Disclaimer: Welcome to Nope Vale
Author's Note: I downloaded, like, five versions of this song over the course of writing this. What is my life.
Dedication: For TheGroovyGatsby. He knows why. XD The usual thanks to Nazi-Nurse and her followers, as well!
Warnings: Cecil/Earl. Implied reeducation. Got my facts about plant meanings/stories from a website called angelfire. Spoilers for episode 23. Crap editing, as per usual.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
He once was a true love of mine
In Night Vale, parsley grows in abundance.
While the arid temperatures of the desert aren't usually as intensive as those enjoyed in the inferno of smoldering logos that each seedling must visit nine times before germinating, any botanist worth their salt (or the salt paid upon their purchase at the green market) would agree that the town's climate is, on most days, close enough. "Are we in Hell?" the botanists are frequently heard to demand, rattling the bars of their cage in Mission Grove Park. "Is this the Underworld?" they shriek, avian, gouging their bulging eyes on hangers and hangnails. Winds whisper secrets through the aluminum leaves of their keepers; branching fingers claw jagged caverns into the topography of moss-eaten faces, and the botanists' confusion is understandable, really, in the presence of so much parsley.
"I dreamed of this," Cecil says, all fourteen years of his spry and wiry body enveloped in the lush of a luxuriant emerald patch. His lashes flutter, heavy and low. His voice has lowered, too, recently— pulled down by gravity as his limbs stubbornly rebel. His back bows into an obscene arch, arms sprawling outward like roots and offshoots and vines. The cool brown of his flesh melds with the cool brown of the earth; Earl imagines him dead, gnarled and knotty from dehydration, the leathery remains of his skin nibbled away by worms, soughing into soil.
He'll be so beautiful.
He's so beautiful now.
"I dreamed of this," Cecil says again, relaxing the creaking vertebrate of his spine one. By. One. His neck shifts a fraction, serpentine in the greenery. His opalescent eyes are the same bright white as the sun, and their steady gaze fills Earl with a similar warmth. "Last night. It was the most terrifying nightmare. Did you have it, too? All I knew was that I was in need of parsley— desperately, desperately." A shudder, elastic features twisting. He inhales heat, deep and measured and languid; lips part, and ice escapes in glittering rings of smoky frost. "I had a window box, in my dream. As if the seeds were somehow sentient, they sprouted there. Suddenly. Viciously. They overtook everything. Before I could blink, my whole life was in tangles and strictures, consumed by a void of vegetation. I cut it all down. Or I tried to, anyway, but the sickle I'd found somehow wound up wedged in my heart. Maybe I swung it too hard."
Russet fingers twitch a musing caress; the sprigs braided between them grow. Earl smiles, waving a pale palm over the bushel beside his own crossed legs. For him, the flora merely shivers. It's not overly surprising: parsley grows for the wicked, and there is no one more wicked than Cecil. Earl will keep practicing. A scout always strives to improve, after all. Besides, improving should be easier, now that his friend has promised to help. The Ineffectual Antidotes for the Slow Poison Known as Life badge will be his in no time.
"What do you think it means?"
In Earl's lap, the ichor splattered parchment of his Boy Scout Handbook flutters in an herbaceous breeze, as if some ethereal entity is thumbing through it. It pauses on a page with dog-eared corners, margins covered in the fibrous fungus indicative of a chapter on botany. If this plant grows in your garden, the oozing ink warns, you will be dead before the year is out. Bad luck, bad luck, bad luck.
Bad luck. But then, there is no other kind in this place— in this town that eats its citizens alive, whole and squirming and garnished with parsley. Cecil knows that. Everyone knows that. But Denial is a survival technique so important that it is taught to the masses, not just the scouts.
"Oh, c'mon." Cecil rolls his eyes, then his body: flipping onto a taut stomach and resting his chin in his hands. His back is a mess of dirt, clinging clods and arthropods. He grins, and it is the smile of a skeleton. Half-buried, emaciated. "You already earned your Clairvoyance badge. And your Dream Interpretation badge. You must have some idea," he presses.
