The Runner Up in the 2017 Spring Shock “Trigger Warning” Writing Contest
Trigger Warning: this story contains depictions of Friedrich Nietzsche being kissed.
Reader discretion is advised.
German Chancellor Johanna Meier was a Christian Democrat, with an emphasis on neither. She regarded the village of Rocken in Saxony-Anhalt with stony indifference as she and Hans approached it in the truck. A small town for small minds: its perfect symbol was the brutish tower of the church, dark gray against the velvet black of the vaulting heavens. The tower’s awkward proportions projected bluster without strength.
Meier was seeing Rocken through the critical eye of its famous son, Friedrich Nietzsche.
Pale figures of human shape loomed frozen in the churchyard: statues. Meier pointed; Hans parked. They got out and Hans fetched a spade. Neither spoke. Hans was strong and incurious, the perfect helper.
Meier’s shoulders tightened as a gust wicked the animal warmth right through her drab gray fleece and insulated headband. She reached a hand into the satchel she carried, seeking a reassurance she did not really need. This secret visit was animated by an idea quite mad, but she was not troubled by that. In the space of an hour, the outrageous claims of the diary in her possession would be discredited — or they would be proven beyond all doubt.
She had found the obscure document after a risky, exhausting search. It was Friedrich Nietzsche’s personal account of an astonishing voyage taken just before his final madness silenced him. Meier groped about in her satchel until her bare fingers touched the brittle paper of the hand-written diary. An almost electric shock made her flinch.
June 3. The day [so the diary ran] has arrived. Burton’s day! I write, standing, in the waiting hall of North German Lloyd in Bremerhaven until such time as I may board the ship secured for our bizarre voyage. Our leader is Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer. A remarkable man: he has got up to all kinds of scandal in the near east. By heroic effort he has assembled an inharmonious collection of companions to join him on a quest of the unknown. When I received his invitation I replied immediately. My health is poor but nothing short of death would prevent me from going.
I will be glad, in any event, to leave this ugly city, which has sprung out of the ground overnight, fed on the manure of commerce. Babbling emigrants and sailors prevent me from hearing my own thoughts. I am standing in a corner to avoid being jostled, where I cannot see outside. I would like to draw strength from the ships’ masts straight as strong willed trees.
I will need strength. This voyage is insane. Burton claims to have read a forbidden book of the Arabs and found the locus of all evil. The man is a prolific writer and master of many languages, but is he a philosopher? Does he understand what Evil is? We will see if his wisdom is the equal of this mystery.
I will give Burton this much credit: his mustache rivals mine in magnificence.
His chosen companions are philosophers, artists, revolutionaries, and bored businessmen. These last must be tolerated because their money funds the voyage.
We will be gone for months. Our destination is secret, but must be located on the opposite side of the world.
Meier and Hans warily circled the residents of the churchyard, those three whitewashed statues keeping watch over the grave. Meier’s mouth curled. The statues were an insult to Nietzsche, and not only because they were ugly and crude. Two stood naked and ashamed, hats held so as to hide their loins, while the third showed the great man in his final illness, leaning on his mother, witless and weak. What was the sculptor thinking?
The statues guarded Meier’s goal: a great granite slab inscribed with Nietzsche’s name.
Jun 4. I am aboard the SS Cyclopean, a steamer out of New York. Its suspicious captain is the American, or rather ex-Confederate, Charles Read. They say he once led an attempt to overthrow the government of Cuba.
I am dismayed to find so many Americans among the passengers. (Burton’s recruiting knows no bounds.) The worst of the lot is P. T. Barnum, a kind of carnival barker, only fabulously rich. The lowest sort of man.
Someone, probably Burton, has tacked a figurehead to the bow, a wooden sculpture of a deformed creature of the sea, all eyes and tentacles. Others recoil from it but I laugh at its hideousness.
Hans backed the truck to the granite slab. Meier breathed diesel exhaust, ignoring it. Hans hitched the slab to the truck with a heavy chain. There was no question of old, clumsy Meier helping him. The young man’s broad back was just the thing needed.
“Yea, thou art still for me the demolisher of all graves: Hail to thee, my Will!” The line was Nietzsche’s, of course. Meier had discovered it while researching the authenticity of the diary. It continued, “And only where there are graves are there resurrections.–and only where there are gods can there be atheists!”
