Gods and Monsters Installment 2: Beginnings of River and Gabriel

Reading Time: 8 minutes

LAST WEEK: We met the Fates, Morta, Decima, and Nona, who run a small occult shop in San Francisco where they weave together the lives of this story. We also met the half-human, half-vampire crossbreed Gabriel, who has the ability to make vampires lose track of time. And Jasmine—a vampire who met her end in Gabriel’s bed as the morning light turned her to ashes. Read the full installment here. See all installments here.

(Image created by E.E. King with Adobe Firefly.)

PART I

Beginnings: River and Gabriel

“Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness…

We only exist …

in the zone where black and white clash.” — Louis Aragon 

Chapter 1

Gabriel

San Francisco 1980 — Healdsburg 1961

Circadian Rhythms

Gabriel wakes beside Jasmine. She is ash and dust. He is elegance and grace, his skin pale as pearls.

Gabriel has murdered forty-five so far, more than Jack the Ripper but fewer than Vietnam; far fewer. Still, impressive, considering he’s an army of one. No Rambo either. No heavily muscled behemoth. He is slender and lean, a dancer of death to the undead.

He’s estranged from his family.

His father’s people unknown, his mother’s people as fair and ruthless as he, but oh so different.

Gabriel was born under a new October moon in the golden hills north of San Francisco. He’s a mutt.

His mother was a vampire.

His father died during conception, bite marks still beleeding. He’d gone looking for romance and found death, or perhaps death had found him. He’d been seeking perfection, drawn to Gabriel’s mother by her unearthly beauty.

If only he’d been satisfied with someone more flawed, something more attainable, he might have survived. Nothing is as dangerous as transcendence, nothing so deadly as desire.

Vampires rarely give birth. They are not alive, so it is impossible for them to create life, although they can create immortality.

Gabriel is much more unusual than a virgin birth.

Granted, human virgin birth is miraculous, but in many species of fish, lizards, insects, and sharks, virgin birth is the norm. It is helpful to remember that a miracle is not necessarily good, it is simply unnatural.

Some say there is an order to the universe. The earth revolves, turning day to night, summer to fall. Things sprout and die with precision.  There is a master clock, perhaps a master clockmaker. If so, Gabriel is a clock un-maker. He is a crossbreed, a rare twining of DNA. He dropped from his mother cold and odd as ice in the desert.

His mother gazed at the small kicking bundle, fists balled, pale, and un-crying.

She considered abandoning him, biting him, even leaving him in the vicinity of a church. Instead, she stayed, watching his hungry body twist and squirm. She did not know, would not know until first light that he had already poisoned her circadian watchdogs.

Chapter 2

River

Healdsburg — October 1961

Discovery

Seven-year-old River races home from school. Summer vacation’s only a week away. His feet dance with the anticipation of so much freedom so near.

The field’s already dry, yellow with wild barley. Hairy spikes of seeds top the grass, bushy as the tails of tiny golden foxes. They cling to River’s white cotton socks.

Ryo, River’s favorite uncle, knows all about such things.  “Those seeds are hitching a ride on you, River,” Ryo had told him. “Just like the guys you see with their thumbs out on the highway.”

“Varoom, varoom,” River says, pretending he’s a truck picking up freeloading grains.

“They hitch rides on animals, too,” Ryo said. “It’s a great plan for wild animals. They have short fur, and the foxtails fall off after a brief trip. It doesn’t work as well for pets though; their fur can be too long. Sometimes, instead of falling out, the foxtails dig into the animal’s body.”

River shudders, imagining the points burrowing inside his flesh. He bends to pull one of the irritating needle-sharp barbs out of his socks. At his feet lies a naked baby, unscratched, pale, and bright as a cold sun. The infant is cradled in the charred arms of a black shape that resembles a human log.

River freezes. His heart beats fast and loud. The quiet of the meadow echoing through him like a cold, distant sea is pierced by a long, high wail. It hurts River’s ears. He wishes it would stop.

Large hands grip his shoulder. He twists round, breath held, heart frozen. Ron Jackson, the town sheriff, stands behind him, solid and strong. River’s throat explodes with pain. Only then does he realize that the howling, so painful, so filled with fear, is coming from his own mouth.

Jackson calls River’s mother, Alma.  She comes, running through the field. She rocks him in her arms, pulling him back from nightmare.

“There, there,” she coos. “I’m here now. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Normally River would have objected. He’s too old to be cuddled like a baby, too mature to be embraced in front of grown men. But now he wants only to hide his face in his mother’s arms and forget.

Jackson lifts the silent baby, his fingers brushing the arm of the charred figure. It crumbles. Ashes rise into the air. Cinders blacken the gold field. Nothing remains except two pointed crystals that capture the sunlight, splitting it into rainbows. Although the baby’s obviously a newborn, there’s no blood or afterbirth.

Sheriff Jackson takes the baby to the nearest orphanage, cradling it in his lap as he drives.

“Hey, baby,” he says softly. “Everything’s alright now. You’re safe.”

The baby stares up at him, unblinking. Even though the day is sticky with heat, Jackson shivers. The baby’s eyes have the bottomless chill of an endless winter.

The orphanage, run by the Sisters of Perpetual Memory, is in Healdsburg, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. Though embraced by golden rolling hills and surrounded by ancient, gnarled oaks, it’s not a cheerful place. All stark wood and white paint, bare of ornaments, carpets, or pillows.

The Order believes the purpose of existence is to contemplate Christ’s martyrdom. . .  continually. The only decorations, if they can be called that, are the large wooden crosses that hang on every wall, in every room.

