The Chamber is now taking submissions for the October 7 issue. Halloween-related material is welcome but not required to submit. Please have your submission in before October 1. Be sure to include the genre and/or subgenre of your work in your cover letter along with the word count and a bio of approximately fifty words or less.
As long as midnight cloaks the earth
With shadows grim and stark,
God save us from the Judas kiss
Of a dead man in the dark.
Old Adam Farrel lay dead in the house wherein he had lived alone
for the last twenty years. A silent, churlish recluse, in his life he
had known no friends, and only two men had watched his passing.
Dr. Stein rose and glanced out the window into the gathering dusk.
“You think you can spend the night here, then?” he asked his
This man, Falred by name, assented.
“Yes, certainly. I guess it’s up to me.”
“Rather a useless and primitive custom, sitting up with the dead,” commented the doctor, preparing to depart, “but I suppose in common
decency we will have to bow to precedence. Maybe I can find someone
who’ll come over here and help you with your vigil.”
Falred shrugged his shoulders. “I doubt it. Farrel wasn’t liked–
wasn’t known by many people. I scarcely knew him myself, but I don’t
mind sitting up with the corpse.”
Dr. Stein was removing his rubber gloves and Falred watched the
process with an interest that almost amounted to fascination. A
slight, involuntary shudder shook him at the memory of touching these
gloves–slick, cold, clammy things, like the touch of death.
“You may get lonely tonight, if I don’t find anyone,” the doctor
remarked as he opened the door. “Not superstitious, are you?”
Falred laughed. “Scarcely. To tell the truth, from what I hear of
Farrel’s disposition, I’d rather be watching his corpse than have been
his guest in life.”
The door closed and Falred took up his vigil. He seated himself in
the only chair the room boasted, glanced casually at the formless,
sheeted bulk on the bed opposite him, and began to read by the light
of the dim lamp which stood on the rough table.
Outside, the darkness gathered swiftly, and finally Falred laid
down his magazine to rest his eyes. He looked again at the shape which
had, in life, been the form of Adam Farrel, wondering what quirk in
the human nature made the sight of a corpse not so unpleasant, but
such an object of fear to man. Unthinking ignorance, seeing in dead
things a reminder of death to come, he decided lazily, and began idly
contemplating as to what life had held for this grim and crabbed old
man, who had neither relatives nor friends, and who had seldom left
the house wherein he had died. The usual tales of miser-hoarded wealth
had accumulated, but Falred felt so little interest in the whole
matter that it was not even necessary for him to overcome any
temptation to prey about the house for possible hidden treasure.
He returned to his reading with a shrug. The task was more
boresome than he had thought for. After a while he was aware that
every time he looked up from his magazine and his eyes fell upon the
bed with its grim occupant, he started involuntarily as if he had, for
an instant, forgotten the presence of the dead man and was
unpleasantly reminded of the fact. The start was slight and
instinctive, but he felt almost angered at himself. He realized, for
the first time, the utter and deadening silence which enwrapped the
house–a silence apparently shared by the night, for no sound came
through the window. Adam Farrel lived as far apart from his neighbors
as possible, and there was no other house within hearing distance.
Falred shook himself as if to rid his mind of unsavory
speculations, and went back to his reading. A sudden vagrant gust of
wind whipped through the window, in which the light in the lamp
flickered and went out suddenly. Falred, cursing softly, groped in the
darkness for matches, burning his fingers on the lamp chimney. He
struck a match, relighted the lamp, and glancing over at the bed, got
a horrible mental jolt. Adam Farrel’s face stared blindly at him, the
dead eyes wide and blank, framed in the gnarled gray features. Even as
Falred instinctively shuddered, his reason explained the apparent
phenomenon: the sheet that covered the corpse had been carelessly
thrown across the face and the sudden puff of wind had disarranged and
flung it aside.
Yet there was something grisly about the thing, something
fearsomely suggestive–as if, in the cloaking dark, a dead hand had
flung aside the sheet, just as if the corpse were about to rise….
Falred, an imaginative man, shrugged his shoulders at these
ghastly thoughts and crossed the room to replace the sheet. The dead
eyes seemed to stare malevolently, with an evilness that transcended
the dead man’s churlishness in life. The workings of a vivid
imagination, Falred knew, and he re-covered the gray face, shrinking
as his hand chanced to touch the cold flesh–slick and clammy, the
touch of death. He shuddered with the natural revulsion of the living
for the dead, and went back to his chair and magazine.
At last, growing sleepy, he lay down upon a couch which, by some
strange whim of the original owner, formed part of the room’s scant
furnishings, and composed himself for slumber. He decided to leave the
light burning, telling himself that it was in accordance with the
usual custom of leaving lights burning for the dead; for he was not
willing to admit to himself that already he was conscious of a dislike
for lying in the darkness with the corpse. He dozed, awoke with a
start and looked at the sheeted form of the bed. Silence reigned over
the house, and outside it was very dark.
The hour was approaching midnight, with its accompanying eerie
domination over the human mind. Falred glanced again at the bed where
the body lay and found the sight of the sheeted object most repellent.
A fantastic idea had birth in his mind, and grew, that beneath the
sheet, the mere lifeless body had become a strange, monstrous thing, a
hideous, conscious being, that watched him with eyes which burned
through the fabric of the cloth. This thought–a mere fantasy, of
course–he explained to himself by the legends of vampires, undead
ghosts and such like–the fearsome attributes with which the living
have cloaked the dead for countless ages, since primitive man first
recognized in death something horrid and apart from life. Man feared
death, thought Falred, and some of this fear of death took hold on the
dead so that they, too, were feared. And the sight of the dead
engendered grisly thoughts, gave rise to dim fears of hereditary
memory, lurking back in the dark corners of the brain.
At any rate, that silent, hidden thing was getting on his nerves.
He thought of uncovering the face, on the principle that familiarity
breeds contempt. The sight of the features, calm and still in death,
would banish, he thought, all such wild conjectures as were haunting
him in spite of himself. But the thought of those dead eyes staring in
the lamplight was intolerable; so at last he blew out the light and
lay down. This fear had been stealing upon him so insidiously and
gradually that he had not been aware of its growth.
With the extinguishing of the light, however, and the blotting out
of the sight of the corpse, things assumed their true character and
proportions, and Falred fell asleep almost instantly, on his lips a
faint smile for his previous folly.
He awakened suddenly. How long he had been asleep he did not know.
He sat up, his pulse pounding frantically, the cold sweat beading his
forehead. He knew instantly where he was, remembered the other
occupant of the room. But what had awakened him? A dream–yes, now he
remembered–a hideous dream in which the dead man had risen from the
bed and stalked stiffly across the room with eyes of fire and a horrid
leer frozen on his gray lips. Falred had seemed to lie motionless,
helpless; then as the corpses reached a gnarled and horrible hand, he
He strove to pierce the gloom, but the room was all blackness and
all without was so dark that no gleam of light came through the
window. He reached a shaking hand toward the lamp, then recoiled as if
from a hidden serpent. Sitting here in the dark with a fiendish corpse
was bad enough, but he dared not light the lamp, for fear that his
reason would be snuffed out like a candle at what he might see.
Horror, stark and unreasoning, had full possession of his soul; he no
longer questioned the instinctive fears that rose in him. All those
legends he had heard came back to him and brought a belief in them.
Death was a hideous thing, a brain-shattering horror, imbuing lifeless
men with a horrid malevolence. Adam Farrel in his life had been simply
a churlish but harmless man; now he was a terror, a monster, a fiend
lurking in the shadows of fear, ready to leap on mankind with talons
dipped deep in death and insanity.
Falred sat there, his blood freezing, and fought out his silent
battle. Faint glimmerings of reason had begun to touch his fright when
a soft, stealthy sound again froze him. He did not recognize it as the
whisper of the night wind across the windowsill. His frenzied fancy
knew it only as the tread of death and horror. He sprang from the
couch, then stood undecided. Escape was in his mind but he was too
dazed to even try to formulate a plan of escape. Even his sense of
direction was gone. Fear had so stultified his mind that he was not
able to think consciously. The blackness spread in long waves about
him and its darkness and void entered into his brain. His motions,
such as they were, were instinctive. He seemed shackled with mighty
chains and his limbs responded sluggishly, like an imbecile’s.
A terrible horror grew up in him and reared its grisly shape, that
the dead man was behind him, was stealing upon him from the rear. He
no longer thought of lighting the lamp; he no longer thought of
anything. Fear filled his whole being; there was room for nothing
He backed slowly away in the darkness, hands behind him,
instinctively feeling the way. With a terrific effort he partly shook
the clinging mists of horror from him, and, the cold sweat clammy upon
his body, strove to orient himself. He could see nothing, but the bed
was across the room, in front of him. He was backing away from it.
There was where the dead man was lying, according to all rules of
nature; if the thing were, as he felt, behind him, then the old tales
were true: death did implant in lifeless bodies an unearthly
animation, and dead men did roam the shadows to work their ghastly and
evil will upon the sons of men. Then–great God!–what was man but a
wailing infant, lost in the night and beset by frightful things from
the black abysses and the terrible unknown voids of space and time?
These conclusions he did not reach by any reasoning process; they
leaped full-grown into his terror-dazed brain. He worked his way
slowly backward, groping, clinging to the thought that the dead man
must be in front of him.
Then his back-flung hands encountered something–something slick,
cold and clammy–like the touch of death. A scream shook the echoes,
followed by the crash of a falling body.
The next morning they who came to the house of death found two
corpses in the room. Adam Farrel’s sheeted body lay motionless upon
the bed, and across the room lay the body of Falred, beneath the shelf
where Dr. Stein had absent-mindedly left his gloves–rubber gloves,
slick and clammy to the touch of a hand groping in the dark–a hand of
one fleeing his own fear–rubber gloves, slick and clammy and cold,
like the touch of death.
Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an American writer. He wrote pulp fiction in a diverse range of genres. He is well known for his character Conan the Barbarian and is regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre. (from Wikipedia)
If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Street of the Four Winds” by Robert Chambers
In Anne Heltzel’s “Just Like Mother”, Maeve finds her cousin, Andrea, after two decades of being apart. Both Maeve and Andrea were orphans of the Mother Collective, an all-female cult that exclusively equated womanhood with giving birth. After the cult’s suppression, Maeve was adopted while Andrea fended for herself. This led to their separation and subsequent reunion. When Maeve loses her job as a fiction editor, she has no choice but to live with Andrea, who demands one of Maeve’s ovum as payment. Although she refuses, Andrea does not give up until she gets what she wants.
In the climax, Maeve steals the car keys of Andrea’s husband, Rob, and escapes in his car. Just before this chapter, Maeve describes a flashback in which she steals the car of the Mother Collective staff, driving against traffic and colliding with a truck. The juxtaposition of this flashback with Maeve driving in the present primes me for a similar ending, and indeed, Maeve finds herself in a hospital room in the next chapter. Considering the number of twists in the novel, the predictability of this development is a bit surprising. Even so, I find it effective because the chapter in which Maeve crashes is unusually brief, accelerating the story’s pace in a fresh and distinctive way. I also love the parallel between the shortness of the chapter and the abruptness of Maeve’s collision. This symmetry between plot and form increases my engagement with the writing.
When Maeve’s boyfriend, Tyler, expresses a desire to blindfold her while they have sex, she agrees, describing her response as “Pavlovian”. She downplays her abstract, “intellectual” desire for gentle sex while validating her “primal” need for punishment. There is cruel irony in the way she recognises the pull of the blindfold but cannot resist it. The inevitability of her fate is referenced in an earlier scene, in which she places a doll on a chair in her bedroom so it can “preside over her sleep”. This image evokes Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, whose button-eyed doll watches her day and night. Just as Coraline cannot escape the Other Mother’s apartment, Maeve repeatedly finds herself back at Andrea’s house, no matter how many times she leaves. Both Maeve and Coraline are trapped by a “Mother” who is anything but.
Many of the characters die offscreen, which is unsettling because we don’t know how they die. Even when Maeve learns about the deaths of her boyfriends, their corpses remain invisible, insulating her from a shock that might have alerted her to Andrea’s schemes. The subtlety of these deaths accentuates the violence that Maeve does see. “Just Like Mother” combines unexpected twists with graphic scenes of brutality, inducing dread as well as a more explicit terror.
Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Straylight, Grimdark, Bone Parade, Bristol Noir, and The 13 Days of Christmas.
If you like this review, you might like to read more of Ryan’s reviews in The Chamber’s Reviews Department.
“Forgive me…Forgive me.”
His voice was less assured as he replied:
“Get up, dry your eyes. I, too, have a good deal to reproach myself with.”
“No, no,” she sobbed.
He shook his head.
“I ought never to have left you; you loved me. Just at first after it all happened…when I could still feel the fire of the vitriol burning my face, when I began to realize that I should never see again, that all my life I should be a thing of horror, of Death, certainly I wasn’t able to think of it like that. It isn’t possible to resign oneself all at once to such a fate…But living in this eternal darkness, a man’s thoughts pierce far below the surface and grow quiet like those of a person falling asleep, and gradually calm comes. To-day, no longer able to use my eyes, I see with my imagination. I see again our little house, our peaceful days, and your smile. I see your poor little face the night I said that last good-bye.”
“The judge couldn’t imagine any of that, could he? And it was only fair to try to explain, for they thought only of your action, the action that made me into…what I am. They were going to send you to prison where you would slowly have faded . . No years of such punishment for you could have given me back my eyes…When you saw me go into the witness-box you were
afraid, weren’t you? You believed that I would charge you, have you condemned? No, I could never have done that never…”
She was still crying. Her face buried in her hands.
“How good you are!…”
“I am just…”
In a voice that came in jerks she repeated:
“I repent, I repent; I have done the most awful thing to you that a woman could do, and you—you begged for my acquittal! And now you can even fid words of pity for me! What can I do to prove my sorrow? Oh, you are wonderful…wonderful…”
He let her go on talking and weeping; his head thrown back, his hands on the arms of his chair, he listened apparently without emotion. When she was calm again, he asked:
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know…I shall rest for a few days…I am so tired hen I shall go back to work. I shall try to find a place in a shop or as a mannequin.”
His voice was a little stifled as he asked:
“You are still as pretty as ever?”
She did not reply.
“I want to know if you are as pretty as you used to be?”
She remained silent. With a slight shiver, he murmured: “It is dark now, isn’t it? Turn on the light. Though I can no longer see, I like to feel that there is light around me…Where are you?…Near the mantelpiece?…Stretch out your hand. You will find the switch there.”
No sense even of light could penetrate his eyelids, but from the sudden sound of horror she stifled, he knew that the lamp was on. For the first time she was able to see the result of her work, the terrifying face streaked with white swellings, seamed with red furrows, a narrow black band around the eyes. While he had pleaded for her in court, she had crouched on her seat weeping, not daring to look at him; now, before this abominable thing, she grew sick with a kind of disgust. But it was without any anger that he murmured:
“I am very different from the man you knew in the old days–I horrify you now, don’t I? You shrink from me?…”
She tried to keep her voice steady.
“Certainly not. I am here, in the same place…”
“Yes, now…and I want you to come still nearer. If you knew how the thought of your hands tempt me in my darkness. How I should love to feel their softness once again. But I dare not…And yet that is what I wanted to ask you: to let me feel your hand for a minute in mine. We, the blind, can get such marvelous memories from just a touch.”
Turning her head away, she held out her arm. Caressing her fingers, he murmured:
“Ah, how good. Don’t tremble. Let me try to imagine we are lovers again just as we used to be…but you are not wearing my ring. Why? I have not taken yours oft. Do you remember? You said, ‘It is our wedding-ring. Why have you taken it off?”
“I dare not wear it…”
“You must put it on again. You will wear it? Promise me.”
“I promise you.”
He was silent for a little while; then in a calmer voice:
“It must be quite dark now. How cold I am! If you only knew how cold it feels when one is blind. Your hands are warm; mine are frozen. I have not yet developed the fuller sense of touch.”
“It takes time, they say…At present I am like a little child learning.”
She let her fingers remain in his, sighing:
“Oh, Mon Dieu…Mon Dieu…”
Speaking like a man in a dream, he went on:
“How glad I am that you came. I wondered whether you would, and I felt I wanted to keep you with me for a long, long time: always…But that wouldn’t be possible. Life with me would be too sad. You see, little one, when people have memories like ours, they must be careful not to spoil them, and it must be horrible to look at me now, isn’t it?”
She tried to protest; what might have been a smile passed over his face.
“Why lie? I remember I once saw a man whose mistress had thrown vitriol over him. His face was not human. Women turned their heads away as they passed, while he, not being able to see and so not knowing, went on talking to the people who were shrinking away from him. I must be, I am like that poet wretch, am I not? Even you who knew me as I used to be, you tremble with disgust; I can feel it. For a long time you will be haunted by the remembrance of my face…it will come in between you and everything else…How the thought hurts…but don’t let us go on talking about me…You said just now that you were going back to work. Tell me your plans; come nearer, I don’t hear as well as I used to…Well?”
Their two armchairs were almost touching. She was silent. He sighed:
“Ah, I can smell your scent! How I have longed for it. I bought a bottle of the perfume you always used, but on me it didn’t smell the same. From you it comes mixed with the scent of your skin and hair. Come nearer, let me drink it in…You are going away, you will never come back again; let me draw in for the last time as much of you as I can…You shiver…am I then so horrible?”
She stammered:.”No…it is cold…”
“Why are you so lightly dressed? I don’t believe you brought a cloak. In November, too. It must be damp and dreary in the streets. How you tremble! How warm and comfortable it was in our little home…do you remember? You used to lay your face on my shoulder, and I used to hold you close to me. Who would want to sleep in my arms now? Come nearer. Give me your hand…There…What did you think when your lawyer told you I had asked to see you?”
“I thought I ought to come.”
“Do you still love me?”
Her voice was only a breath:
Very slowly, his voice full of supplication, he said:
“I want to kiss you for the last time. I know it will be almost torture for you…Afterwards I Won’t ask anything more. You can go…May I?…Will you let me?…”
Involuntarily she shrank back; then, moved by shame and pity, not daring to refuse a joy to the poor wretch, she laid her head on his shoulder, held up her mouth and shut her eyes. He pressed her gently to him, silent, prolonging the happy moment. She opened her eyes, and seeing the terrible face so near, almost touching her own, for the second time she shivered with disgust and would have drawn sharply away. But he pressed her closer to him, passionately.
“You would go away so soon?…Stay a little longer…You haven’t seen enough of me…Look at me…and give me your mouth again…more of it than that…It is horrible, isn’t it?”
“You hurt me…”
“Oh, no,” he sneered, “I frighten you.”
“You hurt me! You hurt me!”
In a low voice he said:
“Sh-h. No noise; be quiet. I’ve got you now and I’ll keep you. For how many days have I waited for this moment…Keep still, I say, keep still! No nonsense! You know I am much stronger than you.”
He seized both her hands in one of his, took a little bottle from the pocket of his coat, drew out the stopper with his teeth, and went on in the same quiet voice:
“Yes, it is vitriol; bend your head…there…You will see; we are going to be incomparable lovers, made for each other…Ah, you tremble? Do you understand now why I had you acquitted, and why I made you come here to-day? Your pretty face will be exactly like mine. You will be a monstrous thing, and like me, blind!…Ah, yes, it hurts, hurts terribly.”
She opened her mouth to implore. He ordered:
“No! Not that! Shut your mouth! I don’t want to kill you, that would make it too easy for you.”
Gripping her in the bend of his arm, he pressed his hand on her mouth and poured the acid slowly over her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks. She struggled desperately, but he held her too firmly and kept on pouring as he talked:
“There…a little more…you bite, but that’s nothing…It hurts, doesn’t it? It is Hell. . .”
Suddenly he flung her away, crying:
“I am burning myself.”
She fell writhing on the floor. Already her face was nothing but a red rag.
Then he straightened himself, stumbled over her, felt about the wall to find the switch, and put out the light. And round them, as in them, was a great Darkness…
[Go to https://vimeo.com/65903388 to see a stage production of this work, one of the most popular of the Grand Guignol. Follow these links to find out more about Maurice Level, the Grand Guignol, and the Conte Cruel.]
Maurice Level (29 August 1875 – 15 April 1926) was a French writer of fiction and drama who specialized in short stories of the macabre which were printed regularly in the columns of Paris newspapers and sometimes staged by le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, the repertory company in Paris’s Pigalle district devoted to melodramatic productions which emphasized blood and gore. (from Wikipedia)
WordPress apparently had some issues with some of the updates I have recently made (even though they are part of the WordPress system). As a result, some glitches arose that I have been ironing out. However, one glitch was that the number of followers noted under the subscribe block in the sidebar suddenly dropped from 1,022 to 322. If you following (or subscribing), please check your status. You might have to re-follow/subscribe.
|“Ferme tes yeux à demi,|
|Croise tes bras sur ton sein,|
|Et de ton cœur endormi|
|Chasse à jamais tout dessein.”|
|“Je chante la nature,|
|Les étoiles du soir, les larmes du matin,|
|Les couchers de soleil à l’horizon lointain,|
|Le ciel qui parle au cœur d’existence future!”|
The animal paused on the threshold, interrogative alert, ready for flight if necessary. Severn laid down his palette, and held out a hand of welcome. The cat remained motionless, her yellow eyes fastened upon Severn.
“Puss,” he said, in his low, pleasant voice, “come in.”
The tip of her thin tail twitched uncertainly.
“Come in,” he said again.
Apparently she found his voice reassuring, for she slowly settled upon all fours, her eyes still fastened upon him, her tail tucked under her gaunt flanks.
He rose from his easel smiling. She eyed him quietly, and when he walked toward her she watched him bend above her without a wince; her eyes followed his hand until it touched her head. Then she uttered a ragged mew.
It had long been Severn’s custom to converse with animals, probably because he lived so much alone; and now he said, “What’s the matter, puss?”
Her timid eyes sought his.
“I understand,” he said gently, “you shall have it at once.”
Then moving quietly about he busied himself with the duties of a host, rinsed a saucer, filled it with the rest of the milk from the bottle on the window-sill, and kneeling down, crumbled a roll into the hollow of his hand.
The creature rose and crept toward the saucer.
With the handle of a palette-knife he stirred the crumbs and milk together and stepped back as she thrust her nose into the mess. He watched her in silence. From time to time the saucer clinked upon the tiled floor as she reached for a morsel on the rim; and at last the bread was all gone, and her purple tongue travelled over every unlicked spot until the saucer shone like polished marble. Then she sat up, and coolly turning her back to him, began her ablutions.
“Keep it up,” said Severn, much interested, “you need it.”
She flattened one ear, but neither turned nor interrupted her toilet. As the grime was slowly removed Severn observed that nature had intended her for a white cat. Her fur had disappeared in patches, from disease or the chances of war, her tail was bony and her spine sharp. But what charms she had were becoming apparent under vigorous licking, and he waited until she had finished before re-opening the conversation. When at last she closed her eyes and folded her forepaws under her breast, he began again very gently: “Puss, tell me your troubles.”
At the sound of his voice she broke into a harsh rumbling which he recognized as an attempt to purr. He bent over to rub her cheek and she mewed again, an amiable inquiring little mew, to which he replied, “Certainly, you are greatly improved, and when you recover your plumage you will be a gorgeous bird.” Much flattered, she stood up and marched around and around his legs, pushing her head between them and making pleased remarks, to which he responded with grave politeness.
“Now, what sent you here,” he said—”here into the Street of the Four Winds, and up five flights to the very door where you would be welcome? What was it that prevented your meditated flight when I turned from my canvas to encounter your yellow eyes? Are you a Latin Quarter cat as I am a Latin Quarter man? And why do you wear a rose-coloured flowered garter buckled about your neck?” The cat had climbed into his lap, and now sat purring as he passed his hand over her thin coat.
“Excuse me,” he continued in lazy soothing tones, harmonizing with her purring, “if I seem indelicate, but I cannot help musing on this rose-coloured garter, flowered so quaintly and fastened with a silver clasp. For the clasp is silver; I can see the mint mark on the edge, as is prescribed by the law of the French Republic. Now, why is this garter woven of rose silk and delicately embroidered,—why is this silken garter with its silver clasp about your famished throat? Am I indiscreet when I inquire if its owner is your owner? Is she some aged dame living in memory of youthful vanities, fond, doting on you, decorating you with her intimate personal attire? The circumference of the garter would suggest this, for your neck is thin, and the garter fits you. But then again I notice—I notice most things—that the garter is capable of being much enlarged. These small silver-rimmed eyelets, of which I count five, are proof of that. And now I observe that the fifth eyelet is worn out, as though the tongue of the clasp were accustomed to lie there. That seems to argue a well-rounded form.”
The cat curled her toes in contentment. The street was very still outside.
He murmured on: “Why should your mistress decorate you with an article most necessary to her at all times? Anyway, at most times. How did she come to slip this bit of silk and silver about your neck? Was it the caprice of a moment,—when you, before you had lost your pristine plumpness, marched singing into her bedroom to bid her good-morning? Of course, and she sat up among the pillows, her coiled hair tumbling to her shoulders, as you sprang upon the bed purring: ‘Good-day, my lady.’ Oh, it is very easy to understand,” he yawned, resting his head on the back of the chair. The cat still purred, tightening and relaxing her padded claws over his knee.
“Shall I tell you all about her, cat? She is very beautiful—your mistress,” he murmured drowsily, “and her hair is heavy as burnished gold. I could paint her,—not on canvas—for I should need shades and tones and hues and dyes more splendid than the iris of a splendid rainbow. I could only paint her with closed eyes, for in dreams alone can such colours as I need be found. For her eyes, I must have azure from skies untroubled by a cloud—the skies of dreamland. For her lips, roses from the palaces of slumberland, and for her brow, snow-drifts from mountains which tower in fantastic pinnacles to the moons;—oh, much higher than our moon here,—the crystal moons of dreamland. She is—very—beautiful, your mistress.”
The words died on his lips and his eyelids drooped.
The cat, too, was asleep, her cheek turned up upon her wasted flank, her paws relaxed and limp.
“It is fortunate,” said Severn, sitting up and stretching, “that we have tided over the dinner hour, for I have nothing to offer you for supper but what may be purchased with one silver franc.”
The cat on his knee rose, arched her back, yawned, and looked up at him.
“What shall it be? A roast chicken with salad? No? Possibly you prefer beef? Of course,—and I shall try an egg and some white bread. Now for the wines. Milk for you? Good. I shall take a little water, fresh from the wood,” with a motion toward the bucket in the sink.
He put on his hat and left the room. The cat followed to the door, and after he had closed it behind him, she settled down, smelling at the cracks, and cocking one ear at every creak from the crazy old building.
The door below opened and shut. The cat looked serious, for a moment doubtful, and her ears flattened in nervous expectation. Presently she rose with a jerk of her tail and started on a noiseless tour of the studio. She sneezed at a pot of turpentine, hastily retreating to the table, which she presently mounted, and having satisfied her curiosity concerning a roll of red modelling wax, returned to the door and sat down with her eyes on the crack over the threshold. Then she lifted her voice in a thin plaint.
When Severn returned he looked grave, but the cat, joyous and demonstrative, marched around him, rubbing her gaunt body against his legs, driving her head enthusiastically into his hand, and purring until her voice mounted to a squeal.
He placed a bit of meat, wrapped in brown paper, upon the table, and with a penknife cut it into shreds. The milk he took from a bottle which had served for medicine, and poured it into the saucer on the hearth.
The cat crouched before it, purring and lapping at the same time.
He cooked his egg and ate it with a slice of bread, watching her busy with the shredded meat, and when he had finished, and had filled and emptied a cup of water from the bucket in the sink, he sat down, taking her into his lap, where she at once curled up and began her toilet. He began to speak again, touching her caressingly at times by way of emphasis.
“Cat, I have found out where your mistress lives. It is not very far away;—it is here, under this same leaky roof, but in the north wing which I had supposed was uninhabited. My janitor tells me this. By chance, he is almost sober this evening. The butcher on the rue de Seine, where I bought your meat, knows you, and old Cabane the baker identified you with needless sarcasm. They tell me hard tales of your mistress which I shall not believe. They say she is idle and vain and pleasure-loving; they say she is hare-brained and reckless. The little sculptor on the ground floor, who was buying rolls from old Cabane, spoke to me to-night for the first time, although we have always bowed to each other. He said she was very good and very beautiful. He has only seen her once, and does not know her name. I thanked him;—I don’t know why I thanked him so warmly. Cabane said, ‘Into this cursed Street of the Four Winds, the four winds blow all things evil.’ The sculptor looked confused, but when he went out with his rolls, he said to me, ‘I am sure, Monsieur, that she is as good as she is beautiful.'”
The cat had finished her toilet, and now, springing softly to the floor, went to the door and sniffed. He knelt beside her, and unclasping the garter held it for a moment in his hands. After a while he said: “There is a name engraved upon the silver clasp beneath the buckle. It is a pretty name, Sylvia Elven. Sylvia is a woman’s name, Elven is the name of a town. In Paris, in this quarter, above all, in this Street of the Four Winds, names are worn and put away as the fashions change with the seasons. I know the little town of Elven, for there I met Fate face to face and Fate was unkind. But do you know that in Elven Fate had another name, and that name was Sylvia?”
