a Grave Joy comes in two parts. This is the preamble, the bit I didn't
write, the moment you have to understand before the story plays itself
out. In all honesty, I would suggest that you skip this bit and read it
when you've finished the story, but for the sake of clarity I've pasted
it in here.
world's oldest boy scout and its longest lived immortal get together over
a kitchen worksurface, one of the ones supposed to be used for breakfast.
Methos is searching for something he will very shortly forget he ever
needed. Duncan is making coffee and idly watching the old man empty his
pockets. Methos has peppermints, keys, a bus ticket, a penknife, two taxi
receipts, a condom, an oiled handkerchief. Duncan picks the green packet
out of the clutter and taps it on the table. He looks up, and their eyes
meet. It's Duncan who reaches out, Methos who folds, surprised out of
cynicism, into the Highlander's embrace.
Such a Grave Joy
It was the smell of latex on his fingers that eroticised the moment. He
was standing on the forecourt of a garage in Kansas, just driving, just
raveling. Filling the car with petrol, his hand had slipped, and he'd
wiped down the spill with paper from the dispenser. It was when he peeled
off the gloves that the smell hit him. Warmed latex. He'd lost all other
thought for a moment, standing alone with one hand lifted to his face,
catching the dry plastic talcum powder scent. His nostrils had widened,
for there were scents missing: the petrochemical verbona of his favourite
lubrication, the acrid salt sweat of someone else's arousal. He hadn't
realised he'd closed his eyes. His stomach clenched around the tight knot
of fiercely suppressed expectation that rode his bones in the darkest
hours of the night.
Then he looked up.
He was alone. It was daylight, high afternoon, and the heat was leaching
sweat from his skin. Desert rolled under his eyes, and the far horizon
was no more than fifteen minutes away. He dropped the gloves into the
garbage can, and got into the car.
He was just driving, just raveling.
Sometimes when he woke sweating at three o'clock in the morning he had
the feeling there was something he had forgotten he needed. It was almost
as if he had cut some part of his life loose, and could not now remember
what it was or where he had left it. At three o'clock, there was a sense
of incompleteness that did not surface at any other time. He would lie
there in the darkness, wrapped in tumbled blankets, stare into the dark
and try to remember. Sometimes he had to force himself to unclench his
fists, wondering at the sense of loss that warned against a deeper grief
he did not want to touch. He kept prodding at the edges, picking at the
scab, hissing away from the pain and retreating into sleep. What had he
done? What had happened? He did not know, but he knew that one day he
would gather the courage to rip the scab and bleed.
He jerked off in the shower, mechanical and unsatisfactory, and went hunting
for food. He found an old fashioned diner swept up on the tides of the
boardwalk, and ordered chicken and apple pie. When it came the chicken
was dry and the apple pie badly defrosted. Eating half of it, he left
the rest with a tip for the tired waitress with the darkening blonde roots.
He walked downtown, but the houses were all the same and he'd seen the
stores before. He was tired, he was bored, and he tried to tell himself
he was too old to care, but he knew this to be untrue. The one person
he had never been able to lie to successfully was himself. Aimless had
been good: aimless was untraceable, a string of false names and cash payments.
Aimless had been good for six month's worth of wandering and four different
vehicles. He was nothing if not thorough. But aimlessness palled.
Hiding. Running away.
He'd been a long time running and maybe it was time to go home.
One day he reached up for a book from the shelf and found that his hand
had fallen on a thin paperback he'd never seen before, caught behind two
volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall like a pale and dessicated bat. He
took it down, frowning in the sunlight from the open porthole, and looked
at it. It was covered in stiff paper like a child's exercise book. It
was not his.
He opened it, and under his eyes angular, black handwriting sprawled across
the page. His hands were shaking. He felt sick. Yet he could swear that
he had never seen this hand before, and he certainly did not understand
the language that unscrolled under his fingertips, with its archaic, formal
precision. He swallowed, once, against the rising tide of nausea and turned
the page. The hand ran on, deliberate entries in blocks of text that swam
under his eyes. Three quarters of the way through the book, the writing
ceased, unsigned, as if the writer had just walked away. Yet the book
was dusty, and he hadn't disturbed the shelves above the bench since...since...He
could not remember. He sat, heavily, on the hard warmth of his wooden
floor and turned the book in his hand as if he could devine its secrets
Walking out into the clear sunshine of another morning, Methos felt as
if his skin was stretching and cracking, as if he'd grown a carapace of
eggshell chitin that was hardening and flaking from his body. His quickening
ran light on his body, rising fire to the sun's flame. He stretched, feeling
muscle and bone clarify under that fierce heat. 'Something has happened.'
He thought to himself. And, without even thinking about it, he turned
to the east. And on the dull scrub of an anonymous Arizona desert, his
mind's eye painted water and trees, people and buildings, the gentle heat
of a temperate sun and the taste of good coffee. 'Something has happened.'
