The Weirds of the Woodcarver
Originally printed in Weird Tales, September 1944
HE DWELLS in a dusty little shop off a side street in downtown Brooklyn. The dirt on the windowpanes is thick and grimy, as though unwashed for years. But when you open the door to the shop itself, a new world unfolds before you.
First, you see the tiny figurines standing on their shelves, painted and carved in exact similitude to living beings. They stand there, row on row. If you look closely, you can See people you know. There is an old woman in a shawl, sorrow etched into her drooping eyelids and sunken lips. There walks a blonde girl who might be a model, with lovely legs in short skirts and lissome hips. Here is a young man, perhaps a lawyer on his way to court, for he carries a briefcase. There is a tattered tramp, slouching. Men and women, boys and girls, all of them sculpted in living attitudes, stretching out endlessly, so many that their sheer numbers make your head swim. You do know one or two of them, as you look closer.
You see strange markings on their breasts, a sign carved there ineradicably in wood. Some of those marks are of crosses worked in queer design as if glimpsed through alien eyes. Some other marks are—well, different. You are not able to discern their twistings, somehow, no matter how you peer and strain. For those marks are unearthly, cosmic, of the realms of some purple hell spawned before the planets. Involuntarily, you shudder a little. You feel cold. And no wonder, for you are facing the signet of all the evils of all the ages of all the universes. . . .
Look now at the small man seated behind the hacked and pitted bench. He peers up at you over the battered edges of his cheap glasses, his head held slightly awry, as though it were too heavy for his neck. His eyes search you, go deep within you, probing, seeing something you have never seen, and only admitted to yourself on a dark night, in bed and alone, and afraid. . . .
I drew a deep breath. He was looking at me like that, searching, hunting. I felt queerly relieved when he smiled.
“I’m a reporter,” I managed. “I’d like to do a little article on you for the Sunday Supplement. They say you’re the oldest woodcarver in town.”
He smiled and nodded.
“I guess so. Yes, I must be. I have been here a long time. A very long time. Too long.”
His voice was deep, throbbing, resonant. An odd voice for such a little man. It conveyed notions of other forms of life, of beings vast and powerful, of other worlds where life took different paths.
“Then you will tell me about yourself,” I hurried on, eagerly. “If I get an interview, I’ll get a raise, and—“
“—and you will be married.”
It didn’t seem strange, his guessing. You sort of expected it from him, sitting there so little yet so big, among those untold thousands of little statues. Funny, but none of them seemed to be for sale.
“I will tell you all about me, yes,” he said slowly, his eyes dreaming. “I will tell you of this my life here as it has been. Yes, I will tell you. It has been long since I spoke with anyone. What do you want to know?”
I sat on a dusty stool and gestured at the carvings on the shelves.
“About those. They’re all so different. All alive. How can you ever pay for all those models. It must cost a fortune.”
His smile was slow and somehow—frightening. “I do not pay. Those people have passed my window at some time or another, during their lives. All of them. I look at them— and remember. I carve them as I see them.”
I started suddenly, half rising to my feet. Here and there among those statues I saw faces I knew: Bill Henry from the insurance company at the corner, Ellen Jackson, Flo Bentley who painted those lovely miniatures that were such a rage now, Gus Johnston . . . yes, people I knew, people I had talked and laughed with. Looking at them standing there, I had an uncanny feeling that I looked at the living person, so perfectly were they made, so exact their features, their coloring. It was not a nice feeling, especially seeing those queer signs on their chests.
Ellen Jackson had that other sigil on her bosom, that queer, somehow evil twisting of unprintable symbols. She had been in a horrible accident some months ago. Today she lived a hopeless cripple, both legs gone, face ravaged by scars, her eyes forever blind. I shuddered, looking again at that sign.
Bill Henry had the cross on his chest. He had risen swiftly in the insurance ranks, a recent member of the Billion Dollar Club. Flo, too, bore the cross, and she had already begun to make a name for herself as an artist. Gus—well, his house had burned down and Gus had had a lovely wife and two kids. It was a terrible fire. Gus didn’t find much when he got home. Just a few charred embers.
I closed my eyes, thinking it is their fate that is graven there, their good luck or bad. . . .
“You are right,” the carver nodded, his eyes watching me. He drew a deep breath and looked at his hands. “It is a long story, how I came to be here. I do not know just how to tell it. Perhaps it will be easier if I show you some of my older carvings.”
I got to my feet and followed him. He lifted a trapdoor in the unswept floor and started down. He held a candle in his hand, but turned on the electric switch.
Catching my look of surprise, he explained, “The candle is for the lower cellars. Sometimes even I—do not like to see too much of those.”