He replaced the garter and stood up looking down at the cat crouched before the closed door.
“The name of Elven has a charm for me. It tells me of meadows and clear rivers. The name of Sylvia troubles me like perfume from dead flowers.”
The cat mewed.
“Yes, yes,” he said soothingly, “I will take you back. Your Sylvia is not my Sylvia; the world is wide and Elven is not unknown. Yet in the darkness and filth of poorer Paris, in the sad shadows of this ancient house, these names are very pleasant to me.”
He lifted her in his arms and strode through the silent corridors to the stairs. Down five flights and into the moonlit court, past the little sculptor’s den, and then again in at the gate of the north wing and up the worm-eaten stairs he passed, until he came to a closed door. When he had stood knocking for a long time, something moved behind the door; it opened and he went in. The room was dark. As he crossed the threshold, the cat sprang from his arms into the shadows. He listened but heard nothing. The silence was oppressive and he struck a match. At his elbow stood a table and on the table a candle in a gilded candlestick. This he lighted, then looked around. The chamber was vast, the hangings heavy with embroidery. Over the fireplace towered a carved mantel, grey with the ashes of dead fires. In a recess by the deep-set windows stood a bed, from which the bedclothes, soft and fine as lace, trailed to the polished floor. He lifted the candle above his head. A handkerchief lay at his feet. It was faintly perfumed. He turned toward the windows. In front of them was a canapé and over it were flung, pell-mell, a gown of silk, a heap of lace-like garments, white and delicate as spiders’ meshes, long, crumpled gloves, and, on the floor beneath, the stockings, the little pointed shoes, and one garter of rosy silk, quaintly flowered and fitted with a silver clasp. Wondering, he stepped forward and drew the heavy curtains from the bed. For a moment the candle flared in his hand; then his eyes met two other eyes, wide open, smiling, and the candle-flame flashed over hair heavy as gold.
She was pale, but not as white as he; her eyes were untroubled as a child’s; but he stared, trembling from head to foot, while the candle flickered in his hand.
At last he whispered: “Sylvia, it is I.”
Again he said, “It is I.”
Then, knowing that she was dead, he kissed her on the mouth. And through the long watches of the night the cat purred on his knee, tightening and relaxing her padded claws, until the sky paled above the Street of the Four Winds.
Robert William Chambers (1865 – 1933) was an American artist and fiction writer. He started out writing in the “weird” and gothic horror genres and then attempted his hand with romantic fiction and adventure novels before returning back to this original style.
He is best known for his incredible short story collection The King In Yellow (1895), a volume that would influence H.P. Lovecraft and other writers. The stories contain elements of fantasy, the supernatural, science fiction and gothic horror tales.
Fans of the HBO Series True Detective will recall the terms “Carcosa” and “the yellow king” being used repeatedly throughout the first season. The King in Yellow and Bierce’s An Inhabitant Of Carcosa are the original sources of those terms.
WordPress apparently had some issues with some of the updates I have recently made (even though they are part of the WordPress system). As a result, some glitches arose that I have been ironing out. However, one glitch was that the number of followers noted under the subscribe block in the sidebar suddenly dropped from 1,022 to 322. If you following (or subscribing), please check your status. You might have to re-follow/subscribe.
In Kiersten White’s Hide, fourteen people play hide-and-seek in an unused amusement park for a prize of fifty thousand dollars. The players are given thirty minutes to find a hiding spot, where they must remain until dusk. The first two players to be found are eliminated. The rest return to a designated area in the park, where they camp overnight before resuming the next day. Although the novel rotates between different points-of-view, we experience most of the story through Mack, who is the first character introduced.
On the second night of the game, the players gather around a campfire. One of them, Jaden, recites the disturbing backstory of Mack, whom he remembers reading about in the news. Jaden’s version of the story begins in a new section, in which he addresses the others without dialogue tags, while Mack’s private thoughts are indicated by parentheses. I find it ironic that Mack, who survived the incident that killed her family, takes the role of a passive listener who responds to, rather than narrates, the story she knows firsthand. Meanwhile, Jaden’s account is presented as fact, even though it stems from a heartless need to ostracise Mack. There is a sense of unjust wrongness, which amplifies the horror of Mack’s history. The use of parentheses simultaneously weakens Mack’s comments and gives them an added visual prominence. Considering Mack and Jaden’s opposing genders, perhaps this demonstrates that marginalised voices carry more weight than those that dominate the narrative. The “optional” part of Mack’s story is, in fact, the most truthful and necessary.
The amusement park hides a monster, whose behaviour I find a little convoluted. At first, we learn that it eats no less, and no more, than two people a day. Yet, this is later disproved. We also learn that the monster refuses to eat those who are already dead, and that it cannot be seen by those who are immune to its attack. I think these details overcomplicate the plot, especially with more than twenty characters in total. One of them, Brandon, narrates a section of the novel with his distinctive voice, which strongly appeals to me. Perhaps a smaller cast of characters, each with their own style of speech, might have been less overwhelming and more compelling.
Nonetheless, I love the organic development of conflict from a large and diverse group of people. In particular, the shifting points-of-view remove the certainty that any one character makes it to the end. This creates a suspenseful atmosphere that makes “Hide” a fast-paced and engaging read.
Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Straylight, Grimdark, Bone Parade, Bristol Noir, and The 13 Days of Christmas. If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy his review of Road of Bones by Christopher Golden.
WordPress apparently had some issues with some of the updates I have recently made (even though they are part of the WordPress system). As a result, some glitches arose that I have been ironing out. However, one glitch was that the number of followers noted under the subscribe block in the sidebar suddenly dropped from 1,022 to 322. If you following (or subscribing), please check your status. You might have to re-follow/subscribe.
All were crowding around M. Bermutier, the judge, who was giving his opinion about the Saint-Cloud mystery. For a month this in explicable crime had been the talk of Paris. Nobody could make head or tail of it.
M. Bermutier, standing with his back to the fireplace, was talking, citing the evidence, discussing the various theories, but arriving at no conclusion.
Some women had risen, in order to get nearer to him, and were standing with their eyes fastened on the clean-shaven face of the judge, who was saying such weighty things. They, were shaking and trembling, moved by fear and curiosity, and by the eager and insatiable desire for the horrible, which haunts the soul of every woman. One of them, paler than the others, said during a pause:
“It’s terrible. It verges on the supernatural. The truth will never be known.”
The judge turned to her:
“True, madame, it is likely that the actual facts will never be discovered. As for the word ‘supernatural’ which you have just used, it has nothing to do with the matter. We are in the presence of a very cleverly conceived and executed crime, so well enshrouded in mystery that we cannot disentangle it from the involved circumstances which surround it. But once I had to take charge of an affair in which the uncanny seemed to play a part. In fact, the case became so confused that it had to be given up.”
Several women exclaimed at once:
“Oh! Tell us about it!”
M. Bermutier smiled in a dignified manner, as a judge should, and went on:
“Do not think, however, that I, for one minute, ascribed anything in the case to supernatural influences. I believe only in normal causes. But if, instead of using the word ‘supernatural’ to express what we do not understand, we were simply to make use of the word ‘inexplicable,’ it would be much better. At any rate, in the affair of which I am about to tell you, it is especially the surrounding, preliminary circumstances which impressed me. Here are the facts:
“I was, at that time, a judge at Ajaccio, a little white city on the edge of a bay which is surrounded by high mountains.
“The majority of the cases which came up before me concerned vendettas. There are some that are superb, dramatic, ferocious, heroic. We find there the most beautiful causes for revenge of which one could dream, enmities hundreds of years old, quieted for a time but never extinguished; abominable stratagems, murders becoming massacres and almost deeds of glory. For two years I heard of nothing but the price of blood, of this terrible Corsican prejudice which compels revenge for insults meted out to the offending person and all his descendants and relatives. I had seen old men, children, cousins murdered; my head was full of these stories.
“One day I learned that an Englishman had just hired a little villa at the end of the bay for several years. He had brought with him a French servant, whom he had engaged on the way at Marseilles.
“Soon this peculiar person, living alone, only going out to hunt and fish, aroused a widespread interest. He never spoke to any one, never went to the town, and every morning he would practice for an hour or so with his revolver and rifle.
“Legends were built up around him. It was said that he was some high personage, fleeing from his fatherland for political reasons; then it was affirmed that he was in hiding after having committed some abominable crime. Some particularly horrible circumstances were even mentioned.
“In my judicial position I thought it necessary to get some information about this man, but it was impossible to learn anything. He called himself Sir John Rowell.
“I therefore had to be satisfied with watching him as closely as I could, but I could see nothing suspicious about his actions.
“However, as rumors about him were growing and becoming more widespread, I decided to try to see this stranger myself, and I began to hunt regularly in the neighborhood of his grounds.
“For a long time I watched without finding an opportunity. At last it came to me in the shape of a partridge which I shot and killed right in front of the Englishman. My dog fetched it for me, but, taking the bird, I went at once to Sir John Rowell and, begging his pardon, asked him to accept it.
“He was a big man, with red hair and beard, very tall, very broad, a kind of calm and polite Hercules. He had nothing of the so-called British stiffness, and in a broad English accent he thanked me warmly for my attention. At the end of a month we had had five or six conversations.
“One night, at last, as I was passing before his door, I saw him in the garden, seated astride a chair, smoking his pipe. I bowed and he invited me to come in and have a glass of beer. I needed no urging.
“He received me with the most punctilious English courtesy, sang the praises of France and of Corsica, and declared that he was quite in love with this country.
“Then, with great caution and under the guise of a vivid interest, I asked him a few questions about his life and his plans. He answered without embarrassment, telling me that he had travelled a great deal in Africa, in the Indies, in America. He added, laughing:
“‘I have had many adventures.’
“Then I turned the conversation on hunting, and he gave me the most curious details on hunting the hippopotamus, the tiger, the elephant and even the gorilla.
“‘Are all these animals dangerous?’
“‘Oh, no! Man is the worst.’
“And he laughed a good broad laugh, the wholesome laugh of a contented Englishman.
“‘I have also frequently been man-hunting.’
“Then he began to talk about weapons, and he invited me to come in and see different makes of guns.
“His parlor was draped in black, black silk embroidered in gold. Big yellow flowers, as brilliant as fire, were worked on the dark material.
“‘It is a Japanese material.’
“But in the middle of the widest panel a strange thing attracted my attention. A black object stood out against a square of red velvet. I went up to it; it was a hand, a human hand. Not the clean white hand of a skeleton, but a dried black hand, with yellow nails, the muscles exposed and traces of old blood on the bones, which were cut off as clean as though it had been chopped off with an axe, near the middle of the forearm.
“Around the wrist, an enormous iron chain, riveted and soldered to this unclean member, fastened it to the wall by a ring, strong enough to hold an elephant in leash.
“‘What is that?’
“The Englishman answered quietly:
“‘That is my best enemy. It comes from America, too. The bones were severed by a sword and the skin cut off with a sharp stone and dried in the sun for a week.’
“I touched these human remains, which must have belonged to a giant. The uncommonly long fingers were attached by enormous tendons which still had pieces of skin hanging to them in places. This hand was terrible to see; it made one think of some savage vengeance.
“‘This man must have been very strong.’
“The Englishman answered quietly:
“‘Yes, but I was stronger than he. I put on this chain to hold him.’
“I thought that he was joking. I said:
“‘This chain is useless now, the hand won’t run away.’
“Sir John Rowell answered seriously:
“‘It always wants to go away. This chain is needed.’
“I glanced at him quickly, questioning his face, and I asked myself:
“‘Is he an insane man or a practical joker?’
“But his face remained inscrutable, calm and friendly. I turned to other subjects, and admired his rifles.
“However, I noticed that he kept three loaded revolvers in the room, as though constantly in fear of some attack.
“I paid him several calls. Then I did not go any more. People had become used to his presence; everybody had lost interest in him.
“A whole year rolled by. One morning, toward the end of November, my servant awoke me and announced that Sir John Rowell had been murdered during the night.
“Half an hour later I entered the Englishman’s house, together with the police commissioner and the captain of the gendarmes. The servant, bewildered and in despair, was crying before the door. At first I suspected this man, but he was innocent.
“The guilty party could never be found.
“On entering Sir John’s parlor, I noticed the body, stretched out on its back, in the middle of the room.
“His vest was torn, the sleeve of his jacket had been pulled off, everything pointed to, a violent struggle.
“The Englishman had been strangled! His face was black, swollen and frightful, and seemed to express a terrible fear. He held something between his teeth, and his neck, pierced by five or six holes which looked as though they had been made by some iron instrument, was covered with blood.
“A physician joined us. He examined the finger marks on the neck for a long time and then made this strange announcement:
“‘It looks as though he had been strangled by a skeleton.’
“A cold chill seemed to run down my back, and I looked over to where I had formerly seen the terrible hand. It was no longer there. The chain was hanging down, broken.
“I bent over the dead man and, in his contracted mouth, I found one of the fingers of this vanished hand, cut–or rather sawed off by the teeth down to the second knuckle.
“Then the investigation began. Nothing could be discovered. No door, window or piece of furniture had been forced. The two watch dogs had not been aroused from their sleep.
“Here, in a few words, is the testimony of the servant:
“For a month his master had seemed excited. He had received many letters, which he would immediately burn.
“Often, in a fit of passion which approached madness, he had taken a switch and struck wildly at this dried hand riveted to the wall, and which had disappeared, no one knows how, at the very hour of the crime.
“He would go to bed very late and carefully lock himself in. He always kept weapons within reach. Often at night he would talk loudly, as though he were quarrelling with some one.
“That night, somehow, he had made no noise, and it was only on going to open the windows that the servant had found Sir John murdered. He suspected no one.
“I communicated what I knew of the dead man to the judges and public officials. Throughout the whole island a minute investigation was carried on. Nothing could be found out.
“One night, about three months after the crime, I had a terrible nightmare. I seemed to see the horrible hand running over my curtains and walls like an immense scorpion or spider. Three times I awoke, three times I went to sleep again; three times I saw the hideous object galloping round my room and moving its fingers like legs.
“The following day the hand was brought me, found in the cemetery, on the grave of Sir John Rowell, who had been buried there because we had been unable to find his family. The first finger was missing.
“Ladies, there is my story. I know nothing more.”
The women, deeply stirred, were pale and trembling. One of them exclaimed:
“But that is neither a climax nor an explanation! We will be unable to sleep unless you give us your opinion of what had occurred.”
The judge smiled severely:
“Oh! Ladies, I shall certainly spoil your terrible dreams. I simply believe that the legitimate owner of the hand was not dead, that he came to get it with his remaining one. But I don’t know how. It was a kind of vendetta.”
One of the women murmured:
“No, it can’t be that.”
And the judge, still smiling, said:
“Didn’t I tell you that my explanation would not satisfy you?”
Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant…5 August 1850 – 6 July 1893) was a 19th-century French author, remembered as a master of the short story form, as well as a representative of the Naturalist school, who depicted human lives, destinies, and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms.
Maupassant was a protégé of Gustave Flaubert and his stories are characterized by economy of style and efficient, seemingly effortless dénouements. Many are set during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s, describing the futility of war and the innocent civilians who, caught up in events beyond their control, are permanently changed by their experiences. He wrote 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse. His first published story, “Boule de Suif” (“The Dumpling”, 1880), is often considered his most famous work. [from the Guy de Maupassant biography in Wikipedia]
In Mathew West’s House of Footsteps, Simon Christie visits Thistlecrook House, the home of a recluse named Victor. As an employee of an auction house, Simon performs a professional assessment of Victor’s art collection, which he wants to sell. Due to its sheer size, as well as the remote location of Thistlecrook House, Simon remains as a guest, occupying an unused bedroom. He visits the library to do further research and finds Amy, a secretive woman who evades his questions about her identity. As their friendship grows, Amy drops hints that Victor is her enemy. Despite knowing nothing about their history, Simon promises to help her escape Victor.
I admire the novel’s ambitious choice to keep its explanations vague. As Simon reminds himself more than once, he only has a limited understanding of Thistlecrook House’s troubled history. His acceptance of this cluelessness as his best chance of happiness echoes the Lovecraftian theme of blissful ignorance. In fact, the archaic writing style, which uses formal language and intricate sentences, brings Lovecraft to mind. While the lack of a “big reveal” risks disappointing readers, I think it respects the third person limited point of view, from which the story is told. I also love the prevalence of suggestive details, especially the painting in Simon’s bedroom from the perspective of someone standing in the centre of a lake. The vividness of these details complements the obscure backstories of Amy and Victor, accentuating their mystery.
The romantic scene between Simon and Victor encapsulates the strength of the characterisation. Neither Simon nor Victor acts in a clichéd or oversimplified way. Rather, their interaction gives their personalities a new dimension. Victor tells Simon that “we both knew it was going to happen”, referring to their physical contact as though it already occurred. The pronoun “it” reinforces the bold assurance of Victor’s manner, who takes for granted that Simon perceives his intentions. Meanwhile, Simon’s post-alcohol narration is interrupted by em-dashes and sentence fragments, emphasising the brokenness of his mental state and his struggle to form a coherent thought. Victor’s merciless exploitation of Simon’s vulnerability conveys his power and cunning. In contrast, Simon’s innocence inspires not just pity, but dread of what he has in store.
Although “The House of Footsteps” is slightly slow-paced, its compelling characterisation makes it hard to put down. In particular, Mathew West’s eloquent writing style will appeal to fans of Lovecraft.
Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Straylight, Grimdark, Bone Parade, Bristol Noir, and The 13 Days of Christmas.
For those of you who keep up with The Chamber’s new department “The Saturday Night Special”, you know that on June 25, the story of the night was Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” about a man in the wilderness who is stalked by something invisible, possibly an invisible cougar.
Interestingly, today (July 6) an article appeared in Exemplore about hikers who wandered off a path in the San Bernadino National Forest east of Los Angeles and found they were being stalked by a transparent, human-like being who stayed in the tree tops. They immediately ran off and quickly found themselves back on their original trail.
What this transparent thing was or was doing is anyone’s guess, if it was an actual creature. Some have suggested aliens or a spirit or any number of things. My guess is the hikers were probably having a hallucination rooted in dehydration and fatigue and maybe a touch of folie a deux.
Nonetheless, it does make for an interesting footnote to the Ambrose Bierce tale.
Phil Slattery, Publisher
PRINTED FOR SHERWOOD, NEELY, AND JONES
[Entered at Stationers’ Hall, March 27, 1819]
Gillet, Printer, Crown Court, Fleet Street, London.
EXTRACT OF A LETTER
“I breathe freely in the neighbourhood of this lake; the ground upon which I tread has been subdued from the earliest ages; the principal objects which immediately strike my eye, bring to my recollection scenes, in which man acted the hero and was the chief object of interest. Not to look back to earlier times of battles and sieges, here is the bust of Rousseau—here is a house with an inscription denoting that the Genevan philosopher first drew breath under its roof. A little out of the town is Ferney, the residence of Voltaire; where that wonderful, though certainly in many respects contemptible, character, received, like the hermits of old, the visits of pilgrims, not only from his own nation, but from the farthest boundaries of Europe. Here too is Bonnet’s abode, and, a few steps beyond, the house of that astonishing woman Madame de Stael: perhaps the first of her sex, who has really proved its often claimed equality with, the nobler man. We have before had women who have written interesting novels and poems, in which their tact at observing drawing-room characters has availed them; but never since the days of Heloise have those faculties which are peculiar to man, been developed as the possible inheritance of woman. Though even here, as in the case of Heloise, our sex have not been backward in alledging the existence of an Abeilard in the person of M. Schlegel as the inspirer of her works. But to proceed: upon the same side of the lake, Gibbon, Bonnivard, Bradshaw, and others mark, as it were, the stages for our progress; whilst upon the other side there is one house, built by Diodati, the friend of Milton, which has contained within its walls, for several months, that poet whom we have so often read together, and who—if human passions remain the same, and human feelings, like chords, on being swept by nature’s impulses shall vibrate as before—will be placed by posterity in the first rank of our English Poets. You must have heard, or the Third Canto of Childe Harold will have informed you, that Lord Byron resided many months in this neighbourhood. I went with some friends a few days ago, after having seen Ferney, to view this mansion. I trod the floors with the same feelings of awe and respect as we did, together, those of Shakespeare’s dwelling at Stratford. I sat down in a chair of the saloon, and satisfied myself that I was resting on what he had made his constant seat. I found a servant there who had lived with him; she, however, gave me but little information. She pointed out his bed-chamber upon the same level as the saloon and dining-room, and informed me that he retired to rest at three, got up at two, and employed himself a long time over his toilette; that he never went to sleep without a pair of pistols and a dagger by his side, and that he never ate animal food. He apparently spent some part of every day upon the lake in an English boat. There is a balcony from the saloon which looks upon the lake and the mountain Jura; and I imagine, that it must have been hence, he contemplated the storm so magnificently described in the Third Canto; for you have from here a most extensive view of all the points he has therein depicted. I can fancy him like the scathed pine, whilst all around was sunk to repose, still waking to observe, what gave but a weak image of the storms which had desolated his own breast.
The sky is changed!—and such a change; Oh, night!
And storm and darkness, ye are wond’rous strong,
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman! Far along
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Leaps the lire thunder! Not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now hath found a tongue,
And Jura answers thro’ her misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps who call to her aloud!
And this is in the night:—Most glorious night!
Thou wer’t not sent for slumber! let me be
A sharer in thy far and fierce delight,—
A portion of the tempest and of me!
How the lit lake shines a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comet dancing to the earth!
And now again ’tis black,—and now the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth,
As if they did rejoice o’er a young; earthquake’s birth,
Now where the swift Rhine cleaves his way between
Heights which appear, as lovers who have parted
In haste, whose mining depths so intervene,
That they can meet no more, tho’ broken hearted;
Tho’ in their souls which thus each other thwarted,
Love was the very root of the fond rage
Which blighted their life’s bloom, and then departed—
Itself expired, but leaving; them an age
Of years all winter—war within themselves to wage.
I went down to the little port, if I may use the expression, wherein his vessel used to lay, and conversed with the cottager, who had the care of it. You may smile, but I have my pleasure in thus helping my personification of the individual I admire, by attaining to the knowledge of those circumstances which were daily around him. I have made numerous enquiries in the town concerning him, but can learn nothing. He only went into society there once, when M. Pictet took him to the house of a lady to spend the evening. They say he is a very singular man, and seem to think him very uncivil. Amongst other things they relate, that having invited M. Pictet and Bonstetten to dinner, he went on the lake to Chillon, leaving a gentleman who travelled with him to receive them and make his apologies. Another evening, being invited to the house of Lady D—— H——, he promised to attend, but upon approaching the windows of her ladyship’s villa, and perceiving the room to be full of company, he set down his friend, desiring him to plead his excuse, and immediately returned home. This will serve as a contradiction to the report which you tell me is current in England, of his having been avoided by his countrymen on the continent. The case happens to be directly the reverse, as he has been generally sought by them, though on most occasions, apparently without success. It is said, indeed, that upon paying his first visit at Coppet, following the servant who had announced his name, he was surprised to meet a lady carried out fainting; but before he had been seated many minutes, the same lady, who had been so affected at the sound of his name, returned and conversed with him a considerable time—such is female curiosity and affectation! He visited Coppet frequently, and of course associated there with several of his countrymen, who evinced no reluctance to meet him whom his enemies alone would represent as an outcast.
Though I have been so unsuccessful in this town, I have been more fortunate in my enquiries elsewhere. There is a society three or four miles from Geneva, the centre of which is the Countess of Breuss, a Russian lady, well acquainted with the agrémens de la Société, and who has collected them round herself at her mansion. It was chiefly here, I find, that the gentleman who travelled with Lord Byron, as physician, sought for society. He used almost every day to cross the lake by himself, in one of their flat-bottomed boats, and return after passing the evening with his friends, about eleven or twelve at night, often whilst the storms were raging in the circling summits of the mountains around. As he became intimate, from long acquaintance, with several of the families in this neighbourhood, I have gathered from their accounts some excellent traits of his lordship’s character, which I will relate to you at some future opportunity. I must, however, free him from one imputation attached to him—of having in his house two sisters as the partakers of his revels. This is, like many other charges which have been brought against his lordship, entirely destitute of truth. His only companion was the physician I have already mentioned. The report originated from the following circumstance: Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelly, a gentleman well known for extravagance of doctrine, and for his daring, in their profession, even to sign himself with the title of ATHeos in the Album at Chamouny, having taken a house below, in which he resided with Miss M. W. Godwin and Miss Clermont, (the daughters of the celebrated Mr. Godwin) they were frequently visitors at Diodati, and were often seen upon the lake with his Lordship, which gave rise to the report, the truth of which is here positively denied.
Among other things which the lady, from whom I procured these anecdotes, related to me, she mentioned the outline of a ghost story by Lord Byron. It appears that one evening Lord B., Mr. P. B. Shelly, the two ladies and the gentleman before alluded to, after having perused a German work, which was entitled Phantasmagoriana, began relating ghost stories; when his lordship having recited the beginning of Christabel, then unpublished, the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly’s mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighbourhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression. It was afterwards proposed, in the course of conversation, that each of the company present should write a tale depending upon some supernatural agency, which was undertaken by Lord B., the physician, and Miss M. W. Godwin. My friend, the lady above referred to, had in her possession the outline of each of these stories; I obtained them as a great favour, and herewith forward them to you, as I was assured you would feel as much curiosity as myself, to peruse the ebauches of so great a genius, and those immediately under his influence.”
 Since published under the title of “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”
THE superstition upon which this tale is founded is very general in the East. Among the Arabians it appears to be common: it did not, however, extend itself to the Greeks until after the establishment of Christianity; and it has only assumed its present form since the division of the Latin and Greek churches; at which time, the idea becoming prevalent, that a Latin body could not corrupt if buried in their territory, it gradually increased, and formed the subject of many wonderful stories, still extant, of the dead rising from their graves, and feeding upon the blood of the young and beautiful. In the West it spread, with some slight variation, all over Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Lorraine, where the belief existed, that vampyres nightly imbibed a certain portion of the blood of their victims, who became emaciated, lost their strength, and speedily died of consumptions; whilst these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.
In the London Journal, of March, 1732, is a curious, and, of course, credible account of a particular case of vampyrism, which is stated to have occurred at Madreyga, in Hungary. It appears, that upon an examination of the commander-in-chief and magistrates of the place, they positively and unanimously affirmed, that, about five years before, a certain Heyduke, named Arnold Paul, had been heard to say, that, at Cassovia, on the frontiers of the Turkish Servia, he had been tormented by a vampyre, but had found a way to rid himself of the evil, by eating some of the earth out of the vampyre’s grave, and rubbing himself with his blood. This precaution, however, did not prevent him from becoming a vampyre himself; for, about twenty or thirty days after his death and burial, many persons complained of having been tormented by him, and a deposition was made, that four persons had been deprived of life by his attacks. To prevent further mischief, the inhabitants having consulted their Hadagni, took up the body, and found it (as is supposed to be usual in cases of vampyrism) fresh, and entirely free from corruption, and emitting at the mouth, nose, and ears, pure and florid blood. Proof having been thus obtained, they resorted to the accustomed remedy. A stake was driven entirely through the heart and body of Arnold Paul, at which he is reported to have cried out as dreadfully as if he had been alive. This done, they cut off his head, burned his body, and threw the ashes into his grave. The same measures were adopted with the corses of those persons who had previously died from vampyrism, lest they should, in their turn, become agents upon others who survived them.
 The universal belief is, that a person sucked by a vampyre becomes a vampyre himself, and sucks in his turn.
 Chief bailiff.
This monstrous rodomontade is here related, because it seems better adapted to illustrate the subject of the present observations than any other instance which could be adduced. In many parts of Greece it is considered as a sort of punishment after death, for some heinous crime committed whilst in existence, that the deceased is not only doomed to vampyrise, but compelled to confine his infernal visitations solely to those beings he loved most while upon earth—those to whom he was bound by ties of kindred and affection.—A supposition alluded to in the “Giaour.”
But first on earth, as Vampyre sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent;
Then ghastly haunt the native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse,
Thy victims, ere they yet expire,
Shall know the demon for their sire;
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, best beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father’s name—
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet thou must end thy task and mark
Her cheek’s last tinge—her eye’s last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o’er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shall tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which, in life a lock when shorn
Affection’s fondest pledge was worn—
But now is borne away by thee
Memorial of thine agony!
Yet with thine own best blood shall drip;
Thy gnashing tooth, and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go—and with Gouls and Afrits rave,
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they.
Mr. Southey has also introduced in his wild but beautiful poem of “Thalaba,” the vampyre corse of the Arabian maid Oneiza, who is represented as having returned from the grave for the purpose of tormenting him she best loved whilst in existence. But this cannot be supposed to have resulted from the sinfulness of her life, she being pourtrayed throughout the whole of the tale as a complete type of purity and innocence. The veracious Tournefort gives a long account in his travels of several astonishing cases of vampyrism, to which he pretends to have been an eyewitness; and Calmet, in his great work upon this subject, besides a variety of anecdotes, and traditionary narratives illustrative of its effects, has put forth some learned dissertations, tending to prove it to be a classical, as well as barbarian error.