He thought again. For a moment he allowed his body and his presence to
spread, becoming fully himself, all of his selves, his shadow lying bleak
and clear across the gritty tarmac and the echo of battles fought and
won in the set of his shoulders. He scented home. Then he pulled himself
in, collapsing into this ungainly body, narrowing his shoulders and allowing
his limbs to gain a careless, lucid sprawl.
When he drove, he drove east, very steadily, with the windows rolled down
as far as they could go and the radio up loud.
For some reason, he remembered the smell of metal, cold-forged and sung
into life by the hands of its wielder. His vision was haunted by snow
and fire, and lightning paced his dreams. He woke, often, sweating with
fear, and would lie in bed until he gathered the courage to rise and make
himself tea, cherishing the smooth curve of the earthenware mug for the
warmth it lent his fingers. He knew himself to be obsessed, yet he could
no more halt his ranging thoughts than he could hold back a tsunami. Under
his questing hand the pages of the notebook damped with sweat, until he
copied them, and again, sending static, clean sheaves to all the obvious
places, contacting scholars and Internet cowboys impartially. The book
was the key: the key was the book: he did not know why this was an imperative
he could not ignore but the search was as essential to him as breath.
He woke reaching for the papers: he fell asleep over a spreading collection
of articles and minutes from a past that could be five minutes old or
spoke of kings long dead as if they lived. He surprised himself, remembering
the feel of damask lace under his fingers and finding he had sketched
someone else's notes in the margins: the start of a receipt for lemon
cream that took eighteen eggs and the shape of a growing mandrake. He
was haunted by people he had not met, just outside the edges of his vision:
sometimes he felt he could look up and see them. A lady in a cloth of
stiff silk with a sapphire on her finger, a monk, a laughing boy with
red hair, a painted figure who rose from his nightmares to haunt his waking
hours. They watched him, waited, hiding in the folds of the velvet curtains
and slinking in the shadows of the fire he lit to keep them away with
light. Sometimes though, in the night, they kept him company, slid into
bed with him cold and sharp as glass and offered him memories, moved his
hands across a chessboard, or touched his hands with the pain of friendship
lost. Moreoften they gave him blood.
As he drove he began to sing, slowly, snatches at first and then whole
verses. It felt as if the edges of an old wound were drawing together
and healing. The weather cooled, and the scenery changed, but the road
was the same. There was no need to hurry: he had all the time in the world.
He found a man in London who said he might try. Retired, a Bletchley veteran,
he had time to spare that he spent sitting in the new library at the British
Museum turning pages he'd worked on when he was young, tracing loose ends
and footnotes with the dry urgency of age. Duncan handed over the sheaf
of photocopies in the cool, methane green of a London spring, and noticed
that his hands shook. He went back to his hotel restless, ate, and went
out to stalk the streets of a city that seemed astonishingly familiar
and riven with misplaced expectation. It took a week before the phonecall
came, and they met in the street outside Duncan's hotel. The man thrust
the papers at him with no explanation. "It's done," he said.
"It was in code."
He turned to walk away, thin shouldered under the threadbare tweed of
what had been a classic suit. Duncan looked down, foundering, at the lines
of neat script that underscored his photocopied notes like the trail of
a dying ant. It seemed unreal. He read "flight", 'bookshop',
'Watcher': and looked up. Then he ran, choppy, short strides, through
the crowd on the pavement. "What is it?" He asked, and the man
turned on him, drawn and grey.
"I don't want to know," the man said. "I don't want to
see you again." He was sweating, and in his eyes Duncan saw fear.
"I don't understand," Duncan said. Around them, people walked
past, parting and reforming, smooth as the tide of a great river.
He turned away, was gone. Duncan stood with the sheaf of paper in his
hand and watched him go. Then he went back to the hotel, flew home with
the papers untouched and plastic cased in his bag.
Occasionally, when he looked up without thinking, he saw hills that were
not green or gently rounded like the hills he drove through, but young
and raw, reaching teethed to a sky swelling with storm. It was a giant's
playground, an arena scattered with the spewed remains of a glacier's
bones, stone piled on stone, decorated by the abandoned, spindly skeleton
of a single tent and the ash of campfires.
He could feel the pony's mane under his fingers and the weight of the
sword on his back, the cold that brought blood burning to his cheeks and
the smell of sweat and ozone. The ground was blackened and smoking. He
would, as always, be last, and there were few of them left where once
there had been many, but then he was the oldest: he could resist the compulsion
better than any of them, nursing his supplies and the pony's hooves.
He came latest and last to the Gathering, and by the time he arrived there
would be nothing left but death or the shadow of death. He could see it
in the stone rictus of his lover's face turned, unknowing, to his.
