by Joshua L. Hamilton
The Keeper scuttled happily about the Garden, crooning softly to himself as he tended his charges. He was excited this day, and there was a certain eagerness about him, a spring in his heavy step as he went about his routine duties. He had been watching the Above for weeks now, keeping an almost ceaseless vigil by the Pool, and he knew that the time was nearly upon him. He would complete his collection today, and in a little while, just a few short centuries, he could die, when the Cycle was renewed once again.
After so many eons, he was looking forward to that.
Ancient beyond recall he was, older by far than the earliest ancestor of the eldest beast that now roamed the Above. There was not a creature alive, nor had there been for billions of years, that could say where he had come from. He had long since forgotten it himself. He was not from this Cycle, that much was certain. Nothing of this Cycle could ever have possessed his peculiar physicality.
He had a large number of arms, varying widely in size and purpose. It would be difficult to say exactly how many, for they were always in motion; spinning and whirling in eye-twisting convolutions. Some he walked on; large, heavy appendages that ended in smooth, flat stumps. Others, smaller and more dexterous, put food and water in his mouth, or tended the beasts, or watered and pruned the lush growth all around him. The rest, for the most part, were an extension of his senses. They reached out in all directions, dipping into the soil, waving in the air, or swishing through the water; tasting, testing, and interpreting the environment around him.
The body that anchored them all was unremarkable for one of the Keeper's kind -- which meant it was now unique. It was squat and rounded, low to the ground, and almost completely obscured by the plethora of appendages, giving him the appearance of being all limbs. From the center of this tangle sprouted an enormous head atop a long, wiry neck. Two pale violet, rheumy eyes peered out beneath the square, heavy brow, partly obscured by an unruly tangle of thin, wispy white hair.
The whole of him was gaunt and frail with great age, and his yellowish skin was leathery and wrinkled, hanging in sad folds from his brittle bones. He looked, in fact, as though he should have gone to dust long ago; but he had looked thus for several billion years, and appearances are always deceiving. His mind, though, was another matter entirely. There was nothing decrepit about it. It was not senile, nor worn out by time, nor even simply fuddled by age and too many memories. It was subtle and potent, that mind, as sharp and agile as it had ever been, ticking along like precision clockwork.
But it was cracked.
He spent much of his time wandering in a lonely half-dream, filled with a terrible, gnawing pain he could not put a name to, and he often had difficulty separating the reality around him from a dark wasteland; a barren, twisted landscape dredged up from the fathomless depths of his own forgotten past. The Garden he tended was his life, his charge, and his joy -- yet more often than not it became a nightmare world, filled with shadows and demons and terrifying visions, echoing with horror and half-remembered screams.
Just now, however, it delighted him. He grinned and nodded foolishly, flitting from task to task, reveling in the paradise all around him. And it was a paradise indeed.
The soaring, crystal dome of the roof was fired a flawless azure by streamers of sunlight that filtered down by unknown routes from the Above. It multiplied that light a hundredfold, bathing the vast, lush expanse of the Garden in a warm and loving glow. Innumerable plants took their nourishment from it, turning their leaves to the light and opening pods and flower buds in a soundless explosion of beauty. Towering broadleafs shaded cool green ferns, then melted gradually into rippling, flower-studded meadows, which in their turn ran to the edges of a tropical rainforest, its depths mysterious and darkly beautiful.
Here and there the little stream could be seen; perhaps as it tumbled over a cliff to go cascading into a pond half hidden by strange, soaring palms, or else as it burbled cheerfully down salmon-stepped rocks in a field of tall, swaying grain. Here and there a pair of eyes would appear, between the branches in a dense copse of fir, or in a crack in the face of a smooth slab of gleaming, wind-polished marble; mute evidence of the life that flourished here.
Birds and beasts of all sizes and descriptions roamed freely about the Garden, basking in the glow of the Keeper's gentle care, and all were at peace. There were no predators or prey here. Existence was sacred, and to kill was unthinkable, even impossible. The Keeper saw to all their needs, fish and fawn and fowl alike, no matter how their numbers grew. It was no mean task, for the variety of creatures was astonishing; from the mighty thunder-lizards to the grand-tusked mammoths, from the loping Tasmanian wolf to the delicate Xerxes butterfly.
Now and then new charges would arrive, perhaps only once in a millennium, although newcomers seemed more and more frequent lately. The Keeper sighed and squinted up at the dome, bitten by sudden nostalgia. He would miss this place and its denizens, the fierce and the gentle alike. Soon, though, they would no longer need him, and it would be good to rest.