Many curious and interesting notices on this singularly horrible superstition might be added; though the present may suffice for the limits of a note, necessarily devoted to explanation, and which may now be concluded by merely remarking, that though the term Vampyre is the one in most general acceptation, there are several others synonymous with it, made use of in various parts of the world: as Vroucolocha, Vardoulacha, Goul, Broucoloka, &c.
IT happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention. In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection: Lady Mercer, who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage, threw herself in his way, and did all but put on the dress of a mountebank, to attract his notice:—though in vain:—when she stood before him, though his eyes were apparently fixed upon her’s, still it seemed as if they were unperceived;—even her unappalled impudence was baffled, and she left the field. But though the common adultress could not influence even the guidance of his eyes, it was not that the female sex was indifferent to him: yet such was the apparent caution with which he spoke to the virtuous wife and innocent daughter, that few knew he ever addressed himself to females. He had, however, the reputation of a winning tongue; and whether it was that it even overcame the dread of his singular character, or that they were moved by his apparent hatred of vice, he was as often among those females who form the boast of their sex from their domestic virtues, as among those who sully it by their vices.
About the same time, there came to London a young gentleman of the name of Aubrey: he was an orphan left with an only sister in the possession of great wealth, by parents who died while he was yet in childhood. Left also to himself by guardians, who thought it their duty merely to take care of his fortune, while they relinquished the more important charge of his mind to the care of mercenary subalterns, he cultivated more his imagination than his judgment. He had, hence, that high romantic feeling of honour and candour, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices. He believed all to sympathise with virtue, and thought that vice was thrown in by Providence merely for the picturesque effect of the scene, as we see in romances: he thought that the misery of a cottage merely consisted in the vesting of clothes, which were as warm, but which were better adapted to the painter’s eye by their irregular folds and various coloured patches. He thought, in fine, that the dreams of poets were the realities of life. He was handsome, frank, and rich: for these reasons, upon his entering into the gay circles, many mothers surrounded him, striving which should describe with least truth their languishing or romping favourites: the daughters at the same time, by their brightening countenances when he approached, and by their sparkling eyes, when he opened his lips, soon led him into false notions of his talents and his merit. Attached as he was to the romance of his solitary hours, he was startled at finding, that, except in the tallow and wax candles that flickered, not from the presence of a ghost, but from want of snuffing, there was no foundation in real life for any of that congeries of pleasing pictures and descriptions contained in those volumes, from which he had formed his study. Finding, however, some compensation in his gratified vanity, he was about to relinquish his dreams, when the extraordinary being we have above described, crossed him in his career.
He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact: allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him. He became acquainted with him, paid him attentions, and so far advanced upon his notice, that his presence was always recognised. He gradually learnt that Lord Ruthven’s affairs were embarrassed, and soon found, from the notes of preparation in —— Street, that he was about to travel. Desirous of gaining some information respecting this singular character, who, till now, had only whetted his curiosity, he hinted to his guardians, that it was time for him to perform the tour, which for many generations has been thought necessary to enable the young to take some rapid steps in the career of vice towards putting themselves upon an equality with the aged, and not allowing them to appear as if fallen from the skies, whenever scandalous intrigues are mentioned as the subjects of pleasantry or of praise, according to the degree of skill shewn in carrying them on. They consented: and Aubrey immediately mentioning his intentions to Lord Ruthven, was surprised to receive from him a proposal to join him. Flattered by such a mark of esteem from him, who, apparently, had nothing in common with other men, he gladly accepted it, and in a few days they had passed the circling waters.
Hitherto, Aubrey had had no opportunity of studying Lord Ruthven’s character, and now he found, that, though many more of his actions were exposed to his view, the results offered different conclusions from the apparent motives to his conduct. His companion was profuse in his liberality;—the idle, the vagabond, and the beggar, received from his hand more than enough to relieve their immediate wants. But Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms;—these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity. This was, however, attributed by him to the greater importunity of the vicious, which generally prevails over the retiring bashfulness of the virtuous indigent. There was one circumstance about the charity of his Lordship, which was still more impressed upon his mind: all those upon whom it was bestowed, inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all either led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and the most abject misery. At Brussels and other towns through which they passed, Aubrey was surprized at the apparent eagerness with which his companion sought for the centres of all fashionable vice; there he entered into all the spirit of the faro table: he betted, and always gambled with success, except where the known sharper was his antagonist, and then he lost even more than he gained; but it was always with the same unchanging face, with which he generally watched the society around: it was not, however, so when he encountered the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of a numerous family; then his very wish seemed fortune’s law—this apparent abstractedness of mind was laid aside, and his eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse. In every town, he left the formerly affluent youth, torn from the circle he adorned, cursing, in the solitude of a dungeon, the fate that had drawn him within the reach of this fiend; whilst many a father sat frantic, amidst the speaking looks of mute hungry children, without a single farthing of his late immense wealth, wherewith to buy even sufficient to satisfy their present craving. Yet he took no money from the gambling table; but immediately lost, to the ruiner of many, the last gilder he had just snatched from the convulsive grasp of the innocent: this might but be the result of a certain degree of knowledge, which was not, however, capable of combating the cunning of the more experienced. Aubrey often wished to represent this to his friend, and beg him to resign that charity and pleasure which proved the ruin of all, and did not tend to his own profit;—but he delayed it—for each day he hoped his friend would give him some opportunity of speaking frankly and openly to him; however, this never occurred. Lord Ruthven in his carriage, and amidst the various wild and rich scenes of nature, was always the same: his eye spoke less than his lip; and though Aubrey was near the object of his curiosity, he obtained no greater gratification from it than the constant excitement of vainly wishing to break that mystery, which to his exalted imagination began to assume the appearance of something supernatural.
They soon arrived at Rome, and Aubrey for a time lost sight of his companion; he left him in daily attendance upon the morning circle of an Italian countess, whilst he went in search of the memorials of another almost deserted city. Whilst he was thus engaged, letters arrived from England, which he opened with eager impatience; the first was from his sister, breathing nothing but affection; the others were from his guardians, the latter astonished him; if it had before entered into his imagination that there was an evil power resident in his companion, these seemed to give him sufficient reason for the belief. His guardians insisted upon his immediately leaving his friend, and urged, that his character was dreadfully vicious, for that the possession of irresistible powers of seduction, rendered his licentious habits more dangerous to society. It had been discovered, that his contempt for the adultress had not originated in hatred of her character; but that he had required, to enhance his gratification, that his victim, the partner of his guilt, should be hurled from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue, down to the lowest abyss of infamy and degradation: in fine, that all those females whom he had sought, apparently on account of their virtue, had, since his departure, thrown even the mask aside, and had not scrupled to expose the whole deformity of their vices to the public gaze.
Aubrey determined upon leaving one, whose character had not yet shown a single bright point on which to rest the eye. He resolved to invent some plausible pretext for abandoning him altogether, purposing, in the mean while, to watch him more closely, and to let no slight circumstances pass by unnoticed. He entered into the same circle, and soon perceived, that his Lordship was endeavouring to work upon the inexperience of the daughter of the lady whose house he chiefly frequented. In Italy, it is seldom that an unmarried female is met with in society; he was therefore obliged to carry on his plans in secret; but Aubrey’s eye followed him in all his windings, and soon discovered that an assignation had been appointed, which would most likely end in the ruin of an innocent, though thoughtless girl. Losing no time, he entered the apartment of Lord Ruthven, and abruptly asked him his intentions with respect to the lady, informing him at the same time that he was aware of his being about to meet her that very night. Lord Ruthven answered, that his intentions were such as he supposed all would have upon such an occasion; and upon being pressed whether he intended to marry her, merely laughed. Aubrey retired; and, immediately writing a note, to say, that from that moment he must decline accompanying his Lordship in the remainder of their proposed tour, he ordered his servant to seek other apartments, and calling upon the mother of the lady, informed her of all he knew, not only with regard to her daughter, but also concerning the character of his Lordship. The assignation was prevented. Lord Ruthven next day merely sent his servant to notify his complete assent to a separation; but did not hint any suspicion of his plans having been foiled by Aubrey’s interposition.
Having left Rome, Aubrey directed his steps towards Greece, and crossing the Peninsula, soon found himself at Athens. He then fixed his residence in the house of a Greek; and soon occupied himself in tracing the faded records of ancient glory upon monuments that apparently, ashamed of chronicling the deeds of freemen only before slaves, had hidden themselves beneath the sheltering soil or many coloured lichen. Under the same roof as himself, existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter wishing to pourtray on canvass the promised hope of the faithful in Mahomet’s paradise, save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls. As she danced upon the plain, or tripped along the mountain’s side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties; for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to the taste of an epicure. The light step of Ianthe often accompanied Aubrey in his search after antiquities, and often would the unconscious girl, engaged in the pursuit of a Kashmere butterfly, show the whole beauty of her form, floating as it were upon the wind, to the eager gaze of him, who forgot the letters he had just decyphered upon an almost effaced tablet, in the contemplation of her sylph-like figure. Often would her tresses falling, as she flitted around, exhibit in the sun’s ray such delicately brilliant and swiftly fading hues, it might well excuse the forgetfulness of the antiquary, who let escape from his mind the very object he had before thought of vital importance to the proper interpretation of a passage in Pausanias. But why attempt to describe charms which all feel, but none can appreciate?—It was innocence, youth, and beauty, unaffected by crowded drawing-rooms and stifling balls. Whilst he drew those remains of which he wished to preserve a memorial for his future hours, she would stand by, and watch the magic effects of his pencil, in tracing the scenes of her native place; she would then describe to him the circling dance upon the open plain, would paint, to him in all the glowing colours of youthful memory, the marriage pomp she remembered viewing in her infancy; and then, turning to subjects that had evidently made a greater impression upon her mind, would tell him all the supernatural tales of her nurse. Her earnestness and apparent belief of what she narrated, excited the interest even of Aubrey; and often as she told him the tale of the living vampyre, who had passed years amidst his friends, and dearest ties, forced every year, by feeding upon the life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months, his blood would run cold, whilst he attempted to laugh her out of such idle and horrible fantasies; but Ianthe cited to him the names of old men, who had at last detected one living among themselves, after several of their near relatives and children had been found marked with the stamp of the fiend’s appetite; and when she found him so incredulous, she begged of him to believe her, for it had been, remarked, that those who had dared to question their existence, always had some proof given, which obliged them, with grief and heartbreaking, to confess it was true. She detailed to him the traditional appearance of these monsters, and his horror was increased, by hearing a pretty accurate description of Lord Ruthven; he, however, still persisted in persuading her, that there could be no truth in her fears, though at the same time he wondered at the many coincidences which had all tended to excite a belief in the supernatural power of Lord Ruthven.
Aubrey began to attach himself more and more to Ianthe; her innocence, so contrasted with all the affected virtues of the women among whom he had sought for his vision of romance, won his heart; and while he ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl, still he found himself more and more attached to the almost fairy form before him. He would tear himself at times from her, and, forming a plan for some antiquarian research, he would depart, determined not to return until his object was attained; but he always found it impossible to fix his attention upon the ruins around him, whilst in his mind he retained an image that seemed alone the rightful possessor of his thoughts. Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had first known. She always seemed to part from him with reluctance; but it was because she had no longer any one with whom she could visit her favourite haunts, whilst her guardian was occupied in sketching or uncovering some fragment which had yet escaped the destructive hand of time. She had appealed to her parents on the subject of Vampyres, and they both, with several present, affirmed their existence, pale with horror at the very name. Soon after, Aubrey determined to proceed upon one of his excursions, which was to detain him for a few hours; when they heard the name of the place, they all at once begged of him not to return at night, as he must necessarily pass through a wood, where no Greek would ever remain, after the day had closed, upon any consideration. They described it as the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies, and denounced the most heavy evils as impending upon him who dared to cross their path. Aubrey made light of their representations, and tried to laugh them out of the idea; but when he saw them shudder at his daring thus to mock a superior, infernal power, the very name of which apparently made their blood freeze, he was silent.
Next morning Aubrey set off upon his excursion unattended; he was surprised to observe the melancholy face of his host, and was concerned to find that his words, mocking the belief of those horrible fiends, had inspired them with such terror. When he was about to depart, Ianthe came to the side of his horse, and earnestly begged of him to return, ere night allowed the power of these beings to be put in action;—he promised. He was, however, so occupied in his research, that he did not perceive that day-light would soon end, and that in the horizon there was one of those specks which, in the warmer climates, so rapidly gather into a tremendous mass, and pour all their rage upon the devoted country.—He at last, however, mounted his horse, determined to make up by speed for his delay: but it was too late. Twilight, in these southern climates, is almost unknown; immediately the sun sets, night begins: and ere he had advanced far, the power of the storm was above—its echoing thunders had scarcely an interval of rest—its thick heavy rain forced its way through the canopying foliage, whilst the blue forked lightning seemed to fall and radiate at his very feet. Suddenly his horse took fright, and he was carried with dreadful rapidity through the entangled forest. The animal at last, through fatigue, stopped, and he found, by the glare of lightning, that he was in the neighbourhood of a hovel that hardly lifted itself up from the masses of dead leaves and brushwood which surrounded it. Dismounting, he approached, hoping to find some one to guide him to the town, or at least trusting to obtain shelter from the pelting of the storm. As he approached, the thunders, for a moment silent, allowed him to hear the dreadful shrieks of a woman mingling with the stifled, exultant mockery of a laugh, continued in one almost unbroken sound;—he was startled: but, roused by the thunder which again rolled over his head, he, with a sudden effort, forced open the door of the hut. He found himself in utter darkness: the sound, however, guided him. He was apparently unperceived; for, though he called, still the sounds continued, and no notice was taken of him. He found himself in contact with some one, whom he immediately seized; when a voice cried, “Again baffled!” to which a loud laugh succeeded; and he felt himself grappled by one whose strength seemed superhuman: determined to sell his life as dearly as he could, he struggled; but it was in vain: he was lifted from his feet and hurled with enormous force against the ground:—his enemy threw himself upon him, and kneeling upon his breast, had placed his hands upon his throat—when the glare of many torches penetrating through the hole that gave light in the day, disturbed him;—he instantly rose, and, leaving his prey, rushed through the door, and in a moment the crashing of the branches, as he broke through the wood, was no longer heard. The storm was now still; and Aubrey, incapable of moving, was soon heard by those without. They entered; the light of their torches fell upon the mud walls, and the thatch loaded on every individual straw with heavy flakes of soot. At the desire of Aubrey they searched for her who had attracted him by her cries; he was again left in darkness; but what was his horror, when the light of the torches once more burst upon him, to perceive the airy form of his fair conductress brought in a lifeless corse. He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form, when he unclosed them, stretched by his side. There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!” A litter was quickly formed, and Aubrey was laid by the side of her who had lately been to him the object of so many bright and fairy visions, now fallen with the flower of life that had died within her. He knew not what his thoughts were—his mind was benumbed and seemed to shun reflection, and take refuge in vacancy—he held almost unconsciously in his hand a naked dagger of a particular construction, which had been found in the hut. They were soon met by different parties who had been engaged in the search of her whom a mother had missed. Their lamentable cries, as they approached the city, forewarned the parents of some dreadful catastrophe. —To describe their grief would be impossible; but when they ascertained the cause of their child’s death, they looked at Aubrey, and pointed to the corse. They were inconsolable; both died broken-hearted.
Aubrey being put to bed was seized with a most violent fever, and was often delirious; in these intervals he would call upon Lord Ruthven and upon Ianthe—by some unaccountable combination he seemed to beg of his former companion to spare the being he loved. At other times he would imprecate maledictions upon his head, and curse him as her destroyer. Lord Ruthven, chanced at this time to arrive at Athens, and, from whatever motive, upon hearing of the state of Aubrey, immediately placed himself in the same house, and became his constant attendant. When the latter recovered from his delirium, he was horrified and startled at the sight of him whose image he had now combined with that of a Vampyre; but Lord Ruthven, by his kind words, implying almost repentance for the fault that had caused their separation, and still more by the attention, anxiety, and care which he showed, soon reconciled him to his presence. His lordship seemed quite changed; he no longer appeared that apathetic being who had so astonished Aubrey; but as soon as his convalescence began to be rapid, he again gradually retired into the same state of mind, and Aubrey perceived no difference from the former man, except that at times he was surprised to meet his gaze fixed intently upon him, with a smile of malicious exultation playing upon his lips: he knew not why, but this smile haunted him. During the last stage of the invalid’s recovery, Lord Ruthven was apparently engaged in watching the tideless waves raised by the cooling breeze, or in marking the progress of those orbs, circling, like our world, the moveless sun;—indeed, he appeared to wish to avoid the eyes of all.
Aubrey’s mind, by this shock, was much weakened, and that elasticity of spirit which had once so distinguished him now seemed to have fled for ever. He was now as much a lover of solitude and silence as Lord Ruthven; but much as he wished for solitude, his mind could not find it in the neighbourhood of Athens; if he sought it amidst the ruins he had formerly frequented, Ianthe’s form stood by his side—if he sought it in the woods, her light step would appear wandering amidst the underwood, in quest of the modest violet; then suddenly turning round, would show, to his wild imagination, her pale face and wounded throat, with a meek smile upon her lips. He determined to fly scenes, every feature of which created such bitter associations in his mind. He proposed to Lord Ruthven, to whom he held himself bound by the tender care he had taken of him during his illness, that they should visit those parts of Greece neither had yet seen. They travelled in every direction, and sought every spot to which a recollection could be attached: but though they thus hastened from place to place, yet they seemed not to heed what they gazed upon. They heard much of robbers, but they gradually began to slight these reports, which they imagined were only the invention of individuals, whose interest it was to excite the generosity of those whom they defended from pretended dangers. In consequence of thus neglecting the advice of the inhabitants, on one occasion they travelled with only a few guards, more to serve as guides than as a defence. Upon entering, however, a narrow defile, at the bottom of which was the bed of a torrent, with large masses of rock brought down from the neighbouring precipices, they had reason to repent their negligence; for scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of the rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him—his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.
By promises of great reward, Aubrey soon induced them to convey his wounded friend to a neighbouring cabin; and having agreed upon a ransom, he was no more disturbed by their presence—they being content merely to guard the entrance till their comrade should return with the promised sum, for which he had an order. Lord Ruthven’s strength rapidly decreased; in two days mortification ensued, and death seemed advancing with hasty steps. His conduct and appearance had not changed; he seemed as unconscious of pain as he had been of the objects about him: but towards the close of the last evening, his mind became apparently uneasy, and his eye often fixed upon Aubrey, who was induced to offer his assistance with more than usual earnestness—”Assist me! you may save me—you may do more than that—I mean not my life, I heed the death of my existence as little as that of the passing day; but you may save my honour, your friend’s honour.”—”How? tell me how? I would do any thing,” replied Aubrey.—”I need but little—my life ebbs apace—I cannot explain the whole—but if you would conceal all you know of me, my honour were free from stain in the world’s mouth—and if my death were unknown for some time in England—I—I—but life.”—”It shall not be known.”—”Swear!” cried the dying man, raising himself with exultant violence, “Swear by all your soul reveres, by all your nature fears, swear that, for a year and a day you will not impart your knowledge of my crimes or death to any living being in any way, whatever may happen, or whatever you may see. “—His eyes seemed bursting from their sockets: “I swear!” said Aubrey; he sunk laughing upon his pillow, and breathed no more.
Aubrey retired to rest, but did not sleep; the many circumstances attending his acquaintance with this man rose upon his mind, and he knew not why; when he remembered his oath a cold shivering came over him, as if from the presentiment of something horrible awaiting him. Rising early in the morning, he was about to enter the hovel in which he had left the corpse, when a robber met him, and informed him that it was no longer there, having been conveyed by himself and comrades, upon his retiring, to the pinnacle of a neighbouring mount, according to a promise they had given his lordship, that it should be exposed to the first cold ray of the moon that rose after his death. Aubrey astonished, and taking several of the men, determined to go and bury it upon the spot where it lay. But, when he had mounted to the summit he found no trace of either the corpse or the clothes, though the robbers swore they pointed out the identical rock on which they had laid the body. For a time his mind was bewildered in conjectures, but he at last returned, convinced that they had buried the corpse for the sake of the clothes.
Weary of a country in which he had met with such terrible misfortunes, and in which all apparently conspired to heighten that superstitious melancholy that had seized upon his mind, he resolved to leave it, and soon arrived at Smyrna. While waiting for a vessel to convey him to Otranto, or to Naples, he occupied himself in arranging those effects he had with him belonging to Lord Ruthven. Amongst other things there was a case containing several weapons of offence, more or less adapted to ensure the death of the victim. There were several daggers and ataghans. Whilst turning them over, and examining their curious forms, what was his surprise at finding a sheath apparently ornamented in the same style as the dagger discovered in the fatal hut—he shuddered—hastening to gain further proof, he found the weapon, and his horror may be imagined when he discovered that it fitted, though peculiarly shaped, the sheath he held in his hand. His eyes seemed to need no further certainty—they seemed gazing to be bound to the dagger; yet still he wished to disbelieve; but the particular form, the same varying tints upon the haft and sheath were alike in splendour on both, and left no room for doubt; there were also drops of blood on each.
He left Smyrna, and on his way home, at Rome, his first inquiries were concerning the lady he had attempted to snatch from Lord Ruthven’s seductive arts. Her parents were in distress, their fortune ruined, and she had not been heard of since the departure of his lordship. Aubrey’s mind became almost broken under so many repeated horrors; he was afraid that this lady had fallen a victim to the destroyer of Ianthe. He became morose and silent; and his only occupation consisted in urging the speed of the postilions, as if he were going to save the life of some one he held dear. He arrived at Calais; a breeze, which seemed obedient to his will, soon wafted him to the English shores; and he hastened to the mansion of his fathers, and there, for a moment, appeared to lose, in the embraces and caresses of his sister, all memory of the past. If she before, by her infantine caresses, had gained his affection, now that the woman began to appear, she was still more attaching as a companion.
Miss Aubrey had not that winning grace which gains the gaze and applause of the drawing-room assemblies. There was none of that light brilliancy which only exists in the heated atmosphere of a crowded apartment. Her blue eye was never lit up by the levity of the mind beneath. There was a melancholy charm about it which did not seem to arise from misfortune, but from some feeling within, that appeared to indicate a soul conscious of a brighter realm. Her step was not that light footing, which strays where’er a butterfly or a colour may attract—it was sedate and pensive. When alone, her face was never brightened by the smile of joy; but when her brother breathed to her his affection, and would in her presence forget those griefs she knew destroyed his rest, who would have exchanged her smile for that of the voluptuary? It seemed as if those eyes,—that face were then playing in the light of their own native sphere. She was yet only eighteen, and had not been presented to the world, it having been thought by her guardians more fit that her presentation should be delayed until her brother’s return from the continent, when he might be her protector. It was now, therefore, resolved that the next drawing-room, which was fast approaching, should be the epoch of her entry into the “busy scene.” Aubrey would rather have remained in the mansion of his fathers, and fed upon the melancholy which overpowered him. He could not feel interest about the frivolities of fashionable strangers, when his mind had been so torn by the events he had witnessed; but he determined to sacrifice his own comfort to the protection of his sister. They soon arrived in town, and prepared for the next day, which had been announced as a drawing-room.
The crowd was excessive—a drawing-room had not been held for a long time, and all who were anxious to bask in the smile of royalty, hastened thither. Aubrey was there with his sister. While he was standing in a corner by himself, heedless of all around him, engaged in the remembrance that the first time he had seen Lord Ruthven was in that very place—he felt himself suddenly seized by the arm, and a voice he recognized too well, sounded in his ear—”Remember your oath.” He had hardly courage to turn, fearful of seeing a spectre that would blast him, when he perceived, at a little distance, the same figure which had attracted his notice on this spot upon his first entry into society. He gazed till his limbs almost refusing to bear their weight, he was obliged to take the arm of a friend, and forcing a passage through the crowd, he threw himself into his carriage, and was driven home. He paced the room with hurried steps, and fixed his hands upon his head, as if he were afraid his thoughts were bursting from his brain. Lord Ruthven again before him—circumstances started up in dreadful array—the dagger—his oath.—He roused himself, he could not believe it possible—the dead rise again!—He thought his imagination had conjured up the image his mind was resting upon. It was impossible that it could be real—he determined, therefore, to go again into society; for though he attempted to ask concerning Lord Ruthven, the name hung upon his lips, and he could not succeed in gaining information. He went a few nights after with his sister to the assembly of a near relation. Leaving her under the protection of a matron, he retired into a recess, and there gave himself up to his own devouring thoughts. Perceiving, at last, that many were leaving, he roused himself, and entering another room, found his sister surrounded by several, apparently in earnest conversation; he attempted to pass and get near her, when one, whom he requested to move, turned round, and revealed to him those features he most abhorred. He sprang forward, seized his sister’s arm, and, with hurried step, forced her towards the street: at the door he found himself impeded by the crowd of servants who were waiting for their lords; and while he was engaged in passing them, he again heard that voice whisper close to him—”Remember your oath!”—He did not dare to turn, but, hurrying his sister, soon reached home.
Aubrey became almost distracted. If before his mind had been absorbed by one subject, how much more completely was it engrossed, now that the certainty of the monster’s living again pressed upon his thoughts. His sister’s attentions were now unheeded, and it was in vain that she intreated him to explain to her what had caused his abrupt conduct. He only uttered a few words, and those terrified her. The more he thought, the more he was bewildered. His oath startled him;—was he then to allow this monster to roam, bearing ruin upon his breath, amidst all he held dear, and not avert its progress? His very sister might have been touched by him. But even if he were to break his oath, and disclose his suspicions, who would believe him? He thought of employing his own hand to free the world from such a wretch; but death, he remembered, had been already mocked. For days he remained in this state; shut up in his room, he saw no one, and ate only when his sister came, who, with eyes streaming with tears, besought him, for her sake, to support nature. At last, no longer capable of bearing stillness and solitude, he left his house, roamed from street to street, anxious to fly that image which haunted him. His dress became neglected, and he wandered, as often exposed to the noon-day sun as to the midnight damps. He was no longer to be recognized; at first he returned with the evening to the house; but at last he laid him down to rest wherever fatigue overtook him. His sister, anxious for his safety, employed people to follow him; but they were soon distanced by him who fled from a pursuer swifter than any—from thought. His conduct, however, suddenly changed. Struck with the idea that he left by his absence the whole of his friends, with a fiend amongst them, of whose presence they were unconscious, he determined to enter again into society, and watch him closely, anxious to forewarn, in spite of his oath, all whom Lord Ruthven approached with intimacy. But when he entered into a room, his haggard and suspicious looks were so striking, his inward shudderings so visible, that his sister was at last obliged to beg of him to abstain from seeking, for her sake, a society which affected him so strongly. When, however, remonstrance proved unavailing, the guardians thought proper to interpose, and, fearing that his mind was becoming alienated, they thought it high time to resume again that trust which had been before imposed upon them by Aubrey’s parents.
Desirous of saving him from the injuries and sufferings he had daily encountered in his wanderings, and of preventing him from exposing to the general eye those marks of what they considered folly, they engaged a physician to reside in the house, and take constant care of him. He hardly appeared to notice it, so completely was his mind absorbed by one terrible subject. His incoherence became at last so great, that he was confined to his chamber. There he would often lie for days, incapable of being roused. He had become emaciated, his eyes had attained a glassy lustre;—the only sign of affection and recollection remaining displayed itself upon the entry of his sister; then he would sometimes start, and, seizing her hands, with looks that severely afflicted her, he would desire her not to touch him. “Oh, do not touch him—if your love for me is aught, do not go near him!” When, however, she inquired to whom he referred, his only answer was, “True! true!” and again he sank into a state, whence not even she could rouse him. This lasted many months: gradually, however, as the year was passing, his incoherences became less frequent, and his mind threw off a portion of its gloom, whilst his guardians observed, that several times in the day he would count upon his fingers a definite number, and then smile.
The time had nearly elapsed, when, upon the last day of the year, one of his guardians entering his room, began to converse with his physician upon the melancholy circumstance of Aubrey’s being in so awful a situation, when his sister was going next day to be married. Instantly Aubrey’s attention was attracted; he asked anxiously to whom. Glad of this mark of returning intellect, of which they feared he had been deprived, they mentioned the name of the Earl of Marsden. Thinking this was a young Earl whom he had met with in society, Aubrey seemed pleased, and astonished them still more by his expressing his intention to be present at the nuptials, and desiring to see his sister. They answered not, but in a few minutes his sister was with him. He was apparently again capable of being affected by the influence of her lovely smile; for he pressed her to his breast, and kissed her cheek, wet with tears, flowing at the thought of her brother’s being once more alive to the feelings of affection. He began to speak with all his wonted warmth, and to congratulate her upon her marriage with a person so distinguished for rank and every accomplishment; when he suddenly perceived a locket upon her breast; opening it, what was his surprise at beholding the features of the monster who had so long influenced his life. He seized the portrait in a paroxysm of rage, and trampled it under foot. Upon her asking him why he thus destroyed the resemblance of her future husband, he looked as if he did not understand her—then seizing her hands, and gazing on her with a frantic expression of countenance, he bade her swear that she would never wed this monster, for he—— But he could not advance—it seemed as if that voice again bade him remember his oath—he turned suddenly round, thinking Lord Ruthven was near him but saw no one. In the meantime the guardians and physician, who had heard the whole, and thought this was but a return of his disorder, entered, and forcing him from Miss Aubrey, desired her to leave him. He fell upon his knees to them, he implored, he begged of them to delay but for one day. They, attributing this to the insanity they imagined had taken possession of his mind, endeavoured to pacify him, and retired.
