Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 17

Maxwell came around the corner of the tumbledown shack and saw the thorn tree standing to one side of it. There was something strange about the tree. It looked as if a cloud of darkness had settled along its vertical axis, making it appear to have a massive bole, out of which emerged short and slender, thorn-armed twigs. And if what O'Toole had said was true, Maxwell told himself, that dark cloud clustered in the tree must be the dying Banshee.

He walked slowly across the intervening space and stopped a few feet from the tree. The black cloud moved restlessly, like a cloud of slowly roiling smoke.

"You are the Banshee?" Maxwell asked the tree.

"You've come too late," the Banshee said, "if you wish' to talk with me."

"I did not come to talk," said Maxwell. "I came to sit with you."

"Sit then," the Banshee said. "It will not be for long." Maxwell sat down upon the ground and pulled his knees up close against his chest. He put his hands down beside him, palms flat against the mat of dry and browning grass. Below him the autumn valley stretched to the far horizon of the hills north of the river-unlike the hills of this southern shore, but gentle, rolling hills that went up toward the sky in slanted, staircase fashion.

A flurry of wings swept across the ridge behind him and a flock of blackbirds went careening through the blue haze that hung against the steep ravine that went plunging downward from the ridge. Bat except for that single instant of wings beating in the air, there was a soft and gentle silence that held no violence and no threat, a dreaming silence in which the hills stood quiet.

"The others did not come," the Banshee said. "I thought, at first, they might. For a moment I thought they might forget and come. There need be no distinction among us now. We stand as one, all beaten to the selfsame level. But the old conventions are not broken yet. The old-time customs hold."

"I talked with the goblins," Maxwell told him. "They hold a wake for you. The O'Toole is grieving and drinking to blunt the edge of grief."

"You are not of my people," the Banshee said. "You intrude upon me. Yet you say you come to sit with me. How does it happen that you do this?"

Maxwell lied. He could do nothing else. He could not, he told himself, tell this dying thing he had come for information.

"I have worked with your people," he said, "and I've become much concerned with them."

"You are the Maxwell," said the Banshee. "I have heard of you."

"How do you feel?" asked Maxwell. "Is there anything I can do for you? Something that you need?"

"No," the Banshee said. "I am beyond all needing. I feel almost nothing. That is the trouble, that I feel nothing. My dying is different than your dying. It is scarcely physical. Energy drains out from me and there's finally nothing left. Like a flickering light that finally gutters out."

"I am sorry," Maxwell said. "If talking hastens-"

"Talking might hasten it a little, but I no longer mind. And I am not sorry. I have no regret. I am almost the last of us. There are three of us still left, if you count me, and I am not worth the counting. Out of the thousands of us; only two are left."

"But there are the goblins and the trolls and fairies..."

"You do not understand," the Banshee said. "No one has ever told you. And you never thought to ask. Those you name are the later ones, the ones that came after us when the planet was no longer young. We were colonists, surely you know that."

"I had thought so," Maxwell said. "In just the last few hours."

"You should have known," the Banshee said. "You were on the elder planet."

Maxwell gasped. "How did you know that?"

"How do you breathe air?" the Banshee asked. "How do you see? With me, communicating with that ancient planet is as natural as is breath and sight with you. I am not told; I know."

So that was it, thought Maxwell. The Banshee had been the source of the Wheeler's knowledge and it must have been Churchill who had tipped the Wheeler to the fact that the Banshee had the information, who had guessed the Banshee might have knowledge no one else suspected.

"And the others-the trolls, the..."

"No," the Banshee said. "The Banshees were the only ones to whom the road was open. That was our job, that was our only purpose. We were the links with the elder planet. We were communicators. When the elder planet sent out colonies, it was necessary that some means of communicating should be established. We all were specialists, although the specialties have little meaning now and nearly all of the specialists are gone. The first ones were, the specialists. The ones who came later simply were settlers meant to fill the land."

"You mean the trolls and goblins?"

