Well, this was a long time ago. The character of Cato has certainly evolved a lot since this short story, and is almost unrecognisable except in his desire to find release. My ideas on werewolves have changed a lot since then too. Anyway, I remember being rather pleased with this, even if it is a little pretentious and a trifle clichéd.
Title: Silver Sands
November 1996. Possibly a Monday. It’s raining again, that thin drizzly pseudo-liquid that you often find served as gravy in cheap cafés. It makes me wonder if the sunshine of three months ago was some figment of my imagination, and I turn all the lamps on in my room as an ineffectual substitute. There’s something comforting about golden light – about gold in general come to that. It’s bright, and it’s warm, and it symbolises security. It is exactly what I need.
The flat isn’t very homely. That isn’t to say I haven’t tried. I’m not one of those strange and enigmatic men who live in mysteriously bare rooms and skulk about the night-time city in trench coats. I’m just a normal single guy in a cheaply rented flat. And my trench coat has never been skulked in.
But I digress; my rooms are plain because I can’t seem to get the knack of DIY, and most art upsets me. My parents had a print of the Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke in the dining room, and it tormented my imagination for two decades so that now I can’t look at paintings without imagining the story of the mind behind them. I have a painting of my daughter done by a friend (it’s been a year since I saw either of them, and presumably both they and my wife are perfectly happy in England), and an antique clock heirloom, but doesn’t everyone? The furniture is grey and brown, the walls are white. There is nothing remarkable about where I live, unless you count the bookcases. I have collected a lot of books over the years in a subconscious way. They accumulate like dust when one isn’t paying enough attention, and on the subject of dust I notice there is rather too much of that around the place. Perhaps I should hire a cleaner; after all I can afford one. But my subconscious reminds me there isn’t much point. Not now.
And it is finally dawn and I give up trying to sleep. The bed is a couch during the day, so I fold it up and pile the bedclothes on the floor. And then I am washed and dressed, shaved and groomed, and outside my own front door.
There is a waxing gibbous moon still visible in the damp blue sky, and a shiver runs down my spine. I’ve never been very good at keeping track of the lunar calendar – which is what got me into this mess – but I know I don’t have very long to get what I need.
I’m not sure where I am going. My feet and nose have been trustworthy enough guides for four centuries but I can’t expect them to do all the work. So I just walk, coat pulled tight against the chill air’s endeavours to bleed me of my body heat, and hope I end up somewhere nice. By nice I of course mean warm and with food, and by what I assure you is a stroke of pure luck, I find myself in my usual seat by the window in the café around the corner, where I ask for the usual but with extra toast this morning please Tiff, and go easy on the beans.
While I eat, let me tell you about metal.
These are the properties of a metal; nearly all of them are solid at room temperature, they are opaque unless you stretch them out really, really thin, they tend to conduct heat and electricity, and they’re often shiny. That about sums up my knowledge of the physical properties of metals. I could also add that they tend to be very useful for making things with, that they can form alloys when mixed together, and certain metals are used in jewellery making and as currency because they’re considered rare and pretty. There’s nothing mysterious or occult about any of that because it’s science and science is boring if you aren’t a scientist (and most of us aren’t). And I’ll quite happily admit that most metals are boring too; this fork is made of some kind of metal – no I don’t know what kind, steel or something – and I am far from in awe of it. The same could be said for the zip of your jeans or the casing of your watch. It isn’t interesting, so I’ll stop going on about it.
Gold. Ah, that got your attention. Again. Twice I’ve mentioned the stuff now, and every time I do you twitch slightly. Maybe very slightly indeed, but something in you which hadn’t really been paying attention before perks up when I mention gold. It isn’t anything to get concerned about; you can’t help it. After all, you’re only human and you people have a fascination with the stuff and who can blame you? It’s very pretty. I would suggest that basing whole civilisations on the manoeuvring of the stuff was a bad move, but who am I to judge your species?
I used to know an alchemist when I was very young. That was in the days when I could easily have passed for one of you without the sunglasses or tinted contact lenses (and thank goodness, because they hadn’t been invented then), and I was still reasonably naive and incredibly stupid. I had been wandering through Europe doing my best not to cause a stir, but eventually and inevitably I found myself back in Scotland, where I was born. It’s like a magnet, isn’t it? And we Scotsmen are the iron filings that can never really escape from its pull. By nature my kind are social creatures, travelling and hunting together, but I always preferred my solitude to life in the pack. Fortunately there is only one large pack in Britain and they remain in the south, so I started to settle into Edinburgh society and that was where I came across my alchemist.
