“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…
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)
Virgil Ploughright—plumber, football fan, Tea Party activist—awoke one morning with a lump on his neck. The lump was soft, red and fuzzy—like a plum that had been left too long in the refrigerator. Panicked, Virgil phoned his doctor and arranged for an immediate visit.
An hour later, Virgil—dressed in a white cotton gown—was sitting on a table in the consultation room. “Is it malignant?” he asked.
The doctor hesitated, a long pregnant pause that made Virgil’s heart pound. “No,” he said finally. “It isn’t malignant.”
“Can you remove it?”
The doctor stood silently as though he were waiting to catch a bus. When he spoke, it was like a judge pronouncing sentence. “No, I cannot remove it.”
The doctor handed Virgil a mirror. “Look closely, Mr. Ploughright. You are growing another head.”
Virgil studied the lump on his neck. Although the mirror kept shaking in his hand, he could make out a tiny mouth, a pair of eye slits and a nose no bigger than a button. “It looks like a shrunken head.”
“For now, Mr. Ploughright—only for now. It will grow. In a week, it will be as large as an orange. In a month, it will be the size of a cantaloupe. Soon after that, it will show signs of human intelligence.”
“What’s wrong with the head I have?”
“You have a fine head, Mr. Ploughright. It fills out your Raiders cap nicely.”
“Then cut that thing off.”
“I can’t, Mr. Ploughright. That would be murder.”
“Who’s going to know?”
The doctor sighed and folded his arms. “I’m going to let you in on the secret. This is not an isolated case. It’s happening in other parts of the country.”
“Like some A-rab plot?!”
The doctor scratched his chin. His voice dropped an octave. “We don’t know what’s causing it.”
Virgil studied the little head in the mirror. He tilted the mirror back and forth, appraising it from different angles. “It don’t look intelligent to me. Cut it off.”
“I can’t cut it off.”
“I got insurance.”
“Insurance does not cover murder.”
“I got rights.”
“You don’t have the right to take life.”
“What about the gooks I shot in Nam? And those towel heads we’re killing in Iraq?”
“This is innocent life, Mr. Ploughright. It is practically newborn.”
“It don’t look innocent to me. It looks like a goddamn A-rab.”
“Maybe so, Mr. Ploughright. But I cannot remove it—not without a court’s permission, I can’t.”
Virgil slammed the table with his fist. His fear was turning into rage. “Who says so—the government?”
“Read the Constitution, Mr. Ploughright.”
“What about my constitution?”
“You’re in good enough health. You’re just a little thick around the stomach.”
“If I was dying, would you cut it off?”
“But you’re not.”
“So ’cause I’m healthy, I gotta wear this monkey’s head?”
“If you want to put it that way—yes. I’m sorry.”
Virgil could take it no longer. His stomach was churning and he felt a huge belch coming on. The doctor’s smugness, his breezy self-righteousness, his probable allegiance with Obama, that foreigner in the Oval Office—all required the loudest of rebuttals.
Virgil slammed the table again. “Sarah Palin’s gonna hear about this.”
Virgil’s heart was still pounding when he entered his home—a red brick duplex with a foreclosure notice on the door. He was sweating so profusely that he barely felt the cool caress of the air conditioner in his living room. His girlfriend, Trixie—a tall fading blonde—was sitting on the coach watching Jeopardy and painting her perfect toenails.
“What are mummies?” she said.
“That’s not funny,” snapped Virgil.
“But it answers the question, Virgie.”
“It doesn’t answer my question.”
Trixie put the cap back on the nail polish bottle. “So what did the doctor tell you?”
“He said I’m growing another head.”
“That’s so odd, Virgie. What’s wrong with the head you got?”
“Nothing. The doctor said it’s a fine head.”
Trixie rose from the couch and hobbled towards him, careful of the cotton between her toes. Sweeping her platinum bangs from her eyes, she examined the little head. “It is kinda cute. It looks like a gummy bear—only bigger.”
“Don’t get attached to it, Trix.”
“It’s you who’s attached to it, Virgie.”
“I won’t be for much longer. Not after I hire a lawyer.” His voice turned into a growl. “I swear, Trix. Give up an inch these days and you’re gonna lose a yard.”
Trixie tittered seductively. “Atta boy, Virgie. You need every inch you’ve got.” She stroked the little head. “But it is kinda cute. I’m gonna name it Alf.”
“I’m serious about this, Trix.”
“I know you are, Virgie. But you’re serious about a lot of things. You’re even serious about football.”
