by D.F. Lewis
Gushing Downs was peppered with picnic parties: a loom of dawnlight; twirling parasols; bright checked tablecloths spread over the greenest grass possible (possible, that is, outside the scope of a painting); wicker baskets brimming with edible goodies of every dietary persuasion; and joyful, sexy people.
"Nice day, Louise." A hand both saluted and shaded the sun.
"It'll be even nicer when the wine coolers arrive."
The voices of chirpy, dimply children mingled with the deeper grown-up sounds. The clink of glasses. The buzz of bee. The chomp of molars. The giggles of those deep in love with each other.
"It'll be great when the competition begins."
"Yes, it'll soon be time."
Any stranger might have questioned what competition was in prospect. Three-legged or egg-and-spoon races ... or both together? Tug of love? The loudest laugh? The furthest roll of the hoop? The fastest spin of the top with a cracking whip? The prettiest frock? The sweetest smile? The longest beard? The shortest? The ugliest pulled face? The biggest this, the smallest that? The most durable picnic? The maroon-party to beat all maroon-parties?
It was probably none of these. Whilst it wasn't, after all, any old stranger who questioned the prospect.
As a rubicund retainer arrived with cases of chilled white wine, and amid the consequent hilarity surrounding the popping of corks, it gradually became clear to the stranger what exactly was to transpire. Each group of picnickers was sited beside one of the many natural geysers that abounded on the Downs. The openings were controlled by manual valves -- and the intention was to release them in one fell swoop, whereby the winning group would be the one with the tallest and longest lasting fountain. Furthermore, a special prize was to be given for the fountain that emerged with the fanciest configuration.
As the sun dipped below the distant wooded hills, it spread along the horizon like thick cut marmalade. The wine corks took up new crescendoes of popping, as bonfire beacons were set alight across the Downs by each picnic group. Then, there was a secret starting signal (which was only obvious retrospectively to the stranger) -- and the geysers were released in a perfect flashpoint of simultaneity. Some spluttered in short silver cascades or spirts of gurgling spray. Others were sufficiently tall to steal gold from the sunset and become gushing giants of myth and magic. A few, even taller, sported every colour of the rainbow plus colours unknown to the painter's palette. Yet, there was one geyser, the tallest of all, which lost its colour as it sprayed new-born stars across the darkening sky -- and at the mountain-peak of its fountaining power, it formed a mighty dragon's head. The roar from the head's gargling mouth was incredibly even louder than the geyser which had originally given it birth.
The picnickers were cowed by the intrinsic, if short-lived, magnificence of such a white-water beast looming from the earth in cataclysmic contrast to the rearing tides of night...
After eventually packing their hampers, the parties wended their way home across the Downs, each jollifier with a blazing torch. The stranger followed, keeping himself to himself, and softly sobbing. He had stayed on the Downs long enough to watch the geysers being pent up within their rightful confines of dark earth -- except, of course, for that single squirt the picnickers had forgotten to cap within its oubliette, one that continued spluttering, perhaps pathetically, perhaps otherwise, forming snowdrop petals in the marooned night. Tiny silver frostfish sparkling: sparkling, even, without light.
The stranger knew -- despite the carefreeness of those erstwhile picnickers whom he followed -- that the treasure which Dragon Earth greedily guarded was itself.
Having the sense of floating upon one among an archipelago of ice-carvings, the stranger shuddered with ultimate fear. The fear of self.
O Stranger, O Saint George.
D.F. Lewis (1948- ). An incredibly prolific author of short baffling tales mostly published in British and American small-press magazines in the late 1980s and 1990s. With an extremely dense style and themes often taken from pulp horror writers, Lewis has managed to create a distinctive voice for himself in the literary underground. His best work is saturated with an intense brooding atmosphere and frequently explores the territory that Angela Carter once labelled 'the mercantile gothic'.