you’re saying I’m dismal?”
“Or mournful—or gloomy. Ridiculously so.” Carter continued to watch Pickman over his glass as he finished his pint. He held out his hand. “Your round.” Pickman fished a bill out of his pocket and handed it to Carter, who marched off to the bar, returning a moment later with two more brimming pints, which he was not as careful with as the first. During the ensuing moment, Pickman had had time think, and he thought he was offended.
“You’re saying I’m ridiculous, that I deserve to be ridiculed?” he demanded, ignoring the second pint sitting next to his unfinished first.
“Yes, absolutely. Hence this conversation.” Carter took a slug, then gestured impatiently at Pickman’s beers. “C’mon, c’mon. We haven’t got all night.”
“That’s mean. I’m hurt, I really am.” But he threw back the remains of his first pint and drew the second to him.
“Oh, waaaaah.” But Carter’s eyes had lost their hard gleam, and Pickman noticed. Carter noticed Pickman noticing, and took cover in his pint until he could get himself together.
“Well, it’s not like I don’t have anything to be depressed about,” Pickman groused. “It’s not like these feelings aren’t justifiable.”
“Get over yourself already, your situation isn’t unique—or new,” Carter retorted. He had his game face back on.
“Well that’s just it, isn’t it? Everything’s gone to shit, everywhere, and there’s no digging our way out.”
“Mmmm. Smells nice.” Carter grinned over his beer, then raised it in a toast. Pickman’s mouth twitched—he couldn’t help it. Damned Carter. They clinked glasses and drank deep.
“You’re an ass,” Pickman reminded Carter.
“You’re lugubrious,” Carter shot back.
“Yeah.” Except, he noticed as he finished his second pint, that he did not feel dismal, or gloomy. He felt sad, but also better than he’d had in some time. He felt strong and energized, and at the same time very relaxed, like if he took a seat by the fire he could fall asleep in five minutes.
“What’s the name of this, again?” he asked, indicating the empty pint.
“Shoggoth’s Particular,” Carter answered before draining his own. “Brewed in small batches, right here. This batch was brewed just for you.”
Pickman grimaced. “Don’t remind me.”
“One more round should do it, on me.” With that, Carter was up and gone, wending his way through the crowd, patting the backs of fellows he knew, waving to others in the far corners. The bar was filled with their friends and neighbors, and several caught Pickman’s eye and raised their glasses to him. He waved back, but they didn’t come over. That would be pushing their luck.
Pickman watched Carter. Carter was strong, and surprisingly agile for his size. He’d been a close second in the Trials. Pickman knew he looked terrible. He was easily fifteen pounds underweight and looked almost twice his age. But it wasn’t enough. He still had to finish the job tonight, not Carter. Pickman wondered if his so-called friend knew his deterioration had been more than partly deliberate.
Carter returned with their last round, and Pickman noted that his steps had taken on some additional swagger. He must be feeling the effects of Shoggoth’s Particular as well.
“High tide’s in forty minutes.” Carter said as he sat down carelessly. Foam sloshed over the sides of the glasses and onto his hands and the table. Pickman had eaten nothing at the Feast in his honor earlier that evening, but in fact he’d eaten as much as he could bear in secret that afternoon. Carter had stopped eating once he’d noticed—as a display of solidarity, being his Second. Pickman suspected that Carter was feeling the effects of the ale to a greater degree than himself.
“Thing is,” Carter began, after a long pull from his pint, “Everything hasn’t gone to shit, quite the opposite. Everything’s in balance, and will continue to be, forever, so long as we keep to the Tradition.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re not the sacrificial lamb,” Pickman retorted as morosely as possible. He took another sip. The brew was strong, but he thought he could keep his head. He hoped he could.
“Look around, shithead. Innsmouth’s in the pink, as always. Fishing’s great, oil’s been discovered three miles out of the bay, almost no serious storms this year—they’re saying that’s because of you.”
“How gratifying. That oil’d be there no matter what.”
“That’s a crock,” Carter dismissed him with disgust. “Tradition! Tradition going back to who knows when. That’s what holds the world together, what makes it all make sense. Without it, everything is shit.”
Pickman took a thoughtful sip and wondered how much of this Carter actually believed. This was maybe his third year as Second Honorable. Every year in the spring, he competed so fiercely in the Trials, and every year he came up short, just. Like a decathalon combined with a mindfuck of an obstacle course, the Trials lasted three days every fall, and every young guy in Innsbruck went out for it, even though serious injuries were common.
Pickman hesitated, and then asked, “Why is it you’ve never won the Trials, Carter? You’re strong enough, fast enough.” Pickman wondered why he himself had been so desperate to win, but he knew.
If he hadn’t been watching, he wouldn’t have seen his so-called friend suppress a canny look of calculation before saying, “Don’t know. Maybe next year.” No one but the Aldermen, the Honorable and Second Honorable conducted the Ceremony, so no one really knew that the money they promised if you finished the Ceremony was,…well it was never going to happen. Once he started learning his part, the truth became plain.