That claim would be put to the test tonight.
Hans threw the truck into gear and the granite slab slid aside with an abrasive grumble.
June 5. The open ocean. The rosy dawn lights our stern as we turn west into the North Sea.
Two dozen adventurers at least, including the captain. Such a motley collection, and few speak German. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a morbid Jesuit whose tread is silent and guilty as a tomcat’s, makes some effort to communicate, but he only wants to discuss shipwrecks. I wish he would kill himself.
The novelist Melville is the worst kind of man: the doubting believer. The Frenchman Rimbaud is said to have written wonderfully decadent poems, but will only speak of the price of coffee. Worst is the painter van Gogh, who will not speak at all. I have given up befriending them.
As for the others, although there are a number of big talkers present, few have accomplished anything remarkable. Among them, only Burton is worth attention. His presence may redeem an otherwise intolerable passage.
Hans was making progress. He had dug sufficiently deep that his head disappeared from view whenever he bent. Meier envied him; the wind must be less cruel down there. Should she have brought another shovel and kept warm by helping him? Or, more reasonably, should she have brought another strong man?
No. There was only room for one.
Trees shuddered. Clouds scuttled. Statues stood insensate.
June 9. Gibraltar. Course: due east. My companions neatly divide into three categories.
First, the mercenaries. Their leader is Barnum, who talks day and night of some scheme which shall make him rich.
Second, the mystics. Their leader is the Jesuit Hopkins, whose self-hatred is the very badge of his office.
Third, the power seekers. There are three. Captain Read, rebel. Burton, who follows his own path instinctively. Myself.
I will take a hammer to my companions and discover which are hollow.
Hans’ shovel was now excavating clay a good two meters below the surface. Why had he not yet reached the coffin?
In the distance, something moved. Johanna Meier flinched.
A statue? No, it was merely an old woman. Seen from the corner of the eye, her pale wool coat and headscarf resembled a statue come to life.
“May I help you?” The woman’s curious, welcoming expression could only be that of a lifetime villager.
Meier spied what might have been her nightgown peeking out under the overly large coat–her husband’s coat.
“We are on official business,” Meier said. “We are exhuming a body for–” The lie came easily. “– medical research.”
June 13. Suez. Each day the Jesuit Hopkins writes a new poem, and each evening he burns it in a melodramatic ceremony in the bow.
I ask Burton about the Egyptian landmarks we are passing. He denies the stories the passengers whisper about him. I gather from his bashful evasions that he has never killed a man, nor engaged in the orgies he has written about in his books. Pretender!
June 27. Barnum continues filling the ship with the sound of his voice. He says he has looked into Burton’s book and that our destination is the lair of a fabulous monster. Barnum plans to bring it back to America and put it on display and sell tickets. He has put sailors to work building a shipping crate strong enough to hold the creature alive. His greedy expectations provide me with no little entertainment.
July 11. Put in for supplies at Brisbane, ending a very dull stretch of the journey. Hopkins is disappointed to learn we will not go so far north as Hawaii. I asked what he hopes to find at the end of our quest. He said, the Devil. I asked, why not God?–and he replied, God or Devil, finding either will answer his question, but finding the Devil is easier.
The old housewife pulled out a pair of glasses and ponderously put them on. Her eyes widened as she recognized Meier. She was not intimidated, however.
“Research? What kind of research? You did not know there are no bodies buried here?”
“What?” Meier felt rising embarrassment.
“The Herr Doktor is buried on the south side of the church. This is only a memorial.”
Meier stood there, her circling thoughts accompanied by the rhythm of Han’s heedless work, until the old woman’s insistent stare roused her.
“Ah. Very well. Thanks much.”
The old woman paused, not sure her information was having effect, then bobbed in farewell as she backpedaled off the church lawn.
July 21. Today we lined the starboard rail to gaze upon our destination. It is an island capped with a needle of stone.
Burton confirmed the rumors. He told us of an ancient temple, built long before the dawn of man, described in an ancient book he uncovered in the Near East. The temple is said to contain something unspeakable. Burton pronounced its unpronounceable name: CTHULHU! He recited a blasphemous scripture and I shuddered with delight.