He wasn’t considered a particularly good alchemist by anyone except for me, because all he could turn base metals into was silver. Can you believe that? He had actually managed to do what no one else had done, but because it wasn’t gold it wasn’t good enough. What was the point, they said, in turning one imperfect metal into another imperfect metal? So nobody listened to anything he had to say and completely missed the selling of all his silver (and his secret) for a substantial amount of my gold.
Silver is dangerous. That is what I wanted to tell you with all this metal shit, but I suppose if you’ve learned something then that’s okay. You know you should always listen to your elders, even when they’re wearing Armani sunglasses. No, I won’t take them off.
The association of silver with the moon is ancient. Almost as old as the association of gold with the sun. The moon reflects the light of the sun, provides a sounding board for it, twists it through however many degrees and makes it that pale, watery light that’s sod all use if you need to negotiate an untidy room in the dark. If gold and the sun are the heroes of High Fantasy who slay the dragon and rescue the princess and drop the ring into the volcano, then silver and the moon are the leather-clad anti-heroes who get drunk on whiskey then solve murders. A lot of the time it turns out they committed them too.
Well anyway, now you know how I feel about gold and silver. It’s all very pretty but one is decidedly more useful than the others. That’s not to say silver doesn’t have its uses. It does. Oh, it does. But now I’ve finished eating and it’s time to get on with it.
My nose and my feet lead me into town. I walk. I used to have a car but now that’s in England too. I suppose I should be bitter about the whole thing, but something in me knew it was going to happen years before it did. She was one of you – human I mean – and if she hadn’t left I would have had to explain to her what I am and then she’d be gone anyway and probably convinced I was dangerous and on drugs, which just about sums up you humans and your approach to the occult when it suddenly becomes real. You spend all your lives dreaming of and longing for a world full of fairies and monsters, dragons and magic, and when someone kindly points out to you that you’re living in it, you promptly and rather cruelly have them locked away for such outlandish declarations. So perhaps it was best in the end that my wife left me for the painter, and the painter left me for my wife.
Funny how things work out.
However, I’m deviating again. You must tell me when I do that. We have to get on with the story or you’ll never hear the end of it. I mean that.
As you can see, the city centre is this one great big road connected by the bridge to the touristy centre, which is very nice and has some rather good cafés. There’s the mall, and there’s that great big statue of the guy whose name I can never remember. Down there is the park, and over there are the shops, which means I am on the wrong side of the road.
What I am looking for isn’t on Princes Street, and neither do I really have to look for it. My feet lead me down the right road and the right alleyway and into the right shop, where I ring the right bell on the right counter, and the right man appears from what is presumably the right backroom but I’ve never been in there so I couldn’t say. It all happens in exactly the same way as every other time it has happened.
This is Mr Nothofagus, but after these few years we’re on first-name terms so I say “Hallo, Jim. Busy morning?”
“Not really, Mike. You’re my third customer. And how is Mrs Catto?”
I have told lots of lies in my lifetime but by that you mustn’t assume I am a bad person. I bet you’ve lied a few times, and you’re by no means a bad person either. I’ve just lived a lot longer than you, so my lies can be divided by my lifetime and you’ll find I’m no worse than you are on that count. Jim has been entrusted with my most important lie, however, because I know I can depend on him. As far as Jim is concerned, my wife is away on business and I’m stuck here in Scotland on my own business, but we’re so in love that we send each other expensive presents every month. In reality the last thing she sent me was a wad of paper which looked quite official and important but I put it down somewhere and now I can’t remember where.
Jim Nothofagus is a Goldsmith. I never asked him why he became one but I suppose it’s because he likes to make things with his hands, and what could be more satisfying than fashioning intricate pieces out of shimmering gold? He’s good at it too. I gaze around the shop, as I always do. There’s beautiful jewellery everywhere in glass-fronted cabinets and in display cases. My eye falls on an array of fine wedding and engagement bands, and I realise I’ve lost mine but it doesn’t matter because this is the last day of the lie. There’s also a nice collection of Celtic jewellery with its intertwining loops and crosses, all laid out on velvet cushions. I smile, remembering the Celtic patterned bracelet I bought my wife for a birthday, years ago. A genuine gift, probably lost now or hidden so Mr Artwork doesn’t get upset. My smile widens when I consider their circumstances and know they will never really be able to trust one another because they both know the other is capable of cheating. Me? I never claimed to be trustworthy. Those of my kind never really are.
“Seen something you like?” Jim asks.
“I guess. It’s all nice.”
“I know.” True professionals are never modest.
“What have you got in silver?” I ask.