"The trolls and goblins and the rest of them. With abilities, of course, but not specialized. We were the engineers, they the workers. There was a gulf between us That is why they will not come to sit with me. The old gulf still exists." "You tire yourself," said Maxwell. "You should conserve your strength."

"It does not matter. Energy drains out of me and when the energy is gone, life is gone as well. This dying I am doing has no concern with matter or with body, for I never really had a body. I was all energy. And it does not matter. For the elder planet dies as well; you have seen my planet and you know."

"Yes, I know," said Maxwell.

"It would have been so different if there had been no humans. When we first came here there were scarcely any mammals, let alone a primate. We could have prevented it-this rising of the primates. We could have pinched them in the bud. There was some discussion of it, for this planet had proved promising and we were reluctant at the thought that we must give it up. But there was the ancient rule. Intelligence is too seldom found for one to stand in the way of its development. It is a precious thing-even when we stepped aside for it most reluctantly, we still had to recognize that it was a precious thing."

"But you stayed on," said Maxwell. "You may have stepped aside, but you still stayed on."

"It was too late," the Banshee told him. "There was no place for us to go. The elder planet was dying even then. There was no point in going back. And this planet, strange as it may seem, had become home for us."

"You must hate us humans."

"At one time, we did. I suppose there still is hatred. But hate can burn out in time. Burn low, perhaps, but never entirely disappear. Although, perhaps, even in our hatred, we held some pride in you. Otherwise, why should the elder planet have offered you its knowledge?"

"But you offered it to the Wheeler, too."

"The Wheeler-oh, yes, I know who you mean. But we did not really offer it. The Wheeler had heard about the elder planet, apparently from some rumor heard far in space. And that the planet had something that it wished to sell. It came to me and asked one question only-what was the price of this commodity. I don't know if it knew what might be for sale. It only said commodity."

"And you told it the price was the Artifact."

"Of course I told it that. For at the time I had not been told of you. It was only later I was told I should, after a suitable time, communicate the price to you."

"And, of course," said Maxwell, "you were about to do this?"

"Yes," said the Banshee, "I was about to do it. And now I've done it and the matter's closed."

"You can tell me one thing more. What is the Artifact?"

"That," the Banshee said, "I cannot do."

"Can't, or won't?"

"Won't," the Banshee said.

Sold out, Maxwell told himself. The human race sold out by this dying thing which, despite what it might say, had never meant to communicate the price to him. This thing which through long millennia had nursed cold hatred against the human race. And now that it was gone beyond all reaching, telling him and mocking him so that he might know how the humans had been sold out, so that the human race might know, now that it was too late exactly what had happened.

"And you told the Wheeler about me as well," he said

"That's how Churchill happened to be waiting at the station when I returned to Earth. He said he'd been on a trip, but there had been no trip."

He surged angrily to his feet. "And what about the of me who died?"

He swung upon the tree and the tree was empty. The dark cloud that had seethed around its trunk was gone The branches stood out in sharp and natural relief against the western sky.

Gone, Maxwell thought. Not dead, but gone. The substance of an elemental creature gone back to the elements the unimaginable bonds that had held it together in strange semblance of life, finally weakening to let the last of it slip away, blowing off into the air and sunlight like a pinch of thrown dust.

Alive, the Banshee had been a hard thing to get along with. Dead, it was no easier. For a short space of time he had felt compassion for it, as a man must feel for anything that dies. But the compassion, he knew, had been wasted, for the Banshee must have died in silent laughter at the human race.

There was just one hope, to persuade Time to hold up the sale of the Artifact so he could have the time to contact Arnold and tell his story to him, persuade him, somehow, that what he told was true. A story, Maxwell realized, that now became even more fantastic than it had been before.

He turned about and started down the ravine. Before he reached the woods, he stopped and looked back up the slope. The thorn tree stood squat against the sky, sturdy and solid, braced solid in the soil.

When he passed the fairy dancing green a gang of trolls were grumpily at work, raking and smoothing out the ground, laying new sod to replace that which had been gouged out by the bouncing stone. Of the stone there was no sign.