He is telling us we will make landfall at sunrise and find the temple. All unprepared to accept what we find are urged to stay behind.
None refuses Burton’s invitation. Captain Read will accompany us with a few well-armed sailors. He has put me in charge of the flares.
The wind and the effort of digging were making Hans deaf. Meier had to shout to get his attention.
“The body is not here. This is the wrong place.”
Hans crawled up the damp side of the hole. He looked around, as if that would do any good. He sank his spade into the rich loam where he had piled it, and began to repair the wound he had made in ground.
“Leave the hole.”
“Someone will fall in.”
Hans resumed backfilling without a second glance. This revealed a mental strength Meier had not previously suspected. She felt a stab of regret for how this night would likely end.
“Leave it,” said Meier, raising her voice. If she were right — and she had little hope she was wrong — an abandoned hole would be the least of the dangers to these pious, stubborn villagers — or the people of the whole world.
July 22. On the island. We have climbed the central height. We stand before the temple at the base of the stone needle. Our hike to this place took longer than expected. The island’s alien geometry made us stumble and meander. It is impossible to see shapes rightly. Uncanny!
We all feel the strangeness. The others murmur a word: Evil. No such category applies. What we sense is the brooding presence of Power beyond all human understanding.
On this island, the last cinders of those beliefs I inherited from my pious father and mother are immolated and my mind is as pristine as an empty sepulcher. Death! What does that word mean? Life, death; good, evil: meaningless. Upon this island, and in the presence of the Mind which rules it, it becomes possible for the first time to face the terror which constitutes the true thought, the ONLY thought worthy of the name.
Tomorrow, we breach the temple. How will we sleep beneath the lintel of this green portal of strange angles? We have searched for a flat place to pitch our tents. We cannot agree where the true horizontal may be.
Whatever other confusion besets us, we can at least be sure of the purpose of this vast stonework before us. The hieroglyphs and maddening geometrical diagrams tell us this is a temple of worship of a kind so antique, or an academy of knowledge so advanced, they might be confused with babbling idiocy. The stone was carved uncounted eons ago. Its rock is of a color that plays tricks on our eyes. We argue, is it green? Is it blue? Is it any color at all?
One thing I am sure: this needle of stone is but the pinnacle of a vast, submerged structure fashioned by a race from the remotest antiquity.
Meier directed Hans as he drove the truck to the far side of the church. There, next to the foundation, lay three slabs similar to the one they had just left–the graves of Friedrich, his sister, and his parents lying jointly.
Hans removed his cap and scratched his head, but his procrastination lasted just a moment. He hefted the chain and looped its end around the slab.
Meier tugged upward at the zipper of her fleece, quite uselessly, since she had already done it several times. At least here they were sheltered from the worst of the north wind. Let this be over soon! Shame and dread were sucking life out of her more ruthlessly than the wind.
July 23. Morning. Unrested, yet invigorated. We have opened the temple door, and the rosy rays of dawn illuminate the temple’s interior for the first time in a thousand thousand years!
How did we imagine we could open it? The door is a prodigious slab many times the height of a man. It pivoted along an unexpected diagonal when the seamen pushed it. They must have been aided by a force unknown to human physics.
A poisonous odor issued forth. The seamen panicked. They hurled themselves down the slopes toward the sea. The captain believed his first duty was to these halfwits. Considering our need of a way home, he has a point. In any event, he has abandoned the quest.
Noon. The air has cleared. Inside, we stand at the edge of a yawning pit. The flare I hold over it does not illuminate its bottom. Others recoil in terror at the sound we hear. It may be merely wind, but Barnum insists it is the slow breathing of a creature of vast bulk. This belief has unmanned him.
My courage slays the giddiness I feel. I will lower my hook into this pit and see what kind of fish I catch!
Midnight–or later. What day is this? I have descended many fathoms down this well. Presently I am resting on a ledge wide enough for those few still with me; they fear going forward, but fear being left behind more.
The rest have given up. The opportunists turned around long ago, as expected. The Mind we sense is a too solid, too living thing and the green odor–a nonsense expression, but no other words are adequate–suffocates us in its nauseating power. Most disappointing is the loss of Burton, who was never the hero we thought him to be.
