"Susan" copyright 1993 by The Kilimanjaro
This work appears online via special arrangement with the the author,
Harlan Ellison. You can thank him by visiting the HERC
Store. Copying or distributing any part of this piece for personal
use, commercial use, or any other use you can come up with is strictly forbidden.
Breaking this rule will result in the author coming down on you like the proverbial
Hand of God or, barring the author finding out, your being forced to spend 15,000
years in Purgatory watching the same three episodes of "Perfect Strangers".
As she had done every night since they met, she went in bare feet and a
cantaloupe-meat-colored nightshift to the shore of the sea of mist, the
verge of the ocean of smothering vapor, the edge of the bewildering
haze he called the Brim of Obscurity.
Though they spend all their daytime together, at night he chose to sleep
alone in a lumpy, Volkswagen-shaped bed at the southernmost boundary of
the absolutely lovely forest in which their home had been constructed.
There are the border between the verdant woods and the Brim of
Obscurity that stretched on forever, a sea of fog that roiled and
swirled itself into small, murmuring vortexes from which depths one
could occasionally hear something like a human voice pleading for
absolution (or at least a backscratcher to relieve this awful itch!),
he had made his bed and there, with the night-light from his old
nursery, and his old vacuum-tube radio that played nothing but big-band
dance music from the 1920s, and a few favorite books, and a little
fresh fruit he had picked on his way from the house to his resting-place,
he slept peacefully every night. Except for the nightmares, of course.
And as she had done every night for the eight years since they had met,
she went barefooted and charmed, down to the edge of the sea of fog
to kiss him goodnight. That was their rite.
Before he had even proposed marriage, he explained to her the nature
of the problem. Well, the curse, really. Not so much a problem;
because a problem was easy to reconcile; just trim a little nub off here;
just smooth that plane over there; just let this big dangle here and it
will all meet in the center; no, it wasn't barely remotely something that
could be called "problem." It was a curse, and he was open about it
from the first.
"My nightmares come to life," he had said.
Which remark thereupon initiated quite a long and detailed conversation
between them. It went through all the usual stages of good-natured
chiding, disbelief, ridicule, short-lived anger at the possibility he
was making fun of her, toying with her, on into another kind of
disbelief, argument with recourse to logic and Occam's Razor,
grudging acceptance, a brief lapse into incredulity, a return to the
barest belief, and finally, with trust, acceptance that he was telling her
nothing less than the truth. Remarkably (to say the least) his nightmares
assumed corporeal shape and stalked the night as he slept,
dreaming them up. It wouldn't have been so bad except:
"My nightmares killed and ate my first four wives," he had said. He'd
saved that part for last.
But she married him, nonetheless. And they were extremely happy.
It was a terrific liaison for both of them. But just to be on the safe
side, because he loved her very much, he took to sleeping in the lumpy
Volkswagen bed at the edge of the forest.
And every morning--because he was compelled to rise when the sunlight
struck his face, out there in the open--he would trek back to their
fine home in the middle of the forest, and he would make her morning tea,
and heat and butter a muffin, or possibly pour her a bowl of banana nut
crunch cereal (or sometimes a nice bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon or brown
sugar sprinkled across the surface), and carry it in to her as she sat up
in bed reading or watching the Home Shopping Channel. And for eight
years she had been absolutely safe from the nightmares that
ripped and rent and savaged everything in sight.
He slept at the Brim of Obscurity, and he was a danger to no one but
himself. And whatever means he used to protect himself from
those darktime sojourners, well, it was an armory kept most secret.
That was how they lived, for eight years. And every night she would go
barefoot, in her shift, and she would follow the twenty-seven
plugged-together extension cords--each one thirty feet long--that
led from he house to his night-light; and she would come to him and
kiss him goodnight. And they would tell each other how happy they were
together, how much every moment together meant to them, and
they would kiss goodnight once more, and she would go back to the
house. He would lie reading for a time, then go to sleep. And in the
night, there at the short of fog, at the edge of the awful sea of mist, the
nightmares would come and scream and tear at themselves. But they never got
anywhere near Susan, who was safely in her home.
So as she had done every night since they had met, she followed the extension
cords down through the sweet-smelling wind-cooled hedges
and among the whispering, mighty trees to his bed. The light was on,
an apple ready to be nibbled sat atop a stack of books awaiting his
attention; the intaglio of a tesseract (or possibly a dove on the wing)
lay in the center of a perfectly circular depression in his pillow where
he had rested his head. But the bed was empty.
She went looking for him, and after a time she found him sitting on
the shore of fog, looking out over the Brim of Obscurity. But she heard
him crying long before she saw him. The sound of his deep, heartfelt
sobbing led her to him.
And she knelt beside him, and he puts his arms around her, and she
said "I see now that I've made you unhappy. I don't know how, but I
can see that I've come into your life and made it unpleasant. I'm sorry,
I'm truly sorry."
But he shook his head, and continued to shake it, to say no...no, that
isn't it...you don't understand.
"I'm so sorry..." she kept saying, because she didn't understand what
it meant, his shaking his head like that.
Until, finally, he was able to stop crying long enough to say, "No, that
isn't it. You don't understand."
"Then what are you crying about?"
He wasn't able to tell her for a while, because just trying to get the
words out started him up all over again. But after a while, still holding
her, there at the Brim of Obscurity (which, in an earlier time, had been
known as the Rim of Oblivion), he said softly, "I'm crying for the loss
of all the years I spent without you, the years before I met you, all the
lost years of my life; and I'm crying that there are less years in front of
me than all those lost years behind me."
And out in the roiling ocean of misty darkness, they could both hear
the sound of roving, demented nightmares whose voices were now,
they understood, less filled with rage than with despair.
"Susan" by Harlan Ellison,
copyright 1993 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
In case you missed the warning about copying or distributing this piece at the beginning,
just don't do it, okay.
Please send comments, queries, or tattling to firstname.lastname@example.org.