Seven Bent Directions
A. M. Arruin
"There is a single certainty in these Wonderlands. At the end of a quest, you will find only what you have hoped to avoid all along. There is one exception in all of Zoar’s history: my own quest for immortality, which has succeeded."
From the dusty reaches rode a man on a goat. Two goblin hobos watched.
"Mother of Dirt," said Levi Stoat. "The Goat Rider."
"Yes," said Ratty Roo.
"He’s going to tell the truth, isn’t he?"
"Always does." Ratty spat. "But nothing I haven’t already told."
"So he is real."
They sat near the last spike. The train tracks ended here, where the desert’s empty quarter stretched to fathoms of blasted sun. As the Goat Rider approached, the track’s hot steel began to hum. Ratty’s violin whistled in harmony.
"Let’s scramble." Levi leaped up.
"Stay. Face the truth."
Levi tugged his lips. "I need more time."
The Rider’s outline blurred in the heat, but they could now hear the goat’s hooves thumping sand. The tracks increased their humming. The violin murmured. The goat was blue, with silver horns.
"Ratsie." Levi kicked the tracks. "If he knows the truth, you shouldn’t have never stole that magic violin."
"My violin is not the matter. Your daughter is the matter. Or, more precisely—"
"Choke it!" Levi kicked harder. "Talk about my daughter again, I’ll smash your zebra teeth out."
"Tell him your story, or he’ll tell it for you." Ratty smiled. Every second tooth was black and rotten, between the whites. "Your daughter is not in the Hobbinschweldt. She never was. She never was."
Levi crouched with trembling fists. "Say that again, I’ll bust your violin."
The Goat Rider was about to arrive. The goat kicked up increasing gouts of dust. Its horns were actually black—the silver had been a momentary trick of hot light and distance. But its hair remained a lustrous blue.
"I got to get out of here," Levi whispered. But he did not move.
The tracks warbled. The fiddle whistled. The sand crackled.
Ratty grinned. Black and white teeth, a smile like a piano.
Hobbinschweldt. Spindle. Gobbinswirl. There were many names for it, depending on race, religion, location. But all legends told of a space that magically occupied all other spaces at once. In no case was it proven that any path, track or speculum could breach its unthinkable geometries. How to get there when there is no there?
Scheddinj, the great Hob theologian, called it a Consensual Hallucinogenic Wonderland, but neglected to specify who consented and who hallucinated. According to Pixie mathematicians, the Hobbinschweldt was enabled by no magic known or unknown, and so enfolded itself in realms that were impossible to map or model from other realms. Pixie physics allowed for seven bent directions: the math worked, but they had no empirical evidence. Dwarven philosophers always disagreed with Pixies: Kwerft, especially, maintained that the Hobbinschweldt was simply a type of Heaven. He proceeded to list all the types, which amounted to precisely one. "No explanation beyond the simplest," said the Dwarven philosophers, whose distaste for moving parts and tangled stories was legend. Their explanations were, by this time, so winnowed and rudimentary that they were rejected even by Dwarf children.
Most hobos cared little for an Afterlife. All rode the rails, since a hobo was by definition someone who went from here to there. But where was there? Hobos believed the Hobbinschweldt was accessed through the trains, somehow. Trains! All those tracks, crosshatching realms, built and re-built, directed and redirected—winding, curving, tunneling…
"A palimpsest of infinite convolutions," Ratty Roo often lectured, during winter travels, before they had heard of the desert railway. "There are Nagani geographers in the Tinguk Badlands who speak of invaginated—"
"Got your vagi-naked right here." Levi would grab his crotch in moments of lost faith and despair. His voice was barely audible. "Ain’t no Hobbinschweldt."
Ratty’s eyes bulged white, as if twin moons were exploding from his head. "You piece of shit!" he screamed. He leaped up and raced through the campfire swinging his trombone. The hair on his feet smoked. Levi raised his cello. The instruments smashed.
"One way to get a song going," mused Narnio Gong, their sometime Pixie companion.
"Moth’s beard." Dusty Buggs, also at the camp, drew on his pipe. "Amazing how Roo turns from philosopher to berserker in a clap of lightning.