The crosses don’t bother the baby. In fact, their effect even on full blooded (or bloodless) vampires is vastly overrated. They don’t like them, but most can tolerate a cross so long as it is not staked through their heart. Nothing likes being staked through the heart.

The baby is christened Gabriel.

During the eighteen years Gabriel lives with the sisters, he protests only once.

It is on that first day when he’s baptized, and holy water touches him.

The droplet sizzles as it falls, burning a small white scar, like a fallen star onto his forehead. It’s his only flaw.

Doubtless, the priest who baptized him should’ve noticed. Doubtless, the nuns gathered around the newly-consecrated should have seen. But at the moment of impact, an unexpected storm darkens the sky. Lightning flashes, power surges through taut wires, the altar is cast into night. Water hisses. The baby screams. The only light is Gabriel’s scar, shining like a tiny votive candle out of the shadow.

Perhaps this is why the priest, blinded by sudden darkness, sees the baby as a sign of hope. Possibly this is why the nuns, deafened by thunder, imagine the infant’s wail to be the sound of faith rising from an abyss.

Chapter 3

River

Healdsburg — 1961

Loss and Longing

River grows up in the sleepy town of Healdsburg, only a few miles west of the orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Memory. He’d been a happy carefree child, hair sandy as foxtails, eyes the clear blue of a cloudless sky. But after his discovery in the field, everything changes. There are some things that mark you forever, leaving a scar no one can see. River can’t forget the quiet white baby lying next to the charred body.

The memory of its pale silent face and midnight eyes keep him awake and when at last sleep takes him, the baby turns dreams into nightmares and River wakens screaming.

His home, which had been happy, changes.

Ryo disappears the night River finds Gabriel, leaving emptiness where once was laughter. The small greenhouse that Ryo has filled with orchids — flowers so alien and exotic, they look like they’ve dropped from another planet – echoes with absence.

On days too hot, or nights too cold to venture out, River and Ryo had huddled together in the humid room, watching the moisture gather and the walls weep, Ryo telling about the lives of orchids, stories more fantastic than fairy tales.

No one speaks of  Ryo’s disappearance. Secrets lurk behind closed doors. The house whispers in the night.

When River returns from school, he runs to the greenhouse. Surely Ryo must be there. It’s not possible that he’s really gone.

The greenhouse is empty, windows damp, shelves dirty and bare. It smells of decay. The only remnants of life are the fragments of sphagnum moss that litter the floor, disintegrating into dust with the slightest touch.

“I knew they’d just die anyway,” Alma says from behind River.  “It’s better this way. Less stench. Less clean-up.”

“Ryo spent way too much time and money on plants—plants you can’t eat and flowers you can’t pick.” Alma puts a hand on River’s shoulder. “Here,” she says holding out a plate, “Have a cookie. Chocolate chip—your favorite.”

River shakes off her hand and runs into the woods.

How can Ryo have vanished? Ryo—so full of life and curiosity. He could tell you about plants and bugs and make them more interesting than any horror story. He could reveal the history behind history, opening doors into the past like a human time machine.

Alma called Ryo “a rolling stone” and “a heartbreaker.” River wonders if that means he had rolled a stone onto someone and crushed their heart, but he can’t imagine Ryo killing anyone. Ryo didn’t even like to step on bugs.

The ground around River has receded, drawing backwards like a ebbing tide leaving him stranded.

River’s father Joseph misses Ryo, his baby brother, almost as much as River does. Ryo was the yang to Joseph’s yin. Joseph was sturdy and unimaginative. Ryo was a breeze, following fancies and desires wherever they blew him. Now Joseph feels off kilter, out of balance, adrift, and confused in an isolated country.

A week later, Ryo’s body, or rather pieces of it, is discovered in a field. Ryo is identifiable only by two gold fillings and the tread of his shoes.

Joseph begins drinking, trying to numb his soul, to forget, and find respite. Each night he comes home later and later.

“Go find your father,” Alma says, pushing River out the door, even though it’s nightfall, and he’s only seven, even though he’s had no supper and is hungry. River doesn’t protest. The house smells of blood and fear. It’s filled with unspoken words. River is happy to escape. He tracks Joseph to Jay’s, the only bar in town. Soon River is almost as familiar a visitor there as Joseph.

“It’s your boy again, Jo,” says the bartender whenever he sees River, “Time to go now.”

River silently holds out his hand, leading his father home like a stray dog. Some nights Joseph sings his way home. Other nights he is maudlin. But more and more often he refuses to leave the bar, drinking steadily and sullenly as a winter rain. Looking for respite in oblivion.

One night on his way to the bar, the moon rises full and bright. Out of the woods rises a howl that tickles the hair on the back of River’s neck. Even though he is beneath a streetlamp and only a block from home, he feels as lost and hollow as if he’s falling into nothingness. He races home, not looking to either side. Crashing into the house, he burrows under his covers.

“What’s wrong?” Alma asks, “Did you find your father?”  River doesn’t answer, he cannot speak, he’s shivering as violently as if he had malaria.

Alma takes him in her arms. “Oh my poor, poor baby,” she cries, “My sweet little boy, how could I have sent you out into the night and the dark? Let Mama kiss your fears away.”  But her kisses burn like lies, and the next night she sends him out again.


Watch the author read this week’s installment in the video below:

 

NEXT WEEK: Gabriel’s death count begins to rise as he turns out to have an unnatural gift for fixing broken objects, which are then cursed to bring death and destruction.

Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba and Sophie Gorjance.

E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.