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Dark Benediction, page 1


Dark Benediction

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Dark Benediction


  Walter M. Miller

  Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 69


  Enter the SF Gateway

  In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

  ‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’

  Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

  The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

  Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

  Welcome to the SF Gateway.



  Gateway Introduction

  You Triflin' Skunk!

  The Will

  Anybody Else Like Me?

  Crucifixus Etiam

  I, Dreamer

  Dumb Waiter

  Blood Bank

  Big Joe and the Nth Generation

  The Big Hunger

  Conditionally Human

  The Darfsteller

  Dark Benediction

  The Lineman

  Vengeance For Nikolai

  About the Author

  You Triflin' Skunk!

  THE RAIN SANG light in the sodden palmettos and the wind moaned through the pines about the unpainted shack, whipping the sea of grass that billowed about the islands of scrub. The land lay bathed in rain-haze beneath the pines. Rain trickled from the roof of the shack and made a rattling spray in the rivulets under the eaves. Rain blew from the roof in foggy cloudlets. Rain played marimba-sounds on the wooden steps. A droopy chicken huddled in the drenched grass, too sick to stir or seek a shelter.

  No road led across the scrublands to the distant highway, but only a sandy footpath that was now a gushing torrent that ran down to an overflowing creek of brackish water. A possum hurried across the inundated footpath at the edge of the clearing, drenched and miserable, seeking higher ground.

  The cabin was without a chimney, but a length of stovepipe projected from a side window, and bent skyward at a clumsy angle. A thin trail of brown smoke leaked from beneath the rain-hood, and wound away on the gusty breeze. In the cabin, there was life, and an aura of song lingered about the rain-washed walls, song as mournful as the sodden land, low as the wail of a distant train.

  Whose hands was drivin' the nails 0 Lord?

  Whose hands was drivin' the nails?

  Lord 0 Lord!

  My hands was drivin' the nails 0 Lord!

  My hands was drivin' the nails

  And I did crucify my God!

  The song was low and vibrant in the cabin, and Lucey rocked to it, rolling her head as she sang over the stove, where a smoked 'possum simmered in pot-likker with sweet-taters, while corn bread toasted in the oven. The cabin was full of food-smells and sweat-smells, and smoky light through dusty panes.

  From a rickety iron bed near the window came a sudden choking sob, an animal sound of almost unendurable torment and despair. Lucey stopped singing, and turned to blink toward the cry, sudden concern melting her pudgy face into a mountain woman cherub's face, full of compassion.

  "Awwwwwww . . ." The sound welled unbidden from her throat, a rich low outpouring of love and sympathy for the sallow twitching youth who lay on the yellowish sheets, his eyes wild, his hands tensing into claws.

  "Awwwww, Doodie—you ain't gonna have another spell?" she said.

  Only a small hurt this time, my son. It can't be helped. It's like tuning a guitar. You can't do it without sounding the strings, or pulsing the neural fibers. But only a small hurt this time... .

  The youth writhed and shuddered, stiffening into a puppet strained by steel springs. His back arched, and his muscles quivered. He flung himself suddenly into reflexive gymnastics, sobbing in small shrieks.

  Lucey murmured softly. An immense mass of love, she waddled toward the bed in bounces of rubbery flesh. She bent over him to purr low in her throat.

  "Poor Doodie . . . poor li'l Doodie. Mama's lamb."

  The boy sobbed and thrashed. The paroxysm brought froth to his lips and jerked his limbs into cramped spasms. He jerked and writhed and tumbled on the bed.

  "You jus' try to lay calm, Doodie. You jus' try. You gonna be all right. It ain't gonna last long, Doodie. It's gonna go away."

  "No!" he whimpered. "No! Don't touch me, Mama! Don't!"

  "Now, Doodie . . ."

  She sat on the edge of the bed to gather him up in her massive arms. The spasms grew more frantic, less reflexive. He fought her, shrieking terror. She lay beside him, moaning low with pity. She enveloped him with her arms, enfolding him so that he could no longer kick. She pulled his face into the hollow of her huge bosom and squeezed him. With his tense body pressed tightly against the bulky mass of her, she melted again with love, and began chanting a rhythmic lullaby while he twitched and slavered against her, fighting away, pretending to suffocate.

  Gradually, as exhaustion overcame him, the spasm passed. He lay wheezing quietly in her arms.

  The strings are tuned, my son, and it was only a small hurt. Has the hurt stopped, my son?

  Yes, father, if only this monstress would let me he. Accept my knowledge, and be content. The time will come.

  "Who you whisperin' to, Doodie? Why are you mumbiin' so?" She looked down at his tousled head, pressed tightly between her breasts.

  His muttering ceased, and he lay quietly as if in a trance. It was always so. The boy had fits, and when the paroxysm had passed, he went into a rigid sleep. But it was more like a frozen moment of awareness, and old Ma Kutter said the boy was "witched." Lucey had never believed in "witchin'."