Gong nodded. "Bit touchy about his beliefs, ain’t he?"
Dusty’s eyebrows lowered and pinched. "Let’s sneak away from this imbroglio, Pixie mine."
"Yuh. Shall we tell them the news of desert tracks?"
Dusty stood and wiped the cinders from his coat. "Let them both find their own way."
Pixie hobos rode together on quests for the Goat Rider, who was known to tell only the truth, and might yield the mystery of access. Faerie hobos rode to avoid the Goat Rider, since his truth was known to be that which no one wants to hear. Dwarven hobos chanted an evolving folklore that was the polarity of Dwarven philosophy: mad, mercurial, intricate—rich tales of portals that bloomed into existence where the tracks ended, unlocked by magical instruments, steam whistles, decoder rings. Former hobos were almost always Dwarven; they tended to gather in the desert cities, for they had tasted madness, and found it bitter.
"We must keep on," Ratty would always say, after their fights blew out. He would push back his shoulders and raise his chin. His sea-blue pupils would return. "It is real. You will keep going, Stoaters."
"Will I?" Levi dropped a smashed entanglement of bassoon, oboe and piccolo.
"You want to know. You need to know."
"My daughter." Levi’s sigh was oceanic.
"As Ratty has told, mmm?" said Old Bungolio of the rosy cheeks, an elder hobo. He chuckled and pinched Ratty’s bottom, then hung the kettle from a stick above the trash fire. "As he has told himself, over and over."
Ratty’s eyes began their bulge. "I know exactly—"
"Heard the tidings?" Old Bungolio drummed his knees. "There is an unfinished track in the empty desert…"
"A what?" Ratty almost shrieked.
Goblin hobos were creatures of pure curiosity. They gathered tales and incantations from every race and creed, thirsty for whatever might breach the Hobbinschweldt. They learned rhymes. They stole instruments. They compared notes. Whatever it took. A very few bent a different direction, and poured into the Hobbinschweldt not curiosity, but hope. These were the un-Hobo, the true seekers, always looking to find in the unthinkable realms what they had lost—memories, fortunes, sometimes family.
There were also those who wavered.
"We shouldn’t have come." Levi’s eyelid quivered. "I have over-esteemed myself."
"Hardly true. How many have found the track’s end?" Ratty wiggled the fiddle. "With a magic key?"
Levi convulsed—one serpentine shudder that began at his eyelid and finished on the sand at his toes. Then he sighed. "We will find my daughter at last."
"No. Or put another way—yes."
Levi ripped at his vest, tingling the bells and bird bones sewn throughout. "You and all your philosopherizing. I’m going to bust your violin this very—"
"Regard the world as a dream," warned Ratty.
Levi took a swing. "Is this a dream?" He missed. He stumbled. Up he jumped. Ratty raised the violin.
The Goat Rider arrived suddenly, hooves carving a thunderhead of dust.
"Wo!" he said.
"Wow," said Ratty.
There was a long silence, as sunlight flickered through the rain of dust, blinking in sequence on each of Ratty’s good teeth. Finally, the violin sneezed.
"Hello," said the Goat Rider.
"You’ve come!" Levi said.
The Goat Rider nodded, but seemed puzzled. "Yeah. There are many of us this year."
"Thank you, Rider" Ratty said.
"For what? Hey—do you boys know if I am on the right path?"
Ratty glanced at Levi, then at the ground. "The perennial question. Yes. We understand."
"We do?" said Levi.
The Goat Rider dismounted. "Have we met?"
"Indeed." Ratty bent his head. "A profound question."
"Indeed what?" Levi bit a fingernail.
The Goat Rider had a fish’s eyes, wide and bulbous. "Do you fellows know the way?"
Ratty nodded. "Indeed. A sagacious—"
"Where’s my daughter?" Levi blurted, falling to his knees.
Ratty stepped backward, raising bow and fiddle. "Forgive him. He seeks endlessly what he does not have."
"Is she in there?" Levi rocked. "Can you take us?"
The Goat Rider peered left, right, up, down. "Well, sir. You have no daughter I can see."
"True." Ratty nodded. "Just as I have told."