THE chamber extended far back, into a vast dimness. As I stood beside him, staring at the countless hundreds of thousands of carvings, I began to quiver. These men and women were not like the ones in the shop above. No, those people wore beaver hats and carried rifles and powder-horns, or wore bustles and bonnets, or blue cloaks and tri-cornered hats. I saw hunters clad in buckskin, warriors in buff-and-blue, women in crinoline and gingham. Here went a coach and—four, a sedan chair.
“These—these styles,” I said. “They— they’re of past centuries. The eighteen hundreds. Colonial days. Early Dutch colonists. And you carved them?”
“Oh, yes,” he nodded. “I did each one of them. It didn’t take long. I can work very swiftly when I want to.”
It was a large chamber, that cellar, stretching back under the street like a huge cave. And the shelves that filled it were crowded with images. It was like looking at an exhibit of American history.
But it wasn’t that that shocked me so much. It was my own calm acceptance of the fact that each of those figures had passed before this man, at sometime in the past. Why, I thought, he must be at least four hundred years old!
“There are some sub-cellars,” he whispered hoarsely in the dimness ahead of me. “Come, I will let you look on those. They are even—older. I have not been down below for—some time.”
Down stone steps hewn from living rock we passed, into a coolth that chilled.
The shelves stretched into blackness, but I saw well enough to suit me from the light of a single electric bulb that burned eerily. Medieval knights were here, and Vikings, and Visigoths in armor bearing swords and shields. I caught glimpses of Romans and Carthaginians, of Phoenicians aboard their fleet galleys, of Egyptians wearing the uraeus. To one side naked dancing girls postured before the Pharacs, and bearded kings of Babylon shot arrows at rearing lions. I noted curl-bearded Assyrian warlords in their chariots. Rulers of cities that were thriving before the first stone of Ur was laid passed before my eyes. Naked cave. men peered back at me as my eyes ranged those mute millions.
“There is one more sub-cellar,” said the woodcarver, as he looked at me, my throat dried up.
“One more?I croaked. “Bu—but these were the earliest men ever known!”
I was behind the stage of reasoning. My brain whirled with what I had seen. The history of a planet had unfolded before my eyes, and still—there was more to see! I asked myself how old is this man before me?
“There were—beings—here before ever man was dreamed of,” said my guide softly. “The Earth is old. Go learn just how old it is . . . if you can. Why should man think he is the only form of life that has been generated in the billions of years that Earth has known? Man is a parasite on the keel of the planet as it soars in perpetual journey through the void. Before man was, these beings that I will show you, were. And before them, certain — other! Those were named the Primal Ones.”
COLD reason threw a chilling blanket over my seething thoughts. What rubbish! I thought, this guy is taking me for one sweet joy-ride, and I’m eating it up as a starving man does food!
I grinned, confident once more.
“Boy, can you sling the words,” I admired. “You sure had me going for a while. But I’ve read those books too. They were good, all right—but you aren’t expected to believe them!”
He was slightly amused at first.
“Some of you humans have guessed,” he admitted.
I should have kept calm, but the relief of my reason was like a tonic, and I felt giddy.
“Us humans,” I mocked. “What are you but a human? Sure, and you’re taking me over the jumps. I suppose you’re something else, huh, bud? You aren’t human, are you? Nuts!”
The little man grew rigid. His eyes iced over, grew cold, baleful. They glittered at me.
“So,” he whispered softly. “You do not believe. No, you do not. And yet—you came in here for a story about—me!”
“That’s right,” I maintained, grinning. “And I’m getting one. You certainly can carve, all right. I won’t deny that. But anyone can carve ancient Babylonians in War chariots, and Assyrians with their curled beards, and hunters in buckskin!” I slapped him on the back. “I hand the palm to you. You made me swallow that yarn of yours for a moment. It was good. Imagine the headlines — “Immortal Being Carves Humanity!” Wow!”
He kept looking at me, evilly, the tiny glints of fire in his eyes occasionally flaring. With his left hand he made a swipe at the nearest shelf, gathered up a palm full of grayish dust-motes. He held out his hand to me.
“You were made from dust like this, mortal. Into dust you shall return!”
He blew on the dust, stirring it. Under his breath it quivered, assumed shape: looked like a man with two arms, two legs.
He lifted his hand, blew breath from pursed lips—blew the dust at me!
It filled my eyes, my nostrils. I choked….
There was an instant of horrible fright, hearing his words from vast distances, graving themselves into my brain.
You want a story. I shall give it to you!
I whirled, reeling; stood upright.
“Oh, God!” I whispered. “Where am I?” I stood on the sands of a mighty shore, facing out toward a vast gray ocean that swelled and heaved in eternal rhythm. Dimly that voice spoke to me, though it made no sound. I heard it in some far corner of my brain, whispering, Counseling.