Lord Ruthven had called the morning after the drawing-room, and had been refused with every one else. When he heard of Aubrey’s ill health, he readily understood himself to be the cause of it; but when he learned that he was deemed insane, his exultation and pleasure could hardly be concealed from those among whom he had gained this information. He hastened to the house of his former companion, and, by constant attendance, and the pretence of great affection for the brother and interest in his fate, he gradually won the ear of Miss Aubrey. Who could resist his power? His tongue had dangers and toils to recount—could speak of himself as of an individual having no sympathy with any being on the crowded earth, save with her to whom he addressed himself;—could tell how, since he knew her, his existence, had begun to seem worthy of preservation, if it were merely that he might listen to her soothing accents;—in fine, he knew so well how to use the serpent’s art, or such was the will of fate, that he gained her affections. The title of the elder branch falling at length to him, he obtained an important embassy, which served as an excuse for hastening the marriage, (in spite of her brother’s deranged state,) which was to take place the very day before his departure for the continent.
Aubrey, when he was left by the physician and his guardians, attempted to bribe the servants, but in vain. He asked for pen and paper; it was given him; he wrote a letter to his sister, conjuring her, as she valued her own happiness, her own honour, and the honour of those now in the grave, who once held her in their arms as their hope and the hope of their house, to delay but for a few hours that marriage, on which he denounced the most heavy curses. The servants promised they would deliver it; but giving it to the physician, he thought it better not to harass any more the mind of Miss Aubrey by, what he considered, the ravings of a maniac. Night passed on without rest to the busy inmates of the house; and Aubrey heard, with a horror that may more easily be conceived than described, the notes of busy preparation. Morning came, and the sound of carriages broke upon his ear. Aubrey grew almost frantic. The curiosity of the servants at last overcame their vigilance, they gradually stole away, leaving him in the custody of an helpless old woman. He seized the opportunity, with one bound was out of the room, and in a moment found himself in the apartment where all were nearly assembled. Lord Ruthven was the first to perceive him: he immediately approached, and, taking his arm by force, hurried him from the room, speechless with rage. When on the staircase, Lord Ruthven whispered in his ear—”Remember your oath, and know, if not my bride to day, your sister is dishonoured. Women are frail!” So saying, he pushed him towards his attendants, who, roused by the old woman, had come in search of him. Aubrey could no longer support himself; his rage not finding vent, had broken a blood-vessel, and he was conveyed to bed. This was not mentioned to his sister, who was not present when he entered, as the physician was afraid of agitating her. The marriage was solemnized, and the bride and bridegroom left London.
Aubrey’s weakness increased; the effusion of blood produced symptoms of the near approach of death. He desired his sister’s guardians might be called, and when the midnight hour had struck, he related composedly what the reader has perused—he died immediately after.
The guardians hastened to protect Miss Aubrey; but when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!
From Wikipedia: “John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer and physician. He is known for his associations with the Romantic movement and credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the short story “The Vampyre” (1819), the first published modern vampire story. Although the story was at first erroneously credited to Lord Byron, both Byron and Polidori affirmed that the author was Polidori…”
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J. Richard Kron is a writer and musician from Phoenix, Arizona. He holds a BFA in English from Arizona State University.
The Next Issue Appears August 5
The Next Issue Appears August 5
Some nights the Elder still dreamt of electricity. Blinking strings of colored bulbs on a tree, squares of light shining out of tall buildings, headlights leading cars. Tonight she dreamed about going to a movie theater during a storm when she was young. The screen was so tall, easily fifty feet high, and she bounced up and down in a padded chair while her mother handed out popcorn from a crinkling bag. She could feel the grease of the melted butter coating her fingers. Then, with a loud crash, a wall of the theater was ripped away with by wind.
She startled awake and reached out, fumbling in the shy light of the rising sun to turn on her bedside table lamp. She reached and reached but met empty air. She felt her heart pounding as she sat up and looked around. She was not sure where she was until she saw the patchwork quilt on her bed, the tattered canvas curtains covering her window, the wrinkles on her hands. Then she remembered.
Most days this recollection was a hard one. Not like it was at first. Months convinced they were waiting to die, and many of them had been right. Losing so much they had been dependent on with nothing to replace them. Now the pain was that of other cherished but long-gone memories, the ones you weren’t sure if really happened or were only bits of dreams and stories strung together until they felt real.
Today the shock was smaller. Through her open window she could hear children laughing out in the square accompanied by the sound of hammers striking nails. Today was Thanksgiving morning.
After she rose and dressed the Elder stepped out of her house and breathed deep. The autumn air was crisp and delicious. Wisps of her silver hair wafted around her forehead while the rest hung in a braid down her back. She wore a long dress of blue wool. The wool had come from sheep she had raised herself and had been spun on her own wheel. She remembered how easy it had been Before to go to a store with so many clothes in so many sizes and how no one appreciated the luxury of it all. She supposed that was by design, though.
She was one of the only ones left old enough to remember Before. How big it had been, so uselessly big. Now she concerned herself with her town, and the town concerned itself with her. She lived in a small home off the town’s central square. It had once been the town green, but the grass and clover had long ben trodden to dust. All the townspeople knew where to find her when they needed her counsel, remedies, or sometimes just her company.
The house was made of two rooms, one serving as kitchen, den, and library while the other was the bedroom. She called it her house, but it wasn’t, not really. It was the house of the Elder and had belonged to another before her, a man named Jonathan. When he died, it had passed to her, and when she died, it would pass to another. The Elder was chosen by the people and served the people. It was the greatest honor of her life.
The main square was lined with wagons and carts stacked with food and dry goods. Others who lived further afield had brought cloth or honey from their beehives to barter with and some had whittled toys for the children. There were so many children in the town now thanks to years of good harvests and peace. Some goods were listed for sale, but most were offered freely today. It was a holiday tradition to celebrate a good harvest. The carpenters were constructing the platform and tables where they would share their meal later. The craftsmen made them anew every Thanksgiving morning then threw them into bonfires they danced around at night. It was a reminder of the natural cycle of the harvest, and of life.
As the Elder strolled into the square, her neighbor Mama Jones waved in greeting from a few doors down. Everyone called her Mama Jones because she and her husband looked after the town’s children when the parents needed to be in the fields. She walked over holding a wooden bowl filled with oatmeal out to the Elder.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Mama Jones said.
“And to you,” the Elder replied. She smiled with her lips closed, she only had a few teeth left now. As she brought the bowl to her lips she gasped, and her near-empty mouth gaped in shock. “Is that—
“Cinnamon!” Mama Jones squealed, clapping with glee. “My husband found some on his latest trek out, some peddler he met on the road. We’ve had it for months, saved it up for Thanksgiving. It’s going in pies for the feast, but I saved a bit just for you.”
“You are a beacon of kindness, my dear. May They bless you and your light,” she reached out with her thumb and index finger and touched Mama Jones in the center of her forehead.
“Thank you, Elder,” she said.
“Can I return this bowl to you later? I need to go check on my traps.”
“Yes, of course,” she said before waving at someone over the Elder’s shoulder and wandering off. Mama Jones and her husband ran the general store and he ventured out past their borders once or twice a year in search of rare items and often collecting some pelts along the way. Cinnamon, though! Truly a rare find.
The Elder strolled through the square, waving to children who called to her and nodding greetings at those who had come in from the outskirts. The sun was warm while the ground under her bare feet remained cool. When she reached the grass, she paused and wiggled her toes around savoring the feel of soft blades between her toes. She could see more families coming down the road that led to the square excited for the holiday.
The traps weren’t far from the square and she reached them in a few minutes. They were under a large oak tree with sprawling roots and a twisted trunk. Near the center of the trunk there were the last visible remnants of a metal “no parking” sign that was slowly being consumed by the tree. The curb that had been here once was long gone now, all the concrete scavenged away. There were still some patches of asphalt peeking through vegetation, but it had long been taken over by vegetation, small leaves pushing through cracks and widening them until only patches remained.
The trap pits had been dug years before and lined with bricks and stone to keep the walls from caving in. Some of the concrete from the curb had gone into this effort. The pits were deeper than the tallest man in town and only accessible by a wooden ladder that belonged to one of the carpenters. As she approached, she could hear the distressed cries coming from the pit and smiled. They would eat well tonight.
The Elder had been born into a land of plenty and assumed it would last forever. So did her parents, and so had everyone else. No one considered they could keep on living after the end of life as they knew it.
When she was young, she had never had much belief in her life. Then, there didn’t seem to be anything worth believing in. People had walked on the moon, organs could be grown in labs, life expectancy kept climbing up, up, up. What mysteries were left that people had not been able to solve?
It might have been because her family had held such deep beliefs. They had taken so much of it into themselves that there was none left for her, the last born. It was not for lack of trying. Each weekend was filled by the church: Saturday Bible study and Sunday worship that lasted hours. The night before her baptism she had gotten her first period and was terrified of bleeding into the baptismal pool. Would it be a sin to let Eve’s punishment flow into the water blessed to cleanse that sin from her? Her mother had promised her sins would still be washed away, then explained how to use a tampon in hushed whispers her brother could not hear through their thin walls.
Her favorite days had been the revivals when they got to have service outside under a big tent. There was a band instead of a choir and a stage in place of an altar. The pastor stood on high calling on them all to be saved and to bear witness to the salvation of their brothers and sisters. It was a heady spectacle and if she could not feel belief in the salvation, she at least could feel something with the wind on her face. Row upon row of people would file up to have hands laid on them. Some were seeking healing, others forgiveness, others to be a part of a whole. They cried out first for grace then in the ecstasy of rebirth.
The Elder had only walked in that line once. She thought it might help her feel what the others did, that maybe there was something in that touch. A touch was physical, actual. A touch could be the key.
The pastor was a portly, balding man with ruddy cheeks. He had a gap in his front teeth and sometimes when he preached globs of spit flew through it. He wore glasses that took up half his face, a necktie that seemed tight enough to strangle him, and an alligator skin belt with his all-white suit. When she reached the front of the line, and he laid his hands on her she waited for the jolt of the Holy Spirit passing into her. As the seconds passed all she felt were the pastor’s soft, sweaty fingers over her face. Their heft made her feel like she couldn’t breathe. She thanked the pastor, yelled out in praise of the Lord as those before her had but she never walked to the front again.
The revivals happened more often when the storms started getting worse. She had stopped going by then, had moved into her own apartment and had a job in an office. Her family still went though. Her mother, father, brother, his wife, and their baby twins.
There had always been bad storms where she had grown up, especially in the summer; the thick humidity caused chaos in the skies. But each year they got worse and worse in a way that they had not when her parents were young. Her mother stopped driving because the downpours were vicious and hit with no warning. A tall, healthy tree was blown over and barely missed her building. The landlord had all the others removed because the winds weren’t stopping. Their state had floods while the other side of the country burned so hot rescue teams could not even fly helicopters in to fight the blazes.
Despite it all on and on the revivals went, fervor growing with each passing season. The pastor stood in front and cheered the storms, eyes bright and a sheen of sweat on his brow. The storms were proof, he said, that Jesus would soon return. That the sinners would be washed away in the floods like those who had not listened to Noah or burned like the wicked of Sodom.
Since leaving home the Elder had played around with different things: Buddhism, Quakerism, spells involving cloves stuffed into the rinds of ripe fruit. Not believing in anything made her open to believe in anything, in a way. None of these stuck and she started to feel drawn towards the big tent again. Come back with us, her mother had urged, be saved with us. Enter the tent to enter the kingdom. She agreed to come to the next revival.
The day was cloudy and windy. The parking lot was gravel and as she got out of her car dust and small rocks were blown into her face and got in her eyes. She poked at the whites of them trying to get at the stinging grains. The tent was more crowded than she had ever seen it with nearly a thousand people. Others had the same thoughts as her and were here to hedge their bets, she guessed. There were some faces she recognized from her younger years, and she waved politely if they looked her way. The preacher had already started but not for long, he was still in the invocation and welcoming portion.
She tried to find her family, but the crowd was too big to make people out. She took out her cell phone but had no reception. Winds from a hurricane the year before had taken out several cell towers in the area and they had not been repaired yet. There was an empty picnic table at the back of the tent, just outside the cover of the canvas, and she climbed on it to get a better view. As she did the sky opened and rain thick as sheets began to fall. It was so forceful it nearly knocked her to her knees.
People squeezed under the tent to get out of the rain, and she still had not seen her family. She had some paper towels in her backseat and an umbrella in the trunk, so she decided to run for her car. She would dry off, wait for the rain to ease, then come back to the tent. As she ran across the parking lot she slipped on the loose, wet stones and fell hard into the gravel. She slid forward a few inches and felt the skin on her hands and knees tear with the movement.
When she got in her car she dabbed at her bloodied knees and palms with the towels, hissing at the sting. There were pieces of gravel lodged in her flesh. With her hands slippery from rain and the debris slippery from blood, they would not give. The rain had lessened some though it was still raining hard. She looked through her windows towards the tent. The pastor had improved his lighting set up since she was here last; the beams from the stage lights above him shined out across the field and the lot. Cheers erupted from the congregation, he must have finished his welcome and was into the soul saving now.
The Elder knew she should get her umbrella and go back to the tent. She promised her mother she was coming; she had driven all the way here. But the sting of her wounds and the poke of the small rocks still in them made her mind up for her. She started her car and began to drive home. These last for hours, she reasoned. She would have plenty of time to go home, clean herself up, and then come back before the end.
When she got back to her apartment and her phone connected to the internet, she began receiving weather alerts. Not unusual, they seemed to happen every week now. She glanced at the screen to dismiss the notification as she turned on her shower and froze.
FLASH FLOOD WARNING ISSUED FOR THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES
The first listed was the county where the revivals happened. Her heart began to pound, and she sat on the cool tile of the bathroom and closed her eyes, breathed in slow and deep, exhaled even slower. Reminded herself these were rural counties. They were large and filled with open spaces. Reasoned her way through the anxiety. Laughed at her overreaction. Pulled the gravel out of her wounds with her tweezers then took a long shower.
When she got out, she saw the stream of messages from friends and relatives telling her to turn on the news.
The Elder felt like she could skip as she made her way back to the square. She held two large hares by their freshly wrung necks; she could taste them roasted and smothered in gravy already. She sent two of the carpenters out to the traps to bring in the larger game she was unable to carry and took the rabbits to the big house on the left of the square. It served as meeting hall, tavern, and Inn on the rare occasions a traveler passed through. Every Thanksgiving the owners, Lizzie and Bill Glenn, opened the use of their large kitchen to prepare most of the food. The front room was empty of people but as the Elder walked in, she was met with the smell of fresh baked bread and sizzling animal fat.
“Mrs. Glenn,” she called as she walked towards the kitchen. “I’ve brought some more meat for you.” The door to the kitchen burst open as she neared, and she could hear the chatter of several women from within. A brown-haired woman a head taller than her strode out. Her face shone with sweat from standing over fires and stoves and there was a gray smudge of ash on one cheek. She wore a large, stained apron over her linen work dress. She opened her arms wide and pulled the Elder into a warm hug. Her hair smelt of yeast and warm sugar.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Elder. We aren’t standing on any formalities here, you know you can call me Lizzie,” the woman said. Her eyes were wrinkled at the corners from the smile she wore so freely.
“Happy Thanksgiving to you, Lizzie. I thought you might could use these,” the Elder said, holding the rabbits out to her. Lizzie wiped her hands on her apron before taking them.
“The traps were good to us today; these will go nicely in the meat pies.”
“How was our harvest? I saw some wagons come in but not all.”
“It was a glorious harvest, Elder. One of the best I’ve seen. After today we will get to work drying and canning but we have plenty to get through the winter with some to add to the reserves.”
“What a blessing,” the Elder said, smiling as wide as Lizzie.
“Lizzie,” a voice called from inside the kitchen, “we need your help rolling out the dough!”
“I’d better get back,” Lizzie said.
“Is your husband nearby?” The Elder asked as she turned to go.
“He was helping build the platform but should be in the council chamber by now,” she said before disappearing again into the kitchen.
The Elder walked back through the main room and through a door on the far side which led to the main meeting hall. Lizzie and others called it the council chamber because it was where the village council did most of its business, but she never liked the formality of calling anything a chamber. The council was a small body of the heads of households and herself and most of their business had to deal with finding missing sheep or chickens. Nothing so grand as to require a dedicated chamber. She knocked lightly before entering and found Bill Glenn seated on the table at the front.
The room itself was small with two windows in the far wall. There were several rows of chairs facing the table which served as an all-purpose surface for everything from writing and signing documents to butchering a pig.
Arrayed in front of Bill were the Thanksgiving ceremonials. This included two goblets, a sharp carving knife, and a large platter that the other items were placed on. The platter had been taken from someone’s silver collection for this communal use. The goblets were carved from wood but plated in gold from jewelry that had been melted down years ago. She and Bill exchanged greetings as she gazed at the tools.
“Finished shining them all this morning, Elder,” he said. He was a thin man who was tall but stood stooped as if to hide it. He was treated like the Mayor; though there was no such official post. He was a man who did not demand respect but received it because of his kind spirit.
“They look perfect, thank you as always. I stopped by and spoke with Lizzie. The food all smells delightful. The two of you are the beating heart of our town.” Bill blushed and smiled.
“That is very kind of you to say, ma’am, but I can’t take any credit. It goes to Them, and to you for helping us stay on the path. May we never lose our way again.”
“We have a solid path under our feet again, we will not lose it,” She reached her hand forward and touched her fingertips to his forehead and he closed his eyes. She held the blessing a few moments more then removed her hand. “I have to go and complete my preparations for the ritual, I will be back at sunset.”
Rolling blackouts became common, then they started lasted longer. The hotter summers and harsher winters pushed the grids so far, the government started forced rationing to divert energy to places suffering the worst. How fast the individualism disappeared when temperatures rose and the world began to look fragile, and how fast it came back when the grids died completely. After that it did not take long for the world to shrink and narrow.
Not for the first time the Elder had been grateful she lived somewhere guns were commonplace. She grew up knowing how to shoot pistols and rifles, both hunting and automatic ones. She never imagined she would need to use them to scare off other women to grab one of the few remaining boxes of tampons though.
Once people realized the lights were not coming back on and store shelves would not be replenished, trying to get any supplies was like entering a war zone. After the flood she had moved back to her family’s home. She was the sole inheritor, and the mortgage was paid off. Not that anyone was collecting mortgages now, all the records were on servers no one could turn on. But now the closest grocery store was eight miles away. She did calculations of gas mileage, how many trips she could make with what she had left, what food would last longest without refrigeration. Her apartment had been closer to stores, but her parents had land. Not much, only an acre, but she was only one person.
It was normal now to hear gunfire at the grocery store. She managed to get large bags of rice and dried beans while most frenzied over the canned goods. She grabbed whatever fruits and vegetables she could. Livestock and chicken farmers were raided. Chickens went first, prized for their eggs. There was a small lake nearby and whenever she walked by it there were always people trying to fish with lines tied onto sticks.
She tried to dig a root cellar to keep food cool. The soil was hard clay, and it took weeks of digging to finish it. She hoped for some rain to moisten the ground, make it easier to dig into, but it did not come. The water lines still worked but what came out of the taps was brown and it soon dried up too.
The food she put in the cellar spoiled anyway. It did not get cool enough to keep until much deeper underground.
She dug jagged rows and put potatoes, onions, and apples in the ground. She had never tried to grow anything before. Many nights, sleeping with her loaded rifle by her bed, she wondered if it was worth it to keep trying. Wondered if other countries were as bad as here, what happened to the people on planes when the grids went down for good, was there even still a government?
One day, there was a knock on her door. She grabbed the rifle and tucked a pistol into her pocket. It wasn’t the safest option but better than the alternative. She knew how quickly someone would assume a skinny 20-something girl was no threat if she were not visibly armed. She opened the door holding the rifle to her shoulder, barrel steady. The visitors were a pair, a middle-aged man and woman, who both held up their hands when her gun came into view.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the man had said. He was tall and his skin was tanned and taut from long years of work in the sun. His fingers curled down slightly from arthritis. He looked familiar but it was a small town. Everybody looked familiar. “We know visitors ain’t welcome much anymore, but we mean you no harm. We live about a mile down the way and wanted to let you know about the market.”
“There are some folks there who have goods they’d be happy to trade for some vegetables,” the woman said. She lowered her rifle and the two of them lowered their hands.
As the man and woman led the way, they explained how they traveled for miles knocking on doors inviting others to come trade. They had started the market on their own land, a field their goats used for grazing. The Elder had not remembered how long it had been since the lights went out, and the couple did not know how long ago they started the market.
“Must be at least a year now,” the woman said. Even though she could not have been older than 55 her hair was already white. She wore old denim overalls pocked with patches and dull leather boots. She walked with her hands in her pockets and whistled in between bouts of conversation. “My husband and I, we’ve lived off our land for years already. Grew up out in the sticks, it was a simpler type of life. Didn’t realize how used to luxury people had become. So, we set up the market to try and help. Wes here helps with woodworking and farming, I help with canning and sewing. Little things, but they help people get by.” She glanced at the Elder’s worn clothing. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but it looks like you could use a little help getting by.”
“My family is all gone,” the young Elder said by way of explanation. The woman nodded.
“You’re young for it, but I was too. You’re still alive so you’re a tough one, but even tough ones can’t do everything alone. Name’s Alice, by the way.” The Elder nodded but did not speak because she was trying to blink back tears. Alice started up whistling again and they made the rest of the walk to the tune of Camptown Races.
In time, the market would become the main square where the men had just finished building the platform and tables for Thanksgiving, and Alice would become the first Elder. All Elders who had come after had learned from her, but the current Elder would be the last who had known her. Slowly, over the course of several years, buildings went up around the market. Somewhere to feed people coming from longer distances, or to offer shelter in bad weather. For the weather was still bad and often farmers came from ten miles away then were trapped by a storm. The first Elder and her husband helped teach people skills like carpentry, pottery, canning, sewing, and farming. They had lived off their land for years and taught others how to do the same in exchange for the safety of a fostered community.
She watched out for that community now. They had many hard years, some due to bad harvests and others to sickness. Slowly medicine cabinets filled with pills gave way to ointments made with herbs and animal fat and poultices for wounds. Things Alice helped her learn to not be afraid of but to meet head on, like screaming at a grizzly bear so it would leave your tent alone. Alice had taught her how to believe.
The wind began to pick up later in the afternoon as the Elder prepared in her home. She took a long cleansing bath in cold water and anointed her hair and body with sunflower oil and rosemary. By the light of her fire, she knelt and sprinkled a handful of ashes into her hair. Prayer came easy to her now and she did not realize hours had passed before there was a rap on her door.
Draped in a robe of deep, burnt orange she stepped into the fading light of day. Their population was small, but none ever missed a Thanksgiving. There were a little over a hundred families, many of which she saw only on holidays because they lived on farms and cabins further afield. This is why she loved this day so much, it brought them all together to celebrate. The main platform seated only 50 or so and the rest of the tables were arrayed in a semi-circle around it. The shadows of ruins loomed as the sun disappeared over the horizon. Parents were trying to settle excited children, some with newborns slung over their shoulders. She wished she could greet them all individually, but it would have to wait.
The platform was lit with a row of torches along the back edge which burned high and bright. The table was set with places and large dishes of steaming food were spread across it. In the middle were the offerings from her traps, naked with their wrists and ankles bound and burlap covering their faces. She thought she could her one of them sobbing as she strode up the steps. As she reached the center of the platform and examined the offerings the rest of those gathered sat down and shushed one another to watch and listen.
They were a man and a woman, a married couple traveling in search of the sea, hoping to find civilization beginning anew on one shore or another. They stopped at Bill and Lizzie’s Inn a few nights before. Each of them had worn necklaces with crosses on them, dangling over their chests and glinting off of candlelight in the dim dining room. Bill had told them of the remains of a superstore that still held some scraps of clothing, useful supplies for those walking so far on foot. He gave them directions leading straight into the Elder’s traps, hidden under a tarp coated in leaves. The next day he saw them off, and the day after that went to the traps to shackle and gag them for the feast.
Now the Elder took a torch offered to her by Lizzie and approached them. They each still wore their crosses. She reached up to the man’s neck and tugged on the chain until the clasp snapped. He shrank back as far as his bonds allowed. The Elder turned to her people and dangled the bracelet from her fist.
“The symbols of the false gods have come once more this harvest feast. The symbols of those who taught people to cheer for floods and fires, plagues, and famine. Taught their followers that suffering meant salvation. They shadowed the true path, and it was lost for an age. Still lost, to some, who cling to the faith of the destroyers.” The town yelled and hissed at the strangers. The woman on the table was shaking. “We have a solid path under our feet again, we will not lose it.
“The first Elder here showed us the truth, taught us of the old Gods, They who were here before the usurpers. Their wrath for our people’s betrayal was vicious, but for those of us who are faithful their blessings are bountiful. Since worshipping them so many Thanksgivings ago, we have had good harvests year after year no matter how bad the pests or how heavy the storms. They want to be remembered, and we remember Them. Today we honor Them with our offering.” She nodded to Bill who was waiting behind her. He stepped forward and pulled the sacks off the heads of the captives. The woman looked out on the crowd and screamed, the man stayed silent, but his face was pale and slick with cold sweat. When the people cheered, he turned to her.
“Please,” he said weakly. “Please let us go. We have done you and your town no harm. If you let us go, we will never come here again!” He pleaded. The pupils of his light green eyes were narrowed to pinpricks, the panicked instinct of a cornered animal.
“You have harmed us, you cursed us all!” Someone yelled from the crowd. The Elder held up her hand for quiet.
“Your belief in the usurper gods cost us the world, and this transgression now will cost your own lives. Fear not, for after this you will be welcomed by Them into the realm of the blessed. This is Their path, and we will not lose it again.” She walked to the end of the table where the two goblets were set on top of the platter with the knife in the middle. She picked up the goblets and raised them to the sky: “Come, Holy Ones, come. Bless and prosper this meal; bless and prosper this fellowship; bless and prosper our lives, that justice and love may be the measure of our common witness. Corn and grain, meat, and milk, upon these tables before us. Gifts of life, bringing sustenance and strength, oh Holy Ones, we give you thanks.” Lizzie and Mama Jones stood behind her and the Elder handed each of them a goblet before picking up the knife. This she too held to the sky, saying, “Praise to you, and bless this tool so that again we may be fed with your own body and blood. By your Leave and Supper, we dedicate this harvest.”
The air was still as if the insects and birds themselves held their breaths. The offerings struggled weakly against their bonds; after days of no food and only enough water to keep them alive, they had little fight left. First, she approached the man. Grabbing him by his hair she wrenched his head backwards and in a swift, single motion slit his throat open. His wife, watching with horror, vomited stomach bile onto the table beneath her and sobbed. The Elder held the man’s head steady as he gurgled, and Lizzie moved in to hold her goblet beneath the wound. She stayed until it was filled to the brim with his blood. Then the Elder let go and he fell to the table, limp, and twitching. The last of his blood flowed beneath the platters of food, blessing each item on its path.
The wife shrieked and squealed as the Elder came to her, Mama Jones close behind with the other goblet. The Elder had to fight the urge to chant, “suwee, piggy,” as she slit the second throat. After both bodies were spent, the townspeople rose and sang a hymn of Thanksgiving while the butcher came forward. Bill hurried over with the offering platter. The butcher began to slice both offerings into small portions, stacking the flesh atop the platter. As he finished the man and moved to the woman the people of the town began to line up on either side of the base of the platform where Lizzie and Mama Jones stood waiting with their goblets.
The butcher finished his work and Bill walked off the platform to stand at the center point between Lizzie and Mama Jones. The platter was piled high with the meat of the sinners. The Elder stood above them and spoke.
“We offer these gifts, given to us by the old Gods of Earth. This is their blood, this is their body, which was given for us. Eat of it and remember the path.”
Sara White is an emerging fiction writer working and living in Atlanta. She holds masters degrees in modern history and library & information sciences.
"It makes you thirsty living in hell. Love your enemies as yourself, someone said on the stony hell of Golgotha." F. Durrenmatt, Suspicion
The early morning sunlight is a shock after twelve hours inside a bar. I mean, you know what to expect, but the actual fact of it is rude. Rude, as in hard on the eyes.
Even a good pair of Dollar Store sunglasses doesn’t take the edge off the way you might have liked. You definitely need something in total, sun-inhibiting, black. The kind of ray blockers that turn back emanations from a Planet X would probably do the trick, but they didn’t sell those in any Dollar Store I ever heard of.
