[originally posted here at Castalia House]
The Moon that Vanished by Leigh Brackett appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It can be read online here.
“They say that Venus once had a moon. It rode in the clouds like a disc of fire and the god who dwelt within it was supreme over all the other gods. He watched the surface of the planet and all that was done upon it. But the lesser gods were jealous, and one day they were able to destroy the palace of the Moon-god.
“All the sky of Venus was lighted by that destruction. Mountains fell and seas poured out of their beds and whole nations died. The Moon-god was slain and his shining body fell like a meteor through the clouds.
“But a god cannot really die. He only sleeps and waits. The golden mist is the cloud of his breathing, and the shining of his body is the Moonfire. A man may gain divinity from the heart of the sleeping god but all the gods of Venus will curse him if he tries because man has no right to steal their powers.”
The Moon that Vanished may be one of the best of Brackett stories I’ve read yet.
It’s one of those stories that feels like it really has it all. The story starts out in a seedy dive, has love triangle involving a runaway temple maiden, a chase out on the high seas with angry cultists, and a big crazy showdown in a realm of magic and ultimate power. But really, the gutwrenching, beautiful and haunting language that Brackett brings to this tale of regret and love is what pushes this story into the realm of the sublime.
David Heath has violated the ancient Venusian tabu and sought out the Moonfire, the legendary remnants of Venus’s moon, thought to give god-like powers to mortals who seek its heart. Those who return from the Moonfire rarely live for more than a season, wasting away and dying. But at the start of the story, David has already spent several seasons in a drugged and drunken stupor mourning his lost love, Ethne, in the Palace of All Possible Delights, which is a problem for two reasons. First, the proprietor is miffed because the tradition holds that anyone returning from the Moonfire should be cared for and fed until the gods claim the life; there’s even doubt that David ever reached the Moonfire. Second, and more importantly, if people can come back from the Moonfire and not be claimed by the gods, that’s bad news for the Moon cultists who enforce the tabu and really don’t want people going around looking for the power of the gods.
One Venusian taunts Heath, proposing he’s a liar and that he actually never went into the Moonfire, or the gods would’ve taken him by now. David orders the torches extinguished and begins weaving magic like some kind of Manfred:
Heath stood braced against the rail, staring out into the hot indigo night.
The mists rose thick from the Sea of Morning Opals. They crept up out of the mud,and breathed in clouds from the swamps. The slow wind pushed them in long rolling drifts, blue-white and glimmering against the darker night.
Heath looked hungrily into the mists. His head was thrown back, his whole bodystrained upward and presently he raised his arms in a gesture of terrible longing.
“Ethne,” he whispered. “Ethne.”
Almost imperceptibly, a change came over him. The weakness, the look of the sodden wreck, left him. He stood firm and straight, and the muscles rose coiled and beautiful on the long lean frame of his bones, alive with the tension of strength.
His face had altered even more. There was a look of power on it. The dark eyes burned with deep fires, glowing with a light that was more than human, until it seemed that his whole head was crowned with a strange nimbus.
For one short moment, the face of David Heath was the face of a god.
“Ethne,” he said.
And she came.
Out of the blue darkness, out of the mist, drifting tenuous and lovely toward the Earthman. Her body was made from the glowing air, the soft drops of the mist, shaped and colored by the force that was in Heath. She was young, not more than nineteen, with the rosy tint of Earth’s sun still in her cheeks, her eyes wide and bright as a child’s, her body slim with the sweet angularity of youth.
The first time I saw her, when she stepped down the loading ramp for her first look at Venus and the wind took her hair and played with it and she walked light and eager as a colt on a spring morning. Light and merry always, even walking to her death.
The shadowy figure smiled and held out her arms. Her face was the face of a woman who has found love and all the world along with it. Closer and closer she drifted to Heath and the Earthman stretched out his hands to touch her.
And in one swift instant, she was gone.
Heath fell forward against the rail. He stayed there a long time. There was no god in him now, no strength. He was like a flame suddenly burned out and dead, the ashes collapsing upon themselves. His eyes were closed and tears ran out from under the lashes.
It turns out, the Venusian, Broca, is on the run from the Children of the Moon with a fleeing temple maiden, Alor; together, they’re going to find the Moonfire and become gods, and they want Heath to lead them there. They shanghai the broken man and soon find themselves caught up in a chase across the seas, racing to reach the Moonfire before the Moon cultists can catch up with them.
While David is still fixated on his lost love, Ethne, the temple maiden begins to take a shine to him, and Broca becomes intensely jealous. Every word and glance between David and Alor drive his determination to drag Alor into the Moonfire and impress her with the god-like powers he’ll be imbued with, all while failing to see that Alor doesn’t really want that – she just really didn’t want to be stuck in the Moon cultists temple and ran at the first chance she got. The strain of the sea chase eventually gets to Broca, who is seized with fever – right as the high moon priest’s ship is closing on them, he flips out, realizing he’s completely lost his grip on Alor:
“The Moonfire is nothing without Alor.”
He repeated “Nothing!” several times, beating his huge fists on his knees each time he said it. Then he turned his head blindly from side to side as though looking for something. “She’s gone. Alor’s gone. She’s gone to the Earthman.”
Alor spoke to him, touched him, but he shook her off. In his fever-mad brain there was only one truth. He rose and went toward David Heath.
Heath got up. “Broca!” he said. “Alor is there beside you. She hasn’t gone!”