Levi took a feeble swing upward, missing Ratty, swishing air. "Where is she?" Tears popped on his lashes. "Is she alive?"
"A life can bend in many directions," said the Goat Rider. He shrugged. "That’s what they say."
"Yes." Ratty nodded. "Face the truth, Levi. Your daughter never was."
"She was!" Ratty screeched and fell forward. Completely prostrate, he shuddered and sobbed. His tears poured into the sand, growing a circle of mud around his head.
"That looks kind of like a halo," the Goat Rider said.
Ratty nodded soberly. "Forgive my friend. He has had difficulty facing his own truth."
"I know that feeling," said the Goat Rider. "So do you know the way?"
Ratty inclined his head. "I have hoped that you can show me."
"Me? I’m a bit lost."
"Ahh." Ratty nodded. "Fool’s wisdom. It is welcome. Yet I desire a little more clarity, if you would. We have ridden the trains for over a year, stolen keys, lost keys." He raised the violin and nodded its way. "We have committed… questionable acts."
Levi continued to sob and shudder. Sandy mud prickled his cheeks, and his neck was beginning to burn a luminous green in the sunlight.
"Is your friend going to be alright?" the Goat Rider said.
"Yes. He finally has what he has been searching for. He only needs to awaken to it, and he will thank you. Now, about this—" Ratty waved the violin.
"Do you play?"
"Ahhhh." Ratty smiled. "Understood. Here? Now?"
The Goat Rider stared with bulbed eyes, as if he’d been asked a metaphysical question by a Hob theologian. "Well," he said. "If you gents don’t know the way, I would best keep on."
Ratty’s teeth crunched. "Come now. A little more clarity. Our journey has been long and tortuous."
"You got tortured?"
Ratty’s knuckles whitened on the fiddle’s neck. "Please. Sir. I do love your poetry, but I need instructions. I have dreamed only of breaching."
"It is my endless desire."
Levi sobbed in the sand.
"Well," said the Goat Rider. "If it’s your desire, I say you should do it. Now, I have to get going."
"Not fair!" Ratty barked. "You must…." He shook the violin. "We have…." He stabbed the bow into the ground. "You are…." He plucked the bow, raised the fiddle and sawed the catgut across the strings. Sand sprinkled. The fiddle sighed out a wondrous myxolidian melody .
"Well now," said the goat.
There was silence, punctuated by sizzles of sand and Levi’s periodic snuffles. The sun had reached its zenith in the sky. The Goat Rider raised one hot foot, put it down to raise the other. Ratty—chin rumpled on the violin, fingers clawed on the bow, shoulders bunched at his ears—said, "You talk?"
The goat stared at its hooves, then looked up at Ratty and blew a long breath that ruffled its beard. "I guess I do. I did not know it until just now, when you played that violin. Is it a key?"
"Yes!" Ratty’s shoulders dropped. "Yes! Have I breached? Will I enter? Am I in?"
"Oh, that," said the goat. "That is a myth, fit only for Dwarven philosophers."
"You lying ungulate." Ratty stabbed the bow into sand. "Tell me how."
"You… talk, Mitchell?" The Goat Rider’s voice was plump with wonderment.
"Apparently," said the goat. "Just Mitch is fine."
"How do I get in?" Ratty stabbed and stabbed the bow. "Do I play a phrygian scale? Do I pluck?"
"Nah," said the goat.
Ratty moaned. "I should have left the violin and brought the mandolin. I knew it."
"It’s not my fault," Ratty said. "That mandolin was broken, and I could only find half. Should I have brought the pipes from the organ?"
"Pointless." The goat yawned into his beard.
Ratty stepped over Levi, close to the goat so its shadow stained his legs. "The Hobbinschweldt is real."
"It is—" Ratty grimaced so deeply his nose twisted sidelong. He crushed his eyelids together. Then slowly, jerkily, tooth by tooth, he smiled. His cheek twitched enough to jitter his ear. His smile widened. He nodded. He nodded again, then opened his eyes. His grin strained and quivered, then creaked still upward.
"Actually, There is a Twindis shoemaker hiding in the Tinguk Badlands who knows how to breech, but will not tell," he said. "Actually."
