Mnemoka (Fragment)

Clark Ashton Smith

1"I must warn you that the drug is not wholly reliable," said the drum-chested, mummy-lean keeper of the dive. His voice boomed like the croaking of some gigantic frog, that had contrived to shape itself into human vocables. "Before and after it, you must keep your mind fixed undeviatingly on whatever events you have desired to re-live. Otherwise you may re-live happenings which you have wished to forget."

"In other words, the clock is turned back? I have {heard} that the drug creates a complete illusion of reality--{sight}, hearing, taste and touch."

"Yes, as you earthmen understand illusion—and reality. When the mnemoka has taken full effect, you will have all the sensation of experiencing certain past events as if they were part of the present. There is, however, what one might call a penumbral period, varying from a half hour to a full hour, during which the past and present may intermingle or alternate, often in a very confusing manner. And sometimes the re-lived events may take a variant turn, with intervals or endings not hitherto experienced. Such variations, it would seem, are determined by hidden desires — or fears. According to our theory, this is the only way in which the past can be altered. Of course, it is all subjective .... And yet there have been, in some cases, results which earthmen would hardly call subjective. Again, it is my duty to warn you … There are good reasons why the sale of mnemoka is forbidden."

"Thanks," said Space-Alley Jon, squinting upward with inexpressive eyes at Pnaglak, the gaunt Aihai who overtowered his own medium stature by a full half-yard. "You've done your duty. Now give me the drug."

The Martian's arm, long as that of a gorilla, thin as that of an age-embalmed Pharaoh, reached upward to a shelf close to the ceiling of the high, narrow vault in which he and his customer stood. He brought down a wide-bottomed vial, opaque as obsidian, with a spire-like stopper, encrusted with bitumen that had run downward on the bottle itself in finger-shaped streaks before hardening.

The bitumen seal fell off in flakes under his pointed onyx-tough nails. He removed the stopper and poured the vial's contents into a small beaker standing on a tripodal table, the sole furniture of the crypt. Lifting the beaker in his leathery claws, he offered it to Jon.

"Drink the stuff quickly," he urged. "Then pay me, and go—as far away from here as your legs will carry you. Users of rnnemoka are not allowed to linger in the bar upstairs."

"I'll pay you first," said Jon with testy curtness. "And don't worry about my staying. I've already swilled enough of your putrid swamp-weed brandy."

With his free hand he pulled out a wallet of bright-pebbled skin that had originally formed the crop of a chameleon-bird from Venus, and tossed it, jangling harshly, on the table.

Pnaglak unzipped the wallet, took out twenty djangas of gold and silver alloy, and returned it.

Jon raised the beaker to his nostrils, sniffing curiously. With senses sharpened by the perfumes and fetors of alien worlds, he could detect no odor in the thick sepia-brown liquid that foamed to immense irridescent bubbles.

"Here's wishing you a bellyful of your own poisons," he toasted the proprietor, and swallowed the tasteless liquor to its last slow-oozing drops.

Before he could lower the emptied cup, it was snatched from his fingers, and the Aihai nudged him toward a flight of stairs opposite to that by which he had entered. Up steps that climbed into darkness, spaced for the gangling shins of the planet's natives, he was shooed or pushed bodily when he stumbled . As they went, the dive-keeper lapsed into the guttural Martian language that human vocal organs can hardly approximate. "Ngrhk, grkg, grkg, ngrhk," he croaked in anxious abjuration.

At the top of the blind stairs, a door was opened quickly on oiled, noiseless hinges. Jon was thrust forth into a lampless alley black as the guts of an undersea fish, and the door closed behind him, its closing perceived only by a faint, sighing wafture of air.

He stood a long moment, trying to orient himself. The cold of the thin-aired night, well-nigh bitter as that of space, began to gnaw him with black teeth that pierced through his padded tunic.

The stars of Lyra's handle, swinging westward in the roof-verged chasm overhead, enabled him to regain his bearings. He followed the alley to his right, knowing that it should debouch on an esplanade along the great canal that divided Ignarh-Luth the space-port from the immemorial capitol, Ignarh-Vath. A mile eastward, on the same canal, was the Ghaggan Hotel, in which he had taken lodgings.

It was a hazardous and unsavory neighborhood, with whose doings the police concerned themselves only in some explosion of civil virtue. Here the cryptic and crafty natives pandered to the space-wandering scum of a dozen worlds and moons. Outlawed, fantastic liquors, deadly opiates were sold, and exotic crimes and vices, older than Babylon, flourished rankly. But even here it had been none too easy to find a seller of mnemoka, a narcotic distilled from a Martain cactus, but strictly tabooed by the Martians themselves. They would dispense it only, and then rarely, to aliens. This taboo, it seemed, was of religious origin. Some sort of vague unspecified damnation would supposedly ensue the drug's use. The stigma of necromancy was attached even to drug-dreamers who attempted to evoke the past in their dreams.

Jon had heard alluring accounts, though never at first hand, of the fabulous evocative powers of mnemoka. It was said that certain terrestrial addicts had been able under its influence to repeat the happiest hours of their lives, even back to infancy. As yet no earth-scientist had analyzed this narcotic, which could induce hallucinations of reality more vivid and complete than those created by any other known agent. As Pnaglak had warned, it was also tricky, and would sometimes reproduce events and effects more painful than pleasant; or would even twist the past in devious and aberrant ways. In some cases it had left stigmata such as would normally be caused only by actual physical experience.