“If it matters, maybe you oughtn’t be a Raiders fan.”
Virgil puffed out his chest and glowered. He suddenly wished that he loved her less. “Watch your mouth, woman, or I’ll ring your chimes good.”
Trixie laughed throatily. “Promises, promises. Careful there, hombre, or I’m gonna hold you to it.”
Virgil felt his temples start to pound. Across the room, in the living room mirror, the little head seemed to watch him. “The doctor says it’s human. I say it’s a monkey’s head.”
Trixie arched her eyebrows. “You oughta know the difference, Virgie—you of all people. You picketed that abortion clinic just last week.”
“I shoulda burned it down.”
“They got sprinklers in there.”
“So you installed them yourself.”
“In these hard times, Trix, I gotta take work where I find it.”
“Well, you ain’t that good a plumber, Virgie. If those sprinklers don’t work, you could get yourself sued.”
She pecked him on the cheek and returned to the couch. Virgil felt his ulcer digging. What entitled her to her attitude? She stayed home all day, she drank his good beer and she didn’t even cook. And yet he loved her—loved her ever since he had picked her up in that sports bar two years ago.
“What is Lake Erie?”said a voice from the television. Virgil glanced at the screen. It was Final Jeopardyand a contestant had just lost big.
Virgil slumped his shoulders. If he lost the house, would he lose his girlfriend too? And would that be a bad thing? “So why do you stay with me, Trix?”
She laughed. “I don’t know, Virgie. You’re little and I don’t like little men. And you’re old and I don’t like old men. I guess you’re just my little ol’ puddin’.”
Virgil sighed. Her remarks always caught him off guard. But now was not the time for hesitation. Now was the time to take action.
“I’m gonna write Sarah Palin,” he snapped.
A week later, Virgil received an official-looking letter in the mail. His new head, which was now the size of a baseball, smacked its lips sloppily as he tore the envelope open. Virgil trembled as he read.
April 1, 2011
Dear Mr. Ploughright:
Thank you for supporting Palin Productions. These are indeed troubled times. Our country is under attack, not only from foreign zealots, but also from a domestic conspiracy—a conspiracy that has laid siege to our jobs, our institutions of government and our most cherished values. America—the America we know and love—is being stolen right before our eyes.
If your voice is no longer being heard, if your bankroll is rapidly shrinking, if you cannot keep up with your bills, take hope. Our products are guaranteed, one hundred percent, to resurrect your assets and put the zest back into your life.
This is the lay of the land, my friend. Rise up and take notice.
CEO Palin Productions
The letter included a 3” by 5” photo of Sarah Palin—or a remarkable lookalike—clad in a red-white-and-blue bikini and waiving a semiautomatic rifle above her head. An enlargement of the photo was available to him for a mere $39.95. Also available were a dozen other likenesses of Sarah.
Furious, Virgil tossed the letter into the trash. “It’s a fake,” he cried. “The carpetbaggers are everywhere.”
Trixie muted the television. “Didn’t Sarah answer your letter?” she asked.
“This isn’t from Sarah at all. It’s from a porn site. The Internet gave me the wrong address.”
“You sent your letter to a porn site?”
Trixie stretched lazily and giggled. “Maybe that’s just as well. I don’t think Sarah believes in abortion.”
“I told you this is a monkey’s head.”
“Then why does it look like Robert Downey, Jr.?”
Virgil lifted the pocket mirror, which he now kept permanently in his pants. For the tenth time that day, he captured the reflection of the head. Its greasy skin, unkempt hair and glazed unintelligent eyes did not remind him in the leastof Robert Downey, Jr. It was more like a plant than a human: all it did was stare blankly into space and drool—drool so incessantly that he now carried a towel everywhere he went.
“It’s coming off, Trix—I promise you that. I’ve seen turnips with better sense.”
“But it snores so cutely when it sleeps.”
“Its snoring keeps waking me up. That’s just another reason to cut it off.”
“Won’t it hurt?”
“Let it hurt.”
“Not you, Virgie. Won’t it hurt Alf?”
“Fuck Alf. I don’t give a damn about Alf.”
Virgil put away the mirror and picked up his toolbox. Since the appearance of the head, his business had improved significantly. This was not due to his skill as a plumber but to the presence of Alf on his shoulder. A lot of housewives in Oakland wanted to pat the little head.
He glared at Trixie. “I’ll be back at six. Make sure there’s something on the table.”
When Virgil returned from work, the television was on full blast. A reporter from Fox News was interviewing a bespectacled scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A thousand cases of Supernumerary Cranial Syndrome, otherwise known as Second Headitis, had been reported—so many cases that that the government could no longer keep the story under wraps.
