A New World

by e rathke

From CHM #46 April 2024

Cosmic Horror Monthly, a collection of cosmic horror lovecraftian and weird fiction short stories april 2024

The man adjusted his filtered mask and wiped soot from his goggles with the back of his gloved hand. There, ahead, the mountains rising from the infant forest on through the always blackgrey clouds. The wind whipped the frayed ends of his scarf and his coat. He trudged over the hard ashy landscape of the wasteland, the wind a constant shriek, the weight of his backpack a persistent ache on his shoulders. He shrugged the load higher, rattling its contents.

His steps came heavy as he slowed and crouched to where the first green follicles rose through the cracks in the waste. He wheezed, throat raw, and wiped at his goggles. Slowly, he touched the blade of grass with his gloved finger. A gentle stroke, like the cheek of a newborn.

Through the day, the only sound was his filtered breathing, that gentle wheeze, and his heavy steps, gradually carrying him up the mountain slope. The thousand hues of green danced in the greylight of the clouded world.

His stomach nagged and his throat burned as the humidity rose higher and the day hotter. Coated in sweat, he loosened his scarf round his neck and unfastened his coat but kept them both on. Lightheaded from exertion and dehydration, he pushed himself towards the promise of clean water, clean air. His gaze scanned the mountain for food but found nothing. The only color was green. Green in shades and hues foreign to the noxious world of blacks and greys and flowing reds the man knew. And then the mountain itself. Greying rock splashed with greens rising through the clinging clouds.

The sound of flowing water was a klaxon in his ears pulling him forward. He found the river cascading through the rocks, snaking its way from the mountain top above the clouds. Water clear and cold and fast. Rummaging in his backpack, he pulled out a glass bottle with a straw. Rinsing it quickly but carefully, he filled it and snaked the straw through the mask and drank.

Weeping tearlessly, he drank bottle after bottle until he lifted his mask from his mouth and vomited. His skin became electric with panic. He replaced the mask and stared at the bottle of water. His lip quivered and tears blurred his vision.

He muttered curses, then filled the bottle again, and drank.

* * *

The canopy of clouds rolled within arm’s reach. Only a mile above the wasteland, he pushed into the clouds. Blinded, he crouched and crawled up the mountain through the writhing grey surrounding him. Eventually he broke through to a sky of blue and a plateau of green and the sun blurred by tears.

* * *

Higher up the mountain, he came to a shallow valley of green bisected by the river. It flowed wide and strong. The valley’s grass was thick and green and soft, as if never tread on before. Treeless and hot, he ran through the field shouting for no one to hear. The mask muffled his voice, but he shouted anyway. He shouted his name and the name of the city he came from, the one he ran from. He shouted the names of his daughter and lover and where he burned their bodies, where he promised them to live.

Throwing himself into the grass by the riverbank, he rolled over and stared at the sky through the grimed lenses of his goggles. Empty and blue and bright and hot. He sat and dug through his backpack, pulling out a collapsible fishing rod. From his back he pulled a wire and a hook, which he weaved through the rod.

The man sat at the riverbank and let the hook float in the water while he stared out at the mountains circling him, at the sun shining.

The back of his neck tingled, as if spiders crawled along the skin. He swatted a gloved hand and then turned. A tree nine feet high and two wide stood ten feet away from him. His forehead knit and he coughed. He yanked his hook out of the water and stood, the rod in his right hand. His gaze darted from the tree to the mountains to the treeless valley around him and then landed hard on the tree. A face grew from its bark.

His eyes opened wide and he stepped back to the riverbank, his left hand grabbing the machete at his hip, trembling.

The face did not grow. The tree transformed before him. First the face, pale and delicate with tiny sharp teeth. The boughs of the tree folded down and became arms while the face stretched from a neck instead of bark. Then breasts formed and its body took the shape of a woman, naked and pale and nine feet tall. Hairless and without nipples or a navel, it reached a hand towards the man.

He recoiled and the hand stopped where it was. Its palm facing the man, its fingers spread wide. Its face smiled and its eyes kaleidoscoped through autumnal colors. Its middle finger unfurled and blossomed. Violet petals bloomed and green tendrils flowed from it.

“What—?” The man’s voice burst from him, distorted and muffled by the filtered mask.

