Friday, September 01, 2006

Charles's tale of terror

A most bodacious story by the one and only Charles is currently featured on The Workshop, one of the many wings of Liminality. Charles doesn't archive Workshop materials on Liminality; he might store them somewhere on his hard drive, but once a piece leaves the Workshop, it's no longer viewable by the public. That's why I'm stealing Charles's story and reposting it here, because it richly deserves archiving (if for no other reason than its personal relevance).

Enjoy this most frightening of tales!

I don’t usually include translations here, as the Workshop is ostensibly a place for fictional experiments, but I must make an exception this time. Regularly scheduled programming will resume when the nightmares stop.

This story begins a few weeks ago in a dusty back room at the library. I was leafing through old manuscripts in classical Chinese when a yellowed and torn piece of paper fell from one of the books. I picked it up and found that it was much tougher than paper, and I realized that what I was holding in my hands was a piece of parchment. Parchment? In a place like this? Asian civilizations had long since mastered the art of paper-making, and to my knowledge they had never used parchment. It was like finding a sea shell in the mountains.

I went deeper into the stacks with my find and sat down against the cold cement wall of the library. How did a piece of parchment come to be tucked in an old paper handwritten manuscript? Was it placed there by the original author, or by a later reader? I peered at the parchment, and my hands began to shake when I saw the words. As I had suspected, they were not Chinese, but a Western language. And then I saw a word that I recognized, a word that made my breath catch in my throat. A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead and I looked around. The stacks were silent. I was the only soul in this remote corner of the library.

The word, my friends, was English, but not the English that you and I speak today. No, this English was spoken a thousand years ago, before the Battle of Hastings. And the word I saw was “Hwæt”—the word for “behold” or “lo” in Old English. My hands shook because this is the first word of the oldest known Old English epic, Beowulf. Had I found a copy of this poem here, halfway around the world from where it was first written? As I began to piece together the first line, though, I saw that it was not, and my heart fell for a moment. But then my eyes shot open and my heart beat so loudly in my chest that I thought someone would surely hear. If this was not Beowulf, what was it? Had I found a fragment of some lost Old English manuscript? There was only one way to find out.

I slipped the page back into the classical Chinese text and got up from my seat. It had been over a decade since I had tried to read Old English, and even back then I needed a lexicon at my side and a good deal of time to puzzle out its meaning. I walked to the nearest terminal and searched the library’s holdings. I was in luck. For some reason, the library owned an Old English lexicon. When I found it in the stacks it was covered with a thick layer of grayish dust. I carefully wiped it away and then slowly opened the book, wincing as the binding crackled. Yes, this would do.

I brought the lexicon and the parchment to the most remote desk I could find, and there I began the painstaking process of translating the bit of poetry into modern English. Only twenty lines could be discerned on the damaged parchment, but judging by the first word they appeared to be the first twenty lines, perhaps of a prologue. At the top of the page a later (I assume) and much fainter hand had scrawled a title, and I had missed this in my first excited look at the parchment. It was not Beowulf—the original Beowulf manuscript is untitled anyway—but I quickly picked out two words, “tale” and “big.” The third word stymied me for some time, but when I finally found the translation a chill ran down my spine. The title of the work was “The Tale of the Big Hominid.”

A cloak of dread was drawn about me as I slowly translated the fragment, line by line. There on the parchment was the tale of a beast so horrible and so cruel that I could not help glancing startled over my shoulder at the slightest sound. The eastern windows grew dark, and a faint orange light lingered in the west, but I was only halfway through. As darkness fell outside I pushed on through the tale beneath the dim lights of the library. When I finished it was late and I was alone in the musty halls. I hid the parchment in a dust-covered manuscript tucked away on a bottom shelf. Then I hurried from the library into the black night, clutching my translation to my chest. It was warm, as is typical for a Korean summer night in Seoul, but nothing could thaw the icy fear that had gripped my heart. I passed quickly by a patch of woods and stood impatiently by the road. It was only when the bus came that I felt I could breathe again.

I put my translation on a pile of papers on my desk at home and tried to forget about it. But as the days went by the images only grew clearer. When I closed my eyes I could see his black, lumbering shadow, the flashing of his red-stained teeth in the night. Though I stopped up my ears I still heard the thunder of his footsteps as they echoed in my head, and the low gurgling coming from his great belly. Many a night I awoke with a yell, yet unable to tell my wife what was wrong. He haunts me, in waking and in dream.

Still I hesitate. Will this purge me of my nightmares, or only bring these nightmares to others? But it seems that I have no choice. I cannot keep silent about this horror. My translation is poor, no doubt, and awkward in an attempt to mirror the style of Old English poetry, but if it has even a tenth of the power of the original that would be enough. I must warn you: this fragment of poetry is not for the faint of heart. If you have steeled your soul and are ready, you may go on.

The Tale of the Big Hominid

Lo, listen to my tale, for I am learned in lore,

Of a creature crept from crevices deep and dark,

Who wanders the winding worm-ways at night,

Sheathed in shadow lest mortal eyes should

See him. Summoned by what sinister spell,

No one knows, nor do they want such knowledge.

‘Tis enough to ken the cunning and callous

Mind of this malignant menace as he moves

Among the trees seeking lovers in truest tryst,

Waiting ‘til the wind-whistles drown their weeping

As he feasts full upon their bodies fair and fey,

His spit-speckled maw spastically munching flesh.

Terror-cries echo everywhere as he escapes

Into the night, still gnawing on a knee-bone,

And in the lingering star-light he leaves only

A fetid and festering stench so foul as to halt

Even the mightiest mountain-man in his tracks:

The smell of his soiled and sweat-soaked garb,

The odorous issue of his horrid orifices,

And the rank remains of his blood-wrapped prey.

Happy 37th, big guy.

I am surrounded by writers far more eloquent than I, and while this is humbling, it's also a challenge: I have to prove myself worthy of them. As they say in Konglishie, "Very thank you, Charles. Very, very thank you."

ADDENDUM: My brother David's birthday gift was this link to Hipster Jenga. Doesn't make sense until you see the action. Just, uh, scroll quickly past the testicles (yeah-- might not be totally safe for work).

ADDENDUM 2: My best buddy Mike hilariously retells the BigHominid origin myths as they are known throughout the world.


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