Ratty’s breath shrieked from one nostril, almost shut from the immensity of his grin. "At this moment—this very moment—goblin physicists labor in a secret cavern in the Stone Hills of Uyarok, finned into all realms at once, sorting them continually, close to the breaches. They are one breakthrough from—"
"So do I have a daughter?" Levi croaked.
The goat looked down. "No, dear friend. She expired long ago, as a brief duration of pure possibility."
"Okay." Levi rested his face back in the sand and gently wept.
Ratty began another explanation, but gargled instead. He cleared his throat, raised the violin over his head. His voice hasped through piano teeth. "Either you tell me how to breach this dream realm or—"
"Listen now." The goat looked up. How square its pupils, how whorled with galaxies. "They’re all dreams. You simply wake up from one to another. There is nothing to breach and nowhere to travel." He blew out his beard. "Now, go live your life."
"You thrice-fucked ruminant." Ratty smashed the violin over his own head. It screamed catlike. The neck cracked. A string ensnared his teeth, yanking out one rotten cuspid. He dropped to his knees, plunging the bow into steaming sand. The black tooth landed in Levi’s hand.
The Goat Rider, who had been watching the entire pantomime, began to clap.
"Thank you." The goat offered a little curtsey. "Now, I believe we have a journey to complete, though I fear I will not love its destination."
"Do you know the way?" the Rider said.
"Sure do. Hop on."
"Actually, Mitch, I’d feel more comfortable just walking beside you."
Finally the sun set, desert cooling fast. Levi sat, palms together, breath shallow. At times he breathed deeply and let go a long sigh, then lapsed to silence. Ratty stood above, forehead burned a neon green, and shook the busted fiddle again and again. Neither had spoken in hours.
"Don’t keep going," Levi said at last.
Ratty flung down the violin. It lay with broken neck beside the bow stuck in the sand.
"You were right," Levi continued.
Ratty spit. Without a word he stomped from the unfinished tracks, deeper into the desert’s unknown spaces.
"Stop," Levi said. "If the sun don’t kill you you’ll end up in Nubbinezzar, in a cage, flayed inside out."
Levi stood. "You were right, you shithead. Do you hear me?"
Ratty stopped, turned and called. "Darling, Stoaters, we are so done. We didn’t go far enough, understand?" He spat. "Of course you don’t." He continued into the dwindling light, yelling back his last maxim. "I need more time!"
"For what?" Levi plopped back in the sand, cold now on his bare feet.
He opened his fist and stared at Ratty’s black tooth. Then he picked up the busted fiddle and placed it in his lap. Finally he pulled the bow from the ground.
"What a collection," he muttered.
A second goat rider arrived. Levi, startled, bowed the broken violin. It replied with a horrid wail.
"Wha…?" said the goat. "I heered summit kindoo, not music."
"You talk?" The second goat rider was shivering, and wearing an enormous pointed hat with earflaps.
"Yupashoor…." The goat stuck out its tongue. "My wordsa lotsa mushin’ round …."
"Do you know the way?" the goat rider said to Levi.
Levi almost laughed. "Yeah." He dabbed a tear trapped in his stubble. "Will you listen to a story first? Against my own ways, I feel it needs telling."
"No," said the goat rider.
"Please? It’s time."
"Yewish," said the goat. "Yeth. Yesh. Yes."
"We got to move." The rider leaned forward to flick the goat’s nose. "What direction are you going, fellow?"
Levi paused to look after the vanished Ratty. "Good question," he muttered. He turned to look at the goat. "Do you know?"
The goat peered into Levi’s eyes, without a flinch or flicker.
Levi began to pant. He bent over, fists on knees. His green skin darkened, lime to apple to pistachio.
"Looks like you got a sandstorm storm brewing inside," said the rider. "You sick?"
Levi held up a hand, still breathing quickly. His hair went asparagus to avacodo.
"You going to spew, fellow?"
The goat’s eyeballs stared in opposite directions. "Yer musta tellit me."