For years, I had been mocking the regular night guy about how, when he went on vacations, that he cultivated his pallor, instead of working on his tan. It was true, he was the only guy anyone knew, who could go on a Caribbean cruise for eight days and never see the light of day. Of course, he wasn’t going to any of those places for the sun. His travels always involved night life, preferably night life that never ended. With gambling, if possible. And other forms of entertainment that didn’t involve going outside.
I had called him Nosferatu for years, as he had been working this trick for so long, and spending so much time in artificial light, I suspected that the real thing would probably turn him into a pillar of salt. Now that I was actually experiencing his kind of morning, I might have to re-evaluate my jest. There was something painful, something untoward, about direct sunlight. It wasn’t just the physical pain; it was the people out in it. They were doing weird things in it. Like going to regular jobs, or attending school, or, heading for their places of worship. It was all foreign to me, totally alien, and it wasn’t something I wanted to make a habit of.
Normally, the walk over to Central Avenue was no more than ten minutes. I was used to humping to my stop, at something approximating full speed, under the assumption that who knew what kind of creeps, perverts, and garden variety scumbag/ muggers, would be lurking along the unlighted corners of Quail Street, personal assault central, mid-town Albany. I was mildly surprised no one had waited for me to leave the bar or had jumped me, knowing bartenders always carried a certain amount of cash with them. Hell, I’d been threatened enough times inside the bar, it seemed almost inevitable that one of the clowns would actually follow through with their threats. That I never left directly after closing, probably frustrated most would be assailants. I carried cash, but not That much cash.
I took my time, pretending to enjoy the warm morning, the novelty of fresh air, sunshine, singing birds, and people, without the weird glow of drugs and alcohol. It was serene, and more than slightly surreal, like being stoned in church, or an acid flashback at a revival meeting. There were enough store front churches, and revivalist prayer meeting places, burrowed among the failed businesses and student ghetto housing on Quail, you could buzz in and sample the weirdness for yourself, day or night, if you were so inclined.
I was somewhere in that nebulous liquid state between smashed and stoned, where life is glorious; pain and suffering remote. I was willing, ready, and able, to maintain my mellow glow as long as it could be milked. In short, I was hand pumped, primed, and ready, for happy hour in the morning.
Or so I thought.
Once inside, I discovered, I would never be completely attuned to what awaited me there. It might have been the way my eyes took a while to adjust to their being reintroduced to the false glow of bar light. There is something indefinable, something timeless, about a bar that never seems to actually close; the denizens inside inexorable, omnipresent as furniture, animated, but resolute, in their purpose of blending in, becoming a function of the bar, of time, of life here.
The bar shifts here seemed to seamlessly merge one with the other. One barperson exchanged for another, without the tone of the place altering at all. The stale fog of cigarette smoke wafting up to the high, real tin ceiling, stained a sick rust color after over a century of uncirculated air. The pervading odor of spilled beer was so ingrained into the wood and the floor nothing could ever remove the scent, short of a fully involved conflagration.
The dim, low wattage houselights were covered by thick glass globes that may have once been ornamental but were now buried in dirt and dust and cobwebs. Perhaps the strangest thing of all was the creaking of the bar stools, as a body shifted its weight to better view whatever the tarnished, full-length back bar mirror might reveal, that and the dripping faucet in the bar sink, a leaking tap, the silent images on the twin televisions on opposite ends of the bar that no one paid any attention to.
Once inside, I felt as if, in a way, I had always been there. Would always remain there, squinting, looking about, a small pile of money before me on the gouged and cigarette burned wood, a drink on a cardboard coaster before me. I would always be involved in this almost intimate conversation with an off-duty nurse, still in her uniform, a below the waist black cardigan sweater partially buttoned, hugged to her breasts. And I’d be lighting her cigarette with a heavily scuffed Zippo lighter, watching as she inhaled and we’d be saying something like this,
“What’s with the sweater.”
“I’m cold. I’m always cold.”
“It’s a beautiful, warm Spring Day.”
“Cold comes with my job.”
“Your job. As a nurse?”
“What do you do? As a nurse.”
“I’m a morgue nurse.”
“A morgue nurse. Can’t have much to do there.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Who do you think cleans the bodies up? Applies the toe tags? Wheels them around from one place to another for viewing.”
“Orderlies. Yeah, sometimes. I’m special.”
“Special. How so?”
“I belong to the union and I piss people off.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Ok, I don’t. Fill me in.”
“You asked for it. Who do you think sews up the bodies after the autopsies? Disposes of the diseased organs? The spare parts?”
“It was your call.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. Are we actually, like having this conversation?”
“No. It’s all your imagination.”
“Good. I was worried there for a minute.”
I reached for the drink I didn’t remember ordering, that sat on the coaster in front of where I was standing. I always stood at a bar. Once you sat down, you were in danger of getting too comfortable. Of settling in. Of never leaving. Come hell or high water. Or a terminal shortage of funds. And there were always ways to get around the last problem.
“ATMs in hell, what a concept!” I thought. “What will they think of next?” The question a lot scarier than it appeared on the surface. Is this the beginning of one of those binges’ alcohol counselors warned you about? Or worse, the middle of one? Or the end?
“What do you do?” She asked.
“I’m a bartender.”
“I thought it was something like that.”
“How can you tell?”
“You have that half-dead, perpetual flush/air, of someone who has been seriously drinking for far longer than is good for you.”
“That obvious, huh?”
“Plain as day.”
“What else to you see?”
“Care to share some of your infinite wisdom?”
“If you insist.”
“I’m insisting. You’re dry. Let me get you another one.”
“I’ll have the same then.”
“Bartender. Give the lady whatever’s she’s drinking. And give me whatever I’m drinking. What am I drinking?”
“You don’t know?”
“Very funny. Fill it up and take it out of this pile.”
I watched as he poured the drinks. He was pretty slick about it. Pouring the cocktails well down the bar and out of sight, as if he has some sort of special reserve hidden on the speed rack that I couldn’t see. I thought I was drinking beer. Once upon a time, I was drinking beer. Maybe I’ll switch back. Next time.
I looked around the bar. There was a whole slew of pensioners here. Men who spent the bulk of their waiting hours in places like this, spending their social security checks, going on the cuff when the funds disappeared toward the end of the month. Some of them probably had their checks sent directly here and spent it on account. No need to worry about money actually changing hands. Kept things nice and clean and simple.
They drank like hand-wound machines running out of steam, body parts moving in slow motion, hand around glass, always around the draft beer glass, rising through the thick air, rising, the, reaching the lips that opened just wide enough to receive a sip. Then the wide, described arc, back toward the bar, as if in strange dream of life among a rediscovered, lost tribe of the besotted, in their natural habitat. The scene as oddly beautiful as it was disturbing; all those purposeful hands, continually rotating mechanical parts, winding down like a room full of clocks without face plates.
“What I see is you’re as gone as they are. What separates you from them is that you haven’t realized it yet.”
“I don’t see how it could be.”
I turned away from the nurse, looked down the long expanse of the bar. I could see why it was advertised as the longest bar in the city; it most certainly was. And it seemed to be growing longer the more I drank.
And there seemed to be more people than just a minute ago. I didn’t actually recall hearing the door open, or see people cross from the entranceway to their given space at the bar. Maybe they just appeared there. Nothing seemed sequential, the way it was supposed to any longer. The only obvious connection between these people, and what was happening with them, was that they were the regular morning crowd, and everyone knew everyone else, as much as that was possible.
The troubling thought occurred to me that I was dropping in and out of a deep fugue state. Another part of the binge phenomena. At least, that’s what I hoped it was.
And she was saying, “You don’t have the look of a cop. Not even an undercover one.”
“What do cops look like?”
“Like they’ve seen it all. Know it all. And no one can ever tell them different about what they’ve seen and done about it. They just know and that’s all there is to it. You’re still seeing things. And they’re always playing with their guns; either the one they’ve got strapped to their body or the one in their pants. It doesn’t matter which. They’re both the same thing.”
“That’s the dicks and the uniform guys. What about undercover cops?”
“They’re always playing at being something they’re not, trying to fool you into believing that they’re cool and, normal, and your friend. Which, of course, they never are; you trust one of those guys and what happens after that is your own fault.”
“And I’m not like that?”
“Well, you’re not carrying a gun for one thing.”
“What about the one in my pocket?”
“I’m not worried about that one. I can take care of that one. I’m a professional.”
“What if it’s loaded?”
“It better be. Or, we have no business talking the way we are.”
The man to my right was talking to the bartender. Was saying,” Bar fellow, give me a vodka and water no ice. Better make it a double, I’ll supply my own fizz.”
I let the last part slide for a moment. Scoped out his dressed-for-a-day-at-the-office gear: a not half-bad suit, a matching hat, and a conservative tie. Then I wondered about the fizz. I’d never seen a vodka and whatever fizz, in all my years behind the bar. Not yet. But I was open to a new form of entertainment, especially when it wasn’t mine to clean up after.
“Thank you, kind sir.” he said, and, whipped out one of those little individually wrapped Alka Seltzer tabs, and dropped the tab into the drink. It sort of fizzed. Not like it would in water, but it tried like hell.
Our man fired it down like it was the most natural way to start the day. “Señor, bartender, better make another one, same way.”
It too disappeared down the chute, then the man slid his glass forward in the universal signal for yet another drink, same way.
“Jesus,” I thought, “I wonder how many of these things he’s good for?”
“Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with it.” She said. “Jesus won’t help you at all here.”
I wondered if I hadn’t just thought that to myself, but the phase had actually been spoken out loud. I hoped it had. When I turned to look at the Fizzman, he was gone. Another man was bellying up to the bar. This guy looked as if he had just stepped out of a Graham Greene novel set-in Southeast Asia. He was wearing a Panama hat, and a seersucker suit, blue stripes on white cloth. I didn’t notice the artist’s portfolio he had with him, at first, distracted as I was, by the call he made to the bartender, “Mate, I’ll have a double scotch in a highball, no rocks, just the naked scotch. I’ll add my own mixer, if you don’t mind.”
“Depends upon what it is.”
He extracted a plastic bottle from his inside jacket pocket and showed the label to the bartender.
“OK, pal, your funeral. Any particular kind of scotch you want for that?”
The barman’s voice lacked inflection, such as sarcasm or opprobrium, but I sensed he was busting the Panama’s chops. Once I saw what he was going to pour into the scotch, I knew he was.
“Make it a double Johnny Walker Red.”
“Cost more than the no-brand stuff.”
“It’s what I like, mate.”
“There you go, pal, double trouble.”
“No, mate, double your fun. Like the old advertisement.”
The bartender’s look told Panama Red that he had no idea what he was talking about.
“Before your time, Mate. It was a chewing gum advertisement. Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, identical twins, chewing identical sticks of gum. It was cute once upon a time. I had the account. When they used commercial artists.”
I noticed the portfolio, then. A big brown thing with straps around it tied in bows. Maybe he fancied himself as an English Gauguin.
I couldn’t resist a comment. “Taste good, does it? Scotch and whatever crap that is in that bottle you just put in it.”
“Tastes like shit, mate.”
“So why do you drink it?”
“Doctor’s orders. Used to be they told you to drink scotch and milk. Which was marginally better tasting. Then they discovered milk had all that acid in it. Not good for the tummy. Not a rotten one like mine.”
“I give up, what are you adding to Mr. Walker?”
I suppressed a gag.
“It actually tastes worse than it sounds. But if you want to keep drinking…”
“So why bother with calling a brand if you can’t taste the difference?”
“Memories, mate. I drank McGillicuddy’s Peppermint Schnapps and milk for years.
Reminded me of the Wrigley’s account in a way. Except there is way more proofage in that stuff than in gum. You might be surprised how much proofage.”
“Some people would be surprised, but not me. I won’t have it in my bar. Not that, nor 151 Rum, nor Ouzo.”
“Wise man. Almost broke my heart when the Doc told me it was scotch or nothing. I used to like scotch too. Join me, Laddie?”
“No thanks. I’ll stick with what I’ve got.”
“You can skip the Maalox, and, just have the scotch.”
“I really don’t think I should mix…”
“What are you drinking?”
“Ask the bartender, he knows.”
I watched the bartender building another double Walker for Panama Red. I wondered what he was going to pour next when the nurse placed her hand on my arm and spoke, “Do you like tattoos?”
“Depends upon what they are and where they are.”
“I have a tattoo.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me what it is?”
“What is it?”
“It’s a spider.”
“Any particular kind?”
“A black widow.”
“Figures. I suppose the next question has to be, where is it?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Actually, I would.”
“If you play your cards right, I might show you.”
I turned to see how Panama Red was making out, but there was no sign of him. Not even a white coated highball glass to mark where his place at the bar had been. I wondered what the bartender had poured for me, on Red, but all I could see was an empty pair of shot glasses face down and empty on the bar.
Instead of Red, now there was an older, much seedier guy leaning over the bar holding an incredibly wrinkled, filthy, twenty dollar bill out toward the bartender. Our barman saw the old coot standing there, gave a look as if he wished the guy would evaporate, or be repossessed by the demons of hell he had temporarily escaped from. Eventually, the barman accepted the inevitable, and began mixing the drink he knew the old guy would be wanting.
It was an off-color, vaguely bloody looking thing, made with Clamato juice, tablespoons of horseradish sauce, and a liberal dose of Tabasco plus the requisite double shot of below the rack vodka.
Once the drink was placed before him, the old man began speaking to no one in particular. Every once in a while, he would look in my general direction to see if I was listening.
“There was a time when I have been reduced to drinking dishwater. Bilge water, my son. You know how it is, any port in a storm. You have that look about you, that you know what I mean.” I vowed to do something about that look of mine. Though, what I might do about it, or intended to do about it, escaped me.
“When you’ve lived the kind of life as I have, you learn not to be too choosy when it comes to your potables. You wouldn’t think an old rum dum like me would know a word like potables, would you?” Actually, I didn’t. He had that grizzled, weathered look of someone who had spent more than a few years curled up on heating grates and park benches, with a copy of the Sunday New York Times as the only thing between him and the elements. And he smelled liked it too.
“Lots of things I know might surprise you. And all it would cost you to find out would be the cost of a few of my specialty cocktails. You strike me as the curious type.” I noticed that his change had disappeared from the bar and been hidden safely away in whatever secret compartment he had for such things. No doubt about it, he was a crafty old fart.
“I’ll bet you never thought you’d be getting an invitation like that first thing in the morning, now, did you?” The answer was too obvious to bother with. I bought him a round and let the show go on. It was fairly obvious that he was programmed to talk, whether anyone was listening or not, and there was nothing, I or anyone else could do about it. Feeding him drinks was like shoveling coal into a bottomless, burning pit.
I had to admit, his tale about translating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow into Seagull, was a unique project, even for a delusional half-dead alkie. I was going to suggest he tackle someone a bit more modern like Vachel Lindsay, whose poem “The Congo”, might make an interesting vocal companion to Hiawatha in Seagull, when the nurse interrupted my train of thought.
“How about “General Booth Enters into Heaven’?”
“Vachel Lindsay. Poetry. Not the usual intellectual pursuits of bartenders.”
“I’m not your usual kind of bartender.”
“Good. I like unusual.”
I wondered what unusual meant to her. She motioned toward the bartender.
“I’ll have tequila.”
“Something with a worm at the bottom.”
I asked. “Do you eat the worm?”
“Always. It’s what they’re for.”
I looked into her eyes. There was something deep and inscrutable, something impenetrable and determined there, I couldn’t fathom. There was no way I could out-stare those eyes. Once she had seen you, there was no way to escape them. Not here. Not anywhere. I paid for the drinks. We weren’t going anywhere. Not for a long, long time.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.
“The ideal men you peddle are murderers and worse,” says Mitzi. “Evil is immutable.”
Ava unconsciously touches her dormant iPhone, the only object on the oversized steel desk. She is one of the top rookie sales reps at Ideal Man dating service, a sub-brand of Ideal Humans LLC. Ava does not fear challenging a provocative customer and jeopardizing her commission. The customer is not always right.
“Everyone — except an ideal human — is a potential murderer,” says Ava.
“Was my mystery date unloved and abused?”
Mitzi leans forward, thoughtless, intrusive.
She’s another nutty thrill-girl, thinks Ava. A real smart-ass. Their lifeless sculpted faces are identical. These bored trust fund babies often return the merchandise severely damaged and then claim the purchase was defective from the get-go.
A thrill-girl does not want to be reminded that the ideal man she acquired at an exorbitant price is as dangerous as a pug puppy. For thrill-girls it’s about having make-believe death-defying sex with a bad boy, as if there is a shortage of those losers. But thrill-girls, who account for five percent of Ava’s sales, do make for painless commissions. They want what they want. This transaction shouldn’t take too long.
“My longest relationship lasted six months,” says Ava. She is improvising, attempting to establish customer affinity. “There’s something wrong with men today. Despite all their arrogance they are timid.”
Ava returns to the recommended script. “Just in case you two don’t hit it off, you will be entitled to a full refund right up until the first sexual encounter. Extended warranties are also available.”
Mitzi has appropriated working-class fashion: ragged jeans, a plain gray sweatshirt, close cropped hair, and fluorescent fingernails. Thrill-girls are oblivious to those who work for a living.
“Are you considering getting an ideal human?” says Mitzi. “Do you get a company discount?”
Working to repair society is unconceivable to Mitzi because in her world society is not broken.
“Ideal humans are the future,” says Ava. “The future will be perfect.”
The iPhone stirs.
The red neon sign winks at Nathan. Cocktails. Cocktails.
He’s not dead and it’s not a dream. He remembers a whispered word: upgrade.
A friend, whose name or face he cannot recall, told him that upgraded medically induced comas stream pleasant experiences into the brain. That is acceptable. “Always purchase the upgraded health insurance,” his friend had said. Nathan must have listened to his friend’s advice.
Nathan no longer remembers his own birth name.
“May I help you?” The bartender smiles politely. He sports a handlebar mustache and is wearing a bolo tie.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” Nathan unexpectantly says. It doesn’t sound like much of a cocktail, but the bartender seems satisfied. “And my friend will have another of whatever she’s drinking.”
“Thanks,” she says.
Her short shaggy hair is the color of strawberries. Her perfect fingernails and perfect lips are also the color of strawberries. Nathan feels tentative; he smiles. It’s hard to be the someone he was when you don’t know who you are, but it will work out.
She touches his arm. She is his type.
Nathan frisks himself. “I don’t have any money.”
“That’s nothing to get hung about,” says the bartender. “You’ve been upgraded. There are no charges for food, drinks, or your room.”
“We can order room service in the morning,” says the redhead.
Ava is dressed in a classic professional white blouse and navy skirt. She can’t afford to lose her job. There will be no second chances. Ava thinks too much about the future. Mitzi will come through for her. One sale at a time. The product sells itself.
Mitzi counts eleven photos of a young boy on the beige wall behind Ava’s desk.
“That’s Joshua. Don’t ask about his father.”
“Joshua is a great kid. He’s already getting monthly child boosters. That’s just one of the perks for working at Ideal Humans LLC. I of course take the bimonthly adult boosters. I wish they had been available when I was a teenager, but it’s working out now. I stopped smoking weed and worse. I believe that minimizers saved my life.”
Ava’s attempt to connect with Mitzi continues to be awkward.
“I avoid minimizers,” says Mitzi.
Ava tries to process Mitzi’s statement. Thrill-girls love black market designer minimizers
“Minimizers give people the power to replace trauma with new and healthy truths,” says Ava. “Without minimizers trauma accumulates and metastasizes. The most sensitive people are most susceptible to trauma. Joshua is a sensitive boy. I think he inherited it from…” The name of Joshua’s father draws a blank. It’s not a crucial detail, she reminds herself.
Mitzi did not read about “new truths” while researching Ideal Humans LLC. Ava is going off script. Mitzi likes off script conversations. That’s why Mitzi requested a one-on-one meeting. (It is possible, however, that an Ideal Humans LLC agent explained the merits of working with a supportive matchmaker.) Linear time is becoming increasingly unreliable.
“Our first subjects were locked up in prisons and forgotten,” says Ava. “The lucky ones ended up in long term medically induced comas. It was very cost effective. Anyway, after their trauma was minimized, many recalled happy events they never lived. They sang pleasant but unfamiliar songs from a half century ago. For some reason music from The Beatles and Pink Floyd work best as harmless fillers.”
I just learned about The Beatles,” says Mitzi. (Necessity forced her to search the hated internet for John Lennon lyrics.) “I used a public library computer.”
Mitzi doesn’t own an iPhone. Anything her family obsessed over she learned at an early age to avoid. Mitzi writes, reads, and works. She strives to stay above the intensifying maelstrom that everyone else seems to welcome.
Ava is still talking. “The edited brain is capable of learning much more efficiently. The ideal man is compliant.”
Mitzi’s abundant inheritance came from her grandmother, God rest her soul. Grandma Maria, who never forgot Mitzi’s birthday, had acquired the insurance settlement six months after being T-boned by a wealthy and prominent drunk driver near her home in Montreal.
Mitzi read Gogol on the Maple Leaf Express. Muzak (1960s pop classics) filled the train. The conductor ignored her pleas to make the noise stop.
Mitzi sat next to Maria’s bed and helped her pick stocks that sounded like planets floating aimlessly at the edge of a remote galaxy. Maria’s hands remained cold. Mitzi was the only relative or friend to visit Maria at the nursing home before toxic shock syndrome ended her suffering. The value of the portfolio tripled. Mitzi never found the birthday cards Maria had mailed her.
Ava glances at the jagged scar on Mitzi’s neck. Ava had impossibly overlooked it. Now Mitzi is daring her to stare at it.
What is going on? If Mitzi is wealthy enough to purchase an ideal man, she is obviously wealthy enough to afford minor plastic surgery. Or is neck scarring the latest thrill-girl fixation? Ava, who tries to keep up with the super elites (it is, after all, a job neccesity) certainly would have remembered this trend being played up in social media.
Is Mitzi a reconversionist? There have been more than a few unsubstantiated rumors. Wealthy religious fanatics, domestic terrorists, purchase ideal men on the black market and then eradicate all traces of minimizers from their blood by employing risky enforced transfusions. The reconversionists believe salvation can only be achieved with “untainted” blood. God, they think, makes humans weak and desperate for a mysterious reason. Reconversionists despise the settled science that unconditionally correlates morality with the absence of trauma.
Mitzi touches her scar with her shiny red fingernails.
The redhead points to the paintings above the bed board. “What do you know about these?”
“Andy Warhol and Jasper John.”
“What do you think of them?”
She kisses Nathan, and he responds suitably.
Mitzi never used drugs. She didn’t drink. She didn’t have a boyfriend. She didn’t have friends. She was drawn to solitude. Life was better without extraneous complications.
“You’re a pretty girl,” her sister (Mitzi can’t remember which one) told her. It was probably her older sister. Not yet 25 years old, Sis had already been defeated by three boys who never slowed down or stopped yelling. Maybe one of her children was a girl.
“You need to learn to enjoy life. You’ve got all that money. Anyone could steal those statements from Fidelity Investments. The mail is not safe. You’re being careless. Again.”
“Stay out of my mail.”
“Take the good with the bad. Sex will change your life. Why did you ever break up with that guy from a few years ago? He was cute. He had that nice car. It was before your… trauma.”
“I need to borrow some of your government money,” said her sister. Gus needs some experimental new and improved time release Ritalin that Medicaid won’t cover.”
“There’s no government money.”
“I know about non-disclosure agreements.”
Life for Mitzi’s family was an uninterrupted series of sinning and forgetting. It was God’s job to forgive them. Life is unnecessarily complicated; you do your best. Soon minimizers drugs will be available (at no charge) to the poor and suffering.
“Does Nathan, or whatever his real name is, even know he is a human?”
“Of course,” says Ava. “He’s just in a very vulnerable state. The doses Nathan receives are hundreds of times more robust than what I or my little boy take. If minimizers had been there for Nathan when he was a boy the extreme repurposing he is enduring would have been avoided.”
Ava is letting Mitzi know that she is more than just a sales representative. More important than closing a deal is being part of an organization that supports social reform and the common good.
Mitzi read her way through Dostoevsky. She read Demons three times. She felt demons.
The members of the country club where she worked were polite and generous. She was polite and invisible. It was a perfect relationship.
She began writing short stories. She began learning Russian. Mitzi realized that a 19th century Russian soul inhabited her body. Mitzi, who had been indifferent to music, grew passionate about Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.
Soon she would be in St. Petersburg, writing, living with ghosts, coexisting with demons, content in her solitude. She will linger in the shadows, occasionally visiting a smoky salon inside an inviting tower.
Nathan is naked and alone. He stands on the beige shag rug and stretches.
He remembers the redheaded woman.
“Would you like to see the video of Nathan’s intimate behavior?” says Ava.
“Intimate behavior?” Mitzi likes that. Neutral. Nonjudgmental “Remind me about Lori.”
“She’s the redhead he met in the bar.”
“The woman who propositioned him. The redhead who resembles me. You are extremely confident about closing the deal.”
“We begin preparing our ideal men at the earliest opportunity. Lori has advanced degrees in psychology. She knows how to find potential sexual difficulties in the male that might later, without her intervention, require more concentrated minimizers and customized therapy.”
“Did Nathan have any tattoos?”
“I don’t know,” says Ava.
“It’s possible he had a tattoo,” Ava says. She eyeballs her iPhone. “Tattoos are quickly removed because even a seemingly harmless word or symbol on the body could trigger deep-rooted trauma that hasn’t been permanently minimized. Breakthroughs, although rare, unfortunately happen. I guess it’s possible that even the word MOTHER tattooed on the forearm could be troublesome.”
“Especially the word MOTHER,” says Mitzi.
They both laugh. Now they are finally bonding, and Ava feels that the sale is imminent. Mitzi isn’t too annoying, at least for a thrill-girl. She might even decide on a few extended warranties.
Nathan stares into the full-length mirror. He’s smooth, almost hairless. He’s almost the same color as the walls and carpet.
There is music. A singing man asks about softly spoken magic spells.
Maybe Nathan is under a spell. A good spell.
The black telephone next to the king size bed rings.
He is wanted in Room 201.
“He came in through the bathroom window,” said Officer Nowicki. “He pried the frame off with a screwdriver. It wasn’t difficult; nothing but plasterboard and plywood. You should sue the landlord or construction company.”
Mitzi had been reading Demons (part 2, chapter 3) while Rimsky-Korsakov played softly through her snug earbuds.
“Get a good lawyer and sue.”
“Where am I?” She was securely nestled inside a net of tubes and wires. There was no pain.
“You’re in a hospital,” said Officer Nowicki, small and trim. The immense handgun strapped to her waist glimmered.
“Why are you here?”
“I was in the neighborhood. I was the first officer at the scene. I’ll get a doctor.”
“How long have I been here?”
Nowicki was gone.
A few bored voices, doctors, nurses, and orderlies had interrupted Mitzi’s otherwise peaceful isolation. She had never considered buying upgraded insurance. The health coverage provided by the country club seemed adequate.
Mitzi is behaving more like an investigative journalist than a thrill-girl. Or maybe Ava is being tested by Ideal Humans LLC and Mitzi is a company spy. Management wants to see how she mollifies difficult customers. Her performance could result in either a promotion or a dismissal. If the product sells itself, how indispensable is she? Ava believes in Ideal Human LLC. She studies their self-improvement videos. Despite taking minimizers, Ava inexplicably remembers the serenity that drugs once offered. Ava thinks she needs to learn how to increase her faith in Ideal Humans LLC.
The iPhone twinkles and Ava is back on script.
“What we are doing is revolutionary,” says Ava.
“Are ideal men capable of violence when sufficiently provoked?”
“We are building a better world,” says Ava.
Mitzi doesn’t laugh at the prescribed words. “Do you think these ideal men have souls?”
Ava hasn’t heard anyone talk about souls since she was a student at St. Anthony’s. She wants to remind Mitzi that the soul is an archaic concept used by heartless people to assign blame, but she has squandered too much time on a failing sale. Soon Mitzi will probably want to talk about sin. It doesn’t matter if Mitzi is a potential customer or an undercover agent from HR, the crazy never-ending talk must end.
The fact that Ava had received no background information from her supervisors concerning Mitzi suddenly looms large. There had presumably been a last-minute scheduling conflict. “Just believe in the words. You’ll be fine.”
“Minimizers help people reclaim their…souls,” Ava finally says. She knows she is ignoring the script, but she must trust herself.
“You are winning me over,” says Mitzi.
Ava will never again have an opportunity to work for an exceptional company like Ideal Humans LLC. It was a fluke. She randomly met a man at a bar. It had been a satisfying evening. The details are low resolution. His name and appearance have dissipated, but he did promise to get her an interview, and he did. There was no reason for him to deliver on his promise. Does she appear ungrateful for not acknowledging him? People don’t like to be forgotten. Perhaps this memory is just a harmless filler. Did something horrific occur between them? Was she drugged and raped and then paid off with her job? Does her assailant see her every day and smile?
The worrisome future encroaches. There will be global competition. The number of ideal humans will multiply. Prices will plummet. Ideal humans will be sold by Amazon and eBay. Ava will be a corporate liability. The product, after all, sells itself.
