The Hounds of Fate gusted southerly. Down from the equator, towards the Tropic of Capricorn, they hunted and scavenged. They kissed exposed shorelines, and devoured small islands with warm, pleasant breath. Once they reached the tropic, one of two things would happen: either they would transform themselves, and become something different as they passed into temperate regions; or they would turn back, and blow themselves northward again. At least, this is what had been believed about them at one time. Not by everybody, only by the culture of tropical seafarers that had named those winds. These days, most people tended to think of them in terms of ‘systems’, rather than as a pack of scavenging dogs. Which is a deep shame, because a system has much less poetry in it than a hound, and Daisy Wheelwright had a secret love of the poetic.
“Did you know, that the people who lived on this island called these winds ‘The Hounds of Fate’?” Daisy took a sip of the deeply alcoholic fruit-drink she was holding, tightened the strap that held her sunglasses on her naked skull, and repositioned her skeletal frame on the beach recliner. “Lovely name for a wind, or winds, don’t you think?”
“When I was alive,” replied the ghost Haldrick from a neighboring recliner, “we had a wind we called Satan’s Needles. There was nothing at all lovely about that wind, I can tell you.”
“No,” agreed Daisy, “I suppose there wasn’t. The name sort of gives it away. Still, Hounds of Fate is rather nice.” She took another sip from her drink, and gazed out over the sea of people that heaved about on the beach in front of her. Behind the people was the actual sea, which gently undulated in pacific off-turquoise. “Incredible poetry in that culture of seafarers.”
“Whose island is it now, then?”
“You said that people ‘lived’ here, past tense. Whose island is it now?”
“You own this island?”
“Oh yes. All of it; most of the archipelago it’s part of, too. I have the title deeds somewhere back at my cottage.”
Haldrick was incredulous. “I didn’t think you could buy islands any more, just sort of, you know, lease them. How did you manage that?”
Daisy shifted uncomfortably. “There are ways,” she said evasively. “I know people that can manage that sort of thing. Anyway, it’s not like anyone else wanted it, nor any of the others I acquired in the group, for that matter.”
“What about the people that were living here?”
“That culture of poetic seafarers you were talking about, why did they stop living here?”
“They couldn’t use it anymore, on account of what happened to them.”
“And what happened to them?”
“They were all mercilessly slaughtered.”
“But that’s horrible. Who would do such a thing?”
Daisy gave Haldrick an inquizitive look. “Where did you say you came from again? I mean, when you were alive, what did they call your country?”
Haldrick told her.
“Well, and I regret to say this, but it was probably some of your descendants, or distant relatives. Nasty brutes they were, too. Cruel in ways that even I find difficult to fathom. Which is really saying something, since as the current Death, I’ve seen – and heard about – a lot of really horrible shit. Anyway, after all the slaughter no one wanted to come near the place, so I managed to acquire it, along with other equally unfortunate adjacent properties. Naturally, I had to clear out all the ghosts left behind first, though. They were quite talkative, as it happens. Very keen that someone should know about their culture before they crossed over.” Daisy paused, thoughtfully. “You know, it’s possible that I was one of the world’s very first South Sea ethnographers.”
Daisy quite liked the sound of that. Daisy Wheelwright: Woman, Death, and the world’s first South Sea ethnographer. She wondered what Stag Hartford would say about it. Something really churlish, most likely. She’d tell him anyway, just to get a reaction. He was always going on about how he was the world’s first Spirit Animal, and the origin for all forms of religious expression. It got very boring. Even more irksome was the hypocrisy of it. For while he always claimed he’d been tricked into the job, and really hadn’t wanted it, he still seemed quite proud about it nonetheless. Yes, whenever Stag got back, from wherever he was, she’d find a way to make herself sound annoyingly more impressive than him based on this new ‘ethnographer’ revelation. Daisy wondered, again, where Stag had taken himself off to. She’d expected him back, grumpy as ever, well before now.
Daisy gulped down the last of her drink, refilled it, skulled back half of the refill, then topped the drink up again. She gazed once more at the seething mass of humanity on the beach. Some were playing with beach balls. Others were engaging in unhealthy habits that involved letting the tropical sun cook them; not that they needed to worry about being cooked by a star now. Some were swimming. One group was playing beach cricket… badly. She supposed that cricket was a difficult game to get a handle on, so that was understandable. “There’s a certain irony in all of this, don’t you agree Hal?”
“I don’t know,” Haldrick replied, “I’ve never really been able to understand what irony is. Everytime I think I’ve got it, it turns out what I thought was irony, was really sarcasm. Where do you think the irony is here, then?”
“I see your point.” Perhaps, Daisy reflected, it wasn’t a true irony, but something close to it. “Maybe it would be better to describe it as a dark symmetry.”
“I prefer that to dark sarcasm. Always hated the word sarcasm. It’s like ‘blog’. Both are desperately ugly words. Would have been nice if the people who had invented them had thought them through a bit more.”
“Yes, well, they didn’t…. But back to this dark symmetry thing, or irony, or whatever. It’s just that it feels tragically weird that I had to go about clearing all the indigenous ghosts out, only to end up repopulating the place with all manner of foreign ghosts, some of whose ancestors are probably responsible for the massacre that produced the original indigenous ghost population in the first place.”
“Still no luck then?”
“No. I’m afraid not.” Daisy looked at Haldrick with compassion. There was neither irony or sarcasm in that look, it was the look of a skeleton that felt true empathy. “I am sorry Hal. I’ll keep trying, really.”
“I suppose it can’t be helped.” Haldricked sighed, and looked at the beach-goers playing happily just beyond his recliner. “Do they know?”
“What? That they’re ghosts? Of course.”
“No, not that. Do they know that they can’t cross over and become fully dead?”
And therein lay the well-spring of Daisy’s compassion for Haldrick: he was unable to cross over to wherever it is that people go once they become properly dead. Not just Haldrick, all ghosts were now stuck this side of the border. This had put Daisy at somewhat of a loss as to what to do about it. She could no longer do her job, despite having done it perfectly well for the centuries that she’d been Death, just as all the Deaths before her had performed their duties to various degrees of competence. But the system no longer worked, which had been a recent and unwelcome discovery.
After the ceremony that had revealed to them that Mamma Universe was now simultaneously dead and extinct, Daisy, Stag, and Haldrick had engaged in lengthy discussions on how they should proceed. The only one of their number that hadn’t seemed very concerned, was the ghost Finley Jansen Guidersand. He hadn’t even been bothered to join the discussions about what to do next. But then, he was notoriously self involved, and so probably thought that Mamma Universe’s extinction reflected on his general awesomeness. Not that Finley’s participation would have changed the outcome of those conversations.
In the end, it was decided by the three of them that cared, that they could do exactly fuck all about Mamma Universe’s death. Nor would they be able to solve the problem she had gathered them for. Well, gathered Finley, Stag, and Haldrick for; Daisy had just sort of invited herself along. This being the case, Daisy had asked the two ghosts if they’d like her to cross them over to the other side. Finley had been “awesome, thanks,” and believed that the world still needed him in it. In his opinion, he should probably just hang around for the benefit of the planet. Haldrick had felt differently.
It made sense that Haldrick would prefer Daisy to take him on that “last, great journey.” He had been dead and ghostly even longer than Daisy herself. This, coupled with the knowledge that his soul was rotting, had made him highly motivated to move on. Only, when Daisy took him to the nearest ‘place-of-departure’, he couldn’t. Perhaps, thought Daisy, it was a glitch. So she tried moving other souls on, but they couldn’t, either.
There were two consequences to this sudden, and lingering, glitch. First, Haldrick had become more than a little depressed. To solve this, Daisy had taken them all to one of her tropical islands. This had helped a bit. Finley had been especially pleased with himself about this.
The second consequence was harder to deal with, since it meant that ghosts, unable to cross over, would start to overrun the living at some point. In the absence of being able to cross them over, Daisy would have to put them somewhere. She solved that problem in the same way she’d dealt with Haldrick’s: she took them to one of her tropical islands. Again, Finley seemed very pleased with himself about this.
“No,” Daisy admitted, “they don’t know about their inability to become fully dead. It didn’t seem a responsible thing to tell them, given how unhappy that knowledge has made you.”
“So where,” Haldrick asked, “do they think they are?”
“The afterlife. I mean, the proper one.”
“It’s the best I can think of,” said Daisy, defensively. “Look, I have plans to make it better: luxury hotels, shops, music venues, and so on. I’ll recruit those members of the living capable of seeing the dead to work as hospitality. It’ll be wonderful.”
Haldrick grunted, sadly. “I’m sure it will, and I know you’re doing your best. Finley will no doubt think he’s amazing because of it, anyway.”
“You can always count on Finley for that,” Daisy agreed.
“Why do you think Mamma Universe recruited him?”
“Who? Finley? I don’t know, same reason she recruited you, I expect.”
“No, she only recruited me because I happened to be there at the time. She’d come specifically for Finley, and I don’t know why. He’s likable enough, in his way, but is kind of useless.”
“Did you ever ask her about it? You know, why she came for Finley?”
“All she said was that she found him interesting. But it can’t just be that, and I’m inclined to agree with Stag about Mamma Universe being a bit of tricky bitch. She must have had a reason beyond that.”
“Probably. She was quite sneaky.”
“And there’s something else….”
“It’s only… I don’t know.” Haldrick’s face creased into concentration, he couldn’t quite get a handle on what he wanted to say, but there was something; something a little off. “How old do you think he was when he died?”
“Finley? I don’t know exactly, maybe in his seventies.”
“Yes. That’s what I thought too. But have you noticed that he looks about thirty-five now?”
Daisy hadn’t noticed, but now that Haldrick mentioned it, Finley had seemed like he was getting progressively younger over the last few weeks. She tried to find him amongst the other ghosts on the beach, just to confirm Haldrick’s suspicions. “Hal?”
“Where is Finley?”
“On the beach, telling all the other ghosts how all the good things in their lives were because of him, I imagine.”
“No,” Daisy’s voice was uneasy, “he’s not.”
“Of course he is, look he’s over… ummm? Oh.”
* * *
On a dead world the figure of a man stood silhouetted against sulfurous yellow-ochre skies. He knew this place, had been here before, although it had not been dead then.
“Well,” the dead world replied, “you haven’t asked a question. We can’t say anything until you ask a proper question. It’s the rules.”
“Yes, I know,” the man’s voice betrayed impatience, “I had a hand in making those rules. But since you insist: Did Mamma Universe come to this world, prior to her extinction?”
“Yes, she was here, just as you’d planned.”
Excellent, thought the man, this is going very well.
The dead world fell silent. An uncomfortable, fear-filled silence, that spoke terror without words.
“Whatever is the matter, Dead World? You seem in some discomfort.”
“It’s just that… well, and please don’t be offended, only we’re terribly surprised to see you.”
The man’s face flicked a mischievous simile. “I agree,” said Finley Jansen Guildersand, “I am a terrible surprise.”
END OF PART TWELVE