Levi snapped up, mouth already open. "When I was very young I fell in love so madly with a girl from a puritan Faerie tribe and you can guess what happened cause I’m goblin and maybe you can even guess what happened next because yes we had the child secretly blooded out by Pixie bortionists!" He gasped and stared at the violin, its snapping neck, its cracking pegs, its splintered f-holes. He looked up. "We were told it was a miscreation, we were told, how would we know better?"
"Eh…." The goat licked around its mouth. "Mithkree. Eh? Shun. Wow."
"Shut up," said the goat rider.
"Kint evener think," said the goat.
"Her father would have killed me," Levi said. He slumped.
The goat rider folded up his earflaps. "I do not care for this. Do you know the way? We’re late."
Levi smiled sadly. Then nodded and pointed after the first goat rider. "I think it’s probably that way."
"Thinkshoo," said the goat. "Thinksha lotto you guy, ahhhh—"
"Shut up," said the goat rider, punching the goat’s withers. "I wasn’t sure about this little trip, Hal. But now that you talk I can’t wait to get rid of you."
Levi stared after them. "Hey. How many of you are there, anyway?"
"Lots," called back the goat rider. "It’s been a bad year."
Levi shivered. Night dropped heavily, darkness and chill. Finally, he put down the bow and violin, then slipped the rotten tooth in his purse.
"Come back," he said.
"Mitch, I’ve changed my mind," said the man to the goat. "No sale. We’re going home."
"Truly?’ said the goat.
"I can’t do it. Something about how you talk. You seem more alive."
"So do you," said the goat.
When they turned, they almost bumped another goat and rider.
"Pardon us," said the goat.
"Pardoo shorry," said the other goat.
"Was that Hal?" whispered the goat rider.
"I think so," whispered Mitch.
"Bad year," said one goat merchant to the others. They sat in tattered lawn chairs ‘round a smoking barbecue pit, among broken stones fallen from the tower above. "Too much famine. Too much violence."
"I heard last week a train full of musical instruments blew up in the Stone Hills of Uyarok," said another. "Half a mandolin landed here in Zabakkuh, t’other half speared through a banshee’s face. A humongous pipe organ tube fell from the sky on a Sí Shapeshifter, killed him right dead. The work of goblin terrorists."
"Donkey shit," said Kwerft. "Sure to be simpler explanations. Sit straight now. Kit. Ko, you especially. One goatherd just turned away. Another comes, finally, first of the day."
"You buying?" called the approaching goat rider.
"Can a life bend in many directions?" said Kit. The old cliché.
"Yo!" Ko stood and yelled at the departing goat, and the man walking beside it. "Come back and sell your goat, too."
"Think of your family," Ko said. "They will not last the drought."
"We’ll find a way."
"What are you, some kind of horn fu—"
"He said no thanks," said the goat.
Ko stamped a foot. "Do you practice ungulatio?" The second worst of all Dwarven insults. He then offered the worst: "Know what, in the fading light you could almost be mistaken for the mystical Goat Rider!"
"The what?" said the man.
" Forget it." Ko sat to eat ice cream from a hollowed cactus, permanently frozen by an off-label shindoo spell, used originally by Nixie psychiatrists to hypnotize sentient plants.
"The what?" the man said to his goat.
When they were through the city gates, the goat stopped. "You know, your father will kill you if bring me back without coin. He is the quintessential patriarch."
"I know, Mitch." The man sighed. "We will come up with a story."
Later, when the moons crossed their beams, Nixie psychiatrists arrived at the bonfire. Both wore their antlers.
"You have goats for us?" said the taller.
"We have one," Kwerft said.
"Schnift," swore the less tall. "We have many patients this season. Many stories to unlock. We are running out of goats."
"Been a bad year," Kwerft said.
"Indeed. It is always a bad year. Give us this one, then."
The moonbeams uncrossed to whiten the minarets and ziggurats in roving circles, the towers and mansions, the playgrounds and strip malls. Miles to the east, Levi Stoat fingered the rotten tooth, staring after his long-gone companion. Finally he turned eastward and began to trudge, head bowed, shoulders sloped, back down the finished tracks, toward the realms he had never left.
A.M. Arruin lives in abandoned hotel in the Porcupine Hills of Southern Alberta. He writes with an old fountain pen, watched by his pet crow, also named "A.M."
Published by permission of the author.