Actions

Work Header

The Locust

Work Text:

I wrote to you on October 16 promising a complete history. You know that I take no pleasure in sending out wordy dispatches. I write to you not as one issuing a report to his superior but with the respect of a friend. They were beautiful — beautiful and terrible. Non Angli, sed angeli, isn't it? These were not angels but animals. I do not know my English history as well as I might, though may God's blessings be upon those of our Order who still toil there in that benighted place. I cannot imagine how that man felt, coming upon graceful strangers for sale in the marketplace, marking their span of bone and the color of their hair. I can't say whether it was Christian pity or simple curiosity or a prickling occasion to sin.

There was no use of force. That was the terrifying thing — how eager the women were to meet them, how ready to discard all fear. There was no element of coercion, only the sharp strong tug of novelty that was irresistible across lines of age and sex. I have seen schoolboys stop in the street, heedless of their teachers' chidings, to watch one of these go past. One of them came to be baptized, and the priest who performed the sacrament trembled as he did so, trembled not to touch.

They came to us in the wake of several remarkable events that I will not try to summarize in any great detail — the loss of a flax harvest and subsequent foul vapors, a disturbance of the air that made dry hair stand on end, strange lights in the skies. More prosaically, they were referred here by a merchant who built his practice off of dealings with such creatures as these — he must be a hard man indeed, to see their faces and forms in all their infinite variety and not be moved, not to feel some compulsion to keep these strange beauties shut up in his own house for his own delight.

They are called Sidera, though this is not what they call themselves. The strangers are uniformly pleasing in their strangeness — split broadly into two kinds, a hardy strain armored in coppery plates and a brighter-colored, more decorative clique of which there were few in the mining delegation. In terms of size, even a tall man might only reach the shoulder of one of these. They have useless twisted wings under their armored covering, like the wings of flies; I know this from tending to one who had been struck by arquebus-shot, and whom the town's doctor refused to treat. Their blood is like milk. Beneath their plates they are finely-furred, and have sensitive faces. They wear fine clothing, and speak seldom. Apart from their sexual division I believe they are all like that.

The hardy ones would have made good husbands. They had no appetite for strong drink, they ate no meat and were generous with their gifts, they fathered no children and I thank God for that. It would be like a sparrow trying to incubate a swan's egg. They didn't beat their wives, though they go about well-armed and there were rumors of worse practices in whatever land they came from in cases of adultery. Big swaggering bravos, both martial and fearless. They were not men. These were the females of the species. And it was not for pragmatic reasons that we sought them out.

The males are smaller than the females, brighter in color and less vigorous. To them we must all look like exotics — punier still, soft and sticky-skinned.

We wanted to know whatever we could about their delegation. After all, they were not so different from ourselves — the Spaniards of the stars, they cared for mathematics and philosophy and art. I drew a couple of them for my book, alongside the flora I could remember — sometimes there was a correlation of subject material, an echo, some tracery of veins or a frilled appendage. I will enclose the pertinent pages when I send this letter. You would be better not to look at them for too long.

The coupling came to light before long, in the confessions of parishioners and even in complaints to the governor. To my shame as a scholar I had to ask how it worked. The man I asked — a rich gentleman of the town old enough to be a grandfather, venerable, wise — had a melting sort of expression on his face, something I found extremely distasteful. He had two of these creatures quartered in his house at the time. He conveyed it to me by gestures, and showed me the marks.

Strange sins have multiplied under these strange conditions. It isn't precisely sodomy, in the end, and allowing for the Papal ruling it was not precisely bestiality either — but I've never been one to take things as they were given to me. The amount of day-to-day fornication taking place in the goings-on of a thriving town is not negligible to begin with, but as the honor of hosting the strangers of high status became apparent even the low in rank had no difficulty in bringing about intercourse. They came to us. We gave them ourselves.

They were very beautiful, all in gold and full of feeling. They were uncommonly well-armed. What did we have to offer them in trade? Only certain minerals, which the strangers called by their own strange names. What could we teach them?

Father Costantino forbade any unnecessary engagements with the strangers, or any irregularity in conduct. Our brothers scrupulously obeyed this, and yet I know their minds were elsewhere, for so was mine. I had many unanswered questions.

We could not control their fornications, or moderate them, except to plead continence and advise caution. It came on in frenzies — some coinciding with holy days, some not, strange intermittent routs of desire that moved the affections of whole sectors. It wasn't an imperative of the body but a strange boiling-over of sentimentality.

The strangers coupled with men and women indiscriminately. Those engrossed in coupling would not eat, would not sleep. Their lovers touched them all over, most pitifully probing for some fatal wound or infirmity — their kind live by the sun, some were discovered in their crimes when they flung open windows to let the light stream in over the bodies of the dead, or when they carried them out into the street, crying with grief. The dead were covered in sores in their secret places, some partly-healed and some fresh.