Nathan knocks lightly on the gray metal door to Room 201. He’s more based; time is more linear. He wants to believe that the end of his medically induced coma is near. He longs to be his old self, no matter who that was. It always pays to upgrade, but it is time to move on.
He recognizes the redhead from the bar. The other woman also looks familiar. The redhead extends her arm, a friendly enough gesture. She then ignores his proffered hand and pokes his forearm with her shiny red fingernails. She examines his arm, and he doesn’t move. Does she see images on his arm that are invisible to him?
“He’s making remarkable progress. The scientists are using maximum strength time release minimizers. That’s cutting edge. He seems to be responding more favorably to the counselling. The turnaround time for repurposing men is quicker than ever.”
“I’m not interested in the future growth and profits of your corporation.”
The women talk about him as if he is not in the room. He slowly lowers his arm.
“He will soon be weaned from the maximum minimizers. Then it will be weekly boosters. There will also be weekly blood tests and brain scans. Nothing will go wrong
“I get it. He has been neutered.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that. He’s been normalized.”
“Would either of you care for a drink?” says Nathan.
“I think he needs some fine-tuning.”
“He has been acquiring the accelerated master class in 20th century music and art appreciation. Watch this.” Ava stands and approaches Nathan.
“Hello,” he says. “How about that drink?”
“Do you like that painting on the wall?”
“I do,” says Nathan. He doesn’t look at the wall. “I also like the background music. They are both sublime.”
“Can you find your way back to your room?”
“Yes. Time and location have stabilized. It was a pleasure to meet you both.”
The doctor was wearing a white coat. The mental health specialist was wearing a blue pants suit.
“Where is Officer Nowicki? I’m ready to make a statement.”
“That isn’t necessary,” said the doctor.
“The memory of my attack is fresh. I remember important details.”
“You need to concentrate on your wellbeing,” said the mental health specialist.
“He appeared out of nowhere,” said Mitzi. “He was wearing a surgical mask. A blue one.”
His right hand had squeezed her neck. He was not wearing gloves. There was a shiny knife. There was a tattoo. Je me souviens. The knife sliced her throat. He sang quietly. ‘Nothing to get hung about.’ Mitzi would not forget to google it.
“There must be DNA and fingerprints,” said Mitzi. “He said something that could be important.”
“You lost a lot of blood,” said the doctor. “Your past is unreliable and that can impede healing. You are probably being traumatized by fictional events. You were in a medically induced coma. A few upgrades were added to your treatment, but don’t worry about insurance or deductibles. The country club where you work started a GoFundMe page.”
“I’m thirsty,” said Mitzi.
“We’ve been preparing a regiment of mental well-being exercises,” said the mental health specialist. “Do you need anything to ease your mind?”
“I’d like to know if he is still out there.”
“Oh no,” said the doctor. “A Good Samaritan witnessed a man breaking into your apartment and called the police. No one was injured during the apprehension. The emergency medical technicians arrived and saved your life.”
“Who is he?”
“That’s not important,” said the mental health specialist. “From this point forward, our total attention will be directed at you.”
“But why did he try to kill me?”
“It’s never too early to stop living in the unreal past, Mitzi.” The mental health expert sounded irritated. “His motivations are irrelevant. Society failed him. Reap and sow. You are part of the society that failed him. The good news is that he has agreed to a rigorous regiment of powerful minimizers. He was, remember, also traumatized. He’s being very brave.”
Mitzi had heard about minimizer drugs, but assumed they were only being tested on lab rats. How long had she been in a coma?
“So, the man who assaulted me will soon be walking around free.”
“Of course. He won’t remember you or the unfortunate incident because that’s not what a mentally healthy person would ever choose to retain.”
“I want to remember my life.”
“That desire, although understandable, is dangerous. Unhealthy memories have proven to be detrimental to, not just the memory carrier, but society. You will learn to appreciate this.”
She touched the doctor’s icy fingers.
“I think you need some rest,” said the doctor.
“Were minimizers made mandatory during my coma?”
“Let me get you that water.”
“How long before he’s ready?” says Mitzi.
“Six to eight weeks. It will take a few more weeks if you purchase the advanced upgrades.”
The iPhone is again dormant.
Mitzi is silent, impossible to read.
“Maybe you need more time to think about it,” says Ava.
“You’ve been very patient and knowledgeable,” says Mitzi. “I think I’ll take him.”
Ava doesn’t miss a beat. “Excellent. You won’t be disappointed.” Ava momentarily expects Mitzi to requestion her about evil and souls, but she smiles and seems satisfied with her decision.
The iPhone rouses.
“You do qualify for some free upgrades,” says Ava.
“Okay. But I don’t want anything that delays delivery.”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” says Ava. “Nathan is still in the early stages of reawakening. And don’t hesitate to give him a new name.”
“I want him to complete a master class in Russian literature. He doesn’t need to learn Russian. English translations are fine.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t do reading upgrades. It’s never been requested. But he will of course be capable of texting and reading a menu.”
“I must insist on a body modification.”
“Minor plastic surgery is acceptable and can be performed without a delivery delay. Are we talking abdomen? Genitals? Nose and jawline?
“He must have a tattoo.”
Mitzi, just before signing the contract, has oddly returned to her tattoo fixation.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” says Mitzi.
“What kind of tattoo do you want?”
“The phrase ‘Je me souviens.’ On his forearm. In red. Dark red.”
“Je me souviens?”
“Yes. In dark red. It means ‘I remember’. There’s nothing sinister about it.”
Ava’s iPhone flashes. It’s from her immediate supervisor. “Close the deal.”
“The tattoo is acceptable,” says Ava. “Will there be anything else?”
“No. You’ve been perfect. Thank you.”
Mitzi signs the contract and immediately transfers the money to Ideal Humans LLC. Mitzi is now penniless. She will begin working the double shift at the country club.
Nathan sees the reflection of a naked man prone on the bed. His right arm is bandaged. When he turns away from the mirror the bed is empty. Linear time is again being disrupted. The redhead told him not to worry and he doesn’t. He is learning how to trust.
Mitzi politely refuses to visit Nathan’s training sessions.
“It’s hard to contact you,” says Ava. “I think your landline is unreliable.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Your attendance is, of course, not required, but it would facilitate future bonding. Lori has been working with Nathan, and Lori is the best, but your sexual interaction with him would make her job easier. Potential communication and sexual difficulties can often be detected and promptly resolved in these pre-release sessions.”
“I’ve been tracking his progress online and I am very pleased. Lori is the best.”
Mitzi hasn’t been near a computer.
“There is a special celebration team dedicated to the launching of every new ideal man.,” said Ava. “There will be balloons and cheesecake. Think about it.”
“Send them my apologies,” said Mitzi, “but I’m planning something a little more intimate.”
“You are very sublime,” says Nathan.
“I get that all the time,” says Mitzi.
She touches his arm. Mitzi feels his muscles relax. She places her forefinger on Nathan’s tattoo and drives her fire engine red nails into his skin.
“Does that hurt?”
“A little, but it’s all right.”
“Je me souviens. Do you know what that means?”
“I know it’s not a bad thing.”
Mitzi begins tracing the tattoo with the silver tip of an imported Japanese knife that had been highly recommended by Consumer Reports.
“Is something wrong?”
Mitzi detects no anxiety in Nathan’s voice.
“What do you remember about growing up?” says Mitzi.
Nathan doesn’t hesitate. “It was all right. There was a bicycle. A few friends. I don’t remember names. I don’t remember anything bad.”
Mitzi withdraws the knife from Nathan’s arm. “Do you know why you are here?”
“It’s like a blind date.”
“That’s right. This is the part where we get to learn about each other. What do you want to know about me?”
“Do you have a job?”
“I’m a waitress.”
“I’m sure you are an excellent one. It would be nice to be your customer.”
“Do you remember ever being in this room?”
His eyes remain fixed on Mitzi’s face, neck, and scar. “No.”
“Do you remember ever seeing me before?”
“No. I would not forget you.”
She studies his face. It’s forgettable, possibly the result of the standard plastic surgery. It is too symmetric.
“Can you say something for me?” says Mitzi.
“I will try.”
“There’s nothing to get hung about.”
“All right. There’s nothing to get hung about.”
She pushes the knife firmly against his throat. The inevitability of the moment is followed by a trickle of blood.
“We have a lot in common,” says Mitzi.
“Is this dodgy foreplay?” he says. “I’m confused.”
Mitzi touches the blood with her free hand. He doesn’t resist. Without a soul a person is restful.
She never planned on sadistically torturing him. It was to be quick. She’d call the police and immediately plead guilty. Her court appointed lawyer would hopelessly argue that it is impossible to murder a man who is more dead than alive. Mitzi would spend a few months in jail before being dispatched to an Ideal Humans LLC rehabilitation site where she would be reborn after an intense regiment of maximum dose minimizers. She’d reappear as an ideal woman, ready for her own mystery date.
Nathan slowly moves behind her. She feels his warm steady breath on the back of her neck.
“I see you are reading Demons,” he says. “That is very dark. It is filled with trauma. It is never wise to tempt trauma.”
Immediately after arriving home from the hospital Mitzi detailed her assault. She keeps the written memory inside Demons (part 2, chapter 3.) She reads the nine pages every day.
“Can you read Demons?” says Mitzi.
“I believe my reading skills are quite good. I don’t remember anyone asking me about reading. They watched me eat, drink, and have sex. Occasionally they would poke and taunt me. But it was mostly good.”
“What would you like to do on our first date?”
“Maybe listen to some music. Pink Floyd. The Beatles. Reading would be ideal. But nothing too dark. Maybe something set in the future.” “The future will be perfect.”
Leland Neville lives and writes in upstate New York. He previously worked for a news magazine in Washington, D.C. and taught in both a high school and a prison. Some of his short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Space Squid, The Barcelona Review, Sobotka Literary Magazine, and Liquid Imagination.
Three months after we inherited Millford House from Pete’s uncle we rented a transit van, packed up our things and headed south. We left the motorway and drove down smoothly-surfaced winding roads. Enormous hedgerows narrowed down the world to a suffocating green tunnel frothing with flowers. At intervals the hedgerows dropped away and we passed through villages where jewel-coloured flowers rampaged in the front gardens of houses that were so old they looked like they’d mushroomed up out of the earth. Signs for ‘The Cricketers’ Arms’ and ‘The Saracen’s Head’ creaked on their chains, and the front doors gleamed in the same few shades: green-ish, blue-ish or grey-ish.
‘Do you think the mortgages come with a colour chart?’ I asked.
Pete laughed. ‘Farrow and Ball,’ he said. I didn’t know what that meant, so I shut up and watched the scenery. This was the England they showed in the movies. It was like a foreign country.
In the afternoon we arrived at Little Ford and parked outside Millford House. The house was a square biscuit-coloured box with four neat, regular windows on each side. The lane passed by the side of it and disappeared under a river. The first time I saw it I thought there’d been an earthquake or something but Pete explained that it was the ‘ford’ in Little Ford. In the old days they literally couldn’t be bothered to build a bridge, so you just had to drive through the river, and now it was a historic feature, so they still hadn’t built a bridge. Clouds of insects hovered around the edge of the water and long ropes of bright green weed floated downriver. Behind the house it was just fields full of cows.
Pete’s parents were waiting for us. His dad grabbed one of my big plastic bags.
‘What’s all this?’ He said.
‘Coat hangers,’ I replied.
‘Cooowwwt hang-guuurs,’ he said, imitating my accent.
I felt the blood rising to my face but Pete caught my eye and gave a barely perceptible shake of the head.
‘I shouldn’t think you’d be needing any coat hangers dear,’ said Maureen, emphasising the correct pronunciation, vowel sounds clipped into nothing, the ‘g’ barely perceptible, the ‘er’ truncated into a tiny sigh. ‘There’ll be lots of the house.’
She meant uncle John’s old things, but I wasn’t going to keep any of that.
‘I wasn’t sure what we’d need so I’ve brought everything,’ I said.
‘I can see that,’ said Maureen. ‘Let’s leave the men to it and put the kettle on, I expect you’re gasping. I’ve made sandwiches. They’ve got some lovely sourdough bread now up at the beehive café, they make it themselves. They gave me some of this starter stuff, I’m going to try baking my own. And I got you some of those oaty crackers you like, they say suitable for coeliacs.’
‘Thanks Maureen.’ I was startled to feel tears pricking behind my eyes. I thought she’d forgotten.
It was a beautiful day so we took our food outside near the overgrown shed. I sat down on a large, round stone with a hole in the centre. I ran my hand over its grooved surface.
‘What was this, originally?’ I said.
‘It’s the old millstone,’ said Pete’s dad. ‘You know, for grinding the wheat. The river was deeper back then…’ He droned on with his local history lesson. I held my hand in my lap like a poisonous spider and concentrated on counting my breaths to push down the anxiety. That stone had been covered in flour for centuries and centuries, and I’d rubbed my stupid hand all over it. I was dumb, I really was. Why hadn’t I realised that Millford House was a flour mill. We’d have to get rid of everything. There would be flour, ancient flour, seeping out of the walls.
‘Holly,’ Pete said, ‘why don’t we make some more tea?’ He steered me into the bathroom where I washed my shaking hands.
‘Nice slow breaths, remember,’ he said.
When we’d done as much as we could at the house, we walked up to The Royal Oak. The day was oozing into evening, our shadows stretching out on the road before us like they were eager to get there first. I made an excuse and went to the toilets. I needed to check that I didn’t need a door key and they weren’t out of order or anything, so I wouldn’t get caught out. When I got back to the table I scanned the menu: cod and chips, chicken and chips, vegetable lasagne. I went to the bar to place the orders myself: better safe than sorry.
‘I’ll have the salad please, but no croutons and no dressing.’ The woman behind the bar raised her eyebrows. Well, you can’t trust chips – sometimes they’re coated in flour – you can’t trust chicken, and you definitely can’t trust dressing. You can ask, but you can’t trust the answers, and it’s not really worth the trouble.
It took them seven years to diagnose me. Seven years of agonising stomach cramps and humiliating dashes to the toilet, and people mouthing ‘IBS’ and rolling their eyes. One time the girls at work gave me a roll of toilet paper for Secret Santa. I laughed weakly, but the next day I started looking for a new job. When I was bad in hospital, down to six and a half stone, mouth ulcers seeping, horrible red sores all over, drip in my arm, I overheard auntie Linda telling mum I was anorexic. She said I was punishing mum because she never breast fed me. I was terrified of dying, but even my own family thought I was making it up. I might have died if it had gone on any longer. I imagined all my insides gushing out of me, on and on, not stopping until there was nothing left of me but a deflated bag of dried up skin.
A large glass of white appeared in front of me. I poked at my lettuce while they all stuffed themselves.
‘You will be careful won’t you, Peter, now that you’re working in Bristol? Only I do worry.’
‘Worry about what?’ I asked.
‘Bombers, dear. They’re not going to blow anything up in Birmingham, are they? All their relatives live there. But anything could happen in Bristol.’
I lifted my glass to my mouth and tipped it all the way back. It was empty.
‘I’ll be careful mum, I promise,’ said Pete.
After his parents left Pete went to the bar and returned with a whole bottle.
‘They mean well,’ he said, squeezing my hand.
When we left the pub the air was cool and I was engulfed in shimmering drunkenness. Twilight bleached the colour out of everything. There was no sound except the rushing of the river.
‘Let’s cut across the fields,’ I said.
‘You’ll ruin your shoes,’ he warned.
‘I’ll get wellies,’ I said. I leaned in close to his ear and whispered ‘really tight ones, Pete, so tight you’ll have to ease them off me.’ The thought of me, in wellies, made me cackle out loud, and I ran over the grass, stumbling over long tufts and squelching through cow pats. Pete ran after me, laughing.
‘You’ve gone the full country bumpkin!’ he called.
I pushed through the gate in the hedge and waited for him. Some living thing scuttled away from me into the undergrowth. We kissed over the top of the gate and I pushed my tongue into his mouth.
‘You’re drunk,’ he said.
I took his hand and pushed it under my skirt, inside my knickers, to touch my smooth cleft. ‘I’m going to grow a big hairy bush and stop shaving my legs. Then you’ll be sorry you brought me to the middle of nowhere.’
‘Oh Holly,’ he said, in his soothing-exasperated tone, ‘you know I’m not bothered by all that. I love you just like you are.’
‘Let’s do it out here,’ I said. ‘No one will see.’ I pushed my hands up under his T-shirt and we kissed some more. I pulled the gate open and let him pass.
‘You lie down on the grass and I’ll get on top.’
‘What? Why’s it me who has to lie on the ground?’
‘Because I’m going to be the queen of Little Ford and you’re just a peasant, you know?’
I got my own way, as usual. When we set off down the hill again I stumbled once and nearly fell, and he steadied me. ‘Did ever you think,’ I said, ‘when you were a babby, that one day you’d come back and do it in the bushes with a girl like me?’
The next morning, fuzzy with my hangover, I decided to stop drinking. I wanted to start the next stage of my life as soon as possible. Why wait, I thought. I threw away my pills. I started on vitamins but I had to go to the doctors to get my folic acid prescribed. He raised his eyebrows when I told him I needed five milligrams a day, because of my gluten-free diet, so I pushed a leaflet from the coeliac support society over the table at him. Doctors can be difficult. They don’t like to acknowledge that the patients are the real experts.
Then I told myself I was living the dream. I saw my husband off to work every day with a naughty note hidden in his jacket pocket and messaged him pictures of lingerie peeping out of the bag, with promises that he’d see more as soon as he got home. At the end of the month I was late. My breasts ached. I felt all swollen up. I was so happy I went about humming all the time. I bought pregnancy magazines. I scrolled through images of nurseries. On day thirty-four – I waited like a good girl – I peed on the stick. Negative. I couldn’t believe it. Soon afterwards I started bleeding. I curled up on the bathroom floor and cried. Pete hugged me and said ‘next month.’ I got off the floor and started cleaning again. I knew it was irrational, but I couldn’t help thinking that if Millford House was contaminated with flour, I might not get pregnant. I’m paranoid, I told myself, and in the same breath, you can’t be too careful.
Pete and I did our bit to integrate into the village. We dutifully went to fundraising quizzes and things at the village hall, where everybody stuffed themselves with homemade cake. Sometimes people said ‘gluten free,’ and looked very pleased as they pushed their offerings towards me. I nodded and smiled and took the cakes home for Pete. People get offended if you explain the risk of cross contamination. I’d worried that going home to the village might be bad for Pete, that he might creep back into the shell I’d spent so long coaxing him out of. But all that home baking really fattened him up, and as his belly swelled he got more assertive and made jokes about being the sole breadwinner of Millford House, as though self-confidence was simply a case of entering the room stomach-first. I felt cheated out of all that effort I’d put into telling him he was good enough. And I was jealous. If only my belly would ripen like that.
I started going to church on Sundays, hoping to fit in. I liked the cool musty smell, the tuneless droning hymns and the cocooning sense of centuries of tradition bearing down on me. ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ I murmured, along with Maureen and a handful of dutiful families. When we prayed I felt a great surge of longing and imagined my future children tumbling about on the lawn on a nice new swing set. I could picture their chubby little bodies, the softness of their hair, snuggling up in their nice, clean, warm beds, with a room each. Each month I watched for signs and I would think – this is it! But then I’d be wiping blood off myself, same as usual, and empty desolation would sweep over me.
One day Pete strolled back from his mum’s place with a pot of goo. ‘I’m going to start making my own,’ he said.
‘Making your own what?’
‘Sourdough of course.’
I was so angry I could hardly speak. I’d spent years educating him about my health problems.
‘Why keep on buying bread for toast and sandwiches when homemade is so good? And the crust is so delicious. You really have to chew it. It’s good for your gut health, all that chewing.’
‘Good for your gut health,’ I said. ‘What if I get contaminated?’
‘Oh Holly! We’ve been over this before. Gluten doesn’t fly through the air you know. I’ll use the shed out the back. I’m going to convert it into a separate kitchen. I’m thinking of getting a proper pizza oven. And maybe a really good barbecue.’
‘A man kitchen?’ I said.
‘Alright,’ I said, relieved he hadn’t gone totally crazy. ‘But you have to be really careful not to bring any flour inside.’
The next day was Sunday. I sat on the hard wooden pew next to Maureen and thought, by the winter I’ll be too big to squeeze in here. By the spring I will be two people. We’ll have a christening, I thought. Our baby deserves to have roots. Maybe I should be christened too. Then we can really belong here. After the service I hung around the church door in the damp breeze until everyone had left.
‘Reverend Greenfield?’ I asked. ‘How do I become a part of the church, like really a part?’
He started mumbling something about doing a course, said I could look it up on the Church’s webpage. I think he wanted to get back for his lunch.
‘What about communion?’ I asked. ‘Could I do that? Only the thing is, I have to have gluten-free.’
He gave a bark of laughter as though I’d asked if dogs can go to heaven.
‘We many are one bread, one body: for we all are partakers in that one bread,’ he said. ‘One Corinthians, ten seventeen.’
‘But it’s just symbolic, isn’t it?’
‘It’s a slippery slope,’ he said. ‘Soon it’ll be Ribena for the alcoholics and individual plastic cups for hygiene reasons. We’re a traditional village church. Where’s the dignity in that?’
‘There’s not much dignity in me sitting on the toilet for hours either, father,’ I said.
He drew in his cheeks like he was sucking a lemon and walked away.
‘Man shall not live by bread alone!’ I said desperately at his black retreating back.
Summer faded into autumn and still there was no baby. One of the Church mums had a big round belly – how hadn’t I noticed it before? It wasn’t fair, I thought. She already had two little ones, one in a push chair, one clinging to her legs. The toddler took a step towards me, waving a soggy, half-chewed biscuit in his little star-fish hands. I supressed a gasp and took a step back.
She gave me a strange look and said ‘Now Tristan, you don’t want to spoil Holly’s nice clothes, do you?’
I bought an ovulation prediction kit and started taking my temperature. It took all the fun out of it. Pete started giving me heavy sighs and spending more time in his man kitchen. I’d tell him ‘I’m ovulating, we can’t miss this chance,’ and make him shower properly in the downstairs bathroom and clean his teeth, just in case, before we did it.
The cause of coeliac disease was discovered during the Dutch famine. During the winter of 1944-1945, the Germans cut off supplies of fuel and food to towns in the Netherlands. They called it the Hungerwinter. The canals and rivers froze. In Amsterdam the rations dropped to 580 calories a day. The black market ran out of food. The rations dropped to one kilo of potatoes and 400g of bread a week. The gas and electricity were turned off. Four and a half million starving people prayed as one: give us this day our daily bread. They dug up the tulip bulbs and ate them. Twenty thousand people died of hunger. The elderly died and the children died, all except in one place. In the coeliac ward of the Juliana Children’s Hospital the death rate dropped from 35 percent to zero. There were photographs of them. Before: the skin stretched thin over their distended bellies, rising up beneath the undulating wings of their rib cages, skin crusted with angry red blisters, skeleton limbs like an afterthought, glazed eyes. After: skinny babies. For coeliacs, starvation is better than bread.
During the winter Maureen helped me hang some heavy curtains to keep the cold drafts out. As she left she extended her face towards me. Was it my imagination, or was her face plumper, doughier? I moved to kiss her but she had a smear of white powder on her cheek. Was it flour? With all the bread she’d been eating, it could be. I turned my head sharply and the kiss became an awkward hug. The minute the door closed I ran to the bathroom, turned on the shower, peeled off my clothes and shoved them in the washing machine straight away.
One Saturday I heard the slow, artificial jangle of the teddy bears picnic tune coming from outside. ‘If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…’ I’d never understood why they chose that jingle; it was so sinister, like an advert for paedophiles luring kids into the woods.
‘Ice-cream van, out here, in winter?’ I said. I was already imagining laughing to my kids about the creepy music as they rushed out to buy ice cream. It was nice, that some things didn’t change, that we’d have that connection.
‘It’s Ed the Bread,’ said Pete.
‘You know, he delivers. Like a milkman but with bread. Got any change?’ Pete rummaged in the china swan on the dresser, fished out a few coins and dashed outside. He pulled on his wellies and waded across the ford. I watched through the window. Lots of our neighbours were out there standing in line, laughing and shoving bread rolls in their mouths. After a while Pete came to the front door cradling a round, flat loaf to his chest. It was the kind of hand-made bread that had flour all over the outside. I could smell the tangy, yeasty stink of it, even through the door. I missed the old days when bread was white and sliced and sealed in a plastic bag and didn’t smell of anything. I motioned to him and said ‘go round the back.’
‘Don’t be silly.’ He reached for the door but I put the chain on. ‘There’s flour all over that,’ I said. ‘Go round the back. Bread stays in your own kitchen.’
Peter sighed, as though I was being unreasonable, and slumped off round the side of the house like a teenager. The house was my safe space, my only safe space. Why couldn’t he respect that? He’d got worse since we came down here. I suppose the country is so dirty, he was falling back into bad habits. Maureen’s house was often in a state, dog hair and muck all over. ‘Good clean dirt,’ she would say, approvingly. Why did he need more bread, anyway? He ate so much of the stuff. I’d have to talk to him about the size of his belly.
When spring finally arrived I was exhausted. I had to sit down and rest halfway up the stairs. When I opened the window I could smell the constant pub carpet stink of Pete’s bread kitchen, and slurry on the fields from far off and the faint metallic tang of petrol from the main road. An acute sense of smell is one of the signs, I thought. Maybe I was finally pregnant. I cradled the secret knowledge gently to myself like a precious egg. If I shared this, even with Pete, it might break the spell, that trembling, tenuous bond. This secret was just between the two of us: me and the microscopic ball of rapidly dividing cells I hoped I carried inside.
That night I was full of nervous anticipation. It felt different from all the other months. I was half-asleep when I heard the soft, snuffling sighs and gentle breathing of a sleepy little creature. I wandered after it. There was something in the airing cupboard. I could smell it. It had the scent of a childhood camping trip, crushed grass, my brother wiggling about in his sleeping bag, his innocent baby animal smell, my parents drinking beer and murmuring outside by the fire. ‘Mummy… mummy,’ it whispered, ‘I want cuddles.’ I reached into the cupboard and pulled out a basket and held it in my arms. ‘Mummy’s here,’ I mumbled. The soft, pliable little form shifted under its cloth and settled cosily. Reassured it was safe, I went back to sleep.
I woke up early. Sunlight was pouring in through the window. Pete’s side of the bed was empty. It was May Day, the morning of the village fete. I’d suggested a face-painting stand for the kiddies, then immediately regretted it because spending all day surrounded by toddlers was bound to be painful. I needed to go to the supermarket to get some supplies and stock up on a bit of food. But something was wrong. It was the smell. Everything was permeated with a warm, yeasty smell. I wondered if it was real, or if I was still dreaming. I could hear Pete moving about downstairs in the kitchen. That’s nice, I thought. Breakfast. I waited for a few minutes. The constant stench of bread would be smothered by the smell of coffee, any second now. I rubbed my eyes and noticed that my fingertips had some kind of beige residue on them. I rubbed them clean. There was an unpleasant noise coming from the kitchen: scrape, slap, scrape, slap. What was he doing down there Why did it smell so bread-like? Well, I couldn’t lie in bed forever. I got up and got dressed and went to the bathroom where I quickly did my face and put my hair in a ponytail. That would have to do. I went down to the kitchen. Scrape, slap, scrape, slap. Pete was kneading bread on the counter. I staggered back. I clung to the doorframe, shaking and gasping for breath. I put my hands over my mouth.
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘Bread,’ he said.
‘But this is the safe kitchen!’
‘Oh Holly! It’s a lovely sourdough. It’s not poisonous.’
‘It is to me!’ I turned my back on him and fought back my tears. My strange dream… was it just a dream? I turned to look at Pete, contentedly kneading dough, flour over every surface, and doubt nagged at me. ‘Pete… you’re not putting dough in the airing cupboard are you?’
Pete shrugged. I went upstairs again. Slowly, slowly. My heart was pounding. The stairs seemed to go on forever. I took a deep breath and snatched open the door. The towels and sheets had all been pushed to the back and stacked up around the boiler were basket after basket of cloth-covered dough. A wild, stabbing pain shot through my chest. I turned and went downstairs again, leaning heavily on the bannisters. I stood in the kitchen doorway. Pete was humming gently as he went on with the bread: scrape, slap, scrape, slap.
‘I don’t know why you’re doing this,’ I said, keeping my voice even, ‘but I want it all gone, all of it, and I want this kitchen bleached everywhere, the insides of the cupboards, everything. And the airing cupboard too. Everything goes back to your outside kitchen, everything that’s had flour on it. Listen, I’m going out now and I want everything cleaned up before I get back.’
‘Pete! I’m serious.’
‘Alright, Holly. Alright.’
I stood there uncertainly for a moment longer. He didn’t seem concerned at all. He’s gone crazy, I said to myself. Then I wondered if I was crazy. Or maybe this was his way of saying he wanted a divorce. Each explanation seemed more horrifying than the last. I was on the point of asking him, but I decided I didn’t want to know, not now. When I get home, I said to myself, all this will have gone away. We can pretend it was all just a bad dream.