Earl does. Like many before him, he has ideas and says nothing. In the distance, through the metallic trees, the botanists howl. Woven wreathes wither atop the Eternal Animal Pyre. For a moment, Earl indulges in an idea of a different sort: of touching the other's throat, of dipping into the spongy warmth of his mouth… Of following Cecil's tongue down the tube of his esophagus, leisurely fingering every moist bump, every slimy ridge of quaking muscle. In his mind, he loses himself on that thick, twilight trail, wandering until he is swallowed by a darkness as black and silky-velvet as a voice on the radio. Kissing would be less intimate, but he can't picture that without blushing.
He stops picturing things all together.
"It's probably nothing," Earl reassures instead, wiping mud from his friend's nose with the corner of his neckerchief. Condensation dews wherever their skin meets, pearling in fat drops and falling like rain. The foliage below struggles under the weight of it all; its plight is one that Earl can sympathize with. "Now, get your lazy butt up. We're supposed to be harvesting this for Miss Escobar."
Cecil groans. Blows a raspberry. Smirks.
Turns fifteen tomorrow.
(On the side of a hill in the deep forest green
Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground
Blankets and bedclothes; the child of the mountain
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)
They stuff his mouth with spittle and sage, the plucked leaves rubbery and swollen like pitted tongues. Pushing, intrusive; erotic, unwelcome. His cheeks turn white against the mushy bulge, flesh thinned by the insistence of formless beings. The grit of raised veins rub like sandpaper against the roof of his mouth. Stringy stems molest his uvula with feathery touches, slipping deeper and deeper. Wider and wider. He gags. With great heaves and guttural retches, Cecil tries to force the mulched herbs out of his mouth, bracing himself on his knees. He rears, frantic, claws scrabbling at and breaking against the sigils on the lacquered floor. His fear is animalistic. His response even more so.
Earl rubs at his back, cooing. Coaxing. Every inch the personification of guidance and comfort that fate has decreed he be. He fits himself into the role chosen for him, just as Cecil must. He must.
"Swallow," he urges, gentle. An encouraging wheedle in an ear deafened by pulsating blood, tender as the leaves themselves. He slips an arm around Cecil's thin waist, nestling it into the crooked fold of his torso and pelvis; his hips press into the camber of a quavering backside. Fingertips are replaced by parted lips. Lips— his lips, pink and segmented, like the maggots in his fantasies. Earl cannot resist a single nip against Cecil's clammy shoulder, as if to pay tribute to the worms that have forever lost their claim to this exquisite, convulsing body. It is the Town's now. Forever.
"Swallow," Earl murmurs again, front to back and holding him, so sweetly, so safely. "Council orders. You have to eat it all."
Saliva slips in viscous tendrils, dribbling down a trembling chin. Tears follow in kind, frustrated and pained, but passing. One hand curls protectively around the spiny cage of his gullet; Cecil does as he is told, Adam's apple bucking wildly against Earl's sensitive palm. The tantalizing drag of flesh on flesh sends an anesthetizing static through the scout's synapses, capillaries, numbing him to all other stimuli. Poignantly, he mimics the gesture with his hips: a rhythmic distraction, sinful and soothing. Leaning in, Earl whispers meaningless trivia into Cecil's ear. Sage is for wisdom, long life, good health. Sage cures skin sores, dyes hair silver. Obviously. He nestles, ginger locks unnaturally bright against the pale of Cecil's own, recently grayed tresses. The hoary tangle shines as bright as winter frost, glinting in the piercing light of the council room. They're seen as a healing plant in many cultures. The Native Americans used them as a spiritual cleansing agent.
One hand gently pumps Cecil's throat. The other is sprawled against the flat of his belly, massaging ingested herbs into place. A hard knot appears, then settles in writhing bowels. Done. For now. Earl's embrace tightens a fraction, supporting his friend in place of joints and muscles. Air shrieks through gaps in spice-speckled teeth, glossy with viscid spit; Cecil pulls in breath like a man half-drowned, violent and greedy. Croaked coughs propel his quivering body back into Earl's. He looks like a corpse. Which is funny, almost, since Cecil—this Cecil— will never be one.
No. Sage creates life. Gives life. Gives immortality. And…
"Th—there's one… one more th-thing…" a hoarse voice rasps into Earl's ear. The back of a snowy head connects dully with the bone of a hunched shoulder; his sonorous tone is tinged in equal parts pain and omnipotence. Somewhere near the door, a cloaked council member is thanking Earl for his assistance. The scout isn't listening. Not to that mysterious figure, anyway. "One m-more thing… that s… sage does..."
