Bible in Sanskrit

The Old Choir (2008)

‘The Old Choir’, originally titled ‘Fallen and Forgotten’, was an attempt to fuse the tired saw of “a story about a writer struggling to write” with ideas around cultural appropriation that, at the time, were being extensively discussed among the science fiction and fantasy community. I leave the judgement of its success up to you.

The Old Choir

The cherubim moved through the air in an ethereal fashion, its wings beating slowly–surely too small and weak to support even its child-like weight. Its gaze was fixed on Carl, and he could not tear his attention away from the creature. Even as he felt cellar-damp tendrils creeping around his feet and calves, questing upwards and constricting around his naked body, he stared in silent horror at the angel.

The cherubim smiled at him. ‘It’s almost time,’ it said, its voice tinkling with soft melodies. Its smile widened, then spread still further, revealing endless rows of razor-sharp teeth. For a moment its eyes flared brilliant blue, and then its lips rolled backwards over its body, swallowing it whole.

Alone now in darkness, Carl regained his ability to move. But already the grasping limbs of that unknown horror had him firmly gripped, and as he struggled they tightened. He began to scream for help, for forgiveness, for mercy, for everything he could think of, until his lungs were raw and empty of air. As he sobbed, he felt hot breath on his back, and heard a cruel chuckle like that of a hyena…

He awoke in a cold sweat, tangled in his sheets. For a few seconds he thrashed wildly about, throwing off the damp bedding, snarling in terror at the darkness. And then, his heart still racing fit to burst, he recognised where he was: his bedroom. Of course.

Carl shuddered as he recalled the nightmare, and felt goosebumps running up and down his body. Shucking off the sodden bedsheets he reached for a glass of water, but felt nothing in the familiar half-darkness by his bedside table. He swore, quietly. His violent awakening must have knocked the cup over.

With a sigh he climbed out of bed, ignoring the throb beginning to form in his head, and the protests of his body that demanded further rest. Sure enough the carpet was wet underfoot, and Carl walked carefully across the room, not wanting to crack the glass if he stood on it. He flicked on the lightswitch and rested his forehead against the wall for a minute, taking slow, deep breaths.

Turning, he retrieved the fallen glass, placing it back on the bedside cabinet. The alarm clock read 4:15. Outside it was still dark, and condensation coated the inside of his bedroom window.

For the next few minutes Carl moved on autopilot: fetching a tea-towel from the kitchen, sponging up the spilled water as best he could, hanging out the towel, filling a fresh glass of water, and finally changing his damp sheets. But once he was done he found himself unable to sleep, the early-morning atmosphere feeling unpleasantly oppressive. After tossing and turning for half an hour he gave up, and decided to work on his novel.

Carl’s spare room doubled as a study. It was part-furnished, meaning he had to work around a tall built-in wardrobe with a huge mirror panel, but there was room enough for shelving, books, a reading armchair and a desk, which was everything he needed. Waking his notebook out of sleep mode Carl leaned back in his desk chair and turned his thoughts to his novel.

Perhaps, he thought, the nightmare that had woken him could even be put to good use. It would function well as a premonition for one of his main characters, foreshadowing the violence and horror that was to come.

The book itself was nearly complete, drafted and edited several times through. There remained something missing, Carl felt, but he had thus far been unable to put his fingers on just what that was. His agent and publisher were content to wait a month or two more while he worked out the imperfections. He had earned that with his first novel.

The computer chugged and whirred. Carl sighed; he really should have used some of his advance to upgrade. He rapped his fingers on the desktop and fell back into reminiscing.