In a short time, he knew, the Renewal would begin, and his collection would be complete. Then he could set about his final task, that of preparing the flora and fauna of the Garden for the time when they would go forth to reclaim the world from which they had been cast. It was a sacred responsibility, he knew, and a very great honor, to be allowed to tend them. He smiled in gratitude.
Then his world shifted, and his smile vanished.
It hadn't always been so, had it? Fragments of confused memory came then, in short, painful bursts. He had not always felt honored. Oh, no. There had been a time when he had been angry. So terribly angry. The feelings were bereft of cause or reason, but he recalled bitterness, and resentment, and above all, a deep and abiding sense of... was it shame? Almost he had it -- just a brief flicker of understanding -- then it was gone again. The dark waters calmed, and the Garden blazed with light and glory once again.
Ah, well, he sighed, all that was in the past. Far, far away. So much time had erased that folly, until all that remained was his Purpose. He was the Keeper, blessed above all things, and his heart was full.
Still, there was something, something he could almost remember...
A sharp, piercing cry from the Gates startled him out his reverie, and he hurried off to greet the new arrivals. They were, as it turned out, a pair of eagles; great, majestic birds with heads crowned in white feathers. They were perched on one of the rose-quartz Gate-posts, the male protectively close to the female, gazing around with bright, fearful eyes at their unfamiliar surroundings. For an instant the Keeper felt a sharp, inexplicable sense of loss when he saw them -- but it passed as quickly as it came, leaving only a hollow place inside him.
"Welcome, my friends," he said, smiling kindly at the birds, "I've been expecting you."
He spoke to them reassuringly, rambling on about nothing in particular, until the measured, even sound of his voice coaxed them down to investigate. He fed them then, still talking, from a small sack of fish bred solely for this purpose -- one at a time, forcing them to take the scaly things from his hand. In this way he led them to the great mountain which dominated one corner of the Garden, where an aerie had been prepared for them, somewhat below the pterodactyls. They wheeled around it for a while, punctuating their flight with those same piercing cries, then swooped in to a landing, settling into the nest as if they had been there forever. The Keeper smiled and left them be.
So it was with all the creatures of the Garden. So it had been since the very beginning of time. They came always in pairs, and when they came their like would vanish from the Above. He would receive them, and tend them, and they would live and die as usual; but always there were two of each. Every creature that lived in the Above found its way here in time. Or so it seemed.
There was one, though, which always seemed to avoid this fate, though at times the Keeper wondered how. It was a strange beast; bipedal, featherless and almost furless, much smaller and weaker than many of the predators it shared the Above with. And yet, through a combination of intelligence, adaptability, and all too often brutal violence, it had managed to outlast most of the others, sometimes even pushing them aside to make room for itself. Although a relative newcomer, it had quickly risen to dominance, making even its most viscous predators wary.
The Keeper himself had always felt a strange affinity for this wayward species, and he had watched its progress with a certain fascination. Partly, of course, this was because it had added so many creatures to his collection, and such gifts never failed to warm his ancient soul. But it went deeper than that. He felt pity for them, too, an emotion that had only grown stronger since they had begun to spread and multiply, though he had never been able to fathom the source of this emotion. Often he wished he could help them, guide them -- but to what end or purpose he had no idea.
Now, suddenly, as he stood beside a bend in the stream -- fired red by the last rays of a distant sunset -- he felt his pity turn into a sense of fear and dreadful urgency. Then fear became, in the same instant, deep, primal terror. The very air around him seemed to turn in upon itself as the years began fall away, faster and faster, spinning backwards into eternity. The Garden around him shifted and changed, moving from one half-remembered scene to the next, until all was a blur of color and darkness.
The end was drawing very near.
The end? he wailed silently, denying it with all the passion in his soul. No, no, not the end. Of course not. Now why had he thought that? It was the Renewal, the great re-creation of a world. What was there to fear in that?
"Silly Keeper," he chided himself in a trembling voice, trying desperately to ignore the maniacal laughter echoing in his head, "Your wits are old and muddled." But of course they were not, and the terror would not leave him. Indeed, it grew steadily worse, until it held and controlled his thoughts. He went desperately about his final duties, preparing for the flood of creatures to come.
The shifting had stopped, but though the Garden though fixed once again, it was suspended in a sinister twilight. Every creature grew somehow monstrous, every tree and blade of grass became subtly horrible. The whole place seemed to be leering at him, crushing him under the weight of a terrible shame. Finally he was finished, and, shivering uncontrollably, he rushed to the Pool, the better to observe The End.