  When he was tensely quiet, she tenderly disengaged herself and slid off the bed. He lay on his side, face toward the window, eyes slitted and mouth agape. Humming softly, Lucey returned to the stove and took a stick of oak out of the bucket. She paused to glance back at him—and he seemed to be rigidly listening to something. The rain?

  "Doodle . . . ?"

  "When are you coming for us, father?" came in a ghost whisper from the bed. '"When, when?"

  "What are you talking about, Doodie?" The cast-iron stove-lid clattered on the hot metal as she lifted it nervously aside. She glanced down briefly at the red coals in the stove, then back at Doodie.

  "Very soon . . . very soon!" he whispered.

  Lucey chucked the stick of wood in atop the coals, then stood staring at the bed until the flames licked up about the lid-hole to glisten orange on her sweat-glazed face.

  "Who are you talkin' to, Doodie?"

  She expected no answer, but after several seconds, his breathing grew deeper. Then it ca
me: "My father."

  Luccy's plump mouth went slowly shut and her hand quivered as she fumbled for the stove lid.

  "Your pa is dead, Doodle. You know that."

  The emaciated youth stirred on the bed, picked himself up slowly on one arm, and turned to look at her, his eyes blazing. "You lie!" he cried. "Mama, you lie!"


  "I hate you, Mama. I hate all of you, and I'll make you pay. I'll be like him."

  The stove lid clattered back in place. She wiped her hands nervously on her dress. "You're sick, Doodie! You're not right in the mind. You never even seed your pa."

  "I talk to him," the boy said. "He tells me things. He told me why you're my mother. He told me how. And he told me who I am."

  "You're my son!" Lucey's voice had gone up an octave, and she edged defensively away.

  "Only half of me, Mama." The boy said, then laughed defiantly. "Only half of me is even human. You knew that when he came here, and paid you to have his baby."


  "You can't lie to me, Mama. He tells me. He knows."

  "He was just a man, Doodie. Now he's gone. He never came back, do you hear?"

  The boy stared out the window at the rain-shroud. When he spoke again, it was in a small slow voice of contempt.

  "It doesn't matter. He doesn't want you to believe—any of you." He paused to snicker. "He doesn't want to warn you what we're going to do."

  Lucey shook her head slowly. "Lord, have mercy on me," she breathed. "I know I done wrong. But please, punish old Lucey and not my boy."

  "I ain't crazy, Mama."

  "If you ain't crazy, you're 'witched,' and talkin' to the dead."

  "He ain't dead. He's Outside."

  Lucey's eyes flickered quickly to the door.

  "And he's comin' back—soon." The boy chuckled. "Then he'll make me like him, and it won't hurt to listen."

  "You talk like he wasn't a man. I seed him, and you didn't. Your pa was just a man, Doodie."

  "No, Mama. He showed you a man because he wanted you to see a man. Next time, he'll come the way he really is."

  "Why would your pa come back," she snorted, summoning courage to stir the pot. "What would he want here? If you was right in the head, you wouldn't get fits, and you'd know you never seed him. What's his name? You don't even know his name."

  "His name is a purple bitter with black velvet, Mama. Only there isn't any word."

  "Fits," she moaned. "A child with fits."

  "The crawlers, you mean? That's when be talks to me. It hurts at first."

  She advanced on him with a big tin spoon, and shook it at him. "You're sick, Doodie. And don't you carry on so. A doctor's what you need . . . if only Mama had some money."

  "I won't fuss with you, Mama."

  "Huh!" She stood there for a moment, shaking her head. Then she went back to stir the pot. Odorous steam arose to perfume the shack.

  The boy turned his head to watch her with luminous eyes. "The fits are when be talks, Mama. Honest they are. It's like electricity inside me. I wish I could tell you how."

  "Sick!" She shook her head vigorously. "Sick, that's all."

  "If I was all like him, it wouldn't hurt. It only hurts because I'm half like you."

  "Doodie, you're gonna drive your old mother to her grave. Why do you torment me so?"

  He turned back to the window and fell silent . . . determinedly, hostilely silent. The silence grew like an angry thing in the cabin, and Lucey's noises at the stove only served to punctuate it.

  "Where does your father stay, Doodie?" she asked at last, in cautious desperation.

  "Outside ..."

  "Gitalong! Wheah outside, in a palmetto scrub? In the cypress swamp?"

  "Way Outside. Outside the world."

  "Who taught you such silliness? Spirits an' such! I ought to tan you good, Doodie!"

  "From another world," the boy went on.

  "An' he talks to you from the other world?" Doodie nodded solemnly.

  Lucey stirred vigorously at the pot, her face creased in a dark frown. Lots of folks believed in spirits, and lots of folks believed in mediums. But Lucey had got herself straight with the Lord.

  "I'm gonna call the parson," she grunted flatly.


  "Christian folks don't truck with spirits."

  "He's no spirit, Mama. He's like a man, only he's not. He comes from a star."

  She set her jaw and fell grimly silent. She didn't like to remember Doodie's father. He'd come seeking shelter from a storm, and he was big and taciturn, and he made love like a machine. Lucey had been younger then—younger and wilder, and not afraid of shame. He'd vanished as quickly as he'd come.

