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The Mansions of the Moon (A Cautionary Tale)
Jeff VanderMeer
excerpt courtesy of Golden Gryphon
  from The Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer
The Mansions of the Moon
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
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    Once upon a time, in the city of Black in the midst of the Great Desert, there lived a man named Murak Ubu. Murak bred, sold, and butchered goats for a living. He was so good at breeding, selling, and butchering goats, and acquired so many acres of land to do so that he eventually amassed a fortune with far-flung tendrils in a dozen lands.
    For the first forty-five years of his life, Murak survived through a mixture of shrewdness, market leverage, and an unflinching sense of when to take risks. But, on the night of Murak's forty-fifth birthday, according to legend, Murak Ubu lost his mind.
    It happened this way: Desperate for fresh air to clear his head of wine drunk at his birthday party, Murak fled the crowded, smoke-filled hall of his palatial home left behind the noise and friends and the many presents heaped across the dining hall and walked out into the spacious grounds of his estate. Studded with poplar trees and irrigated by ornamental ponds, his estate pressed up against the outskirts of Black and faced the low ridge of hills where he had first found fortune and fame as a goatherd.
    Murak staggered to the ten-foot-tall statue of himself built in the central courtyard and pissed in the fountain that formed a moat around the statue. He stood there, giggling, as he contemplated the pompous image of himself. The night wind lay chill against his cheek, for it was the heart of midwinter and the stars above sparkled in the cold like the scales of a huge silver fish rippling through dark water. A long rectangular pool, lined with elderberry bushes, led from the courtyard to the edge of Murak's property. Murak had an unimpeded view of the hills beyond.
    After a minute or two of watching the hills, Murak performed his first inexplicable act. Instead of returning to the party with its red-and-emerald lanterns, its lilting music, its musk of drugs, Murak climbed the statue until he clung precariously to his own stone head, his hands around his own stone eyes, blindfolded by the flesh.
    Settling into his new position, perhaps even finding it comfortable, Murak hummed an old goatherd song to himself and looked out fondly across his beloved, goat-grazed hills . . . and nearly fainted from shock, brought back to consciousness by the intense vertigo that came over him as his hands began to slip. Or, as he put it in an account, dictated to a scribe, that eventually wound up in a text of famous quotations, still in print these five centuries later: "My being fought between the utter destruction of beauty beyond imagining and the utter inability of the flesh to be destructed." (Although some scholars believe an articulate scribe embellished Murak's utterance, for the man had a limited formal education.)
    What had Murak seen so fleetingly, between one blink and the next? "I saw the mansions of the afterlife ghostly gilded palaces and filigreed balconies, and pale tall towers with winding staircases, all of such intense beauty, and built at twisted into such odd and gravity-defying angles that my heart quickens even now to think upon it."
    According to legend, Murak shouted so loudly that his wife Nepenthe and manservant Pook ran out into the courtyard, there to gasp at the sight of Murak gamely hanging onto the slippery brow of his own stone likeness.
    Murak shouted at Nepenthe to look "look at the hills, look at the hills!" but when he looked again the vision had faded to ashes. The hills were just hills. The sky was black and whole, not nudged by the upward thrusting spires of impossible buildings. The wind brought the unsanctified smell of dust and goats.
    Nepenthe and Pook, in their own highly individual ways, suggested to Murak that perhaps he had had too much to drink and it might be best to return to the party and forget this unfortunate hallucination, this eclipse of the common senses.
    Murak, faced with barren hills, fertile wife, and perplexed manservant, giggled, shrugged, climbed down from the statue, and rejoined the party, no damage apparently done.
    But the vision Murak had seen now inverted itself and, imprinted behind his eyes, became an obsession a dream from which he would never really wake, despite all manner of begging and pleading from Nepenthe. His wife came from true aristocracy and she was not amused by the suddenly whimsical nature of her lowborn husband. Lowborners were not allowed eccentricity that was reserved for proper, inbred folk.
    Nevertheless, within the year Murak had assembled a sampling of the best architects, artisans, and stoneworkers the city of Black had ever seen brought from the farthest reaches of his business empire. Once gathered, they listened as Murak described his vision: Mansions that seemed to float; palisades that swooped and swooned from the weight of their own transient beauty; gargoyles as heavenly as cherubim and cherubim as devilish as gargoyles. Plans were drawn up, scrapped, and drawn up again, until finally approved by Murak. Laborers were hired from Black to lay the foundations. But even as they lined their pockets with Murak's gold, the men and women of Black laughed behind their hands. Such a project could never be completed! It was ludicrous! Maybe Murak had lost his mind sniffing the fumes that rose from goat turds.
    Yet, slowly, despite the doubters, the Mansions of the Moon took shape over the next thirty years, with all the ponderous beauty of a reluctant-to-open rosebud made of white marble.
    No mere buildings, these: Murak saw the Mansions of the Moon as the fullest expression of his own being, the one true mark he would leave upon the world; a humble goatherd become the architect of a wonder that would last a thousand years. His wife, however, believed it would mark Murak as "a feeble-dreamed eccentric whose destiny, if destiny smiles upon him, will be to be laughed at throughout the ages." (A quote that appears in an obscure tome on etiquette in which the Lady Ubu would not stick to or expand upon her topic.) Early on, Nepenthe abandoned Murak for the comforts of a seaside villa in the port of Green. Murak hardly noticed, caught in the throes of his fever dream. (In fact, his journal from three months after her departure notes, "It has been at least a week since I last saw Neppy doubtless she is being considerate and trying to keep out of the way.")