I press against a blackness that is too tangible to be the mere absence of light, toward the rumble of a snoring god-thing whose sleep is more than the absence of wakefulness.
It should have been tedious, watching dutiful Hans at work. Meier felt the approaching climax. She took grim amusement in comparing his downward progress with Nietzsche’s own, more than 130 years prior. The descent of Loge and Wotan into Nibelheim; Christ’s descent into Hell; Orpheus and Eurydice–the mythic parallels were legion. She felt a profound detachment, as if she were watching a drama from a great height. She was no longer a woman in time; she was an icon. A tragic heroine. A goddess.
Two meters of half-frozen soil, and Hans sunk his spade deep — there it was! That hollow sound: shovel striking wood. The casket.
A frisson of dread took possession of Meier. Forgetting her dignity, she leaped down into the hole. Hans’ shovel found the lip of the wooden lid and Meier broke fingernails as she pulled with her own hands to hasten the opening of the casket to behold whatever man, or thing, they might find therein.
July 25? 26? The end. Two of us stand on a ledge, Hopkins, and I, deep within the earth, enveloped in heat, peering down into a seven-sided shaft in the base of the island. My flare shows only swirling mist.
Alien artifacts litter this ledge, barbarous ceremonial devices of mysterious metal and iridescent elements unknown to our periodic table. I have taken up a weapon. Trident is what I call it, although depending on how I look at it, I see two prongs instead of three. No matter: it was forged for ritual sacrifice. It is no coincidence it was left at this exact place. I recognize my destiny.
Hopkins counts his beads. He will go no further. Trident in one hand, flare in the other: I will raise my arms and leap.
July 26, surely. As I leaped and fell, the ultramarine fog was brushed aside and the god whose doom I held in my hands came into view: a sprawling, bloated hill of gelatinous flesh bound in a frog’s hide of green and brown warts, quivering with each of its dead, undying breaths. Across its torso it had folded immense membranous wings. Its face–or rather, that confusion of viscera draped about its swollen head–displayed a horror of nostrils, fangs, and ganglia.
The tips of my trident landed before I did, piercing the monster’s chest. I bellowed something that may have been nonsense, or an unknown language. The trident penetrated the monster to its full length. I sprawled over the wound.
Terror and elation! The great, viscous mound of godhood shuddered in a pain that I, a spark in the wind, cannot comprehend. I waited for the god to rouse himself and slay me–or die.
He did neither. Some small quantity of sour green effluvia escaped from the wound before it sealed itself up. The monster groaned at a pitch far below human hearing, which rumbled through my spine and into my genitals.
I saw now what death is for this creature: a catastrophe that must play out over years. Though slain, he may yet be a danger. This island’s existence is no longer a secret; rumors will spread and others will come, drawn by the same ambition as mine. They may also behold him. I must take precautions. The Power must not remain here for others to steal.
I watch the god’s tentacled mouth twitch as each throb of its dying heart pumps lifeblood. Pulsing veins lie just under the surface of the translucent ganglia. The Power of that blood mesmerizes me.
Nothing constrains me. If god is dead, then what am I? How might my soul rise again out of this sepulcher? Something invulnerable, unburiable is within me, something that would rend rocks asunder: it is called MY WILL.
I know what to do.
The gravedigger gasped as the lid of Nietzsche’s coffin slumped against the sloping wall of dirt–and then he gasped again as he saw just what Meier saw, and expected to see. The body of Friedrich Nietzsche was no shriveled husk. Green and brown warts covered it and it was slightly swollen, but not with rot. Still–all the more horrible!–it was recognizably human. Its transformation had not, in the intervening decades, accomplished much. 130 years: a mere “spark in the wind,” as seen from another, less human perspective–the only perspective that mattered.
Meier was sometimes called indecisive. That had never been true. She was deliberate. She needed to be sure.
Meier pointed at the puffy face. “Push aside the mustache,” she ordered.
I have done it.
I looked close at the monster’s face, eye to drowsy eye. I looked long at the veins of its ganglia. I lowered my mouth to his. He had no lips for this Judas kiss; I drew one ganglion into my mouth.
My teeth closed upon the pale, yielding flesh. Bitter ichor welled up into my mouth. I suckled. I swallowed. I drank his blood.