“I thought your woman liked gold.”
“Yeah. My daughter likes silver.”
He shows me the children’s collection, which is all very small and dainty and not much use for what I need. I need another lie, and quick.
“She’ll be fifteen,” I tell him. “I don’t think she’d appreciate kids’ stuff.”
We spend a while looking through all his stuff, as we do every month. I collect a few pieces of gold on the countertop, although I’m not sure why. Habit more than anything else. The need to keep up the pretence of happily married human. The desire for the warmth and light of the yellowish metal. It draws me to it and there isn’t a lot I can really do to resist so I pile up the bill with the vague intention of maxing out my credit card. I’ve always wanted to do that.
And then we get to the silver. I’ve chosen my pieces; a thickish chain with a floating heart, a Celtic style ring, a heavy bracelet. He lifts the cushion with the bracelet on, the most expensive silver piece I chose, and asks if I would like to take a closer look just as he did with all the gold. I clasp my hands firmly behind my back and lean closer, pretending to examine the exquisite artisanship. The end of my nose starts to go numb and tingly, so I straighten up quickly.
“You can pick it up. No obligation.”
I pay for my purchases and he packs all the little red gift boxes into a rather stylish blue carrier bag that probably added £1.50 to my bill. And then I realise Jim is watching me like a hawk.
“I won’t be back,” I tell him. “Going south in a few weeks. Uh. Nice knowing you.”
“Yeah,” says Jim, “and I’m the Queen Mother.”
This catches me off-guard. “I’m sorry?”
Jim leans closer to me. He’s a big man, blond haired and blue eyed, and very threatening when he looks at you like this. The Vikings were before even my time, but I figure this is what they looked like. I find myself watching from a point somewhere on the other side of the room – have you ever had that? When you can see yourself from behind – as he reaches up and very gently removes my sunglasses. I’m not sure what to do, but he looks into my eyes and he doesn’t flinch.
“I know what you are, mate,” he whispers. “You were looking at that bracelet like a guy looks at a loaded gun. And now you say you won’t be back …”
“You’ve got it,” I mutter.
And now I’m walking back through Edinburgh, back to my flat and the tattered remains of my life. Like I said, I’m not bitter about anything that’s happened to me, but I am extremely tired. Tired of life, tired of people; mentally and physically exhausted by six centuries of keeping my secret whether I want to or not. Tired of the moon and its stupid never-ceasing phases and tired of its power over me. Years ago I swore to kill the moon but now I know that isn’t the way to go about it. You can’t break your bonds to it without breaking yourself, and it all comes down to what you want most – your freedom or your life. When you’ve had as much life as I have, you start craving a little of that freedom.
Steps. Key. Door. In.
There’s a room, more of a walk-in closet, near the bathroom. I turn on the main room light and open the closet door, and out comes the gold shine. Everything I bought from Jim over the last few years is in here, and this is where I go when the moon is full. Silver enrages – and, if there’s enough, destroys – werewolves; gold pacifies us. It’s funny how few people realise that.
I pause before the door, unsure all of a sudden if I want to go through with this. Then I think of all the voices and the pain and the faces of those I bothered to love looking back at me with such pity before walking away, hand-in-hand. And the years of being hunted through Europe, and the rejection of the pack, and the hatred – the hatred! – on the alchemist’s face when he found out what I am. I remember the deaths of five hundred friends and the dread of making new ones because I knew there were nothing but dust and breath as soon as they were born. And I go back to the coffee table where there’s an almost empty bottle of Jack Daniels. I drink it down as if it is the elixir of life and I am a man clinging to his last seconds. Then I take the bag from the jewellers and remove each piece. The gold I arrange on the table, staring at it for a while, and then I take the silver.
The other interesting thing about metals is that they are ductile. This is especially handy because they are also conductive, silver extremely so. And while none of us could easily or legally get hold of enough silver to kill him neatly, a very high voltage could do the job. And while it is virtually impossibly to harness that much electricity, a silver wire wrapped round a hand could amplify the destructivity.
So I sit here with the silver and the lighter and the pliers until I have something small enough to insert into wall socket. And then I finish the whiskey and I take the silver, feeling my hands go numb and the shockingly warm touch of oblivion already on me as I grip it. I step into the little room, and turn of the light, and pull the door closed.
Minutes later, I open my eyes. Spreading infinitely out around me in all directions is a shimmering silver desert underneath an endless sky full of brilliant silver stars. There is no pain, no numbness, only peace. No moon in the sky. No sun. Nothing but harmless silver sand through which I can now make out a path leading out into infinity.
I smile. And I walk.