  When he had gone, it almost felt like he'd been there to accomplish an errand, some piece of business that had to be handled hastily and efficiently.

  "Why'd he want a son?" she scoffed. "If what you say is true—which it ain't."

  The boy stirred restlessly. "Maybe I shouldn't tell."

  "You tell Mama."

  "You won't believe it anyway," he said listlessly. "He fixed it so I'd look human. He fixed it so he could talk to me. I tell him things. Things he could find out himself if he wanted to."

  "What does he want to know?"

  "How humans work inside."

  "Livers and lungs and such? Sssssst! Silliest I ever—"

  "And brains. Now they know."


  "Pa's people. You'll see. Now they know, and they're corning to run things. Things will be different, lots different."


  "Soon. Only pa's coming sooner. He's their … their . . ." The boy groped for a word. "He's like a detective."

  Lucey took the corn bread out of the oven and sank despairingly into a chair. "Doodie, Doodie ..."

  "What, Mama?"

  "Oh, Sweet Jesus! What did I do, what did I do? He's a child of the devil. Fits an' lies and puny ways. Lord, have mercy on me."

  With an effort, the boy sat up to stare at her weakly. "He's no devil, Mama. He's no man, but he's better than a man. You'll see."

  "You're not right in the mind, Doodie."

  "It's all right. He wouldn't want you to believe. Then you'd be warned. They'd be warned too."


  "Humans—white and black and yellow. He picked poor people to have his sons, so nobody would believe."

  "Sons? You mean you ain't the only one?"

  Doodie shook his head. "I got brothers, Mama—half brothers. I talk to them sometimes too."

  She was silent a long time. "Doodie, you better go to sleep," she said wearily at last.

  "Nobody'll believe . . . until he comes, and the rest of them come after him."

  "He ain't comin', Doodie. You ain't seed him—never."

  "Not with my eyes," he said.

  She shook her head slowly, peering at him with brimming eyes. "Poor little boy. Cain't I do somethin' to make you see?"

  Doodie sighed. He was tired, and didn't answer. He fell back on the pillow and lay motionless. The water that crawled down the pane rippled the rain-light over his sallow face. He might have been a pretty child, if it had not been for the tightness in his face, and the tumor-shape on his forehead.

  He said it was the tumor-shape that let him talk to his father. After a few moments, Lucey arose, and took their supper off the stove. Doodie sat propped up on pillows, but he only nibbled at his food.

  "Take it away," he told her suddenly. "I can feel it starting again."

  There was nothing she could do. While he shrieked and tossed again on the bed, she went out on the rain-swept porch to pray. She prayed softly that her sin be upon herself, not upon her boy. She prayed for understanding, and when she was done she cried until Doodie was silent again inside.

  When she went back into the house, he was watching her with cold, hard eyes.

  "It's tonight," he said. "He's coming tonight, Mama."

  The rain ceased at twilight, but the wind stiffened, hurlin
g drops of water from the pines and scattering them like shot across the sagging roof. Running water gurgled in the ditch, and a rabbit ran toward higher ground. In the west, the clouds lifted a dark bandage from a bloody slash of sky, and somewhere a dog howled in the dusk. Rain-pelted, the sick hen lay dying in the yard.

  Lucey stood in the doorway, nervously peering out into the pines and the scrub, while she listened to the croak of the tree frogs at sunset, and the conch-shell sounds of wind in the pines.

  "Ain't no night for strangers to be out wanderin'," she said. "There won't be no moon till nearly midnight."

  "He'll come," promised the small voice behind her. "He's coming from the Outside."

  "Shush, child. He's nothing of the sort."

  "He'll come, all right."

  "What if I won't let him in the door?"

  Doodie laughed. "You can't stop him, Mama. I'm only half like you, and it hurts when he talks-inside."

  "Yes, child?"

  "If he talks-inside to a human, the human dies. He told me."

  "Sounds like witch-woman talk," Lucey said scornfully and stared back at him from the doorway. "I don't want no more of it. There's nobody can kill somebody by just a-talkin'."

  "He can. And it ain't just talking. It's talking inside."

  "Ain't nobody can talk inside your mother but your mother."

  "That's what I been saying." Doodle Iaughed. "If he did, you'd die. That's why he needed me."

  Lucey's eyes kept flickering toward the rain-soaked scrub, and she hugged her huge arms, and shivered. "Silliest I ever!" she snorted. "He was just a man, and you never even seed him."

  She went inside and got the shotgun, and sat down at the table to clean it, after lighting a smoky oil lamp on the wall.

  "Why are you cleaning that gun, Mama?"

  "Wildcat around the chicken yard last night!" she muttered. "Tonight I'm gonna watch."

  Doodie stared at her with narrowed eyes, and the look on his face started her shivering again. Sometimes he did seem not-quite-human, a shape witched or haunted wherein a silent cat prowled by itself and watched, through human eyes.

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