Featured Story • November 2016
The Revenge of Hillier’s Belle
There are strange things done ’neath the Martian sun by the folk who moil for water but the strangest yet was the deadly bet we made on Hillier’s daughter. The sands alone saw us atone for the crime that we committed but I’ll tell the tale before I fail, my corpse left cold and pitted . . . There was three of us: me, Bill and Gus alone upon the slopes when she marched right in, as cold as sin and said, “You bunch of dopes! There’s a vein that’s clear as frozen beer across that rocky spur which I’d stake my soul leads down the bowl to the Mother-Lode that’s pure.” Gus looked ashamed though he weren’t to blame for the things that went before, then made to check both tent and deck where they met the airlock door. “You see her, Gus? It ain’t the dust that’s done my brains at last? The lock’s dogged tight, it’s safe and right!” I said to him, aghast. “She’s just a ghost! Her soul’s aroast in the deepest pit of hell;” Bill sounded tough but he looked aluff at Hillier’s daughter Belle. We four’d set out, high hopes, no doubt, a Martian year ago (’twas Hillier, me, young William Scree, and little Gus N’go) to strike it rich on the slopes of Stitch but it didn’t go so well. When Hillier died in a blast-made slide we’d headed back for Belle ’cause we’d promised each—the kind you keep—we’d give her all his share, though we never thought she’d be so hot with long straight raven hair and a face to make the angels break their deepest sacred vows or make good men feel an ancient yen to beat swords from peaceful plows. She took her share so we were square, then each of us paid court but she turned us down without a frown or much of a retort. Young Bill was first and took it worst while Gus made light of things, “In time’s long dance we take our chance, and cherish what it brings.” She was kind to me, “Poor Sam McGee, I’m not that type of girl, and I’ve found the road to the Mother-Lode where the Frozen Sea’s aswirl. My father’s maps are full of traps but I know all the keys and now he’s dead it’s on my head to face the deepest freeze through thick and thin to finally win the planetary prize: the biggest find of all its kind beneath these crimson skies!” The “Mother-Lode” was miner’s code for the ancient Martian sea: source of all the frozen falls we found beneath the scree below the cliffs, in valley rifts, along the fretted slopes where veins of Pure so long immured are freed by miner’s stopes. Old Hillier’d said he’d found the dread and fatal secret route but when he’d died we thought he’d lied and let our faith leak out. Well I took my leave with heart on sleeve but it didn’t do to dwell on the might-have-beens so I met my team and we argued it to hell. With Hillier dead it was me who led, though Bill’s voice was the loudest as night wore on toward Martian dawn, with little Gus the proudest: “It isn’t right,” he told the night, for Bill and I weren’t listening. We’d set our eyes on the greatest prize: the Mother-Lode, pure-glistening. “We can follow her to the source that’s pure!” Bill’s voice was getting hoarse, and I won’t repeat his plans replete with actions brutal, coarse by standards held by all who dwelled beneath the cloak of law though I was well aware how cloaks can tear when the winds of Mars blow raw. “We won’t do that,” said Gus in flat and final, steady tones. “Gus, I agree, we’re bold and free, but decent to the bone,” I told them both I’d give my oath that she’d not come to harm but jilted Bill was angry, shrill, a man bereft of charm. The plan was set, we made our bet: we’d follow Belle behind then we’d stake our claim and take the blame, but treat her fair and kind. That frontier dome we called our home slowly hissed out rumours like a worn-out suit with a punctured boot, unbalanced in its humours, so we weren’t alone when we quit the dome to follow in Belle’s steps beneath the dry red dusty sky where frigid winds aswept, though most turned back when a quake sent cracks across the valley floor: Mars tectonics are laconic but when they speak they roar and it lately seemed the planet teamed with stirrings in the stone: a sleepy beast awake to feast on captive prisoners’ bones. Her three-day trail across the Vale of Pallas in the Tempe twisted through the Col McGrew and out into the empty wastes beyond, her back to dawn, leaving all behind . . . except we three who knew the scree and marched across the line of sudden fall below the wall where a shield volcano loomed ’neath fading stars, so cold and far, that guided us to doom. Dawn’s rosy fingers softly lingered in the sky, a storm: abrasive dust like Satan’s lust was taking solid form. We made our camp on a sloping ramp of lava hard and ancient, and settled out in our redoubt, but Bill, he got impatient. “The secret’s ours! The gods of Mars have promised me reward if I take by right and manly might the path to Belle’s ice-hoard of hidden treasure