Broca did not hear. He did not stop.Alor cried out, “Broca!”
“No,” said Broca. “You love him. You’re not mine anymore. When you look at me I am nothing. Your lips have no warmth in them.” He reached out toward David Heath and he was blind and deaf to everything but the life that was in him to be torn out and trampled upon and destroyed.
In the cramped space of the afterdeck there was not much room to move. Heath did not want to fight. He tried to dodge the sick giant but Broca pinned him against the rail. Fever or no fever, Heath had to fight him and it was not much use. Broca was beyond feeling pain.
His sheer weight crushed Heath against the rail, bent his spine almost to breaking and his hands found Heath’s throat. Heath struck and struck again and wondered if he had come all this way to die in a senseless quarrel over a woman.
Abruptly he realized that Broca was letting go, was sliding down against him to the deck. Through a swimming haze he saw Alor standing there with a belaying pin in her hand. He began to tremble, partly with reaction but mostly with fury that he should have needed a woman’s help to save his life. Broca lay still, breathing heavily.
“Thanks,” said Heath curtly. “Too bad you had to hit him. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
Alor said levelly, “Didn’t he?”
They finally reach the Moonfire, and the priests stop their pursuit – the trio will die in the Moonfire at the hands of the gods or by the hands of the priests if they try to leave. David, Broca and Alor find a bizarre island of glowing mists and waters, derelict ships, and shriveled corpses with smiles on their faces. David is hoping he can finally bring back Ethne, and Broca is stoked that he’s going to finally become a god so he can impress Alor, but Alor is getting antsy and wanting to leave. So Broca grabs her and drags her off into the Moonfire so he can make her his god-queen.
David begins trying to tap into the powers of the Moonfire to fully call forth Ethne, but each time, he still fails, instead calling forth manifestations of Alor, unable to put the Venusian woman from his mind.
David realizes the trap of the Moonfire – to become god, one becomes apart from the world and those within it, for his creations are still no more than shadows given form. Ethne is gone, and he can’t bring her back, but there’s still a chance to save Alor from Broca’s madness.
David finds Broca’s already built a small kingdom, complete with palace filled with slaves and vassals and worshipers: a paradise where he’s imprisoned Alor. David tries to convince Broca that Alor is unworthy of his divinity because she still wants to leave the Moonfire – Broca can create a more perfect Alor with his powers that will make the real Alor pale in comparison (the scene in the cover illustration); this almost seems to work, but Broca is still intent on punishing both David and Alor, so yet another battle (think end of Dreamscape, but more extreme) between the two men ensues.
In the end, love triumphs because love is greater than the shadow of man’s creation; David and Alor escape from the Moonfire unscathed, and the lesser priests are afraid – the high priest concedes that if the gods should let them go unharmed, who are the Children of the gods to stand in their way and question their gods’ will? David and Alor are allowed to return, the tabus lifted, and David casts his ship named after his ex adrift into the Venusian seas to vanish into the sunrise while he and Alor live happily ever after.
So, wow, so many things going on in this! The big climax in the final chapters really brought to my mind Zelazny’s Amber stories, where worlds are created and armies are raised from ‘the shadow’. The powers wielded by the Princes of Amber and those of the men at the heart of the Moonfire are functionally very similar. But while I felt like Amber lacked weight because of its ‘shadow’ kingdoms and armies (what is a million dead troops when they are but illusions called forth from Shadow?), The Moon that Vanished played on that very same notion for its moral twist. Broca’s kingdom was empty and meaningless, because it was his and his alone – he’s left to create and build wraith-filled worlds and wonder until he joins the ranks of the lonely grinning dead strewn about the realm of the Moonfire.
Also, this passes the Jeffro test with flying colors. Not only is it teased at when Broca first tells David to stop talking to Alor, we get one version of it where the fever-mad Broca nearly kills David, then we get another when David and Broca battle it out with the ultimate powers of creation and destruction in Broca’s paradise.
The Moon that Vanished takes place on Venus, but it seems to be neither the Venus of Lorelei nor Stark’s Venus. Not only does it lack the magical space elves and mermaid-like sea shepherds or wicked albinos, the Venusian sea (or at least where the story takes place) is made of water. The swamp Venusians here are green, rather than white, and in a place like the Palace of All Possible Delights, one would imagine them to be something like the Orion slave-girls in Star Trek.The small Venusian dragons featured in this story do, however, make an appearance in Enchantress of Venus, where the youngest of Lhari keeps one as a pet.
Brackett is so evocative here with her language, and she manages to tell such a powerful and uplifting story. One of the staples at work here is the threat of moral peril. While Good and Evil seem rather vague at times, it is because they are represented here by ideas and choices, rather than embodied as entities. Broca is not “Evil”, nor is David “Good”, but Broca is tempted by and embraces an evil which corrupts him, making him become ‘evil’, while David ultimately rejects the corrupting influences of greed and power, letting him make the ‘good’ choice and become redeemed. Even the priests here aren’t so much good or evil forces in the story as they are agents of law – they are enforcing the law as it pertains the sacrilege that each of the three main characters have committed, and their goal is to maintain a sense of order that an earthly god would surely upset. At the end, they are magnanimous, understanding that they are only the instruments of gods and order; the gods passed their judgement on David and Alor and deemed them to have made worthy choices.
I loved this story, and it’s absolutely top quality Brackett. The only downside is that it’s going to be nearly impossible for the rest of this issue of Thrilling to compare.