I parked my car and took a small trolley. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. There was a woman coming out of the supermarket, blocking my path. Her trolley was completely full of bread. Rolls, baguettes, long loaves, round loaves, loaves with seeds and without, all different colours and sizes and shapes. She was holding a baguette in her hand and she’d bitten the end off and she was chewing on the thick crust. Her toddler threw its head back and wailed. The woman broke off a piece of bread and stuffed it into the child’s mouth and the child’s jaws started to grind mechanically. I shuddered.
As soon as the automatic doors opened I was hit by the smell of bread. They pump a chemical bread smell out around supermarkets to make people feel hungry and want to spend more. Everywhere I went I was reminded that I was an outsider, that the things that made other people salivate made me tense with anxiety. I walked past the magazines and flowers and cards, past the huge bakery section with its banner saying ‘Try Our New Sourdough,’ to the free-from area at the back of the shop. There was another woman there, hunched over nervously peering at labels. I looked for my usual things: oat biscuits, rice crackers, gluten-free cereal and pasta. But everything looked different. There were all sorts of packet bread mixes there. I picked one up and looked at the label. It was made of wheat flour: it wasn’t gluten-free at all. I put it down quickly. There could be flour on the outside of that packet, I thought. I’d have to have a shower again when I got home. I started checking the other packets. It was all mixes for normal wheat bread. I exchanged a look with the other woman, who shrugged.
I found a member of staff. ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘There’s been a mistake with the shelf-stacking. There’s lots of gluten in the free-from section. And I can’t find my usual gluten-free foods.’
‘I’m sorry madam, we’re reorganising,’ he said, without looking at me.
‘Where can I find my usual products, then?’
A wave of exhaustion swept through me.
‘Forget it,’ I muttered and pushed past him. I was tired, so tired of all of this. If even my own husband didn’t care about poisoning me, why should the supermarket? The automatic doors parted smoothly before me as though they sensed my mood and were getting out of my way.
I got into my car, wiped my hands with several wet-wipes and rubbed them with hand sanitiser. Then I just sat there for a moment and closed my eyes. It’s ok, I told myself. I’ll go to another supermarket. I’ll make an official complaint. I really didn’t feel well. I started going through everything I’d eaten in the last twenty-four hours, checking for anything that might not have been safe. It was probably Pete, I thought, contaminating my kitchen. Life would be easier if I just gave up, I thought, if I just ate gluten and got sick. I sank down into futility and self-pity and cried, leaning my head on the steering wheel.
When I got home Pete was out. The house still stank of bread and he hadn’t cleaned the kitchen. It wasn’t a nightmare then, it was real. After my cry I felt scoured on the inside, empty and hollow like a carved out pumpkin. My anxiety had receded to a dull throb. My stomach was churning and I realised I hadn’t even bought myself any food, or re-stocked the face paints. I packed up the things I had anyway and went over to the village green by the church. If I was contaminated, if I was going to have symptoms, there was nothing I could do now. I’d get through the day, make sure the kids had a nice time then I’d have a serious talk with Pete. I’d tell him that this time I really might be pregnant, that it wasn’t only my health on the line, but our child’s.
It was strangely quiet on the green, and there weren’t many stalls set out. One of the church ladies waved at me uncertainly from behind a table piled with bric-a-brac. A limp string of bunting slithered off her stand and flopped to the ground. Most people seemed to be gathered around a van parked outside the entrance to the village hall. Probably unloading things or having a briefing. I recognised Pete’s back in the same too-tight, pale-blue shirt he’d had on earlier. He had flour all over him. I stood next to him but I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. I said ‘Pete you mucky pup, people will think I don’t look after you!’ My voice dropped in the quiet like a glass breaking in a restaurant and the blood rushed to my cheeks. ‘Sorry,’ I whispered. Why were they so silent? Then I noticed that they weren’t silent, not exactly. They were making a faint, wet, sloppy noise. I looked at Pete, but his eyes were glazed and he didn’t seem to see me. He swayed slightly. His jaws were moving rhythmically round and round.
‘Pete?’ I said.
He thrust his hands out, they all did, letting out a low moan of longing, and Reverend Greenfield leaned out of the van with a loaf of bread in his hand. He handed it out, and then another, then another. The villagers passed the bread amongst themselves. Pete took his loaf and sank his teeth into it and chewed.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked. ‘Maureen,’ I said, spotting her, ‘you said you’d help me with face-painting, why don’t we go and get set up? It’s time to start.’
Maureen turned to look at me. Her hair was standing up on one side and she hadn’t done her make-up. Her face was slack and pasty. ‘The kids don’t want face-paint, Holly,’ she said. ‘They want bread.’ She ripped off a hunk of bread with her teeth and chewed. I looked around. Nobody looked at me. They were all chewing and chewing.
Reverend Greenfield came towards me, cradling a loaf against his chest like the baby Jesus. ‘We are one body, one bread,’ he said. He held the golden loaf out towards me in his two arms. I had a flashback to running to the bathroom, doubled up in pain.
‘I can’t eat bread,’ I said, backing away.
‘We’ve all broken bread together, Holly,’ Maureen said, thrusting a loaf at me. ‘Why don’t you break bread with us too?’
‘I can’t,’ I said, and she lowered the bread sadly.
‘Pete,’ I said, ‘I think I’m finally pregnant. Let’s get away from here.’ I tugged on his floury arm.
‘You’re not one of us, Holly,’ he said.
He turned away from me to join the others and they went on quietly chewing and chewing. I couldn’t bear it any more. I turned and ran. I ran across the fields and I ran until my lungs were burning and I had to stop. I grasped hold of the gate and doubled over with a stitch in my side. Nausea swept over me and I vomited onto the grass. Was it morning sickness, I wondered, or was it gluten? Finally I straightened up and wiped my mouth. This was where Pete and I had shagged on the ground, that first night in the village. That was a long time ago. The field rippled down towards Millford House and the river. It was rich and green, so green, full of beautiful new plant life, optimistic and hopeful. This field was normally just full of scrubby grass and cows. When had it changed? I looked closer. The plants had seeds at their tips nestled together like ropes of plaited hair. There was a breath of wind and the plants bobbed their heads to me in greeting. It wasn’t grass, I realised. It was wheat.
“Sour Dough” first appeared in the Anthology Ghastly Gastronomy in 2020.
Kate M Tyte’s essays have appeared in Slightly Foxed, and her fiction in STORGY; Riggwelter; Reflex Pres; Idle Ink; The Fiction Pool; Press Pause Press; Ghastly Gastronomy; Living, Loving, Longing: Lisbon; Strange Spring and on The Other Stories podcast. She is a book reviewer for STORGY and The Short Story.
It started with the flickering of the bedroom light—on off on off on—slow persistent repetitions that nibbled away her sleep. The voice was soft but measured and seemed integrated with the fluttering of the light. “I have a gun, ma’am.”
She rolled onto her back, not quite awake, and turned her head. A man was standing at the bedroom door—a tall ephemeral blur that seemed more shadow than substance. She opened the drawer to her night table and groped about for her glasses. The voice stopped her cold. “I have a gun, ma’am. Roll onto your stomach. Please place your hands slowly on top of your head.”
She squinted at her husband who was lying beside her in the bed. He was flat on his stomach with his head turned towards her. His hands were bound behind his neck. She could not make out his face, his ugly red face, but she could smell his fear.
“Bridgett, stop fidgeting,” he snapped. “Just do as he says.” His voice was habitually reproachful as though she had once again wrecked the car.
Slowly, she rolled onto her stomach and laced her fingers behind her head. She suddenly felt rebellious, not towards the intruder so much as the waspishness in her husband’s voice. It consoled her that his hands had already been tied, but she still wanted to punch his eyes. “Whatever you want, take it,” she snapped. “Take it and go.”
Her anger was so empowering that she felt she had willed it when the rope slipped loosely over her wrists. The rope tightened instantly—the knots had been pretied—but it bit only slightly into her wrists as the intruder fastened them to the railing of the headboard. That he was obviously experienced calmed her a little; she wanted the nightmare to end quickly.
The intruder spoke gently as though addressing an invalid. “There’s an easy way to do this, ma’am. Put your weight on your knees. Cooperate and I won’t take long.”
She obeyed quickly, scrunching her knees against her small breasts while the intruder lifted her nightgown. His hands were gentle and warm as if he were already familiar with her. Even so, she was startled by the coldness of the jelly that he thrust between her legs. He smelled heavily of tobacco. “Please don’t,” she whispered. “Please.”
When he entered her, she shuddered—the act was so skillful, so clinically swift that he seemed to be sparing her pain. She clenched her teeth when he shuddered also—when she felt his seed challenge the grip of the condom. He withdrew from her slowly, surgically—she could feel his hand holding the condom in place. It had taken him only a minute to rape her.
He rose from the bed and the mattress springs groaned. A droplet stung her thigh. He was fumbling with his pants. “Would you like to share my towel?” he asked.
She nodded, irritated by the messiness of the gel, and sighed when she felt the terry cloth tucked between her legs. Her husband’s tone grew shrill. “You’ve taken what you came for. Now will you please go?” She wanted to scratch her husband’s face and felt vindicated when the intruder ignored him. Her marriage, what little remained of it, was collapsing like the Twin Towers.
“Some water, ma’am?”
She shook her head angrily. “Nu-uh,” she muttered. “Nu-uh.”
She could hear his footfalls as he left the bedroom—a catlike rhythm that was soon inaudible. Her wrists had loosened slightly in the bindings, but she clung to the headboard as though it were a raft. After a minute, he returned.
“Have some water, ma’am.” His voice was calm but commanding.
She turned her head; he pressed the glass against her lips. She gulped the water slowly, haltingly, but he waited patiently until she was done. When she had finished drinking, he placed the empty glass on the night table.
“Don’t move for an hour,” he murmured. “If you don’t wait an hour, I’ll know. I’ll come back.”
He turned off the light as he left the room, and she was stunned by the totality of the darkness. She listened carefully for several minutes, convinced that he was still in the house, convinced that he had forgotten something and would return to the bedroom. And then she heard the slamming of the front door.
Two years later, she learned something about him. His name was Curtis Rollins and he was serving five years for another rape. His DNA had also marked her, but the chain of evidence had been broken, rendering the lab results useless. Even so, he had agreed to meet her through a victim program at the Indiana State Reformatory. In exchange for his participation, he hoped to transfer to a prison closer to his mother’s home in East Chicago.
She learned this when a social worker phoned her to arrange the meeting. “You’ll talk to him in a neutral setting. It might take him out of your nightmares.”
She had answered testily, “I would rather he just stayed in my nightmares. There are far worse places he could be.”
“Let him know that if you talk to him,” the social worker replied. Her voice was smooth and sweet, like syrup. “Remember, this is his therapy too.”
She had clutched the phone as though choking a snake. Would meeting him really take him out of her nightmares? She rather doubted it, but her fear was so erratic that it frequently felt like a bat in her hair. Even death seemed better than keeping this turmoil in her life. She had therefore agreed to meet Curtis Rollins in a visiting room at the prison.
She now sat with her daughter in the prison reception foyer. Her smug, self-centered daughter whom she had begged to drive her to the prison. It was a measure of her desperation that even her surly daughter was a comfort. She could not face her assailant alone.
Although it was the Christmas season, they were the only two people in the foyer. She tried to take cheer from the synthetic fir tree in the corner of the room but its colored lights, winking steadily, reminded her of the night she had been assaulted. Colored bulbs had also been strung along the walls, but their glow did not compensate for the sterility of the room: the bare wooden floor, the hardback chairs, and the unvarnished table strewn with paintings that inmates had put on sale. She sat as though drugged, her back to the wall, and held tightly to her daughter’s hand. Soon, a representative from the program would be meeting with them.
Her daughter grimaced; she seemed personally insulted by the drabness of the room. “I still don’t believe you’re going to meet this creep.” It was the same selfish whine that had sparked their argument earlier that day—when she had angrily insisted that she would not pay her daughter’s personal phone bill. Her daughter, a freshman at Notre Dame, had been glued to the phone in her bedroom ever since returning home for the holidays.
“Answer me, Mother. How’s this going to help?”
“It’s only to talk to an aging man. That’s how it was put to me anyhow.”
“Really, Mother. The kind you find lurking in alleys? You know, people get stabbed here.”
She snickered. “So what? I’ll bite his nose off.”
“Just last month, a guard got stabbedto death. Don’t you read the papers, Mother? It’s like Iraq in here.”
She squeezed her daughter’s hand—this wasn’t a joking matter—but she found herself giggling uncontrollably.
“Mother, none of this is funny.”
“Nor is that phone bill, Missy. I’m not made of money, you know.”
She released her daughter’s hand, blotted her eyes with a Kleenex and noticed her reflection in a mirror across the room: a squat disheveled woman in her fifties with pale skin and jet-black hair. She looked flirty yet banal—like a statue in a wax museum. “You’re a closed book, Bridgett,” her husband had once said to her. “Except to any voyeur who wants to stare at your ass.”
Had two years really passed since the incident? Her night sweats, her hyper alertness, her inability to be alone had not subsided over the months. And her panic attacks were daily sieges, springing upon her with the entitlement of a household cat. She could not remember when things had been any other way.
“I’m not made of money,” she said as though repeating herself would strengthen her courage. “Don’t think for a minute I’m paying your phone bill.”
Her daughter sighed. “I promised I would pay it. Really, Mother, don’t be such a brat. I put you to bed last night, didn’t I?”
The door creaked open. A thin, sallow-faced woman tottered into the room. She was moving gingerly on her three-inch heels and reading an open file.
The woman glanced up from the file. “Bridgett?” She spoke as though surprised.
The woman’s voice irked her. It was that same haughty social worker she had talked to over the phone. She answered sharply, “Yes?”
“I’m Anna. We spoke.”
“Yes, Anna. I do remember.”
Closing the file, the social worker sat down beside her. She arched her eyebrows. “Would you prefer that I called you Mrs. Hollowell?”
“Thank you, yes. Let’s stick with Mrs. Hollowell.”
Her daughter groaned. “The name no longer suits you, Mother.”
“Or maybe it suits me a little too well.”
The social worker frowned. “When did your husband leave you?” Her voice was so saccharine that it could have been poured over waffles.
“The worm, you mean. Six months ago. And I left him.”
“It’s just as well. Marriages rarely survive these things. Not even the good ones—the ones that appear to survive. Is this your daughter?”
“This is Jasmine—yes. You can see I’ve spoiled her rotten.”
Her daughter sighed like a martyr and once again took her hand.
The social worker cleared her throat. “Well, she can’t accompany you on the visit, I’m afraid. But you may need her when it’s over. Do you remember your briefing?”
“No…. Yes. I’m not to use my last name.”
“First names only. We don’t give inmates our last names.”
“So what do I call him?”
“He goes by Rashad, but I don’t believe he’s really a Muslim. He probably just uses that name to fit in.” She reopened the file, scratched a note in it and then closed it once again. “He has many disguises, you know. And many visitors.”
“Does he really?”
The woman nodded. “Church folk, Muslims, even some plainclothes detectives. I doubt that anyone sees through his masks, but that’s probably for the best.”
She felt her stomach churning. She wanted to bolt from the room. “I don’t want things to be for the bestanymore. The best is just something we have to wake up from.”
“Is that what you want to tell him, Mrs. Hollowell?’
“What I want is to bite off his nose.”
The woman sighed and nibbled her pen. “A pane of glass will separate you from him. You’ll speak to him over an intercom phone.”
“How convenient,” she snapped. “Do I wish him Merry Christmas as well?”
“Discuss only small subjects at first—like the weather, your health and what you had for dinner last night. Only afterward should you bring up the incident.”
“What should I tell him about it? Should I tell him he ruined my marriage?”
“Only if it’s true, Mrs. Hollowell.”
“It’s not. It’s a lie. But maybe it’s a lie he ought to hear.”
“He must have had something to do with it.”
She giggled. “For that, I should probably thank him.”
The woman frowned again. She brushed her skirt, as though ridding it of ants, and rose from the chair. “Keep your guard up, Mrs. Hollowell. He’s not what you might expect him to be.” She again cleared her throat. “Are you ready?”
“Must I be ready?”
“It would help, but no. You’ll see him for only an hour. Now don’t waste that time getting angry with him—I don’t think he’d care. And don’t try to write him when it’s over.”
“Why would I ever write him? What would I even say?”
“I don’t know, but it’s happened. His other victim, the one he’s serving time for, has been writing him weekly. Shall we go?”
She heard her joints snap as she rose from the chair. Her heart was pounding like a sprinter’s at the end of the race and her stomach was growing tighter. She looked frantically at her daughter. “Any bits of advice?”
Her daughter shrugged. “Just one, Mother. Try not to hog the phone.”
She accompanied the social worker into the inner prison. The hallway was narrow, freshly mopped and shiny with fluorescent lighting. The woman’s high heels exploded upon the uncarpeted floor, causing her ears to ring. And so, she felt relieved when they paused at a checkpoint and waited on the officer in the control module. “It’ll be a few minutes,” the social worker muttered. “We have a security alert.” Ignoring the social worker, she studied her image on a television monitor. Her hair needed brushing.
A plexiglass gate rolled sideways, and she followed the social worker into a cramped compartment. A mechanical drawer crept away from the module as though reaching out to grab her. A logbook lay open in the drawer. “You need to sign in,” the social worker explained.
When she had penned her name in the book, the officer in the control room asked to see the back of her hand. She turned her hand over while leaving it in the drawer. She felt coldness pressing on her wrist: an ultraviolet identification stamp that reminded her of the weekly singles dances she had been attending. She did not think much of the dances—hot spots for one-night stands—but this had not diminished their novelty. The pick-up lines, the clumsy suitors, even the thank-you-ma’am sex, were worth putting up with for a few fleeting moments of touch.
The gate closed behind her. A second gate parted, and she pursued the social worker into another hallway. They walked through a series of long corridors, passageways so slick and convoluted that it seemed as though the building was digesting her. Were it not for a sudden racket—shouts, laughter, the ringing of gates—she would have felt that she had been swallowed alive. The woman took her elbow. “We’re approaching the cell ranges. You’ll meet him in the anteroom the attorneys use.”
“I’ve already met him,” she replied. She glared at her escort and threw back her head, but her bravado vanished the moment they entered the visiting room: a severely-lit chamber containing several booths with chairs and hanging phone receivers. The room was otherwise bare.
“Have a seat,” the social worker said. “He’ll be here soon.”
She first saw his shadow and then she saw him: a slim, balding man in prison blues who stooped as he walked through a doorway leading to an adjacent hallway. He was taller than she remembered him to be, and his face was as expressionless as that of a cigar store Indian. He was nibbling from a box of cookies.
Noticing her, he smiled—a smile both spontaneous and sunless, as though the pregnancy of the moment, the tension in her face, even the plexiglass that separated them were of little consequence. His face was so still, his eyes so incurious, that he appeared to be in a trance.
He seated himself in the booth across from her and then guided the phone receiver to his ear. His movements were slow, sensuous—so utterly relaxed that she felt as though she were looking into a terrarium. She lifted her receiver slowly, doubting for a moment that he was capable of speech. When he spoke to her finally, her heart began to flutter. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hollowell.” His voice was deep, soothing and totally familiar to her. She was not surprised that he knew her last name.
She studied him critically through the glass. “First names only, dirtbag.”
He smiled once again and dropped his gaze, not from embarrassment but to select another cookie from the box. He chewed the cookie slowly, methodically, as though it required profound concentration. He sucked at a tooth before speaking again. “Mrs. Hollowell,” he said. “I am a man inside a cage. Do you really want me on a first-name basis?”
She felt suddenly angry, but her anger seemed puerile—a throwback to that irretrievable moment when her daughter had started to baby her. The childish tantrums, in which she now permitted herself to indulge, were simply too delicious to resist.
She snapped at him once again. “Kinda late for that, isn’t it, fella? You just walk into people’s homes and rape them?”
He stretched, shook his head and dipped into the box. He spoke patiently as though addressing a child. “It would be better, Mrs. Hollowell, if you thought of me as a stranger.”
“I’d rather think of you as a creep.”
“And not a stranger?”
Selecting another cookie, he shrugged. “Have it your way, Mrs. Hollowell. I was in your home more than once.”
He nibbled the cookie, impervious to the chill that shot through her spine. It was the same loathsome chill she had felt years ago when she had discovered that her husband had been seeing another woman.
“It’s my turn, Clyde. And I’ll have it my way.”
He nodded silently and chewed.
“So how many times were you in my home?”
“Seven,” he replied. He spoke the number softly, reverently, as though it were a standard.
Seven thieves, seven veils, seven deadly sins, she thought. Could anything be immune to so significant a number as seven? He seemed to be quoting from the Bible.
“Seven,” he repeated as though she hadn’t heard him. “I stood over you seven times while you slept—you and your husband. And each time I chose not to touch you.”
“What were you doing instead? Jacking off?”
He shrugged and averted his gaze. Looking beyond her, his face grew so still that she wondered if someone had entered the room behind her—maybe that snotty social worker she wanted to slap. She discarded the thought when she noticed the empty reflections in the plexiglass. She was alone with him.
He again looked at her and smiled. “Let’s be formal, Mrs. Hollowell—please.”
“It will make it easier to speak the truth.”
“Why is the truth so important?”
“Anna believes it will help set you free.”
“Do you believe that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really know. But the truth is better delivered by strangers.”
“What’s the bitch think you are? A caregiver?”
He dropped his eyes and looked pensively at the cookies. Was he recalling a past life—a life he had surely abandoned? When he spoke again, he seemed amused, “No longer, Mrs. Hollowell. But once I was a surgical nurse.”
She gripped the receiver and glared at him. This was not information she wanted to hear. “A surgical nurse. Well, la-di-dah. You shoulda let ’em castrate you.”
Her words were so forceful, her anger so invigorating, that it disappointed her when he simply nodded his head. The suggestion seemed almost appealing to him, and his voice was pleasant when he replied.
“Don’t you want to be cured, Mrs. Hollowell? Castration would only cure me.”
“I don’t want you cured!” she spat. “Just want ’em to cut off your balls. That’s all you deserve for raping innocent women.”
A smirk touched the corners of his mouth and he sighed. “There are no innocent women, Mrs. Hollowell. But perhaps you come closer than most.”
His words, their pious judgment of her, pricked her only slightly—perhaps because she had grown charitable towards her sins: her three abortions, her chronic alcoholism, the stolen hours she had spent posing for her erotic website. Her decadence seemed an endowment now—something this creep was not going to take away. She had had that website for five precious years—long before her husband had stopped screwing her. And long before this creep had crept into her bedroom.
She looked at him sharply, narrowing her gaze. “Quit talking to me like you’re Joan of Arc.”
“Mrs. Hollowell,” he said. “I’m a man with a disorder—no more. There was nothing revolutionary about my deed.”
“Well, isn’t that a pity? Minuteman describes you rather well.”
He laughed throatily and clapped his hands—an impact she heard through the glass. “You are a piece of work, Mrs. Hollowell. Thank you for coming here today.”
“Thank Anna—not me. She does want you cured.”
He lowered his eyes and again shook his head. Dipping into his shirt pocket, he removed a packet of Camels. “Must you insult her as well, Mrs. Hollowell? Must you insult a well-intentioned woman?”
“You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“No, Mrs. Hollowell. I am only sure of you. You are far less a mystery to me than myself.”
Her hand tightened on the receiver as though she was squeezing a club. “Listen here, Clyde. I’m a closed book.” She cringed as she spoke, realizing the idleness of her boast. What was she, after all, but an estranged mother, a librarian in a hick town and a lush? She felt vaguely consoled that he already seemed to know these things.
“Who told you that, Mrs. Hollowell?”
He smiled politely as though responding to a bad joke. “Husbands,” he muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Husbands are better offblind—don’t you think? But a predator must know his prey.”
“You make it sound like a goddamn sport.”
“To me it’s more like a parlor game. Like posing for strangers or cruising in bars.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re pretty smug for a rapist.”
“Maybe so, Mrs. Hollowell. But I know you far better than your husband ever will.”
Her skin prickled as he spoke, a sensation produced less by fear than by the disapproval in his voice—the ridiculous implication that she had somehow proved unworthy of him.
“Sorry to have disappointed you,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to give rape a bad name.”
He tore at the pack of Camels then pulled away the seal. “You didn’t disappoint me, Mrs. Hollowell. But even a predator has standards. I shouldn’t have visited you an eighth time.”
She gripped the receiver and glared, hoping to break his maddening composure—a coolness he wore like a pinstripe suit. “I’m sorry I didn’t meet your highfalutin standards. My husband thinks I’m a tramp, you know.”
“Must you keep boasting, Mrs. Hollowell? He left you for a tramp, didn’t he?”
“I gave him the boot. The slut can have him.”
“I remember him—a frightened little man. You’ll do better without him and he without you. Be glad he’s bullying somebody else.”
“You’re starting to sound like Anna, now.”
“I hope so, Mrs. Hollowell. Sometimes even social workers are right.”
“If you’re so damn smart, how come they caught you?”
He sighed softly, put down his receiver and shook several cigarettes loose from the pack. When he had selected a cigarette, he returned the receiver to his ear.
“Mrs. Hollowell,” he said. “I chose to be caught. Otherwise, I would not be here.”
The room behind the glass suddenly reminded her of the animal shelter she had visited as a girl—where she had selected, at her father’s insistence, a beagle puppy with a spotted nose. The dog was her just reward for the many evenings she had allowed her father to sneak into her room while her mother was sleeping in bed or nodding in front of the television. At first, she had been content to punish the puppy—whacking its head with a rolled-up newspaper and pouring red pepper into its food—but finally she had loved it, loved it more tenderly than she had ever remembered loving. And so, she had remained silent when her father reminded her that the puppy could be taken away. Was this man behind the glass—this smug, superior interloper—an extension of the dark covenant she had made as a girl? Had she instead drowned the puppy in the bathtub or cracked its head with a rock, would this man have had the wherewithal to creep into her bedroom not once but eight times? Looking into his eyes, his soft intelligent eyes, she knew that she had sealed this moment long ago.
He had lit the cigarette and the smoke, like the tendril of a jellyfish, lazily approached the glass.
“They let you smoke in here?” she asked.
He laughed and coughed crisply. “No, Mrs. Hollowell—they don’t. But I’m only required to be honest with you.”
“Then why did you let the cops catch you?”
He sucked the cigarette slowly, deliberately, as though it were an obligation rather than a pleasure. He smiled. “I must have felt sporting, Mrs. Hollowell. They’re not very good at their game.”
“Or maybe you just couldn’t get it up anymore.”
He chuckled and lowered his gaze. “That would have been a blessing. When you have done it a hundred times, there is nothing more tiresome than sneaking into houses and taking women by surprise.”
“A hundred times?” She was stunned by the apathy of his disclosure: it was not a boast, not even a confession, but the mere recitation of a number. And so, she believed him.
“The cops should have caught you sooner,” she muttered. “Those poor damn women.”
He swallowed and rubbed his eyes. “For me it was worse—many times worse.”
“How could it have been worse for you?”
“Mrs. Hollowell, don’t you know forbidden fruit is toxic? If lightning had struck me, I would have preferred it, but God doesn’t sharemy precision.”
“So what made you do it?”
He glanced towards the doorway—hesitated—then looked back at her with hospitable eyes. “What answer would you like?”
“That you did it to get your rocks off. That you’re nothing but a fancy-talking rapist. And a voyeur to boot.”
“All right, Mrs. Hollowell. I did it for the thrill. A thrill that had vanished a long time ago. Sadly, you are not the only one chasing ghosts.”
The smoke behind the glass was now thick enough to remind her of the dances she had been attending—dim celebrations where a couple of vodka tonics and an hour’s conversation were enough for her to follow a stranger to his car or scrawl her phone number on a paper napkin. Although wary of the dances, she also ached for them and frequently counted the hours remaining until the weekend—the hours separating her from the soft-muted lights and the all-embracing smoke. She hoped never to tire of this vice—not as this creep had tired of his. Suddenly, she resented him all the more.
“It’s not a crime to be a slut.”
He looked at her tenderly and shook his head. Clearly, her presence was beginning to tire him. “Would you stop if it were?”
“Perhaps it shouldbe a crime.”
She winced and lowered her voice. “Who died and made you the law?”
He shrugged. Her triteness clearly bored him—or perhaps it was the redundancy of his reply. “Who if not you, Mrs. Hollowell?” he said. “Didn’t you surrender instantly—as though I were a cop or a magistrate? Didn’t you ask me to hurry—as though I were taking you by right? Even now, don’t you tremble obediently whenever the door shakes or the window rattles? Who if not you?”
She felt the blood draining from her face. His boast, its haunting truthfulness, was like a hard, winter freeze. “So I made you the law,” she muttered. “My, but you do like to brag.”
He laughed. “I consider that an insult, Mrs. Hollowell. I’m far less corruptible than the law.”
“Then what were you doing on my website?”
“Scouting, Mrs. Hollowell—that is all. You’re so very bad at it, you know—the stiff poses, the outdated gowns, the insincere promises of a grand time. You looked like a child playing dress up.”
“So you do want an innocent woman?”
He chuckled. “Admittedly, I do. But you were the closest thing I could find.”