POWER entered into me. I laughed.
I lay there with my primordial wet nurse for uncounted time, drawing its nourishing Power into my being.
I returned to the ledge. Hopkins was still there. He KNEW. He could not look at me. He chose not to see the green fluid that stained my burning mouth.
I climbed with inhuman strength to the surface, bringing Hopkins with me. Those few waiting at the top fled before me. I followed them down to the shore. In their panic, they capsized the boats. I swam like a fish back to the ship and organized the rescue of the others. The terrified sailors dared not disobey me. Barnum’s huge cage of wood and leather became a makeshift lifeboat.
July 30. The voyage home. Many days out from the island and yet my companions still shrink from me. None who went to the island returned undamaged. Burton is dying. Captain Read lays silent in his hammock. The first mate commands the ship alone. Barnum and his ilk hide in the hold. The stink of decay hangs about us as my companions shrivel before my eyes.
Only Hopkins, although shattered and half blind, displays a strange satisfaction from the turn of events. He has written a poem and will not burn it.
Death surrounds me and I draw strength from it. I slough off the dead skin of human enlightenment. My body and mind writhe with metamorphosis. Where might I cocoon myself until my long transformation is complete?
Burton, ashamed, avoids me as I pace throughout the ship and hiss, my veins burning with an alien fire. The ship’s bell chimes the night hours. Do the stars above me reel away the eons? No human lifespan can contain me, for I lust for eternity — a deep, deep eternity.
I forget how write [sic]
I am mad.
I am mad.
Meier had done her research: none of Nietzsche’s companions had lived long after that voyage. Nietzsche spent the subsequent years as an invalid, insane.
“I will hold the light,” Meier said. “You move his mustache aside.”
Hans hesitated.
“Get down there with your hands and push the hair aside. I need to see his lip!”
Fearful and confused, Hans could at least obey these simple instructions. He removed his gloves and, with Meier leaning in close, gingerly lifted the mat of absurdly long hairs covering the dead man’s mouth.
“My God!” Hans jerked his hands away. “What is that? What is that!”
The young fool clawed at the dirt in an attempt to escape. Cursing, Meier performed the examination herself.
Her stomach churned as the shaking light exposed bizarre fleshy members hidden under the mustache. Tentacles, ganglia, palpi; call them what you will, they grew unmistakably from Nietzsche’s lip, and they were unmistakably inhuman.
Meier had her answer. A great sadness came over her — and yet, she had long decided what would happen next. People imagine great persons lust for power. Some do, but many more acquire it merely to keep it out of the hands of others — and then find themselves unable to let it go.
She pulled a stiletto from an inner pocket of her coat. She plunged it deep between Nietzsche’s ribs. The corpse shuddered. As it did, Meier kissed the dead-yet-not-dead man full on the mouth.
She bit and suckled. Power entered her.
Hans scrambled out of the hole. He stood at the edge, gasping for breath, wise to her. With snakelike speed, Meier’s hand caught his ankle. He fell back into the hole.
Meier got to her feet and took the shovel from where it lay. In one motion she swung it against the side of Hans’ head. He fell, but turned to look her in the eye. The expression on his face was Meier’s last regret — an expression of reproach, and worse, pity. It took a few more blows, but at last his skull cracked and she wiped away the pity.
The struggle loosened the earth and the sides of the hole collapsed upon her. She found herself smothered in moist, clinging clay.
She wormed her way upward and into the night air. She emerged, slick as a newborn, from the loamy hole.
The wind felt hot upon her now as her body sucked energy from it, creating a frigid turbulence downwind. There would be no hiding away for Meier during her long transformation; unlike Nietzsche, she already wielded great temporal power and could arrange armies, economies, nations and peoples to her convenience.
That old woman, the helpful one who had witnessed her presence here: she would have to die. Meier was not sure she would recognize her; elderly housewives all looked alike.
Meier made the necessary calculations with monstrous ruthlessness. Her previous ambitions, her ideas of benevolent despotism, were already fading. A Goddess of Reason; a neo-liberal Cthulhu: was that what she had really wanted? What were these humans, that Johanna Meier should regard them?
The entire village must die, for starters. Meier hauled the bloody spade out of the ground and set to the task at hand.
The End