In obedience to Pnaglak's injunction, Jon had been trying to concentrate his thoughts on the far-off episode he had consciously chosen to re-live. Rapt in this endeavor, he hastened his steps. There should be ample time to regain the security of his room before the drug could take its fullest effect. But even now he noticed a curious altering of his senses, as if the process of detachment from present realities had already begun.

The barb-tipped cold had become a little blunted, as if a premature sun had risen somewhere behind the lofty maze of buildings. In lieu of the metal-hard pavement, he seemed to be treading at times on something resilient as grass or moss. The familiar alley-stenches no longer stung his nostrils with ammoniac keenness; and through them he caught evanescent waftures of bruised mint — faint but at moments unmistakable .... There was no mint anywhere on Mars. But he had lain long ago — and not alone — in a bed of wild mint on his natal Earth. It was that episode, removed in time by years spent on half the solar worlds, which he had wished to re-experience.2

He sought to vision the face of Sophia, the young girl who had shared with him that fragrant bed. He could see her small but nubile breasts, under the lace of sunlight and willow-leaf shadows; could see, could feel, the warm body that had basked in the summer noon. The thrill of that yielding, virginal for both of them, remained poignant in memory. But her face returned to him with the vagueness of a reflection in moving water. Between, in brief flashes, came other faces, unbidden and unwelcome: faces of women whose venal passion or perversity he had bought — and could buy again — in many space-ports. There was no need of mnemoka to revive such loves as these. The price of the flame-sapphires he sold would bring them about him in seraglios with all their unearthly languors and writhings.

With a violent effort of will, he banished the faces — and with them went the tantalizing phantom of mint, the warmth which had tempered the bleak night, the ambiguous softness beneath his feet. Once again there was nothing but the black, fetor-infested {alley} along which he hastened.

It was his haste, perhaps, that caused him to stumble over some unseen, heavy object. Cursing, he regained his balance and pulled out the small but powerful flashlight that he carried.

It was a man's body that had blocked his way, lying transversely, face upward, on the filthy pavement. The light played on knee-length boots and broadly belted tunic such as he himself wore—the traditional garb of space-men. The body itself might have been one of many thousands · .. but the face was one that he knew well, and had never thought to see again.

For an instant, Jon was aware of no horror, only the shock of a thing impossible, when his light centered upon that dead familiar face. Then came the wild hope that he was mistaken — that the man was merely someone who resembled Boris. Seeking evidence of such a mistake, he bent closer.

With sick consternation he identified the large mole above the right brow, the two diagonal reddish knife-scars running from jowl to eye-socket on the left cheek. The hook-nose, broken midway in its bridge, the ragged rufous chin-beard half concealing a deep cleft, the ponderous lids above ill-matched eyes, the massively jutting underlip — these could belong only to Boris. In further confirmation, there was the wound itself.

It could only have been caused by a soft-nosed bullet such as Jon had used, forgetting in his haste that the gun was loaded with cartridges of that type. The bullet, fired close to the right temple, had made a neat clean hole on that side. Emerging on the other, it had blown away the left ear and much of the skull and hair. Jon had regretted such messiness afterward: it had taken time to mop up the vessel's spattered wall and floor.

He had loaded the automatic with those mushroom bullets for possible use against certain rumoured European monsters, whose diffused vital spots could be injured little by anything less barbarous. Such monsters had remained shy and aloof during their sojourn on the moon.

And now that grisly wound,3


1. Several partial drafts of "Mnemoka" have been preserved in the Smith Collection of Brown University, together with their carbons; this duplication is very fortunate, inasmuch as all pages are terribly burned. With some effort, however, the first 2,000 words have been entirely reconstructed, with fragments totaling 700 words extending beyond. Had he ever completed it, "Mnemoka" would have been Smith's fourth story with the Martian setting of "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," "The Dweller in the Gulf," and "Vulthoom."

Little is known regarding "Mnemoka's" composition: references to it have yet to appear in Smith's correspondence. Conjectural evidence from The Book of Clark Ashton Smith indicates that it dates from Smith's burst of creative energy in the middle to late 1950s: Item 210 lists the title along with a host of other stories considered or completed during the '50s, such as "Symposium of the Gorgon" (August 1957), "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" (October 1952 to April 1957), and "Monsters in the Night" (April 1953).

2. Thematically this tale is similar to "The Chain of Aforgomon," in which a character calls upon the Lurking Chaos Xexanoth to recall a flown hour with his beloved, and to "The Last Incantation," wherein Malygris the mage seeks to resurrect his first love, and to recapture his innocent past.

The theme of "loss"—the loss of a loved one, of a bright and beautiful past, of some ecstatic state of beingtis a very important one in Smith's fiction and poetry.

3. Beyond this point the remaining burnt fragments provide a few additional details. Space-Alley Jon and Boris had met in a port city on Venus, where they agreed to travel to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in search of quick wealth. Travelling in a small ship, The Pelican, the pair spent "a successful season among the aborigines of that Jupiterian moon. They had traded bangles and other cheap trinkets for the gorgeous and precious flame-sapphires found in the soft marls of Europa."

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.

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