He put down the phone receiver and sucked once more at the cigarette. The smoke seemed to claim him now—as though it were a mist into which he would shortly vanish. Slowly, he returned the receiver to his ear.
“Do you wish to hear my story?”
She glared. “Who am I to argue with the law?”
Slowly, serenely, he told her his story—his voice so relaxed that he appeared to be reading from a script. She listened to him doubtfully, weighing each word in the manner of a book critic. Soon the warmth of his voice made her feel reprehensible. She felt as though she were colluding in the production of a bad play.
He had grown up in a Chicago slum. He had briefly attended Indiana State University, leaving when a trespass charge had cost him a basketball scholarship. He had been drafted into the Army and had served as a cook in Vietnam. He had been married, a childless union that ended before his military service. After leaving the Army, he had roamed the Middle East where he versed himself in The Koran. Later, he had studied nursing in East Chicago. He had worked ten years at an East Chicago hospital—a career he gave up when he was caught stealing amphetamines from the pharmacy. Weeks later, he had been arrested for peeping—a charge for which he received probation. When his probation ended, he forced himself upon a prostitute who would not consent to bondage. He had been sentenced to prison for this incident—four years at the Indiana Penal Farm where he had been assigned to the prison infirmary. Paroled two years later, he began to perfect his art—studying his victims for days before committing his assaults. He had raped a hundred women before he had discovered her on her website, and he had spent eight days profiling her—watching her drive to work, reading her mail, studying her as she slept. After assaulting her, he had stalked and raped a dozen more women. The bust for which he was now serving time could not be attributed to the skill of the police, but to his having left a condom at a crime scene. He had plea-bargained for five years—one of which he had already served. With good time, he would be released in another eighteen months.
She looked at him curiously when he was finished. He had told her much and he had told her nothing. “You’re supposed to be setting me free.”
“Free to do what?” he replied. “Free to tease men and numb yourself with booze?”
“That’s better than shadowing women,” she snapped.
He stretched and rubbed his eyes. “Mrs. Hollowell,” he murmured, “isn’t it sad that I was your only real adventure?”
She stared at him, disbelievingly. The receiver was now slippery in her hand. “Let me inform you of something,” she hissed. “You’re not exactly an adventure.”
He lowered his gaze as though inspecting his pants for cookie crumbs. “The law would agree with you there, Mrs. Hollowell. Why do you think I received just five years?”
“Because the cops didn’t do their jobs. Because the judge was a real pussy.”
“No, Mrs. Hollowell. Because I’m useful to them.”
“Are you telling me you’re a snitch? That you’re dropping a dime on other crooks?”
His tone grew sharper. “I’m a registered informant, Mrs. Hollowell. Since I live among shadows, there’s much that I see. Much that the law does not. For this reason, I’m serving a nickel—no more. A nickel is all they’re requiring of me.”
“Who are they letting you snitch on?”
He looked at her protectively. “Haven’t I shocked you enough, Mrs. Hollowell?”
An ash fell from his cigarette, grazing his receiver. She studied the streak of ash and the sullen expression on his face. “You’re not proudof it, are you—being a snitch? You think it’s worse than raping and peeping.”
“I’m not proud of it—no. But at least I deliver on my promises.”
“So does the Devil.”
“And it’s not always wise to refuse him. But you know that already, don’t you?”
“All I know is you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
“I was worse offbefore I came here.”
“Stay longer. Don’t they know half of what you’ve done?”
“They don’t want to know, Mrs. Hollowell. And so, I have told only you.”
“They should have booked you for all those rapes. You should be here for at least a hundred years.”
He gently smiled, “The law will take care of me.”
“What do you mean by that?”
‘I’ve already been booked.”
He looked at her calmly, his eyes growing softer.
The cold double meaning of his words began to register in her face. Was he really a conscripted informant? she wondered. Was he really that valuable to the police—the stupid fucking police? Since he was only serving a minimal term, he had probably told her the truth. She felt her scalp prickle, her palms grow damp. “You’re getting out even sooner, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. “We must all make sacrifices.”
“Hogwash. Why are they taking care of you?”
“Not every devil is courteous—or content to remain in your nightmares.”
“That doesn’t exactly console me,” she snapped.
“Read what’s in the newspaper, Mrs. Hollowell, if you wish to be consoled. Those horrors would multiply tenfold if it were not for devils like me.”
“Well aren’t you a hero.”
He laughed and shook his head. “In the land of the blind, a voyeur is king. But know there are far greater monsters than me.”
Her eyes flashed. “I’d rather stay innocent.”
“Well and good, Mrs. Hollowell. But know this, at least. Even to the law—the people responsible for your protection—you don’t amount to much.”
“So how many more will you rape?”
He stretched. “Maybe a hundred—if I get what’s coming to me.”
“Must you repeat that number?”
“Yes, Mrs. Hollowell, I must. Haven’t I sworn to be honest with you?”
“That’s too much information.”
He laughed. “Then put it out of your mind, Mrs. Hollowell. There is only one thing you really need to know.”
“And what is that?”
“I won’t be back to see you. You barely interested me the first time. But another will take your place.”
These words teased her like the smoke, not because she disbelieved them but because she suddenly felt ostentatious. It seemed as though she were the one in the cage.
“I’m glad you keep your promises,” she spat.
He sighed and spoke sadly. “Be glad for small things, and be glad that I have remained a stranger to you.”
He pinched the cigarette, killing the smoke, and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt. He then scooted his chair back and casually smiled, a smile that conveyed neither warmth nor concession—only her unimportance. He winked.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hollowell.”
She did not remember her return to the visitors’ foyer—the monotonous hallways, the sterile lighting, the inspection of her wrist by the checkpoint officer. She did not remember the debriefing from the social worker—probably a reminder that she not write him. And when she arrived at the foyer, she barely recognized her daughter—perhaps because she had buried her face in a copy of Sports Illustrated.
As she entered the foyer, her daughter looked up.
“So how was your date?”
She shrugged. “He was late.”
“But was he a gentleman? That’s what I want to know.”
“No. No, he was a monster, all right.”
Irritated, she folded her arms and stared at her daughter. The gulf between them suddenly seemed wider—an abyss that even sarcasm could not breach. Given the demeanor of her assailant, his thoughtfulness and reptilian calm, she was especially annoyed at her daughter’s lack of empathy.
“What did you expect, Mother?”
She looked across the room, noticing the fir tree once again—the artificial branches, the searing light bulbs, the cheap plastic angel perched on top of it. It was only its banality, its sapless fidelity to the season, that prevented her from knocking it over. Who had decorated that monstrosity anyway?
She looked back at her daughter and glared. “I expect you to drive me home.”
On Sundays, she worked in her garden—a half-acre plot behind her suburban home. She grew squash, tomatoes and melons—arranging the plants in orderly rows, which the rabbits consumed the following day. She did not mind the rabbits devouring her garden; they were somehow consistent with a lush’s philosophy: Sow your wild oats Saturday. On Sundays, pray for crop failure.
Six months had passed since her visit to the prison, and he had disappeared from her nightmares. This was not something she had anticipated or fully desired: having lost the dignity of martyrdom, she now felt cheated whenever she went to the dances. Now, when she looked in the barroom mirrors, she saw a tramp and nothing more. And so, on Sundays, she worked in her garden—planting the seedlings, tilling the rows and sweating out the booze from the previous evening. She detested the work—a filthy, gritty business—but she took solace in the rustling of the trees, the darting of the hummingbirds and the orbiting of the turkey vultures overhead. In the distance, they looked like kites
“Another Will Take Your Place” was originally published in The Red Wheelbarrow Review and is included in the author’s anthology: A Second, Less-Capable Head and Other Rogue Stories.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.
This is the way I remember it, even the hardest parts that cut through my heart like a dull blade through brick. ‘Course I’d been drinking. I’d had a shitty day at Willow Manor: damn that Chelly Ringwald who told our supervisor she could smell booze on me. (That was a fat lie ‘cause I’d only been sipping vodka from my soda can. Hadn’t had enough for it to leak from my pores. And my hands are always steady, no matter how drunk I get).
And most of the residents like me. Sure, maybe I talk a bit too much, and I know I can be bossy at times, but I always go the extra mile for them: fluff their pillows, rub their crusty feet, turn up the volume on their boring soap operas, take them for extra trips to the toilet without them even asking. I even make them homemade brownies and stay late to share them when their own families hardly ever visit.
My badge says Jo Walbridge, Certified Nurse Aide. With a little yellow smiley face drawn beside it. That job was the one thing I could be proud of, even after all the other good things in my life had long since seeped into the leach field. It made me feel like I still mattered.
I was a good wife, too. I was Ricky’s Jo for something like forever, since way back to first grade, when he knocked me down flat during Dodgeball and then helped pull me up off the ground. As I squinted up at him, his baby blues and shaggy blonde hair reminded me of a rock star.
We were together from that moment on. Married at seventeen at the town clerk’s office, brimming with love that no one else had.
But time is a clever thief. Before you know it, thirty’s a dim memory and you wonder where your strong, skinny body went off to. You stop talking to each other and start eating. You watch too much TV. Drink too much wine. You just keep going ‘round and ‘round, year after year, doing slow laps in a clouded pool.
Sometimes I don’t blame him for ending the marriage. Gotta admit, I did sorta let myself go. Ricky got tired of reading the same old newspaper. He wanted to flip open something new, and just like a magic finger snap Ava appeared at our front door.
She was like an expensive package delivered to the wrong house. Long blonde hair and a broken-down car. Big almond eyes and strappy bronze sandals. I saw those glittered fingernails and knew Ricky was gonna leave me. She was a box of treasure that he was trembling to open. (But to this day I still don’t know what that glitzy bitch sees in him – maybe she just likes older men with bad teeth and empty wallets).
She startled him awake when she entered his life. Like he’d been sleepwalking in someone else’s pajamas for a couple of decades. Without missing a beat, he stepped out of his Ricky suit and became Rich.
So anyways, I was steaming mad that day, ‘cause Chelly saw on Facebook that Rich and Ava were headed to Bermuda for their honeymoon. He’d never taken me anywhere except to Hampton Beach. But I’d always wanted to go to Bermuda–even had travel posters of those timeless pink sands and fairy tale shells taped to our bedroom wall for years.
In fact, I’d scrimped and saved for us to go on our twentieth.
When that day finally arrived, I was over the moon excited.
Our cab idled outside as I gathered up our suitcases. I could feel the pink sand between my toes, smell the sweet jasmine and cedarwood in the tropical sea breeze. In a few hours, we’d be drinking Dark and Stormies and watching the sun slip into the teal ocean.
I opened the basement door and yelled down to Ricky. But he didn’t answer and the cab driver was getting antsy. I clomped down the stairs, ready to really give him a piece of my mind, and there he was, curled around the legs of his workbench, shaking all funny. His face was the color of raw meat. His eyes were glazed and staring and there was spittle pooling at the side of his mouth.
Another few minutes and he would’ve been a goner. But I peeled him off the floor, dragged him up the stairs and got him into the cab. We raced to Emerson Hospital. For a whole year I nursed that man back to health. Spoon fed him! Helped him with his physical therapy. Never once thought about myself.
That stroke dimmed the left side of his body, and even three years later his mouth held a permanent grimace, like he just took a long whiff from a month-old milk carton.
So yeah, I was pissed he was taking that skinny bitch to Bermuda. Who wouldn’t be? That trip was my dream. Thinking about it made me even madder. I tried to shake off the memories like mites from a dog’s ears.
I stomped into Viola Martinez’s room. (She’s one of my favorites. Always a smile on her face, always a kind word). She was watching Days of Our Lives and offered me her dish of bread pudding without taking her eyes off her beloved Victor.
I stabbed a fork into it and sat down on the edge of her bed.
Just then the local news interrupted the programming…sightings of an unusually large black bear have been reported in Maynard and Acton. 7 News has received cell-phone video from several viewers and me and Viola watched as the bear reared up to its full height that must have been like seven feet at least and we’d like to remind everyone that this time of early Spring is when bears come out of hibernation and we watched it rip apart someone’s utility shed and tear it to pieces and make sure you remove any bird feeders or outside grills as they attract bears and then it turned and looked right at the shaking camera and it had these crazy red eyes and a head like a giant dog with huge pointed ears.
“Shit, Vi, that’s no bear!”
“It’s a werewolf,” Viola said, dead serious. Like she’d seen plenty of them in her day. As a bear of this size could pose a threat to public safety, if you see this animal, please notify Massachusetts Environmental Police as they will be dispatching their Large Animal Response Team. “Oh, hell,” she said, “Guess this is all we’re going to hear about now,” tapping her feet in frustration that her time with Victor was being interrupted.
“Probably wandered out of Tadmuck Swamp. They get real hungry when they wake up.” I whipped my head around to study Viola, my fond opinion of her quickly turning to awe. “What?”
“Yuh, they hibernate just like bears and rise after the Hunger Moon.”
Days came back on just then so I knew I couldn’t ask her any more questions. But when I stood up, I accidentally knocked over her tray.
It clattered to the floor, and so did my soda can.
I stooped to wipe up the mess and there was Chelly – the fat-faced bitch – holding up my can like a prize.
So sure enough, I got called down to our supervisor’s office. Mrs. Holzer asked me if I had been drinking and the truth just spilled right out like the vodka. I was then informed very matter-of-factly that this was my Last Day on the Job.
Her eyes were dull as old pennies as she handed me my last check. It felt like wilted lettuce. I backed away, turning in sharp angles, my face coming apart like a broken puzzle.
Outside, the sky was coughing snow. I looked for my car, barely visible in the fog, and realized that little trusted piece of metal was all I had left.
So, I drove straight to The Wishing Well. I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I needed to kill the pain that razor-wired through my body.
As I approached the mahogany bar, a few of the regulars greeted me, then looked past me as if I was trailing Ricky’s ghost. Bobby Renner took one look at me and poured me a pint of Sam. I told him to keep them coming. (I like the Well because it’s a got a homey feel, and lots of familiar faces. They also have a vintage juke box, a real Crosley Rocket that the owner restored).
I popped in a quarter and Bon Jovi started belting out the story of my life.
Your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye.
Tim Baylis swaggered over to me, his hips moving with the beat, his index finger pointed like a gun. He pulled me into the hallway and planted a lip lock on me.
Onions and stale cigarettes. I almost gagged. But I craved the attention.
I play my part and you play your game.
The place cleared out early because the roads were so bad. So, it was just Tim and me at closing time. I got into his truck and we fumbled around a bit. (Tim’s married and I know his wife, Lissie, and I’ve got nothing against her. She’s always been good to Tim and decent to everyone else).
When he unzipped, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I opened the door and jumped down out of his truck.
I tottered back to my car, unsteady because of the ice. (I’d stopped drinking a while ago, so my head wasn’t thick anymore). Tried to ignore my phone, but it kept throbbing like a pulled muscle. I held my breath and checked Facebook. And there it was, their latest status update. We made it to Paradise! And there they were: Rich and Ava Walbridge – beaming newlyweds! Embracing by the turquoise sea. Ava gleamed like a gold coin against the sunset. Ricky looked a lot younger, and I could tell he’d lost some weight.
I peered closer at Ava. And. My. Heart. Fucking. Stopped! From her right wrist dangled a bracelet of dainty shells. The same bracelet I’d been trying to find for weeks, the one I thought I’d lost somewhere. The one Ricky gave me after our senior class trip to Hampton. The one he made himself from the delicate seashells we’d collected, each one of them carefully strung with little silver beads, each one representing a tiny piece of his heart that he’d given only to me.
Shot through the heart and you’re to blame!
I smashed my phone to the ground, and slowly crushed it beneath my right heel until their smiles splintered into evil grins in the dirty snow.
Tim’s truck peeled out of the parking lot, his snow tires like sharp teeth against the ice.
I got into my car. Sleet pelted the windshield like bits of broken shells. I drove out onto Route 2 and it was bad out there. Slippery as hell. No traffic. Not even a plow. But I wasn’t driving that fast, maybe forty or so. The edges of the road kept fading away so I flipped on my high beams. That only made it worse.
I slowed down even more. After I while I realized I was holding my breath and forced it out in a huff. I could see a little better when I passed beneath a traffic light. I knew the right side of the road would be a little grittier so I moved closer to the edge.
And that’s when I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye.
It moved like a dog, but it was bigger, way bigger, and it was fast! And just as I squinted to get a better look, something reddish fluttered like a flag for a split second and smashed into my windshield.
I slammed on the brakes and bashed my head on the steering wheel.
The car went into a spin that seemed to go on forever and then finally crashed.
Everything went black. I felt like I was falling down into a well, down, down, slippery and wet and cold and black and I couldn’t find anything to grab onto.
I let go and kept falling.
My head was a storm of black and gray and hints of deep blue. And then, despite the pain and dizziness, color came flooding back in. I was sparkling from head to toe with thousands, maybe millions of diamonds and rubies. All I could think of was: I sure know how to one-up Ava. She might be a gold coin but Hey — look at me! I’m sitting here in a treasure chest of jewels right now! Boy, do I got that bitch beat.
And then all those sparkles really hurt. Like being stung by hoards of bees.
I plucked one out of my thumb and it bled like a little river. And it got stuck in my index finger.
My head was doing a whup-whup-whup in perfect rhythm with the tires. A coppery taste filled my mouth; my body felt like a water balloon stretching to fill up all the hollow places. There was an odd feeling of electricity in the air.
I heard a strange whistling noise and it took me a while to realize it was my own breath.
I struggled to switch off the ignition. My left temple throbbed and I knew I had to get my head straight. I wrestled a knot of metal out of my waist.
And then I looked up.
A woman’s face watched me: upside-down, a sad moon face; her coffee-and-cream skin torn like sheets of paper at the edges where her cheekbones began, her look strangely calm, her sea-gray eye clouded like an old mirror.
One dark eyebrow pointed up like an arrow.
I tried to lean away from her but I was trapped by the steering wheel.
My eyes began to focus. She wore a ragged necklace of red glass. Her left arm was bent at an impossible angle. Her black hair hung down like frayed rope. She reminded me of the dolls I used to play with as a kid, the ones I messed up and broke. I’d hack their hair or shave their heads. Cut their clothes with dull scissors. Pull off a leg. Paint their limbs with red nail polish and wrap them in bandages.
I wanted to teach them that there was no such thing as a perfect body or a perfect world, and sometimes life really hurt. And after I made them ugly, after they looked beat up and wrung out, after they accepted the fact that they would never be beautiful again, they started to feel like family. And that’s when I started to care about them, and wanted to heal their scars and bruises.
The lady watched me, the glow of her opal eye like the dimming beam of a tired flashlight. The air was shivery cold, but sweaty at the same time. I touched a piece of her red coat that hung by my right cheek as if she had offered it to me. I wiped my face with it: soft and quilted, expensively stitched. A sliver of glass etched a jagged line across my cheek.
Sorry I hit you, beautiful lady. Why did she run in front of me like that? In the middle of the night? I reached up as careful as I could to try to find a pulse.
Shit! I couldn’t reach her neck. Or her wrist.
As I studied her face, the slender lines of her nose led to a wet, black hole where her other eye should have been. I imagined that eyeball rocketing out of the socket, slippery as a frog, plopping down onto my lap with a little splat. And now I was scared to look down, because I just knew that the squelchy eye bulb was wiggling like a bobble head in the sparkling nest of my crotch, craning to look up at me, trailing pulsing red strings against my thighs.
After a blinding flash of unbelievable pain, I was out of the car, face-planted into the bloody snow.
I got up, all wobbly. And looked around.
The car was dented like a soda can. Folded into the shoulder of the road, like a hunched-over old man. Carrying a broken doll on his back. Covered with a top sheet of snow.
I edged over to the wounded lady, and stubbed my toe on a tire iron.
“Ma’am? Are you alive?”
Even though I hadn’t found a pulse yet, her lungs could still be weaving milky strands of breath.
I lifted up the back of her coat and with light from the approaching headlights I could see her shoulder was impaled by the collapsed sun roof. I would do way more damage if I tried to pry her out of there. And there was no chance of doing CPR with her body wedged in there like that. I felt her pocket but no phone.
A car fishtailed and slowed but kept going despite my frantic waving; it slithered like a nervous snake. A shadowy head turned towards me as two hands clutched the wheel.
As he sped off, I could see the man’s eyes were huge with fear.
And that’s when I heard the growl. I near about jumped out of my skin. I turned and there it was, right behind me, stretched up to its enormous height, its gleaming fangs dripping with saliva, long sinewy arms topped with claws like curved blades.
It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. And it smelled even worse. I had to breathe through my mouth or I was gonna puke. It didn’t look like a bear at all, not close up like this. Its fur was dark, but in the early dawn it appeared long, gray and very matted. Its eyes glowed red like they were lit from within, and when it licked its lips with a foot-long tongue, I knew we were only seconds from being devoured.
The horrid, stinking wolf-thing took a bold step forward and lifted his claws.
And I fucking lost it.
I reached down and grabbed the tire iron. “You lousy PIECE OF SHIT!”
The werewolf jumped back. It looked at me with something like astonishment. It tilted its head sideways and sniffed me for a long moment.
A firehose of adrenaline hit; I raised the tire iron above my head and charged the monster full bore, screaming out the piercing, shrieking, frenzied battle cry of a crazed Viking.
“I WILL KILL YOUUUUUU!”
I chased him into the woods, crashing through brush and over dead trees. A few times, I tripped over tree roots and almost went down. My heart was doing a break dance in my chest. After a while, when it seemed he had run far ahead, I turned around and found my way back to the car.
Exhausted beyond words, I went to check on the lady.
I gently touched the middle of her back.
“There now, it’s going to be alright. I’ll stay right here with you.”
I spit out some bloody phlegm, then reached over and found her other arm, flung across the windshield.
At last, at her wrist, a fluttering pulse like a frightened bird.
She made a soft moaning sound, and it filled me with hope.
“Hang in there, lady, help is coming!”
I looked out at the horizon. The sky was heavy and hung over. It struggled to lift its lids to reveal the palest gray, streaked and bloodshot by the spinning red lights in the distance.
An ambulance siren pierced the quiet.
I gently held her hand and squeezed.
Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.
The footsteps hurried closer, quicker, then slower again, then quicker still, and Clementine sat and watched, but all she saw was the grass moving this way and that, as though the wind was blowing but it could not decide in which direction to blow.
Now, this way, now that, a furrow of flattened grass creeping nearer, and nearer, and “oh, dear,” sighed Clementine, certain that she was probably about to be eaten by something invisible, which, she decided as the footsteps stopped in front of her, might be preferable, because if she was inside the stomach of something invisible, then she too would be invisible and that in itself might be a relief.
But, instead, the footsteps moved around her, slowly, this time, far slower than they had been until they had formed a complete circle and stopped in front of her.
“Hello?” She said, to the air itself, and then, when no reply came, she ventured, “I’m Clementine,” because surely she couldn’t upset anyone with her name alone, and then, because she simply had to know her fate, and asking directly seemed the best way of obtaining this knowledge, she asked, “are you going to eat me?”
But the moment she asked, right where there had been nothing but the flattened grass before, now there was a bird, standing on legs like twigs with a big black beak and gloss-black feathers.
She sat up, straighter, leaned forward and asked, “you’re a bird, aren’t you?” because she wasn’t quite sure whether or not it was safe to assume something that seemed so obvious.
“Sometimes,” the bird replied, eyeing her with glittering black eyes.
“What do you mean, sometimes?” Clementine asked warily, and thinking, though she had learned about cut fingers and bottles marked poison, she hadn’t read anything at all about invisible birds that may or may not eat little girls.
“Sometimes I am a bird,” said the bird, “and sometimes I am a woman,” and sure enough, the bird became a woman, right there in front of her, and so quickly that she didn’t see it happen at all. One moment there was a bird in front of her, and now there was a woman, a very tall woman who moved like trees in a gentle breeze and her clothes were blue-black like her feathers had been, her skin as white as the porcelain dish that Clementine had been collecting strawberries in only the day before, and her lips as red as the berries therein.
“How did you make yourself invisible?” Clementine asked, and the bird woman looked momentarily confused, puzzled perhaps, and then rather cross indeed.
“Invisible?” She repeated, “I thank you not to be so very rude. I have never been invisible in all my life,” she folded her arms across her chest and two little soft feathers fluttered to the ground.
“But you were invisible,” Clementine paused, “just now, I watched your footsteps, they came in from over there, walked all the way around me and stopped right where you’re standing now.
“Ah,” the bird-woman drew in a breath, “that was not me, that was you,” she said, as simply as if she had just called a tree a tree or a spade a spade.
Clementine began to shake her head and protest, but the bird-woman raised a hand and Clementine found herself silenced immediately. Her voice simply stopped coming, even though for a moment her lips were still moving.
“Those were your footsteps,” the bird-woman said again, “you were feeling sorry for yourself, were you not?”
Clementine cleared her throat, “yes,” she said, hesitantly, though she thought she did rather have very good reason to feel sorry for herself considering the rather surprising and unsettling journey that had just befallen her.
“There you have it,” the bird-woman exclaimed, unfolding her arms and placing her hands on her hips, expelling another little flurry of feathers into the grass. But Clementine was quite sure she didn’t have it at all, and the bird-woman sighed again, a great heaving sigh that seemed to rustle the leaves in the trees.
“You were feeling sorry for yourself,” she repeated, beginning again, attempting a little more clarity this time, “all the little girls, and all the little boys, and the men, and the women, and all those in between, who begin to feel sorry for themselves, who lose hope,” she paused for effect, “become invisible,” she concluded, again, as if this was the most obvious statement in the world.
“They don’t where I come from,” said Clementine, rather sure of herself, but then, as she thought about it further, she realised she was becoming less and less sure about it, and, as she thought even more about it, she remembered all of the times that she had felt sorry for herself in the past and her sister had refused to play with her and had in fact ignored her altogether, and she found herself deciding that actually, this might very well be true.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” she said eventually, and the bird-woman gave a great slow, rather wise nod of her rather beautiful head, and smiled again.
“It is always within your best interest never to expect anything, and certainly never to expect anything unexpected, that way, nothing unexpected can ever happen,” she said with a shrug, and began to pace among the trees, and Clementine was sure she caught the glimpse of twigs, leaves, and little gaping yellow beaks within the dark curls of hair that were piled up on top of her head.
“I see,” said Clementine, though she wasn’t quite sure that she saw at all, and was fast becoming tired of not having any idea at all about what was happening.
“Do you have a name?” she ventured, assuming (wrongly) that this might be a rather sensible and not-too-confusing question to ask, and the bird woman smiled wider now, slowly, cocked her head to one side, her eyes glittering as they had done when she had landed in front of her as a bird.
“I am in possession of a name, yes,” she said, somewhat proudly and somewhat smugly.
“Will you tell me what it is?” Clementine asked when the bird-woman said no more, but the bird-woman frowned, quickly, a frown that turned into a glare.
“Certainly not,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “I shan’t have you stealing it.”
“But I already have a name,” insisted Clementine.
“You might very well have a name now, but you keep feeling sorry for yourself and you’ll lose that too, just like you have your footsteps, then you really will be completely invisible,” the bird-woman clapped her hands together suddenly, and a rustle of twittering went off in her hair, and a flurry of feathers in all colours like a firework shot out from between her hands, “poof,” she said, “like that, and you’ll be nobody at all.”
And just as she said it, Clementine could feel her name slipping off of her one letter after the next, like the taking off of a coat, she could feel it coming undone, from her head, down her arms, and then disappearing altogether.
“How do I get myself back?” She asked, suddenly rather more worried than she had been when she thought she at the very least still had her name.
“Your name, I should start by picking the right letters from the Alphabet tree, and keeping them in your pocket so that you always know where they are. That way you’re much less likely to lose them.”
“The Alphabet tree?” Clementine asked, uncertainly.
“Over there,” the bird-woman gestured into the depths of the forest behind her to where the sun shone down in a patch where only one single tree grew, decorated all over with tiny multicolour buds.
“But be careful when you pick them, the ‘E’s can be particularly thorny, and do it quickly,” she advised, “the tree grows in the garden of The Silent Minority, and if he sees you pinching letters from his tree, well…” she left the sentence to hang in mid-air for a moment and simply gave a little pursed-lipped-shrug, “nobody will hear the end of it if that happens,” she sighed.
“And my footsteps?” Clementine, or rather the girl who would be called Clementine if her name hadn’t fallen off her, asked, glancing toward the forest to see if she could catch a glimpse of The Silent Minority.
“Retrace your steps,” the bird-woman said casually, “chances are they haven’t gone very far, and the likelihood is that they, and you, are still very much where you left yourself.” Clementine drew in a breath, and let it all out in one go, “thank you,” she said, “I’ll do that,” and she set off quietly past the bird-woman, who was now not there just as suddenly as she had been there, and ventured toward the clearing in the forest to find the letters of her name, which she would keep better hold of from now on, now that she knew how easy it was to lose, she thought, catching the flash of something white behind a tree in the distance.
Influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Elinora Westfall is an Australian/British lesbian actress and writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry and radio from the UK.
Her novel, Everland has been selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London’s West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue.
Elinora is also working on The Art of Almost, a lesbian comedy-drama radio series as well as writing a television drama series and the sequel to her novel, Everland.