He dropped the fishing rod and gripped the machete with both hands. “Get the hell back.”

Each of its fingers flowered in different colors and the face kept smiling.

The man shook his head and swung the machete at it, “Get—”

It pulled back its flowering hand while a green tendril darted at the man from his blindspot and stabbed him through his hood and goggles, into his left temple, sending him to the ground, writhing. He screamed and screamed, clutching at his head.

Something lodged behind his left eye, bubbling inside his skull. He ripped off his goggles, clenching his eyes shut from pain and fear of the ruined air. Like an icepick behind his eye and an immense pressure. He smashed his head into the ground and his gloves were wet with blood as he clawed at what could not be touched.

It writhed within his head and moved. It slithered between his eyes and stopped on his sinuses. Then hooks dug into his bones and through each sinus cavity, releasing pressure and filling it with a sickly sweet scent. Pungently fecund.

The man screamed. He screamed until a tendril landed softly on his bare forehead, like the kiss of a newborn, and then there was a hot pressure and only blackness.

* * *

He woke as if drugged. His naked body slow to respond and his vision blurred, he rolled over to a face. Almost human in appearance but for its eyes wavering between shades of green and yellow and red. The man blinked away the haze and jolted to a sitting position, kicking away from it. His chest buzzed as if full of flies and every breath was shallow but tasted of life and the liquid flux of memories of love with his lover and child while spiders ate his skin from the inside. The man shook his head and screamed for help.

And then a calm, like waves washing against him, brought with each lungful of scented air. The smell of roses on childhood summers, newly cut grass, and the cold clear air of autumns so long ago. His breathing began to even and his heart slowed, his pupils dilated. The face stared at him, smiling with closed lips, its hand extended and blooming. No longer the shape of a woman, its body was covered in vegetation that danced as if independent from its body.

“Where are my clothes? It’s not safe—the air—” The man’s voice was calm, and his body felt only relief but his head rushed with panicked thoughts, with visions of the death and decay of the world. But every smell was sweet and full of life.

A tendril landed on the man’s foot and the calming came deeper. His body dissolved as if falling into a vast chasm, as if sinking into an ocean of nothing. He breathed in through his nose and tasted growth. Tasted spring. The blossoming of the world. The man closed his eyes and floated amniotically on a slow stream of memories. Memories of flowers blooming, of sending their pollen into the world. Memories of his lover’s hand. The nights they held one another alone through the darkness, through the dying.

He opened his eyes and stared hard at the face trying to fill his voice with absent emotions, “Stop it. Please.”

Its smiling face came near to his. It parted its lips and blew into his mouth. The man sucked in the air while pulling his face away. His lips formed the word No but the sound never came.

The man saw. He saw the poison in the sky, in the waters of the world. He saw the world writhing to heal itself. He saw fungi the size of mountains, the size of oceans crowding out cities and continents. He saw a flower budding from the mountainous fungi. It grew and kept growing and it bloomed and kept blooming until it lifted its roots from the earth and wandered away, leaving a trail of newly blossomed flowers in its wake. He saw it care for the growth it birthed.

He returned to his aching body. Wracked by starvation and dehydration, he wept tearlessly, mouthing the word No over and over.

* * *

The man woke with tendrils clinging to his skin in a dozen places. The musk of sex heavy in the air. Humid and thick, the air tasted of pollen and his lover’s skin. Opening his eyes, its face was there before him, watching him always, hungrily. It brought a hand to his face and laid its palm on his cheek.

The man mouthed words through tears while his penis hardened.

It smiled still. The air thick with its scent. Fecund and sweet. It pressed its forehead against his and he exhaled, pleasure shuddering through his body. It pulled the man on top of it and opened itself for him. The man dug his fingers into its mossy flesh, and he thrust deeper and deeper. A thousand tendrils caressed his back, holding him. He gasped and pressed his cheek against its soft verdant body, emptying himself into it. Opening his eyes and raising his face, he stared into its smiling almost human face.

It wiped the tears from his eyes with its hands and its tendrils brushed tenderly against his skin in a hundred places.

The man smiled and shook his head, “Sorry.”

* * *

The man walked naked in the sunshine ahead of it. His skeletal body touched by patches of green drinking in the light, tasting photons, his hair puffing out from his head in tight curls like a black halo. One of its tendrils was in his hand while another lay gently on the back of his neck. The man turned back to it smiling, “This is all because of you.”