The Pool was a wholly remarkable thing, the very heart of the Garden. It was of surpassing beauty, bedecked with lilies and spangles of crystalline light, surrounded by wildflowers and tall, graceful willows. From it emerged the stream, fed by a little waterfall, which gave life to the Garden and every living thing within it. All of the Keeper's charges came there at intervals, to bathe and drink, but for the Keeper himself it had a very special purpose. There was a little inlet, tucked between two willows and almost invisible in their shade, which mirrored the Above. By using the Pool, the Keeper was able to keep track of the denizens of the Above; it allowed him to prepare for the ones who would be joining him soon.
The Pool had made him sad at times, and even angry on occasion, but this was the first time in his endless service that it had made him frightened. Never before, even in the depths of his most twisted imaginings, had he felt such abject and paralyzing terror. He was shaking so badly that he had trouble focusing his old eyes on the image. Nevertheless he seated himself on his accustomed rock and settled down to watch.
The image was at once small and impossibly vast, encompassing -- by some trick of science, or magic, or perhaps something else entirely -- all of the Above. It was quiet as yet, but his gaze was riveted to it, and all the long years of his servitude seemed to melt away from him, revealing, by degrees, the barren, bitter truth of his existence.
Gradually, the image in the water grew very still, and a tension crept into the peaceful air of the Garden. The Keeper shuddered as another wave of inexplicable horror washed through him. Then, as he watched, the scene changed.
Beasts of all shapes and sizes began stampeding wildly, desperately, seeking in vain to escape the inevitable. Plants, rooted cruelly to the spot, tried to shrink in on themselves, keening in vegetable terror. Men, always the last to understand the consequences of their actions, ran from their buildings and dashed into one another, their mouths stretched in soundless screams. Throughout the Above, chaos reigned supreme.
The Keeper, shivering alone on his cold rock, began to weep bitter tears for Mankind. Walls inside of him were coming down; memories came boiling up from the prison they had called home for billions of years.
No! he cried silently. Stop it! Can't you see? Don't you understand?
But Man could not hear. For him it was already too late.
What are you doing?
And then his aged mind, shadowed and confused for so very, very long, grew perfectly clear, and the whole, unspeakable truth settled like a stone in his heart.
WHAT HAVE WE DONE?
And he wept for the folly of his race, cradling himself like a lost and broken-hearted child.
And then it happened.
A soundless roar shook the world to its roots, reaching down through endless subterranean vaults into the Garden itself. The scene in the Pool was obscured momentarily by a blinding flash of ugly light, and when it cleared he could see the disease, spreading its fatal touch in mushrooms across the Earth. Nothing escaped; the whole of Nature's masterpiece of creation was swept away, almost in an instant.
As suddenly as it began, it was over.
The clouds of mushrooms drifted together and covered the Earth in a warming, protective shell. High up in the ravaged atmosphere, certain atoms were accelerating and ramming into certain others, setting up the vast chain reaction that would eventually bring about the Renewal. Until then, the Keeper must continue to tend the Garden, preparing for the Release. And then, when his time came, he could die, and there would be a new Keeper, to tend the ones that came after.
His grief ran its course and left him, and he sighed, accepting. His debt was almost paid.
Two by two, the creatures of the devastated Earth began to arrive, walking, crawling, flying. As they came, countless plants appeared, rooting themselves in the rich, soil of the Garden. But the Keeper was not worried. There would be room for them all. There always was.
Gradually, the flow diminished to a trickle, then stopped altogether. And then at last came Man -- one man, alone -- staggering through the Gates and peering around him in bewildered horror.
His clothes were all of one color, decorated with bright, polished buttons and dangling bits of useless metal. He fell to his knees inside the Gates and buried his face in his hands, sobbing in utter despair. The Keeper knelt and comforted him, until finally the man stopped shaking. But when he looked up at last, his eyes were dead and hopeless.
"In time," said the ancient one, the last of his doomed race "you will understand. I am the Keeper, my friend. Welcome to Eden."
© 2008 Joshua L. Hamilton
Bio: Joshua Hamilton is a thirty-eight year old lifetime native of Massachusetts. He claims to have been bottle-fed on Tolkien, and thus addicted to fantasy and science fiction ever since. Mr. H.'s other favorite authors include Robert A. Heinlein, Steven Brust, Patricia A. McKillip, Glen Cook, Terry Pratchett, Madeleine L'Engle, Douglas Adams, Stephen R. Donaldson, Mercedes Lackey, Alan Dean Foster, and Dean Koontz. He harbors a dangerous feline known as Loki (someday they will settle the question of who owns whom), and thinks Joss Whedon's 'Firefly' is the finest straight scifi show ever to grace the small screen. Mr. Hamilton's story The Carrier appeared in the July 2008 edition of Aphelion.
E-mail: Joshua L. Hamilton
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