without measure locked beneath the sands!” Then from our tent he marched hell-bent to make his mad demands. In retrospect I should have checked his progress out the lock but the dust hit hard in gritty shards and the outer hatch was blocked. “He’s getting dusted. Brains are busted,” little Gus opined. All miners feared the desert weird that broke the human mind and showed it sights and distant lights that promised wealth and fame until the soul was demon-stole, consumed by dreams insane. The storm rose tall above that fall of old volcanic scree with Gus and I obliged to lie protected in the lee of rubble strewn beneath the moons that hurtled overhead three days and nights ’til dawn’s clear light broke through our storm-borne dread. We’d seen no sign in all that time of Bill or Hillier’s daughter ’til the lock was sprung by a man who flung himself upon our water. He sucked it down ’til he almost drowned so deep was he in thirst, and when he looked up from his empty cup it was clear his mind had burst. “How long?” he asked, for he’d aged far past the time that had gone by, no longer young, some force had wrung his withered body dry. His suit should keep his tank full-deep for days or even weeks— it was clear some fault had brought a halt or sublimating leaks had drained him dry as a king’s cold eye while he passed a fell decree. “How long?” again, “I’m not to blame!” yelled the madman William Scree. “They’re waking up, they’ve come to sup on all that’s good and kind!” He staggered, stumbled, then he mumbled, “She didn’t seem to mind.” Before he fell, in burst young Belle without a suit or helmet to shock us all with her siren’s call of ice beneath the pelmet where storm’s hard breeze made filigrees and patterns in the sand that hid the works where secrets lurked so ancient and so grand. “Come quick!” she cried, though her eyes belied her urgency of voice. They were dead as stones, like an aged crone’s, yet her words left us a choice: to cower here in childish fear or face the great unknown. Despite Bill’s wails my will prevailed, and I followed her, alone. No sooner had I locked the tab of the tent’s most outer seal than came the shake of a Martian quake and I forced myself to kneel while a slide ripped down the mountain’s crown, a tumbling deadly wave: my mates were killed, both Gus and Bill, and I alone was saved. Belle’s naked form was neither torn nor troubled by the flood of icy rocks that fell in blocks and chilled my coward’s blood. She stood and laughed as the tremor passed and then raised up her hand to point from me to the Martian sea revealed by shifting lands. “O look! Behold the Mother-Lode, poor human ’fore you die! Now your men have bled into the bed of the graves where crushed they lie upon the bars of ancient Mars while their river runs to sea awaking all within the wall of ice . . . they rise for me!” Then I beheld what the empty Belle’d alluded to within: dark brooding shapes moved to escape their prison and their sin. Strange awful creatures, nameless features, reaching for the light, their very forms defied all norms and touched my soul with night. There are strange things done ’neath the Martian sun by the folk who moil for water but the strangest yet to my great regret was the birth of Hillier’s daughter as a nameless thing whose minions sing while they crack the yielding sea. My death is near but still I fear the life that waits for me . . .
TJ Radcliffe is an award-winning physicist and playwright whose real passion is poetry. He lives in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, where he sails, hikes, skies, canoes, kayaks, and is active in improvised musical theatre, non-musical improv, and various low-to-no-budget film projects, while somehow still managing to keep a day job in the software industry. He also does “poemed illustrations” with the artist Hilary Farmer at this website and some of his other poetry can be found at tjradcliffe.com.
About “The Revenge of Hillier’s Belle,” he explained, “I grew up in British Columbia and the history of the province is the history of successive gold rushes that opened the interior and the north in the late 1800s. This was a time of near-lawless expansion, strange events, and even stranger men and women. I have a bunch of ideas for repurposing this history in stories about the exploration of the solar system, and the notion of a ‘water rush’ on Mars seems completely plausible to me. The form of the poem follows the best-know works of Klondike poet Robert Service, particularly ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee.’ It took a Lovecraftian turn that I can’t account for but which seems appropriate to the subject matter. I am reliably informed that tectonic activity on Mars is likely nonexistent, but this does not mean that the planet is entirely quiet geologically. Or perhaps forces of another kind are at work . . .”
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