Maybe. Maybe Carter believed in the w Tradition, maybe he envied the honor and the privilege, but there was a lot of honor in being Second Honorable, too. And you got to live. Carter finished his last pint and checked his cell phone.
“Damn, we’ve got twenty minutes.” He noticed Pickman’s pint, still more than half full. “Fuck, Pickman, we have to go. Come on, chug.”
Pickman feigned morose nausea. “Naw, man. I’m wasted. I can’t.”
“Come on, man-up already. Tonight’s the night!” Carter was already zipping up his coat and pulling out his gloves. Pickman took a small sip, made a face, and it put it down.
“Sorry, bud. I can’t.” He started to put on his coat.
“Well, dammit, don’t waste it!” And with that, Carter slammed the remainder of Pickman’s Particular and they hit the street.
The night was clear, but it was bitterly cold, and Pickman pulled his cap down over his ears as they made their way to the docks. Carter seemed not to notice, he was furious.
“Fuck the Aldermen, you’re the worst Honorable I’ve ever seen, you know that?” Carter seethed. “You know why it’s called Honorable? Cuz it’s an honor. The greatest honor in town. For the last year, you could eat the best shit in town--for free. They put you in a huge condo with state-of-the-art EVERYTHING and a wardrobe worth my WHOLE SALARY, and you could pretty much have any and every pussy in this place; and what do you do?
“Look Carter,” Pickman interrupted. He was starting to get angry himself, in spite of everything. “You’d feel the same way if you were in my position.”
“I would not!” Carter shouted. His face had turned dark red with anger. “I would not sink into a pit of whiny self-pity. I wouldn’t refuse to eat, drink, bathe, or fuck all the wonderful cunts that came to my door. I wouldn’t go moping about, depressing EVERYONE because after living like a fucking KING, I have to die. Everyone has to die, Pickman, you know that? How many of us get to die with honor?” He took a breath, and made a visible effort to calm down.
“Jeez, Carter,” Pickman said quietly after a moment. “I’m sorry.”
After a moment, Carter replied almost too softly to be heard. “You don’t deserve to be the Honorable.”
They reached the seawall and turned south, toward the aged jetty to which no one ever ventured—except once a year. In the distance, they could see the torches, and the pavilion, with the shadows of the Aldermen moving about.
“I’ll do better, Carter,” Pickman heard himself saying, and almost thought he would.
Carter sniffed. They took the steps down to the beach and started walking over the sand.
The Aldermen were in their full regalia when they received them, and two of the old gentlemen led them into the Pavilion to assist them with their ceremonial attire.
Inside the white fabric tent, it was surprisingly warm, and Pickman and Carter stripped wordlessly. Pickman did not comment when he saw the looks of concern the old men exchanged when they saw his bony body, and Carter didn’t either, since he was pulling his long linen robe over his head and missed it completely. Pickman made sure he visibly struggled with his own white linen garment. Then he focused on the Alderman assisting him as he donned the red tunic, the gilded sash that was tied with a complicated knot that his fingers struggled with. Eventually, the Alderman did it for him, and that must have been the last straw, because when the two old men lifted the heavy breastplate, they placed it on Carter’s shoulders.
Carter started in surprise, and began to protest, but was silenced by the rarely used formula the priests spoke in unison:
“If the Honorable Chosen One has become debased, it is the charge of Second Honorable Warrior to take up his Mantle and his Staff, and bear the Fortune of the People.”
Pickman expected panic and struggle, but in less than a moment Carter had been led out of the Pavilion. He hesitated, wondering what he should do, but one of the Aldermen poked his ancient head back in, and motioned for him to follow.
In the clear cold night, Carter took the ornately carved staff as it was presented it to him. His well-muscled girth pressed against the fabric of his garments in a way that made him look not like ordinary, loudmouthed Carter, but almost timeless, heroic. Finally, the Head Alderman crowned Carter with a woven wreath of kelp. Pickman struggled over the rocky beach to the base of the ancient basalt jetty, watching his so-called friend accept the vestments he’d been dreading all year with calm dignity. Carter made his final bow to the assembled Aldermen and turned on his heel to face the sea.
Weak-bodied and drunk as he was, Pickman struggled up the pile of jagged boulders. When he finally reached the top and stood, Carter was striding over the crumbling jetty to the very end, where the waves already sprayed against the stone with a violence unwarranted by the clear, cold night.
Carter turned back only once, giving Pickman a look of triumph that terrified him. Then he continued on, and raised his staff to the sea. The crash of the waves on the windless night drowned out the words Pickman knew Carter would be shouting, the ones Pickman had been made to practice for the past year. The violence of the sea overcame the screeching of the gulls above, and even the droning chants of the Aldermen were difficult to make out against the impossible din. Pickman watched the sea foam and boil as long as he could, but in the end, fear overcame him and he turned away. He didn’t see it; that final, salient moment. But he dreamt of it for the rest of his life.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED