The Last of His Kind

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING

This is another citation that, with some work, can be directly sourced. Photious provides a catalogue of books, including the following entry under Damascius:

Read a work by Damascius in four books, the first of which, in 352 chapters, is entitled, On Incredible Events; the second, in 52 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Demons; the third, in 63 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Souls that have appeared after Death; the fourth, in 105 chapters, On Incredible Natures. They all contain impossible, incredible, and clumsily invented tales of wonderful things, foolish and worthy of the impious and godless Damascius, who, while the light of the true religion spread over the world, remained steeped in the thick darkness of idolatry. The style is concise, clear, and agreeable, which is not usually the case in such stories.

This is the only information I could find on these texts—although I’m amused at the fact that genre fiction was listed as a writing reference even a millennia past. So instead, I turned to Damascius’s own writings. Looking over Wikipedia, there were a few routes to pursue. Damascius himself was a Neo-Platonic writer—and one who was “irreligious”, neither mystic nor paying head to holy texts. His summation of God then was as an infinite and indivisible being—and thus an incomprehensible one. The traits we attribute to the divine are only made by inferences from its actions, not from understanding its true nature.

Damascius’s life highlights a few other interesting facets. He was the last head of the School of Athens, before being fleeing to Persia to escape persecution by Justinian the First. He spent a year in Persia before returning as part of a peace treaty between the two emperors of the known world. Much of his work is lost, of course, and while he taught students, he did not found a school outside of Athens. His commentaries on Plato seem to deal with, from the excerpts linked on Wikipedia, the inherent immortality of the soul as a source of light—comparable to how fire is a source of heat in Platonic thought.

He also briefly met with a politician, named Severianus of Damascus. This man is mostly know through Damascius, and lead his own varied life in politics—as a governor, a strict and draconian one at that, then returning to Athens. Emperor Zeno offered him a high post on the condition he convert. Instead, he helped a pagan  murder plot on the Emperor, which failed.

Pseudo-Dionysius

This alone is enough for a cosmic horror story—but I wanted to go a bit further. Wikipedia notes that one researcher has suggested Damascius is the author of a collection of works called the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. This collection of works has import to the history of the church that drew my attention for further investigation with this quote from Wikipedia:

“All names and theological representations must be negated. According to pseudo-Dionysius, when all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow.”

Creation and definition by lack—the void itself as divine, empty of anything but silence, ignorance, and darkness was a striking image counter to popular descriptions of the divine as a light from heaven, a source of revelation, and heavenly choirs. Reading through his descriptions of the Celestial Hierarchies, we see that this isn’t precisely the case. Angelic minds have something of a knowledge of God—and they in turn seeking deifying knowledge, so they may better imitate God’s nature.

He describes these hierarchies as dancing around the center throne of god, in a way that reminds of me the image of Azathoth around whom elder gods and musicians dance. He goes on to note that the comparison of angels to flame is due to the presence of flame in all things, moving between all things easily, hidden for most of it’s existence—here we must note that there is flame and there is fire, and that flame appears to mean the elemental flame that might erupt from any moment. Heat might be a better, more modern term for the sensation and energy he describes.

He enumerates natures of various implements, and their symbolic meaning—angels have human heads to indicate they are thinking, they where geometric garbs to show both wisdom and the foundations of creation, they wield weapons to divide, they hold scepters to unite. Each of these are key symbols in the perception of the divine.

So we have the last of a pagan school of philosophy, discussing either an incomprehensible god or, if we grant the Dionysian corpus, a god that is defined not by the heraldry of angels but instead the darkness of night. And one who’s interest lied, at one point, in the Platonic theory of the immortal soul that goes through cycles of reincarnation. This covers, I think, the appearances of the dead, but what of the notion of demons?

A daimon of good fortune in the shape of a snake.

Demons in this context perhaps better refers to the Greek daimon, which acted as an intermediary between gods and men. The meaning of this term of course changed with time, but it was generally understood that they were not divine exactly—nor were they visible. Demons were thus forces at play, invisible intermediaries and divine presences. In some works, the constructions of shrines were done so that they would not wander far—and they would keep their blessings nearby. Other cases posit them as the souls of dead men from the Golden Age, now guiding humanity—a characterization that resembles, in part, the fate of the Nephilim in some rabbinic texts—and thus positive. In royal cults, whether Alexander the Great or Augusutus, it was this daimon, this numen, this divine nature or spirit that was revered as opposed to the specific person (although the distinction blurred often).

The change into demons as we understand came from translation of the Septugaint from Hebrew to Greek—and thus changing the word shedim to daimon. This connected the name with wicked spirits, and this in turn lead to the quite literal demonization of such beings. Still, in some texts we see that the idea wasn’t entirely new. In Pythagoren works, they prove capable of infecting others with dieseases and misfortune, while the Platonic ideals gave them a moral character—that some were allotters of wicked fortunes, others good fortunes.

The stories of Damascius then would draw on a tradition of invisible spirits, allotters of fortunes, both wicked and wonderful. Or perhaps of a lost age of heroic peoples, now wandering the world at the will of Zeus. Either way, of beings invisible and ancient—although, unlike Mr. Lovecraft, not altogether malevolent. Indeed, one suggestion for daimon’s popularity in Plato is to bridge the gap between the unintelligible Divine Forms and stars, and mortal person experience with divine. So, what do we do with this?

Well there are a few routes I think. One is to center on the lost works themselves—in the same way that art in Lovecraft is often a window into secret knowledge with the paintings of Pickman and the play the King in Yellow, so too could these lost works be gates to powerful and forbidden knowledge of some dangerous sort. Of course, dangerous knowledge itself is…not a trope that I am exactly fond of. It needs more elucidation.

Another path is to take up the idea of invisible spirits that act as messengers for an incomprehensible being—servants and whisperers of the universe. They might bring messages to our character, stir up fortune or misfortune, acting like a living curse or blessing for those that disturb their shrine or home. The fact that some daimons remained at shrines as a sort of home leads me to consider the destruction of such an ancient place, unleashing an angry and powerful invisible spirit. Not one that is mortal, or mortal as we understand it, but from some bygone time out of time.

Knowledge of such things then might become the cure. A man hunted by a spirit forgotten by all must seek out these lost works, to learn how such a thing can be appeased or dispelled even as it harrows and haunts him. That I think gives us a better grip for how to use the knowledge angle of this prompt then the cursed knowledge.

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Bird of Old Feather

This Week’s Prompt: 120. Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.

The Prior Research:Birds of Pray

I admit, I was surprised when Uncle Ronald died. He was old, sure—I wasn’t exactly sure how old until he passed. He’d joke he’d been forty for fifty years. I mean, he didn’t  look older than forty but age is a strange thing? And now he was dead.

I wasn’t surprised what he’d left me, though. I’d always liked Becky. She was some sort of…parrot, with really long tail feathers. Uncle Ronald kept her in a big, fancy cage—took up a whole wall. She was probably as old as him, maybe older. Her feathers faded in color, and many were long gone. Still, there was something noble about her. I’d taken care of her a few times, when my uncle had business elsewhere. I’d learned to love her song, even when I was young.

Of course, my house was…humbler than Uncle Ronald’s. But I managed to make enough room for her in the yard. I wasn’t worried about her flying off—after all, there were hardly any feathers on her wings. The real trick, honestly, was finding out what she ate. The vet I called to look her over—after confirming she’d been in bad health a while, probably because at the end Uncle Ronald couldn’t feed her—she suggested that Becky would like insects, and probably fruits.

She didn’t sing much those first few days, even as she ate the seed and fruit and insect mix—dried at first, because she certainly lacked the energy to chase them down. I’d spend time with her, taking time off from driving around to talk to her at home. She’d squawk and sometimes I thought she smiled.

I wonder, can even an old bird go senile?

It was a week before the first shimmering feather returned. It was bright red, with streaks of orange, sprouting like a tongue of fire among ashes. I remember, because that was the first day she sang again, whistling a tune through the yard.

“…Is that Wonderwall?” Jenna asked, frowning as the sharp whistles came through. I paused and frowned.

“What kind of bird sings Wonderwall?” She laughed. Looking out the window—yeah, there was the bird. Singing along happily, a single tuft of bright red feathers on her head like a crown. She hopped to the top edge of the cage, her head and body swaying as she sang. She even flared out her wings, tattered and broken as they were.

“Apparently old ones.” I said with a smile, going back to the coffee boiling.

*

Becky’s taste in music did get more refined, as she got more feathers. Bit by bit she recovered, and would sing musicals in her chirpy voice, humming tunes in the morning. She sometimes even gave…unsolicitited advice.

“Too much salt! Too much salt!” she squawked, more than once, when steam came out of the kitchen window.

“Plants need more, yes, plants need more!” She said, hoping along in her cage as I took my morning walk.

“No good, no good!” she helpfully chimed in, when I tried on a new jacket.  An old bird, she had many many opinions. Some were a bit old fashioned I think—at least one bit of advice was in old German and I think was about the proper application of a codpiece or something. For a bird such as her, having a memory that went so far back was…well, a little comforting. Someone remembered all that.

And while I did not appreciate her thoughts on my new car—“Too loud! Too loud!”—some of her advice was useful. She was right about the salt, and even started listing off a recipe or two when I was writing groceries. Not a recipe I could understand, but I kept a little notepad of what she’d said in case I ever ‘cracked’ it.

Which…well, okay, I didn’t. I was chatting with my neighbor, Miss Kovac—I’m sure I spelled that wrong—and while we were talking about the weather and her flower garden, Becky chimed up with another recipe. And there was this light in Miss Kovac’s eyes, just this pure delight for a moment.

“Oh, who said that?” She said, shocked and looking around. When I told her it was the bird, she demanded to see Becky. She told me, as she looked at Becky’s marvelous red-orange plumes—which were still punctuated by dead black and grey feathers then—that she knew that recipe. Her grandmother, when she made sweets, had used that recipe. She was sure of it. She thought it had been lost when her mother and her left for the States, but she was sure that Becky had remembered it.

The sweets were delicious.  Really all her recipes, once got them…as down as we could were delicious. Some of them were in German, some in Latin, some in Old Russian. But she gave good cooking advice, old Becky did. And she sang songs—I know a few where church hymns, and others were school yard rhymes. She must have had a number of owners, to move so easily between children school yard songs.

It was a bit…disconcerting sometimes, my lovely bird. She sang in different voices—all filtered through her squawk. But you could here the rhythm of dozens of voices. You could tell the pitches. And even during the middle of the day, hearing an angry dispute in another language, the sing song of distant long dead children, or the humming tune of a church choir from your backyard—often suddenly, and without warning—was pretty creepy. I didn’t try and think of how old that must have made Becky—or how many owners she must have had, how far she had traveled.

Sometimes she would say…strange things. Usually once a month, she’d stop singing and dancing and sort of just stare on the horizon.  She’d say numbers or words, in a flat voice. Sometimes she’d swear at the moon, perching up on a tree, spreading her red-orange wings and clawing up at it.

Sometimes she would lean very close to the edge of the cage—raising both her wings up to hide her head, flaring out her long peacock like tale. And she’d say things quickly, in a quite voice. Conspiratorially.

Too many of these were in plain English.

“It will rain tonight. Leave out candles. Things live in the rain. Worms come out from the ground. Worse things come up for worms.”

She chirped this one for a big storm. I mean, it did rain—the weatherman had said that much. But what she meant by candles—that night the power went out. So I lit some candles…and let one outside, just in case. Why not, right? In this day and age, why not?

The house across the street, it had some sort of accident. A sinkhole or something, ate up most of the road and severed a lot of powerlines. Just barely missed mine. Which, I thought was conicdence but…there was a nagging thought I just couldn’t let go of.

*

One night, as I was washing dishes, she squawked up another suggestion. Place a jar of dirt outside, and bury it. Bury it with a spare key. I blinked at that. She then went back to singing American Idiot. Which, was almost a more unsettling experience, compared to that strange droning song she sang earlier or the odd chirps of advice.

I had a mason jar, and got some compost. Dropped a key in. I don’t know when exactly I started listening to Becky, but her recipes worked. And this was harmless. Who was going to go to my backyard to find a spare key anyway?

It took maybe thirty minutes to bury the thing. I went to bed after a warm shower.

The screech of tires woke me up. A glance at the clock. Three o’clock in the morning. I blinked and lazily, not entirely awake yet, pulled myself to the window. There was a car outside. Lights off—someone was standing at the edge of the yard.

He was pacing. There was crowbar in his hand. As I blinked awake, I saw him try and walk over the line, towards the house—but stop. Step back. He took a deep breath and stepped forward towards the house again and no, turned back. He did this for five minutes as I watched—and recorded it with my cellphone.

And then he went home.

The police said what you’d expect. No victim, no damages, no crime. Keep an eye on it, but they’ll deal with it later. I was still shaken up about. How had she known? Had she known? Twice was just conicdence after all.

She hoped to a branch close to my window. She sang a nice morning carol as I made an egg recipe she suggested a few weeks ago.  She was content, it seemed, to sing along and through the day. I began to relax, to hum along with her. Nothing else happened that day. I got to working on a new design for a client and sorting through more property for Uncle Ronald.

It wasn’t until sundown that she acted strange again. She got silent, staring at the setting sun—I wonder if she was hoping to catch a glimpse of that green flash people talk about. She didn’t blink, like she was daring the sun to pop it’s head back up before going to bed. And then she made some anxious squawks in my general direction.

She’d knocked her food thing over. It was one of those hanger things—I got a flash light, opened the cage to go and rehang it from the ceiling like I’d done a hundred times. And then she jumped on my shoulder.

That was startling but not new. I mean. She’s a parrot…thing. It was like being a pirate. She did it while cooked sometimes—although a bird chiding you like a disapproving parent was an uncomfortable experience for sure.

She watched as I put the thing back up, hooking it around the mesh ceiling. And then whispered in my ear, quick clicking and purring—or something like purring, like a tongue trying to roll its R’s in a low comforting way. She shook a little, the last of her ashen feathers, a small tail feather falling away.

Becky had a plan, smart bird. A plan that had to be hidden from the moon and sun—only on new moons could anything be done about it. What it was I wasn’t sure, and what exactly the plan did wasn’t clear. She needed me to find a rock she’d buried near my Uncle’s house—it was a special rock, one of those rocks made when a thunderbolt hits sand.

She needed seeds, from an old tree—a really old tree. She needed a jar, a clean but old jar with a silver lid. She needed string, twine, she need something made of metal. Things had to be measured. Dates consulted, she needed me to go to the library and find the dates. It would be slow. But she had time. And she needed it to work properly this time.


I knew this was going to be a strange story from the start, and drew some from an older story here https://undeadauthorsociety.com/2019/05/22/after-the-funeral/. You could consider this a spiritual successor.

The week delay was to put some finishing touches on it, but next weeks research has already begun! See you then!

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