In the early second year of the boy's life, the dreams began for him.
"Hermano," said the woman who was a sister, but was not his sister, "Hermano Inocencio, you tell them this is your name." She pushed the dark curls away from his face and pulled his new white cap down over his forehead. "Take care," she said, "Ofelia would have been proud of you."
Then she put him into the arms of the woman from Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, who swallowed him up in her dark cloak, hiding him like the night hid the transfer. Under this double layer of darkness he went away from there and the woman who had carried him, whose face he could hardly remember from day to day, but whose scent and whose name lingered on in his dreams, from time to time.
The war ended a little while later, and Hermano Inocencio lived in France, and dreamed there for many years. The lady who had taken him in and kept him called him Ignace, but he knew that his name was Hermano, and he never forgot it, dreaming it every night, night after night, though he did not know exactly what it meant. It was a mystery.
When he was eight years old, he asked the woman who he called 'Mama', whose name, ironically enough was also Mercedes.
"Hermano," she told him, "It is the Spanish for 'brother'. I imagine you got it because you are from a people fighting for brotherhood for all men."
So she said to him, but in his heart it remained a mystery.
That night the new dream came, a different dream.
He is stepping carefully over bits of barbed wire buried in the lichens, mortar shells, the incongruous and empty hulls of tanks and giant toothy gears like a clock, and a graveyard full of dead jews when he spies the house. Or houses, two of them, over this pile of bodies and up a narrow pathway that splits enticingly to-wards two yards, both unkempt, but free of the debris and refuse of war that litters the forest and field behind. He pauses at the split, unsure of which way he wants to go. Niether of the houses look particularly friendly, but one has the look and feel of a forbidding locked-box, the other of a leering, drunken clown or pantomime; Harlequin, lurid. Nonetheless, that one is a bit more inviting, and he steers that way, careful not to tear his breeches on a broken sign pointing it the opposite direction which reads, Camp Gurs, Ilot.
It is of tearing them he is thinking when teeth find his backside and lift him up, toss him in the air and he lands in the lap of a great green monster, grinning down at him all teeth. It sniffs him up and down and over and decides that the best thing to do will be to carry him over his shoulder, up to the house, whuffing and galumphing all the way.
So it does.
Hermano Inocencio stares up from a musty armchair at a smug thin man with a beard and the tiniest glasses, staring smugly down at him over the corpse of a fat, also bearded man in a fez.
"Now that THAT'S out of the way." He folds his spindly limbs into another, opposite musty armchair, leaned down with his hairy, horrid arms and snatches the spilled tea-tray from the ground by the fat man's hands. He pours a cup for himself, and as the second tea cup is broken, pours Hermano's tea in a saucer and hands it to him with a couple of hard lumps of sugar soaking in the middle. Hermano takes it automatically, like a curiosity passed round for show-and-tell.
"Now," says the man, having sipped, his knobby long fingers clawed over the arms of the chair, "I understand that you are here for a mystery."
Hermano himself understands nothing of the sort, but it occurs to him that this is perhaps true, or true enough.
"Yes sir," he says, "It is my name, sir."
"Of course it is," sniffs the thin man, "though a third-rate one at best. Your name, as you know, is not a proper name. It is not even a proper noun."
"It-- I am from Spain, mere tells me so," He says helpfully, "that is where my name is from."
"Don't be obvious, though I don't suppose you can help it. Of course it is Spanish. It is a literal Spanish word. You people and your languages. In my day there was One Tongue and one only. Of course, there were only four people..." He looked down at the lumpen body, "Well, three people and that great galumphing toad down there, but that is beside the point. Or perhaps it is the blood-dripping end of the point. Hermano equals brother, of course, Frere, to indulge in your adopted tongue. I understand that," He prodded the corpse with his foot, "too well. Inocensio-- now that has got to be some sort of joke. You are no more an innocent than I am." And how horribly he leers! His teeth and the lenses of his spectacles white glowing in the oillight from a table lamp that leaves the rest of his face in shadow. The boy pulls up his knees to his nose for protection from this spectre.
The great green beast, which has draped himself nearby like a leather sofa, he whuffs through his scaled nostrils and rolls his reptilian eyes, a gargoyle chiding a gargoyle.
"Shut up Gregory," the thin man hisses, "no one asked you."
The beast chuckles, and the thin man clears his throat and continues.
"In spite of the overtness of the key, the mystery behind it is much deeper, much meatier. God loves his meat, you know." Incisors flashed in what might once have been a smile, "His sacrificial lambs, oh my wayward little brother."
"I'm not your little brother."
"Indeed. Don't let's be thick. Whose little brother are you then, porquito Hermano?"
The thin man springs to his feet with a snarl and a guffaw.
"Oh suffering serpents! Of all the mawkish, maudlin metaphors ever milked from the crusted teat of cliché, Heavens NO!!" He seethes and shoves his florid face in the boy's, "Hogwash, put it out of your mind. You are a human babe human born, sure as a Roman loves salt, and don't you forget it. No no, you are brother to--" And here his grin becomes even more hideous than before, "--a corpse."
The boy's eyes, horrified, go to the body on the floor.
"Yes, so am I. So what is your mystery? It is a murder mystery, the very best kind."
"I have a...?"
"That, my boy, is the sauce of the secret. And I didn't exactly intend to kill that blubbering nincompoop you know, it's just great gully-guts there would have gone and blabbed the secret to you right off and then..." He slides back, fondling the soft leather of the chairback with one hand and smugly examining the nails of the other, "...there would be no mystery."
The boy is not convinced that he likes mystery, all of that much. It is just so much questions, and he already had plenty of those. He has one right now.
"Who... who are you anyway, sir?"
"I?" The thin man laughs a laugh of dreadful scorn, "I am Cain. Purveyor of penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers and fust rate nightmares. I am the first son of the first woman, the first murderer, and the first foundling child of man to be rejected by on-high in favour of some..." And he kicks the corpse again, more savagely, then aims a cruel recurve smile back on the boy, "you will sympathise, I'm sure."
"I..." He had nothing to say to that, but he was a good Catholic boy who knew his catechism, and he crossed himself devoutly.
"It doesn't matter. What you need-- brother (in spirit if not by blood)--is a labyrinth. And for a labyrinth, you need a key."
"Where do I get a key?"
"Where do you get a clue? In the labyrinth, of course."
"But you said..."
"Nevermind what I said. But I feel for you a little. We haven't got a spider, but..."
He lifts the upside-down cream-pot to reveal a tiny gold gargoyle, mewing miserably and covered in cream. It hops unahppily to the side of the fat man and cries little bleating wails until the great green Gregory gets up and washes it all over, comforting, with its huge red tongue.
"Let Goldie be your guide in dark places then." Cain snorts, "see if I care. And... good luck to you. Finish your tea!"
Dutfully, Hermano lifts the plate to his mouth and sips at it until most of it is gone, but he puts the rest down on the floor for the little gargoyle, who sniffs at it and takes a couple of brave, milky laps. When that is done and the thin man nods his assent, he, Hermano, and the little gold creature depart that place and head way, back through the cemetery, following the old broken sign.
He walks outside of years, in a little muddy maze of tents and wood-slat cabins roofed in tarpaper. He looks through the ashes of what once were weak fires on rocks above the mud, in this place that has been reclaimed by a forest. The cabins are all at wrong angles, interspersed by forbidding trees that block the way or a gravestone higher than his head, looming ominously and bidding him turn round, go back!
Finally, a thousand twists later, he finds a place where over the door is marked a sign of two red keys, in the shape of a cross.
"!!!" says Goldie, and he follows her in.
The cabin is as long a room as he has ever seen, long as a banquet hall, but filled with beds and pallets on the floor instead of a feast, and each bed an empty body, and each empty body lacks a face. He walks down the rows in breath-held horror, and the gargoyle hops into his arms and onto his shoulder, clinging around his neck for comfort. And then the creature screams and he suddenly sees, on a table in the middle, a corpse with a face.
It is a gaunt, sweet face, eaten away by lice and starvation. She was here too long, though she had given him away. She was sick, and nothing could save her.
It was the typhus, whispers her ghost, there was nothing I could do, there was nothing anyone could do. I just wanted to know... the corpse does not move, but he can see a hand hovering, as if to stroke the curls of his head, That you were safe.
"I am fine," says the boy, "but there is so much I do not know. I need to find the key."
Ahhh... sighs the last breath of her memory-voice, invisible eyes closing inside of his mind.
Goldie leaps from his shoulder to the bed, crying a little, and nudges her hand with its nose. And in her hand is a paper, crumpled and faded and stained, but when Hermano takes it, he can read it too, a little.
Your brother, Pablo has been shot, I am very sorry. Most of our men were killed on the border by the Falangists. I hope that this reaches you; will write again with name of our new contact in Agen.
As the boy reads the words, the paper in his hand folds and hardens itself into a key, heavy and iron in his hand.
"Ah..." Hermano stands a moment over her body, not even a ghost left in the ruin of the place. And then he turns and he flees, the gargoyle with him, and on the door to the room is a padlock, also thick, and rusted, and made of iron. His little hands tremble desperately as he tries it, and finally, with a tumble and a click it opens, and he pushes it out, and he emerges from a storeroom near a mill, with a big house. It is cold, a wind is blowing through, but there is smoke in the chimney, so the house seems the best bet. He trots for it as fast as he can, hoping perhaps that there, truly, there is something to eat. He did not know one could get hungry in dreams (he remembers that it is a dream, for a moment), but he is, very.
He stops by the door to what must be the kitchen suddenly, for there is a noise behind him.
"Are you sure you want to know what is in there, kid?" It is a tall man with a face carved out of a statue of a soldier. He has a uniform on his shoulders, and mirrored sunglasses on his face, but he looks like the images of the Germans that everyone remembers with hatred.
"It's for a mystery," the boy explains, "a murder mystery."
"Sure, kid. Sure." The sky is the grey of a slate shelf, and out of it a raven drops onto the man's shoulders.
"You can call me the Corinthian."
"I am Hermano."
Hermano turns his back on the mirrors and opens the door, slipping inside.
There is a fire going, and in front of the fire a long table, that would have gone well in the earlier room, and lying on the table is a woman, a woman with a big belly, carved up like a roast. He approaches the table with wonder, and the gargoyle clings tighter to his neck.
"Who would eat up a woman like this?" He wonders if this is the mystery, who has killed this woman.
It is a woman's part, to be eaten up by the men she loves, the woman on the table's voice sighed into his ear, It is not murder that way, mijo. It is real life. It is the way of things...
And cradled in her lifeless arms, blackened and burned, lies a twisted root vaguely in the shape of a human baby.
"You say tomato," says the Corinthian, standing behind Hermano suddenly, "That's the stuff of nightmares, isn't it? Is it the act, or the intent, that makes the murder?"
And Hermano bites his lip and backs away from the table and the Corinthian both, but the door has disappeared behind him, all sealed over smooth.
"You'll be needing a door," he suggests, "a way out." The glasses dip towards the table, "Other than hers, I bet."
"what do you mean?"
"I mean... we can see for ourselves."
And the Corinthian removes his glasses. Where eyes ought to have been, he has two mouths filled with tiny, sharp teeth, gnashing greedily. He puts his hand, very gently to the woman's head, and when his hand comes up, he is holding two round objects and somehow they seem every familiar to him, held in the Corinthian's hand like that. The tall man inserts one in each of his sockets, and stands still as the fire in the fireplace dances for the longest held breath of the boy's life, death, or dream.
"There," he said finally, pointing to the woman's arms, "That is the key."
Hermano swallows hard and approaches the table again, Goldie close behind him, and carefully lifts the root-baby from her arms. The thing sent out tendrils into the woman's chest, plant and skin bound together through her flesh. He swallows again, tightening his grip, and then tugs with all of his little might. He tugs, and tugs, and he rips the root from her chest and it screams, and Goldie shrieks and wraps her wings around the boy's ears, lest the scream strip the soul out of his body as surely as the roots from the woman.
In the place where the root had been woven into the woman's flesh, now, there is a door, a yawning portal of black with golden stairs leading downward into darkness, and the root-baby has become a key, a large silver key in the shape of a gnarled branch. Hermano looks over his shoulder at the Corinthian, and he raven on his shoulder.
"I'll take you now," the raven caws in a raspy, but not unkind voice, and perches itself on the opposite shoulder from the one that Goldie now cowers upon, "Don't be too afraid, kid."
Hermano stared up at the bird, but he keeps his mouth locked up as tight as anything and they go down, down into a darkness soft as a warm cloak under which one travels through a darker night, a darkness descending for what must be forever, until it opens into soft torchlight, and pure gold.
"I have been waiting for you," It is a lovely voice, and it is not the voice of a ghost. It is the voice of a girl, looking down upon him from a throne on high, and beneath her, leering, a green man with a goat's tail and horns that put him in mind of nothing so much as Cain, the way his eyes bore into him.
"Jees Louise." caws the Raven, rolling his eyes.
But Hermano is looking at the girl, who is beautiful as a doll, all dark eyes and dark hair and a mouth generous and full and that he thought he would have loved to see smiling, but it was not smiling, not even a little.
"So you found your way here, although I sealed up all of the portals. I knew you would one day."
"You are..." He stares up at her, drops to his knees. Goldie chirped and unfolded its wings a little, less frightened now.
"Yes. I am Princess Moanna. Once I was known as your sister, in a world far from this place, an ugly, sordid world full of people who were brutal towards anything that would get in their way. Anything that didn't get in their way, but was simply inconvenient. Monsters and Pale Men. And you have taken your place among them."
"I don't understand..." Hermano flails, helpless, and she is down in front of him, off of her throne.
"That is why they call you Ignacio now. It is Unknowing, because you know nothing, and you are no true brother. I asked you once, I asked one thing of you-- not to hurt her. But you killed her, and you killed her again too, to come here! Now you will never be a prince. Now, you are dead to me!" And she turned her back upon him, her scarlet cloak flowing from her shoulders like blood.
"Now wait a sec, lady..." caws the raven.
"But princess, perhaps you are not being fair," interrupts the faun in a cool, sonorous voice, "After all, he is still-- relatively-- an innocent. No matter how much blood exists in his background. Is it his fault, that he has the blood of a monster in his belly?"
The Princess turns slowly to examine her subject and counselor. "Since when does a task need to be fair? It is about choice, is it not?"
"With all due respect, your highness, it is not a task that this little one embarks upon so much as it is a... quest." The fawn's smile was not as sinister as Cain's, but it was sinister enough, "Against unknowing. Would you rob your little brother of the whole truth, after all?"
She seemed to consider the Faun's words for a long moment, and then she nodded slowly.
"Very well," she said, "you have one more chance, if you want to become a prince, and reign with me in the underworld. Do you accept the charge I lay upon you?"
"If you are the sister," Hermano tries, he tries so very hard, "Then you were the one who was murdered. By...?"
"There is a monster in a labyrinth; his ghost wanders there still. You must put it to rest forever, and then you will have atoned for what you have done, and you will be worthy of ruling by my side." And then she smiles, and Hermano's eyes glow brightly, because he has seen that smile in the eyes of Mercedes-mere. It is his own smile, but she is so very beautiful. He nods eagerly his assent, and when he looks down again, the key in his hand has become a silver dagger.
"Very well! Faun, open the portal to the Labyrinth!" She holds out her hand to him over a standing stone of gold and the faun slices it open with a dagger, and every drop of blood from her hand sends a ripple through existence that becomes a door, another door, always another door.
"C'mon kid," says the raven, digging his claws into Hermano's shoulder as Goldie chirrups her assent. And so they ascend together, and find themselves-- in a labyrinth.
It is a true labyrinth, of moss and of stone, and concentric circles spreading out towards the wider.
"Who does she think she is, Princess of the Underworld?" grumbled the raven moodily, "Fucking labyrinth. There is always another one of these fucking labyrinths. And all labyrinths lead to the garden of forking ways. The portal to the underworld, meh. Which one? There are a million fu..." He stops at a screech from Goldie, sounding as abashed as a raven can sound, "sorry, bloody...? Er, a million underworlds, a million bl... a million skerries tied to the Dreaming like so many red balloons from the fanciful brain of some dreaming kid. Usually a girl. Dreams love the princesses, don't they?"
"Or Dream does. Or did once, anyway. Anyway. Anyway..."
This is a very small labyrinth, as far as these things go, and so it is not far to the entrance, where they see the monster.
It is the body of a soldier, a hard, handsome soldier, lying on the earth with a bullet-hole in his cheek and a bandage on the side of his mouth. It is a dead man, for true, but somehow less... of a corpse than the women he has seen. Something about him seems to be breathing, somehow. Hermano kneels by the body, and lays his head on the ground to look at the man's face, and the raven caws and perches in a nearby tree.
It surprises him less than it could when he realizes that he knows this face, he knows it like mirrors.
So you have returned to me, His ghost's voice rasps, every son should die where his father died. He should know how a man... truly dies. You, you are my...
"Murderer." And Cain steps out from behind a tree, accompanied by the decidedly less corpsish corpulent brother of his, stuttering a greeting like a record broken on a rock.
"I..?" Hermano is still, seeing everything as if through the eyes of the body, like the Corinthian. And it slides back, like the real world, into a distance, and he is watching it have had happened.
"Isn't it deliciously sordid?" queried Cain, "You already killed your mother. And then your father killed your sister for you. Then Mercedes killed your father for her, and you know what happened to Mercedes. Murder follows you, boy. Blood drips from your cradle."
"S-stop it, C-c-cain." Cain's brother, Abel, tugged on his sleeve petulantly, "L-let me tell him..."
"Why not?" Cain waved a hand negligently, "At this point, the drama is all played out, for the most part. Go ahead gully-guts, if you can get it out of your slobbering mouth."
Abel stepped forward, adjusted his fez, and coughed.
"it a-al dep-p-pends," he stuttered, "On wh-wha-what you want to be."
"A choice? But I only just learned... anything?"
"Ain't that always the way?" Sighed Cain gleefully.
"You-you can do... you can be... you can be the ob-object... y-you can be a s-son defined b-by his monster f-father, or a b-b-brother d-defined by his h-hero sister. O-o-o-or..."
"Or you can be one of the monsters." Cain grinned at the body of the dead captain, and Hermano stared for a long time, at the knife in his hand.
"So what will it be? Prince, posession, or...?
And then it all rushed up again, and he is there. It is, after all, a dream... not just a dream, but--
And there is a man in white, with white hair, and white skin behind him, waiting to hear him speak.
"No," says Hermano, flinging away the knife, "I reject these murders. I do not wish to be the object of a quest. And I do not wish to be a monster. And I do not wish to be a prince."
"Then what is your wish?" asks the man in white, "what do you dream for yourself?"
"To be free."
And when Hermano woke up, the first thing he decided was that it was high-on time he found a new name.