At first he had been concerned that it would be difficult to follow up his first book, the critically-acclaimed ‘Heaven in Chains: Revolt of the Cherubim’. In the months after its release on a small dark fantasy imprint of a major publishing house he had acquired a reputation in the industry, and amongst his growing readership, as a fantasy author with a deep and thorough knowledge of religious mythology. However, because of the success of ‘Heaven in Chains’, Carl had surrendered to pressure to write a sequel. This had been difficult. At the end of ‘Revolt of the Cherubim’, Heaven had been destroyed. The knowledge of the Cherubim caste had been released to all mankind that they might luxuriate in true wisdom, making a better world for all. The angelic orders that sought to prevent this had been utterly defeated. God was dead. There was nothing else that he could do.

After several weeks of hopelessly reading obscure Christian tracts and trawling the Book of Revelation for inspiration, it had occurred to him that although it was something he knew little about it was possible that he could turn his eyes to the East. As his girlfriend was a Taoist with an overbearing interest in Feng Shui he had first investigated the Chinese Pantheon, but eventually he had discarded that idea. He wasn’t sure about the dialogue: it was too stilted, too proper – too hard to write 80,000 words of. He turned instead to Hinduism.

Now that was exciting stuff: Brahma, who was all things! Vishnu, the preserver and protector! Shiva, the Destroyer! Into a novel like this he could throw wild and unknowably vast concepts, as well as the sex and action that had made the first ‘Heaven in Chains’ such a huge commercial success. Carl wove the protagonists of his first book into a new plotline, introducing new characters in Hindu regions of the world–India, Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius and Nepal. The supporting cast came in the form of countless Hindu gods – Parvati, Savitar, Garuda, the Nagas and so many more.

The story practically wrote itself.

He had hidden himself away for two months, researching and reading. The laminate on his library card peeled from overuse, and one of the librarians started flirting with him. Eventually he had felt ready to begin writing, surrounded on all sides by voluminous tomes of mythological wisdom. The weight of all that knowledge almost seemed to raise his word processor up like a shrine–an image that Carl found both amusing and pertinent–and the novel had flowed from his fingers to his screen with consummate ease. Inspiration seemed to strike him without cease, waves and waves of ideas coming to him whatever he was doing at the time. He had taken to carrying two notebooks everywhere he went–one for the novel tentatively titled ‘Heaven in Ruins: Old Powers Rise’, and one for the third novel he had already decided needed to be written. The future looked bright.

A chiming tone indicated that the notebook had at last booted into its OS. Carl watched as icons popped up in the system tray, waiting for the various utilities to load before he accessed the ‘Old Powers Rise’ document.

A cold feeling of shock ran over Carl as the word processor loaded. Something was wrong: instead of the title page he had idly put together, there was an almost-blank page with the words ‘kāma dev’ printed dead centre. Hitting page down, Carl skipped through the first few pages of the document. The first two pages were similarly unintelligible – it looked like the English text had been replaced with Romanised Hindi script. The third page remained in English, though as Carl watched his words vanished beneath a flow of Hindi.

‘Oh god,’ he said. ‘A virus.’

He closed the document quickly, hoping that might save what was left of it. Then he opened his virus scanner and told it to update itself. How any sort of virus had crept through he didn’t know, but he could at least clean it up. He told the scanner to check the infected document, but it came back clean so he started a full system scan instead.

Carl watched the scanned file count creep up in rapid increments, biting his nails nervously. Then he remembered the backups. Just last afternoon he had copied the file over to a USB flash stick, right after saving a second backup online. He hadn’t lost much even if the original copy was ruined. He just had to continue working on it on a different machine, until he figured out what was wrong with his notebook.

His plan to work on the novel this morning was spoiled, but Carl retrieved the memory stick from his desk drawer anyway. For peace of mind, he told himself. The little silver stick dangled on a long blue cord, so he put this over his head and wore it like a necklace.

A smell penetrated Carl’s consciousness: a strange smell like burning cedar. From outside he heard a soft creaking noise. It was most likely just an old tree shifting in the wind, but a chill ran up Carl’s spine regardless. He sniffed, inhaling the increasingly powerful stench of burning wood. There was a more delicate flavour to it, too, like that of incense.