You are on Earth, mortal. It is a different Earth from those enjoyed during life. There is a doorway to this world. It is—death! You are not dead. You are under my spell. Seek knowledge of this world. Seek! Seek!
I staggered up the shore toward the jungle that stretched before me. Through tangled patches of vine and shrub I fought my way. No sun shone bright upon me, for the clouds were monstrous and thick. Yet a mighty heat pulsed all around, as though the world were spawning all the time, and needed this warmth to hatch its sinful brood. Over everything hung a lowering evil, an evil so intense, so striking that a man’s mind could not fathom, it could only cower as it pulsed down upon him. It forced me on, that evil, made me hurry forward. Beneath its gaze, I ripped and yanked a path through interwoven creepers, around gigantic tree boles, over rotting leaves. My clothes tore, left me half-naked. Great bloody streaks gashed my chest and arms and thighs.
I fell to sleep many times, exhausted. I ate of lush fruit hanging ripe and swollen from drooping branches, and drank from clear streams that rippled over white stones. The days came, and the nights, and the days again. It was endless and—fearful.
I saw things, occasionally. I glimpsed them through the interstices of the leaves and branches: huge, squamous things that oozed along. Dimly I heard feet fleeing precipitously from something terrifying. When the foot beats stopped I heard—mad screams! I shunned those oozing things, for the few glances that I had of them froze the very blood in my veins. I hid beneath great leaves, or under tottering slabs of stone when I heard them. When they passed, I ran.
This is a living world, mortal. On it duel them who serve and worship the Primal Ones. It is very near your own. It is separated only by bands of space and time. Only a Primal One can pass those bands, or one sent by him, or one who is—dead.
I ran, hearing that voice, ran until the jungle was no more, until I came to a great plain covered with short, stiff rubble. At the end of the plain rose the cyclopian ruins of a vast city, its stone walls crumbling and time-eaten, yet still massive and defiant. An intangible spirit of utter malignancy seemed to brood over that mass of rotting masonry, yet to me it seemed a shelter from what I had half—seen—out here.
I ran forward, eagerly. The stubble cut my feet, for my shoes were eaten through, but I did not care. Once within those walls, I would know relief. Between huge stone ramparts that towered high above I sped, onto moss-split blocks of flagging that formed the city streets. Here was safety! Here was escape from those vaguely seen and partly guessed terrors that abode in that loathsome forest!
I HUGGED against a wall, staring, paralyzed. I saw them now, coming up the avenue, their hideous heads swaying and waving eerily above thin, stringy necks. Long feelers were wrapped about something that struggled and screamed in mad fear, writhing, twisting.
I covered my mouth with a shuddering hand. I recognized that something struggling in those tenuous feelers. It was a girl, a young girl, clad in the tattered garments of a bygone age. A girl—with a queer, alien mark glowing like live blue fire between her breasts!
They were dragging her toward a huge ruined building, down into its dark depths. I followed, hugging the walls and hiding in shadows. Some partly formed notion of rescue drove me on, though what I could do against them, I did not know.
I crept down into the dimness of the tremendous vault where they were gathered. I saw them chain the screaming girl to a flat altar. I heard their shrill cries, in some alien tongue.
Ia! Ia! Fhtagn dy’eth dy’aleth! S’sadaani, s’sathaqua. . . . Ia! Ila!
And in answer to that swollen, sobbing chant, a black being commenced to grow in the dark recesses of the vault beyond the altar: indescribably monstrous, its heaving, pitted sides bulging in ominously frightening ways . . . its eyes that were red blobs in black skin glowing evilly, surveying its worshipers, and its sacrifice . . . its purple wattles quivering . . . its purple cilia vibrating from the massy back. . . .
Human eyes were not meant to see that!
I shivered. I tried to cry, but my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. I fought to free it—
For now I saw what was happening to her who bore that alien sigil on her bosom!
I screamed, then. I screamed, and whirled and ran, up stone steps to the broken avenues, down them and along queerly turning lanes, between the huge walls of the crumbling buildings. Sobbing, I raced on and on. I dared not look behind me. I ran and ran, blindly; and as blindly, I stopped.
“Save me,” I gasped, clutching at him. “Do not let—them—get me! I believe. I do not understand, but I—I—believe!”
“You were not seen by them,” he said to soothe me. “My spell was upon you. Those you saw could not smell you.”
“Where are we?” I sobbed. “Is it true that this is a—a dimension near our world—a land ruled by—by those Primal Ones?”
“It is your Earth, but a different manifestation of it. It is a segment of space and time that was once ruled by the Primal Ones. Come, follow me, and I will explain it to you—“
He opened another door, disclosed stone steps, leading upward. He began to climb, and I followed.