"Yes?" Earl prompts, features opening in interest and limbs closing in possessiveness. Still, he can only support so much. With a ragdoll sag, the ashen eighteen year old relaxes the coiled muscles of his neck. His head lolls; his features flip. Gravity tugs at his hair, just as the pearlescent gleam in his too-round eyes tugs at Earl's gut. There is something off about it. Something both terrified and frightening.
A shrewd smile creeps over sallow features, glossy and winding and upside-down, so that its taut bow almost looks like a frown. The deepest, most dangerous frown. Sharp. Earl longs for it to shred his own lips into tatters.
"It increases… one's mental capacity," Cecil confides. Giggles, even. Chillingly flat, as if he'd eaten his heart along with his daily dose of sage. A creamy liquid beads atop his lashes, blistering and draining from beneath translucent lids. Tears, but unusually glutinous. They ooze, leaving streaks of calcium and chlorophyll. Cecil doesn't seem to notice. Rather, his focus has fallen upon the skulking ring of council members, and the way that they are slowly, slowly closing in: thick, black, globular. Like the curves of a sealing pentagram crafted in molasses. Doubly sticky. They are doubly stuck. "I know. I know what will happen. To you. To Night Vale. I know everything, Earl. They made me know everything, and now they're going to take it away. They're going to kill me. Soon, I'll be dead again."
The scout arches an eyebrow, bemusement curdling the milky contours of his face.
"They can't kill you," he retorts, the pendulum of his emotions swinging from blunt exasperation to an ouroboros trepidation, feeding on itself as the shadows edge nearer. Back and forth and back and forth. Like glances, like a rapport. Cecil shifts; slippery sinews strain, stretching beneath a veneer of pallid flesh and the brace of Earl's hand. Ropey tendons roil like unseen serpents, and Earl is reminded of bedtime stories he's heard as a child: of snakes and apples and an expulsion from Paradise.
Cecil offers his friend a patronizing smirk, dramatic as a rising curtain. Act one on opening night. Spotlights blind, then are blinded: eclipsed by hoods stitched from Nightmares. The scene is ending as quickly as it'd begun. But before it fades to black, the puppet twitches on ligament strings…
"They can't kill my body," he softly agrees, voice strong in ways that his seams are not. "But they can kill me."
Earl can do nothing but believe him.
Believe him, and hug tighter.
(On the side of a hill, a sprinkling of leaves
Washes the grave with silvery tears
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Earl tries not to think of that day. He tries not to think of much, most days. Thinking is painful, dangerous. Generally inadvisable. But the brain has a stem, and therefore roots, and those roots run deep. Tenacious, tangled weeds, intertwined and layered. Tortuous. But stabilizing, too, forming meshwork in so much loose earth. He tries not to think, but forgives himself when he does, preferring to focus his energy on trimming the philosophies that form flowers after feeding on the rich darkness of his subconscious. It's tedious, but. Well. He doesn't want to destroy those kernels entirely. Not totally.
He's seen what happens to a mind uprooted.
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember, he silently quotes, focus drifting backwards. Shakespeare, eleventh grade English. The pungent, steely odor of freshly-fired glocks. Cecil sitting behind him, listening, holding a non-writing utensil poised before pursed lips like a microphone. Passing notes. Sharing glances. Their teacher, drooling and droning, And there is pansies, that's for thoughts. And here, a bleeding rose, its sundry petals pealed back in flaps like a dissected muscle, freeing the hoard of black widows who have nested within and rotted its core.
The core. The core of Cecil has rotted, smothered and strangled by so much pruning and poison. The labyrinth of his brain, forcibly altered again and again, no longer bears much resemblance to the landscape that Earl had loved. But still… But still, beneath it all, beneath the ground, beneath blossoms of different colors and sizes, those roots are still…
He shakes his head, rustling the musings budding there. Clothes are rustling, too—a button down and violet silk tie, loose around the collar and cuffs as Cecil opens his front door. "Hello?" he greets the ether, brow folding in confusion. The dank, ectoplasm-splattered hall of his apartment complex seems empty; Earl had earned his Invisibility Badge eons prior, and still knows how to put it to good use. Cecil, not scout enough to notice the clues, glances to his left and right. Up and down. And there. The broadcaster's scowl deepens, adjusting cotton sleeves atop swirling tattoos.