    As the Mansions began to rise above the city, those who laughed grew fewer. The merchants and members of the city's ruling oligarchy still laughed but with greed, ensconced as they were in splendid new villas among the hills. Murak welcomed the steady flow of rich businessmen, landlords, and politicians glad of their money and oblivious to their backstabbing, two-faced compliments. Where he saw dreams made stone, they saw profits and real estate.
    In the thirtieth year of the project, Murak declared that he could now rest in his labors and that the Mansions of the Moon could be considered "as completed as is likely to occur in my lifetime." After all, he was already seventy-six.
    More and more rich townsfolk left Black for the hills above. Tourists traveled from distant lands. Murak himself led triumphant tours through the catacombs, the bedeviling twists and turns, the false exits, the secret entrances, the hollow walls: the thousands of architectural innovations intended to lend the Mansions a sense of mystery and wonder.
    Murak shone from within despite his age his steps were light, his demeanor ever gracious. He would lecture on the Mansions for hours, continually walking through his creation at all hours of the day or night.
    But, within the year, even the most casual observer often sensed an abnormal restlessness in Murak. He would spend long hours staring up at the enameled columns, the frescoed ceilings, the detail work on the gilded stairs so immersed in what he had wrought that he might have been his own statue in the courtyard of his former home, long abandoned for the Mansions. Like a wraith possessed (but possessed of what?), he would glide from room to room in his long, dark robes, his weathered face inscrutable except to his loyal but aging manservant, who must have known the anguish that lay behind the razor-gray eyes, the concealing beard.
    The extent of that anguish was not known until, on the first anniversary of the Mansions' "completion," Murak climbed to the top of the tallest tower overlooking his beloved hills. He waved to a young shepherdess tending to her flock on a nearby hill. Then, as she would recount later, he stood balanced on the edge of the window, looking out across his lands. After a moment, he took a quick step forward, arms at his sides, and plummeted to his death on the rocks below: an old sack of bones and blood used up by the years.
    He left only the sparest, most enigmatic of notes, which his estranged wife would eventually read: It can never be the same as in my vision.
    Murak's death served as a dark christening for the Mansions, as if those elegant houses had not existed until Murak's blood brought them to completion. A malaise spread over the hills and into the city, an invisible but palpable tension building between those who lived above and those who lived below. This poison seeped into the foundations of social discourse so that beneath the facade of normal trade and dialogue lay an immeasurable distance. Even so, trade did continue, and it might even be said that the two groups understood that, at heart, their similarities meant more than their differences.
    All would have been well, if not for the Awakening of the Beast (as the priests called it): an earthquake that rippled through the desert in the fifth year after Murak's death. Unfortunately, it became apparent that Murak Ubu's experts had built their masterwork atop a deep natural reservoir of water useful during drought, but the root of disaster, for many mansions crumpled inward like toy paper houses, swallowed by the treacherous earth, the undulating hills. Smashed, rent, torn asunder, the Mansions of the Moon collapsed.
    In the years of lawlessness that followed, the remnants of the city and the remnants of the Mansions withdrew into themselves like two mortally wounded pain-maddened jackals whose only hope of survival was to retreat to separate burrows. But if the city had the outlet of the wastes to drain off the madness, the Mansions had only the stifling silence of the marble halls, the haughty sterility of a dream come to dust. Many were the tales of incest and cannibalism and desperate rites that trickled down to the city folk in a constant stream of rumor. Many were the nights that the wild lights of the Mansions revealed bone-thin apparitions dancing to fast, unspeakably alien music while laughter wafted down like the language of the damned.
    And, when the troubles ended, the tenuous link between the Mansions and Black had snapped like rotted hemp, and they were separate ships adrift, with no ties between them. No one from the city ever again visited the Mansions by choice, although on occasion youths pale as the deep-water fish the merchants brought from the coast would descend to buy food and supplies with old gold coins that many claimed had been pilfered from the houses of the dead. When the city folk imagined the mansion dwellers, they saw fey, hidden people ruling from on high, but ruling over nothing. Literal ghosts, come back out of death to abide awhile in the realm of the living. At night, the twisted, broken Mansions soaked up the moonlight and transformed themselves into a vision out of dream or nightmare, the white marble as ethereal and alien as the moon itself, forever suspended in the sky like a blind, ravaged face.
    For, as Murak could have seen had he lived, it had taken a cataclysmic event for the Mansions to reveal their true, intended form. Surely Murak, gazing up at these Mansions the palisades, the balconies, the columns all hopelessly askew would have seen again the Mansions of his vision, in the form he had rhapsodized over that night when he had perched upon his own likeness and, drunk, stared up at his beloved hills.

Copyright © 2004 by Jeff VanderMeer

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by Golden Gryphon and posted with their permission.


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