Carl stood and turned away from his desk, unsettled. His desk chair rebounded and caught his foot, making him stumble and half-fall back into it. He swore in annoyance and looked up–and his mouth fell open. His eyes went dry as if he had forgotten to blink.

Standing before him was… something. He had no idea what it was, but it was horrible.

Its skin was multihued; kaleidoscopic and shifting, with darker patches that exaggerated or emphasised bulk and muscle and nipples. It had the head of a bull with eyes like a spider’s along and around its snout. There were two pairs of arms–thick with muscle and bound in heavy chains–and a fifth appendage, lacking an opposable thumb but possessing five evenly spaced fingers, dangling from between its bulging pectorals. Its legs were enormous trunks, bound with metal at the base. On one of its arms it was wearing a wristwatch; the incongruence ought to have been absurd and funny, but instead it simply seemed grotesque.

‘Behold me,’ said the thing. It raised two of its arms and they fluxed, morphing unpleasantly into lashing clumps of tendrils.

Suddenly regaining the power of movement, Carl screamed and tried to crawl backwards. His arms swept stacks of paper and desk junk onto the floor, scrabbling for purchase as he scrambled back into the chair.

The creature lowered one of its bundles of long, thin tendrils, and said ‘be still.’

Carl froze again, his scream dying on his lips.

‘What are you?’ he gasped, his gaze fixed on that great bull head.

The corners of the thing’s mouth turned up as though lifted by wires. ‘I,’ it said, ‘am a demon.’

Carl nodded weakly, his body responding to this obvious truism although his mind seemed incapable of such.

‘I am of no place, Carl Taylor. I have no name. No identity. No form. Not any more.’

The ground trembled beneath the monster’s feet as it stepped closer towards Carl. The study seemed to have changed, grown larger around the vast presence of the mismatched demon. The carpet smouldered where its feet fell. It pointed an accusing finger towards him, and its tip shone brilliantly with heavenly light. Carl was forced to avert his gaze.

You took meaning from us!

Carl whimpered as he stared at the thing’s feet. ‘No,’ he whispered, his voice hoarse with fear. ‘I didn’t!’

‘You took it from us every time you stole from our identity,’ the beast continued. ‘You treated us as a source of inspiration, cheapening our significance as though we were playthings for your petty fictions. You eroded great parts of what we were.’

The demon snorted through its bull’s nose, and a thick stench of sulphur filled the room. ‘We’re creatures of faith and imagination. And for so many years people knew what we were. What we stood for. What to respect and what to love and what to fear.’

Carl shook his head, held up his hands. ‘N-No, it was j-just a story-‘

He was ignored as the creature continued. ‘When mortals like you began to toy with us, to make of us things that we were not, our grip on what we were began to fade.’ The demon titled its head upwards and flexed its pectoral muscles. They softened and flowed into thick bands of fat; a robe emerged, draped from one shoulder. The demon had just two arms now, the bundles of tendrils and the uncanny fifth arm having retracted into its body. The bull head snorted, and it said ‘I no longer remember what I once was.’

It reached out with an iridescent hand and plucked the memory stick from Carl’s neck, holding it up for those rows of inhuman eyes to examine.

‘So small,’ it said. ‘And so terrible.’ It opened its mouth and a long, thick red tongue lashed out, encircling the device. The organ retracted with a snap, and the memory stick was gone.

‘But now we’re making something new,’ the monster continued. Fleshy eyelids grew and blinked over its eyes in sequence. It turned its attention back to the motionless author.

Already sensing that something was coming, Carl responded to the prompt. ‘What… are you making?’

‘First soul of the new choir,’ said the demon, and reached out its hands. Its arms telescoped as they reached out across the now impossibly long study, and Carl watched helplessly as they came for him.

A lack of control returned to him, and he screamed once more. The noise was sharp, piercing, and quickly cut off.

[‘The Old Choir’, Shaun Green, 2008. Image from Sanskritweb.net.]

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