"Again…?" he murmurs, crouching low. With single-minded grace, deft fingers pluck the spiny spray off of his doorstep, examining it against visible slats of the gunmetal sky. Its fragrant aroma teases, wafting about like an atomized aphrodisiac; Earl can smell it, too, hidden as he is. See it, when the sprig immediately withers. "Hmm," the host hums, noncommittal, while watching the twig delicately implode, green to gray and brittle. Shriveled. A shell of its former self, needles falling away like memories. Like a gentle rain upon concrete, playing chords and harmonies. Music, but empty of emotion. A funeral march.
The dead holds his posy, unaware that he is being honored.
"Poor thing," he mutters to no one, cradling the emaciated shoot in his palm. The most perseverant of the leaflets—clinging, stubborn, to its stem— brushes against Cecil's index, and reminds Earl of his grandmother. Of her most pious tomes, filled with spells of the Old Faith. Page 485, and how it claims that one could steal another's love by tapping their finger with rosemary. Page 610, which advises that one wind wreaths of the herb into a bride's hair. Page 929, where it states that the one should use the plant as a symbol of fidelity.
Well. He does that, at least.
Cecil slips back into the safety of his home, and Earl knows that there will never be anyone else.
(War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions
Generals order their soldiers to kill
And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten)
There is no thyme in Night Vale.
The city council says so. They insist so, even as sprigs are sewn onto shirts and threaded through buttonholes, providing protection as ineffectual as bullets or holy water or vaguely inappropriate insults. In another town, in another life, in another, parallel universe, the plant may have been used as a symbol of strength, or happiness… Courage. But not in Night Vale. Not here, where its existence is denied with as much vehemence and hypocrisy as the angels. Thyme does little but trim shallow graves; there is a reason it's become a popular, albeit imaginary fashion accessory.
Earl is grateful he chose to wear some today.
There is chaos in the back lot, shrieking and snarling and otherworldly yowls. Balloons glisten with a wet sheen, coated in the mayor's drying digestive juices; mouthless children screw bloodied talons into unprotected ankles, fingers coiling like ivy and corroding bare skin. They jerk. Yank. The burlap of the constructed tent undulates like an epiglottis, rolling and rippling as residents are dragged into that gaping abyss. Their echoing wails are imbibed by the plangent belch of shifting sediment. Grooves are dug into the earth by scrabbling, breaking nails; Earl trips on a particularly deep, casket-ready gorge while shoving one of his scouts to safety. He paws at the air, but tumbles all the same.
White. Black. Colors. The latter flairs behind his eyes, kaleidoscopic: explosions of vein-violet and bruise-blue webbing over the fragmented stains of a pollution-smeared atmosphere. His knee has burst against a rock. It oozes life force in trellis patterns, each drop a baby spider scurrying from a split cocoon. The scout master hisses, a fine, aerosol mist of agony; his ears fill with a static frequency akin to radio waves, gray and fuzzy and electric. It crackles through his synapses, contorting his muscles. Paralyzes his throat. And it's funny, isn't it, that he should only realizes how much he wants to say—how much he should've said—when the moment is gone. When his chances are dead, buried. When something thin and probing is slipping past his lips, branching outward… closing around his quavering vocal cords. His thigh. Hooking through his upper right rib. He jams shut two-toned eyes, focusing on childhood whims and daydreams and bright, happy moments, even as his whole body lurches.
Dragging brass buttons plow trails into the dirt. Fingers snap beneath trampling feet. The thyme on his collar smells of rich, broken soil, as black and cool as the Voice in his head. I think often about many things, that Voice promises, as if offering Earl some secret salvation. Some consolation, some comfort. Other things, I think less about.
…it's not enough.
No. No, it's not enough. It's never enough—it's never been enough, will never be enough. And it's not fair. It's not fair, and the ache of that truth makes him wants to sob, to scream. To thrash and curse and hurt and be hurt; to beat himself against the ground until he destroys his own nerve endings, loses all sensation. Until his outsides are as bloody and broken as his insides.
But in lieu of that, Earl smiles: features contorting around a mouthful of invading hands and lingering regrets, shuddering as burlap whispers against his shins. His foot vanishes within the tent, and he thinks of parallels. His waist; he humors an epiphany, too little and too late. His shoulders; he should have known better.
It is dragged out for centuries. It happens in an instant. There is no way to tell, really, one way or another.
There is no time in Night Vale.