“Those Primal Ones were deathless. They possessed all knowledge, all wisdom. Theirs were all the arts of science, of medicine, of alchemy. But as the eons rolled past, they grew restless, bored. The galaxies that had been created for them by the One palled. And so, to toy away eternity, they made matter. They made the sun, and the moon, and certain—stars. They made these worlds in bands of differing substance, so that one overlapped the other, in order that the inhabitants of one could not visit those of another unless allowed by them who ruled all.
We went up and up, in the gloom of that somber stairway.
“They had power, and they used it. Infinite power they had. They were gods. But the Primal Ones forgot their real ruler, the One who had made them, and the billions of galaxies for their enjoyment. They dwelt on Earth and were served by their minions. Sacrificed to.” I shuddered, but went on with him, up and up. “Yes, they allowed themselves to be sacrificed to. They enjoyed obscene rites in their walled cities. They created races like the Mi-Go and the Tcho Tcho to amuse themselves. Their real ruler they soon forgot, having grown mad with lust and power. So they turned to the One and mocked Him. Yes, Him they jeered, Him they taunted, Him they challenged!”
“One day. He struck, and the Primal Ones shrieked in the terror of mad desolation. Gibbering and mowing, they shrieked. Aye, they wept and wailed, for He had turned the Earth on its axis, and buried those cities in which they were adored under tons of ice and snow. In those—other dimensions—that cosmic wrench was felt, too. It Smashed inhabitants flat, crushing them. It wiped out whole civilizations of evil beings who were wont to sacrifice and worship.
“Gone were the races they had made, the things they had created out of mud and slime. Yet some few remained. Some few who still—worship. Yes, the abomination of desolation was upon them!”
WE CAME to a door that the carver opened. We went in, and I Stood, silent and stunned. For we were on the dirt floor of the lowest cellar of his shop, and a gigantic red ball hung in midair, and lighted the vault with crimson bands of eldritch light.
I saw the forms that brooded there on the shelves, the forms that never should have been made, the forms of appalling madness, of terror beyond any terror ever known. Forms that I had seen. Forms that fought with a—sacrifice! I looked for one moment, and one moment only, at what lay carven in wood on the shelves.
I withered up inside me. My throat was parched. My tongue felt swollen.
I saw things I cannot describe: things I caught but bare glimpses of, back there. Mankind possesses no language that will tell of them, for they were spawned by something alien. Who can describe something man has never seen, or imaged up, or conjured from the purple realms of sleep? Those shapes were bulbous and many polyped, legged and viscid and oozing, jellied and shaking, amorphous, obscene. Some of them crawled, some flew, some fought and ate what they killed. Some were carven as they sacrificed! and that, I think, was the most horrible of all. . . .
“One there was who did not pass into the outer darkness beyond the worlds where He cast the Primal Ones,” I heard a voice drone. “One remained on Earth amid its playthings to while away the eons until He should come again. Yes, one was left to do what he pleased with the beings he and his kind had fashioned from the primeval mud. His lot to command life and death, pain and joy and sorrow. He could play at wars and famines. He could even send these things called men into other dimensions, to be sacrificed to him when he was in the mood. The doorway was death, and the password was carved on their chests, in wood
“Such a sentence would endure for ages. One left behind would see many things, as evolution slowly worked its will on the inhabitants of the Earth that remained after the terrible cataclysm that cast the others forth. And if that one should take to carving the things he saw lift from the ooze and the slime to crawl or swim or fly, what harm in that? He would see these”—a hand swept the red chamber where stood for all time the replicas of a monstrous spawning—”and later, the great reptiles, the dinosaurs, the pterodactyls, the fabled roc and the unicorn.
“He would be worshiped in divers forms by men who sought for the powers that were his. He would see the efforts of the others to come back. But it would all be so boring. So boring!
“He needed some amusement. What more natural than to mark their sign on the breasts of the race called men, those symbols of which only he and his kind knew the real meaning? To mark that sign, so that when death came, and the other dimensions were opened to mankind, certain ones would always be on hand to be hunted down by his worshipers for sacrifice to him.
“Eternity is a long time. Even a”—he chuckled softly—“ even a god might desire some amusement. And so I return to that other world for worship, to allow myself who thought I was a god, to play at god for all eternity, forever.
“And now you have your story!”
For one instant, as my glazed eyes stared at him, his human form dissolved, and I saw black, striated skin, and glowing red eyes lusting with evil, purple wattles hanging, purple cilia quivering from a ridged back. . . .
I walk the streets today. Oh, yes, I am back on my job. I’m married, too, though I never turned in that article. But I sometimes think that he amuses himself most of all with me. For he can carve me anytime he wants, so he lets me walk about, wondering, wondering. . . .
What sign will he put on me?
And you! Some day he will see you, and you shall join those others on his shelves.
Which will your sign be?