Lord Foul's Bane
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant — 1
One: Golden Boy
SHE came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the grey, gaunt man who strode down the centre of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm's way.
The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!”
Thomas Covenant's stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded,
But he saw that the people he passed, the people who knew him, whose names and houses and handclasps were known to him-he saw that they stepped aside, gave him plenty of room. Some of them looked as if they were holding their breath. His inner shouting collapsed. These people did not need the ancient ritual of warning. He concentrated on restraining the spasmodic snarl which lurched across his face, and let the tight machinery of his will carry him forward step by step.
As he walked, he flicked his eyes up and down himself, verifying that there were no unexpected tears or snags in his clothing, checking his hands for scratches, making sure that nothing had happened to the scar which stretched from the heel of his right palm across where his last two fingers had been. He could hear the doctors saying, “VSE, Mr. Covenant. Visual Surveillance of Extremities. Your health depends upon it. Those dead nerves will never grow back-you'll never know when you've hurt yourself unless you get in the habit of checking. Do it all the time-think about it all the time. The next time you might not be so lucky.”
VSE. Those initials comprised his entire life.
Doctors! he thought mordantly. But without them, he might not have survived even this long. He had been so ignorant of his danger. Self-neglect might have killed him.
Watching the startled, frightened or oblivious faces-there were many oblivious faces, though the town was small-that passed around him, he wished he could be sure that his face bore a proper expression of disdain. But the nerves in his cheeks seemed only vaguely alive, though the doctors had assured him that this was an illusion at the present stage of his illness, and he could never trust the front which he placed between himself and the world. Now, as women who had at one time chosen to discuss his novel in their literary clubs recoiled from him as if he were some kind of minor horror or ghoul, he felt a sudden treacherous pang of loss. He strangled it harshly, before it could shake his balance.
He was nearing his destination, the goal of the affirmation or proclamation that he had so grimly undertaken. He could see the sign two blocks ahead of him: Bell Telephone Company. He was walking the two miles into town from Haven Farm in order to pay his phone bill. Of course, he could have mailed in the money, but he had learned to see that act as a surrender, an abdication to the mounting bereavement which was being practiced against him.
While he had been in treatment, his wife, Joan, had divorced him-taken their infant son and moved out of the state. The only thing in which he, Thomas Covenant, had a stake that she had dared handle had been the car; she had taken it as well. Most of her clothing she had left behind. Then his nearest neighbours, half a mile away on either side, had complained shrilly about his presence among them; and when he had refused to sell his property, one of them moved from the county. Next, within three weeks of his return home, the grocery store-he was walking past it now, its windows full of frenetic advertisements had begun delivering his supplies, whether or not he ordered them-and, he suspected, whether or not he was willing to pay.
Now he strode past the courthouse, its old grey columns looking proud of their burden of justice and law-the building in which, by proxy, of course, he had been reft of his family. Even its front steps were polished to guard against the stain of human need which prowled up and down them, seeking restitution. The divorce had been granted because no compassionate law could force a woman to raise her child in the company of a man like him.
In a town of no more than five thousand, the business section was not large. Covenant crossed in front of the department store, and through the glass front he could see several high-school girls pricing cheap jewellery. They leaned on the counters in provocative poses, and Covenant's throat tightened involuntarily. He found himself resenting the hips and breasts of the girls-curves for other men's caresses, not his. He was impotent. In the decay of his nerves, his sexual capacity was just another amputated member. Even the release of lust was denied to him; he could conjure up desires until insanity threatened, but he could do nothing about them. Without warning, a memory of his wife flared in his mind, almost blanking out the sunshine and the sidewalk and the people in front of him. He saw her in one of the opaque nightgowns he had bought for her, her breasts tracing circles of invitation under the thin fabric. His heart cried,
Bracing his shoulders like a strangler, he suppressed the memory. Such thoughts were a weakness he could not afford; he had to stamp them out. Better to be bitter, he thought. Bitterness survives. It seemed to be the only savour he was still able to taste.
To his dismay, he discovered that he had stopped moving. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk with his fists clenched and his shoulders trembling. Roughly, he forced himself into motion again. As he did so, he collided with someone.
He caught a glimpse of ochre; the person he had bumped seemed to be wearing a dirty, reddish-brown robe. But he did not stop to apologize. He stalked on down the walk so that he would not have to face that particular individual's fear and loathing. After a moment, his stride recovered its empty, mechanical tick.
Now he was passing the offices of the Electric Company-his last reason for coming to pay his phone bill in person. Two months ago, he had mailed in a check to the Electric Company-the amount was small; he had little use for power-and it had been returned to him. In fact, his envelope had not even been opened. An attached note had explained that his bill had been anonymously paid for at least a year.
After a private struggle, he had realized that if he did not resist this trend, he would soon have no reason at all to go among his fellow human beings. So today he was walking the two miles into town to pay his phone bill in person-to show his peers that he did not intend to be shriven of his humanity. In rage at his outcasting, he sought to defy it, to assert the rights of his common mortal blood.
In person, he thought. What if he were too late? If the bill had already been paid? What did he come in person for then?
The thought caught his heart in a clench of trepidation. He clicked rapidly through his VSE, then returned his gaze to the hanging sign of the Bell Telephone Company, half a block away. As he moved forward, conscious of a pressure to surge against his anxiety, he noticed a tune running in his mind along the beat of his stride. Then he recollected the words:
Golden boy with feet of clay,
Let me help you on your way.
A proper push will take you far—
But what a clumsy lad you are!