With every step, it left behind new bloom. Its large body shaped humanly but covered in leaves and moss that fluttered to no wind.

“I smell you,” the man said. “I get it now, what that is. What you did to me.” He tapped his temple.

It smiled back at him.

“I don’t even feel hungry anymore. Is that—is it something you did?”

Its eyes flowered red and it blew towards the man. The scents filled him with life. Green gushing life. Life like a river of vegetation. Like a cell, endlessly replicating, competing, and evolving.

The man laughed and pulled on the tendril in his hand. It came towards him with arms stretched to envelope his tiny body. The man smiled and jumped into its arms, pressing his face into its body, which folded around him. Finding his feet in the grass, he pulled it down with him, and rolled on top of it. He entered it greedily and kissed its flowering eyes, its blossoming torso. The air thick with pollen.

* * *

When it woke him in the night the only smell and taste was the moon. The man touched the face of his mate and a tendril wrapped round his hand and wove between his fingers. A dozen more tendrils caressed his back and gently brought him closer. He smiled and inched towards its pale human face. When his chest met the leaves of its body, it breathed into his lungs and it tasted like life, like the day his daughter was born. Tears filled his eyes when it plunged a root into him. He gasped but felt no pain, and then his body convulsed in pleasure and he came.

It backed away from the man and a weight pulled on his chest.

“What—” his voice soft as he looked down to see the faint green pulsating sack growing from his chest. The sack’s root wove through his chest, leeching into his lungs and arteries.

His eyes underwater and a smile stretching his cheeks, “Our child?”

Green was the only smell and a thousand tendrils covered the man, stirring him to climax once more.

* * *

For months they wandered together caring for the green above the clouds. He told it of his family, and it gave him the memories of the earth and all the dreams of the future. Every day the man tasted a new memory, inhaled a new scent, and every day his child grew from his chest, from the sunlight and the rain.

Every moment became new. Every raindrop had a voice. Every blade of grass carried a song only heard when the wind touched upon them. When he swam in the river, he tasted every ocean of the dead world and all the oceans that would be this new one. And he would be its father. He smiled as he stroked the green sack that housed his child.

The man was never without his mate’s verdant touch or scent. A tendril always on his neck and a dozen more places. It no longer remained in a human form but oscillated between a dozen different body shapes. As a giant leafy deer, the man had ridden it through the mountain ranges. As a bird, it had carried him through the skies. The man came to prefer it as a mossy and fungal beast. Standing behind it, he came into its body a thousand times, in a thousand variations, its tendrils giving him the pleasure of a thousand hands.

He found that he did not need to eat or even drink. His body lived as if from its touch alone. And he grew. His body thickened with muscle and fat, regaining all that was lost in his hard life and long journey.

After a year, it laid him down.

“Is it time?”

Its human face bloomed through the mossy mound of its body and it smiled. Several tendrils grasped him and the sack and pulled it open. Covered in a viscous green, it unfolded its translucent wings. The tendrils lifted it from the man’s chest and the sack fell wetly to the earth, leaving a flowering green at the center of his chest. In its hands was a tiny body convulsing in varying shapes. With a shriek the little beak curled back into human lips and the child’s human face formed as it blinked at the man.

The man wept and covered his mouth with his hand, “She’s beautiful.” He took the child’s volatile body in his arms and it mimicked his shape. The child’s skin was wet and sticky, and clung to him with human fingers and tendrils grasped at his face.

The man looked at his mate with a quivering smile, “Thank you.”

It smiled and pulled him close. When their chests met, it plunged another green sack into the man’s chest.

The man kissed his mate and it wrapped its arms around the man and the child, its tendrils connecting to both of them.

When the earth rolled away from the sun and the halfmoon shined bright in the sky, the child took flight while its parents made love again and again in the valley between the mountains above the clouds.

End.

e rathke writes about books and games at radicaledward.substack.com. A finalist for the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award and recipient of the Diverse Worlds Grant, he is the author of Glossolalia, Howl, and the space opera series The Shattered Stars. His short fiction appears in Queer Tales of Monumental Invention, Mysterion Magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, and elsewhere.

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