When he got back to the barge he left the briefcase on the couch and worked
round it for a long afternoon. He wiped down the clean kitchen surfaces,
laid a fire, turned the computer on and turned it off again. Opera flayed
his ears: jazz burned through his mind with a trail of smoke and grief.
Eventually, he took the notes to bed, and the ghosts came with him.
On the plane, curled into the generous expanse of an old style BA leather
seat, he looked out at the infinite variety of the clouds under the sun
and smiled. The universe was chaos. He knew it.
He had been sure, when he took his lover's head, that the man did not
know him, but he had been wrong, Caught in the flaming mercury of this
last quickening were the sweet and painful shards of an honour betrayed
and a love that had encompassed his soul. He marked them, smiling, for
he had been here before. Oldest, last, he had grounded his blade and waited.
The writing was unsigned. At first, bemused by comments and phrases he
had no hope of understanding, he read sections, flicked backwards and
forwards, tried to make some sense of words in context. There were no
explanations: the writer was writing for himself.
What he held in his hands was a diary, undated, blocks of text that crawled
off the page and seared his fingers. Shivering, he forced himself to read
from the beginning, filing words he did not know and coming back to them
later. Characters in a half-remembered play, people he did not know spoke
to him, seen through an ironic and suspicious gaze. His own name sounded
in references heavy with blood and lust. He was reading the story of a
love affair, chronicled by a man he had never met in flashes of surreal
vision. As he read, like the blackened rags of a regiment's colours, memory
teased at the moment. He could almost smell the beer and smoke of the
bar, knew the texture of someone else's skin under his fingers. His body
remembered, rousing to the memory of salt and semen, shocked into fire
by the half-described ecstasy of a quickening. Restaurants, a winter morning
on the steps of the Sacre-Coeur with the city ice-white and pristine beneath
him, the smell of latex, the weight of a blade in his own hands. He did
not recognise himself in this stranger with his own name, this stern,
laughing, honourable murderer. His mind considered this to be fiction:
his body knew it to be truth. As the night wore on and he read further,
he found himself looking up to the wall where the decorative katana hung.
Eventually, driven, he took it off its pegs and laid it within reach on
the bed. Once or twice he looked up and found one hand had crawled of
its own accord to touch the ivory hilt.
He knew. He knew, this time, that the choice was different, and that he
had changed. And he had changed because of the man whose body lay at his
feet. He'd taken a moment to put head and body back together before the
quickening struck, and Duncan lay almost as if he were whole, as if he
would rise, thin, dirty, but whole. And beloved.
The universe was laughing, but Methos chose as he had not chosen the first
time, when he had known nothing, or the second, or the third, when he
wanted everything to be just as it had been and the madness of the Gathering
obliterated. He chose the dead man at his feet: he chose to end the game,
he chose mortality, and the universe struck him with death. When he awoke,
Duncan's body had gone.
It took three days to drag himself back to the small farm he'd owned for
centuries, since he had known that they would always be called here to
fight, this blasted landscape with its echoes of immortality and myth.
The first thing he'd done was turn the laptop on and link into the satellite
Duncan was alive.
There were no immortals.
The universe had changed, and he was not alone.
He laughed then, laughed with an edge of madness, and knew he could not
go to Duncan now with the stink of death and the fear of what he had done
heavy on his skin. He ran, caught the internal flight to the city, and
the first morning flight to New York, changed planes again and landed
in the sultry heat of a Florida summer. Hired a car, started driving.
Months later, something changed. Now?
was happy, driving under the olive trees with the Mediterranean breeze
in his hair. He could smell oranges, and the sea. He had a map, and a
compass: he was in no hurry, but it was time to go home.
As he read, the text climbed into his skin, spread itself against his
bones. He could feel himself become more, complete, healed. He understood,
knew his ghosts, recognised the payment they offered him.
He rounds the corner on foot, astonished and grateful that the street
is the same, same cars, same crossing, same door. He feels in the pockets
of his coat: he has a penknife, a handkerchief, some scraps of paper.
Duncan shakes his head. There is a curious buzzing in his ears, and to
his astonishment his body tightens. Fight or flight.
He fits the key into the lock and turns it. It's been eight months, but
Duncan has not changed the locks. He takes it as a good sign, although
on the day when he'd realised that the Gathering was inevitable and packed
to go they'd parted over steel. Now he can feel Duncan's presence, and
he turns and runs - runs - up the stairs.
He can hear the click of the lock. He is shaking. No one has keys to this
house: no one visits: he has no family. Sweat sweeps across his skin with
glacial chill. He hears the sound of steps on his stairs.
There is one last portal. He raises a hand to the door, and opens it.
He sees a tall stranger.
Afterwards, when he tells it cold, he remembers the breadth of the man's
shoulders, the curve of his pale, empty hands, the faint, lifting crinkles
by his eyes.
At the time he looked into the man's eyes and saw death, and the hilt
of the katana slides into his hand like the kiss of a lover.