The retaliatory violence was swift but poorly-planned. We drove them back to their vessels, prevailing on them not with force but with strong words and pleadings, like children. There was only one casualty among their number when they were here; the body was not buried but burned before I could inspect it. I could only imagine she was an invalid when she arrived, and that her vitality was further exhausted by the demands of her wives, a pair of sisters who brewed ale and beer before the strangers came. I believe they are dead now too, wasted away for love, and lost to God.

The strangers were forbidden to walk within the town except in groups of two or more, there was even some talk of imposing a distinguishing form of dress as if any of them could ever be mistaken for anything other than what they were.

There was one of them who came to me seeking to purchase a printing-press — as a curiosity, he said with no malice, because it was so quaint. While his companions stooped to wait in the room below I told him of the press and its antecedents, the invention of movable type, the proliferation of innovations that, though they might be shot through with Lutheran intent, made it impossible not to feel some prickling of wonder — and he nodded his long neck at me. They are marvelous up close, the golden ones — they shimmer like brushed silk.

The good gentleman told me of liquid print, and long strings of beads, and other things I should have written down as soon as they came to him. He asked the significance of my black coat, and its many buttons. I took it off to show him. He asked why I had such broad shoulders if I did no heavy labor, and I told him that the males of our species often do, and that my ancestors labored for their living. He remarked that I was darker than my fellows, and I confirmed it. He noticed some signs of recent mortification of the flesh. I found myself embarrassed and at a loss for an explanation. He spat up a luminous substance, frothy like the quills of a hedgehog, and touched me with it.

I sinned with him many times. I do not know how to name my sin. It hurt me and I did it anyway. There was no use of force. They affect a conjunction by piercing the skin at the point of most passion, using a sharp appendage like an awl to score shallow wounds — when bathed in that same substance they cease to bleed. After that there is little pain, only desire.

I moved against him despite the faint pain, despite the incongruousness of our parts — his mouth-parts gouged my neck, and I still wear the scar. It was an amusement to him, I believe, between the pretense of interest in our arts and the pleasure of knowing his peers must have known the pretense easily. Like us, they are cruel at heart.

The mining delegation withdrew themselves from us as quickly as they came, and with as little fanfare. Their baggage train wove its way through the mountains like a brightly colored ribbon, and some broke the cordon to run after the departing strangers, often with no more than the clothes on their backs, not even a skin of water. As if they could eat and breathe the light like their gallants had.

The strangers left us all at once in the middle of the working year, when all other operations in business had been halted to accommodate their requests. Without them, husbands lost interest in wives — brothels closed down — whole districts of vice shuttered. I do think their absence was a better aid to chastity than any of the other ills brought on by promiscuity. There were bonfires in the streets, townsfolk piled up the gifts of the strangers alongside indecent pictures and obscene books. Men and women alike talked of pilgrimages and penitence, they scourged themselves and went about barefoot. But still in their hearts they lusted — pining away for novelty.

When the plague came, the townsfolk mounted little resistance. Some blamed the burning of the infected goods, and others believed it to be a venereal disease like the French lues. It was no strange pestilence but the same flame of infection that had swept over neighboring cities the previous summer. Nevertheless it was punishment for our sins, and the parting gift of the gallants. Twelve dead in one household, and the survivors watching at the windows for — what? Not for alms and absolution but for the shimmer of a strange lover passing by in the street. First the bridle and then the whip. When the pestilence spread to our own College, there was no one left to say Mass, and few besides myself willing to tend the sick, Father Costantino having passed away into God's particular care. In the College there was nothing but stifling heat and in the streets nothing but the dead. The situation did not improve after that. It was a collective surrender, after the heat of the conflict had already passed.

By God's will, I was spared infection. By God's will, we were spared complete eradication — but there will be no more in this city, I think. Perhaps one day transients will come to fill the hearths and places of business left abandoned, and to bring up children there, but not for a long while.

I have already seen the start of it. This is what these strangers did to a mining town of no significance — imagine their spanning beauty lumbering through the streets of Rome, of Geneva, and what damage might be done over generations. We cannot overpower them by force of arms, and there are others, other strains as numerous as types of mushroom or colors of Dutch carrot. We had given them all we had, and the ones who stole away with the strangers might count themselves lucky. What would they be, upon their husbands' return to the land that birthed them? Conquering heroes? Lonely wretches.

Those who remained were widows, left to bury the dead. I am besieged by the memory of vices I had never known, and that I had never even heard of —

[What follows is stricken out.]

In answer to your request, I will not return to our College in Rome. In fact it seems wisest to me to treat all places of commerce and habitation as if they were under quarantine — travel quickly and far, and linger for as long as possible in the empty places of the earth. You would do well to do the same. May the most blessed will of Our Lord be done in all things.