“Wormwood” Dark Historical Fiction by E.C. Traganas

"Wormwood" Self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh with Bandaged Ear, illustration for story "Wormwood" Dark Historical Fiction by E.C. Traganas
Self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh with bandaged ear

Arles, 1888

She was staring intensely, fascinated by the contours of his ears, the way they seemed to pout outwards, the fleshiness of the lobes. Of course, she couldn’t scientifically prove any of this, but she was convinced that the shape of one’s ears could provide wonderful insights into a person’s character.

The crisp December air chilled her to the bone. She tightened her feathered boa around her neck and buttoned up her velvet jacket. “Vincent, you’re not cold?” she asked. Her companion loosened his neckerchief and shook it out. It was yellowed and covered in grimy splotches of linseed oil and pigment and reeked of turpentine. He mopped his brow with the filthy rag then stuffed it in his threadbare pocket. She noticed with squeamishness that his fingernails were unkempt and stained with half moons of gritty black charcoal and paint.

“Let’s have some Absinthe,” Vincent said to the waiter, “and bring some fried sardines, too. Paula,” he said turning to his companion, “you’ll see we have the freshest fish here in Arles.”

“It’s the Absinthe I’m worried about,” she said. “Isn’t it a little strong?”

“Ah no, and yes—just a little bitter like wormwood. It transports me and brings me to celestial heights. See that sky up there—that starry night sky? In my eyes these are not just stars. They are eyes themselves, pulsating eyes, portals to the great mysteries behind this flimsy sheet of paper we call the heavenly vault. I can see God Himself behind those stars…”

Paula remembered how Vincent had boasted how he had once been a preacher a while ago. She looked around at the café interior. In the gaslit gaudily painted room were strung bold colored yellow and red Chinese paper lanterns swaying in the breeze escaping from the gaps in the glass door. In the background, a musician was lazily punching out a tune on his concertina that he was pulling in and out as if kneading a lump of bread dough. He looked up briefly from his accordion and grinned at Vincent. “Do you like that tune?” Vincent asked.

My Darling Clementine?” Paula asked incredulously.

“I told him you’re my American friend. He wanted to please you.”

The waiter arrived and placed two fluted glasses filled with a greenish liquor before them. He affixed a slotted spoon at the top of each glass, placed a cube of sugar in the center and covered it with a few shards of ice. The fried sardines were wrapped in day-old newspaper that was seeping with darkened oil stains. “Bon Appetit,” he said with assurance.

“How do I drink this? I don’t know…”

“Like this,” Vincent said demonstratively removing the spoon and downing the vile looking glass of garish liquor in a few quick gulps. Paula stared in wonderment as his Adam’s apple seemed to flap up and down excitedly like a bobbing sparrow’s head. She reached in her cloth bag and pulled out a pair of calipers. “What the deuce is that?” he asked.

“Just a craniometric tool, that’s all. It’s my hobby,” she replied impassively. “Something’s not quite right here. Be quiet, I must measure your head.” She positioned the instrument against the top of his ear and gauged its length, then stretched the hinges from the top of his brow to his chin. “No, no, this isn’t right,” she remarked. “Your lobes are disproportionately long and narrow. And there is a suspiciously thick, fleshy fold running vertically to the tip. Petulance. And heart trouble.” Vincent stared at her with his steel-blue eyes, which were becoming more limpid and unfocused. “And your brow. It’s clearly vestigial, this jutting Cro-Magnon protuberance. There is an abnormality in the mounds of color and order…”

“But I am an artist!”

“They are misshapen. And your pointed, narrow chin…” How could she tell him that this was a sure indication of a weak, unstable personality? The overpowering smell of stale fish was beginning to upset her. She was now twisting uncomfortably in her seat. “I’m sorry, Vinnie, but your faculties of reasoning are clearly impaired…”

Vincent’s eyes were glazed over by now and his florid complexion was becoming unnaturally flushed with a network of angry broken capillaries. He sank precipitously to his knees and buried his ginger-colored head in her lap pinning her arms down with his trembling hands.

“Let me go!” Paula cried with revulsion. 

“Can’t you see? I love you—what does it matter what my head looks like, or my ears or my forehead. I must have you. I w-want to m-marry you!” He began to stutter and slur his speech incoherently while his features began to look as brutal and desperate as a madman’s.

“We hardly know each other!” shouted Paula with mortification.

“But we w-went walking in the c-cornfields today. Here in France, in this region, once you agree to walk with someone alone—surely, you s-see we have an understanding?”

“Let me go—you are mistaken! Look at you. You’re flushed and feverish. You’re not in your right mind!” She pulled herself away forcibly, knocking the table with its contents onto the floor, and ran out the café down the dimly lit street to her hotel room across the town square leaving her companion sobbing hysterically and thrashing about like a quivering knot of worms.

In the dead of night a few hours later, the town was awakened by a series of blood-curdling, savage animal shrieks that echoed up and down the terrified square. Early the following morning as Paula prepared for breakfast, she heard a knock on her door. “For you, Mademoiselle,” said the messenger, a young street urchin. She examined the sealed paper bag covered in grubby fingerprints and opened it reluctantly. Inside a small glass jar filled with greenish liquid smelling of strong alcohol was swimming the tip of a creased earlobe, clean, pink and spongy and drained of all blood. 

Paula dropped the gift, grabbed her belongings and left on the first train headed north.

Author of the critically applauded debut novel Twelfth House, and Shaded Pergola, a new work of short poetry that features her original illustrations, E.C. Traganas has published in a myriad of literary journals and enjoys a varied career as a Juilliard-trained concert pianist & composer. https://www.elenitraganas.com

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

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