“We believe it’s being caused by our water,” the scientist said.
“Our water?”the reporter exclaimed.
“Too much mercury in our oceans. Too many pesticides in our tablelands. Too much leakage from our nuclear waste dumps. These chemicals have been in our water so long that they’re having a mutational effect on some of our populace. This was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“Is there anything we can doabout it?”
“The first thing to do is not to panic. Remember, this is only happening to a tiny portion of our population. Less than a thousandth of one percent. Simply be alert as to what’s going on. And it wouldn’t hurt to start drinking bottled water. That comes from mountain springs, so it cannot hurt you.”
“It’s in our water,” cried Virgil.
Trixie turned the program off. “That don’t affect you, Virgie. All you drink is Budweiser.”
“But it’s still an epidemic. Now they gotta cut it off.”
“The president is gonna make a statement tonight.”
“Why? So he can raise our water inspection rates?”
Trixie smiled. “Why don’t you sell water filters, Virgie? You could take them along with you when you’re on a job.”
“Water filters? Water filters are not gonna stop a plague. I’d feel like a scumbag doing that.”
“You’d soon be a rich scumbag.”
Virgil shook his head. His stomach was empty, his ulcer was kicking and—contrary to the order he had given her—there was nothing to eat on the table. “Where’s my dinner, woman?”
“All we got is frozen pizza. That and six cases of Bud. Now if you sold water filters, you could afford to take me out.”
Virgil suppressed a belch. He hated the betrayal in her voice, her all-too-common assumption that honest labor was for suckers. What would the plumbers’ union think if he profited from a government ploy—a sham to keep on bleeding the workingman? Worse yet, what would Sarah Palin think?
Virgil banged his fist off the wall. “Woman, that ain’t my cup of tea.”
Later that evening, the president addressed the nation. Sitting in the Oval Office, dressed in a dark blue suit, he read personably from the teleprompter.
“My fellow Americans. An oath of office is a precarious thing. When taken during prosperous times, it can sanctify all that is good. When taken during troubled times, it can incense and divide. And today a cloud hangs over our nation—a cloud that threatens to drive us apart. And this cloud has been made all the darker by this malady we call Supernumerary Cranial Syndrome.
“Because today, for no apparent reason, thousands of Americans are growing auxiliary heads. But this is not the work of saboteurs and it is not an experiment gone awry. Simply put, it is a phenomenon for which we have yet to find an explanation.
“But there is reason to take heart. My scientists have assured me these heads mean us no harm. On the contrary, they are simple-hearted creatures with a fondness for cheese. So let us not look at them through the veils of rumor and innuendo. Instead, let us extend to them the protection of our Constitution and our tradition of benevolence to the woebegone. With a little nurturing, I am confident these creatures will mature into fine and upstanding citizens.
“My fellow Americans, good night. And may God bless America.”
Virgil belched like a cannon. “Does that mean they won’t cut it off?”
Trixie nodded. “I think that’s what he means, Virgie.”
Virgil grabbed the remote and began surfing channels. “I still wanna hear what Sarah Palin’sgot to say.”
Virgil’s heart sank as he combed through the networks. There was no public response from Sarah Palin. But there were responses. On CNN, a wild-eyed member of The American Gospel Party was shaking his fist at the cameraman. “Our chickens have come home to roost,” he blurted. “Oh yes. Ohyes. Our chickens have come home to roost. The slaughtered—the multitudes upon whose blood we have built this nation—are returning from their graves. They sit upon our shoulders now—a God-sent reminder of our crimes.”
On NBC, a somber member of The Minutemen—a homespun militia from backwoods Wisconsin—was reading a prepared speech. “Don’t trust them,” he mumbled. “Maybe they like cheese and all, but don’t trust them. Look at their dark skin, their black bushy hair, their watchful eyes. They gotta be foreign nationals sent to spy on us. If we don’t exterminate them immediately, the Arabs are gonna know every move we make.”
And on Fox News, a gang of Tea Partiers was gathered near the Lincoln Memorial. “Isn’t it enough,” their spokesman shouted, “that we are being taxed into extinction—that we are forced to support spongers when we can’t afford children of our own? Now, they are attaching the parasites directly to our necks. Are we gonna stand for this? NO!”
The head tensed up and then sneezed. Virgil grabbed it, giving it a jerk. When he removed his hand, his fingers were smeared with orange paste.
“I told you to quit feeding it, Trixie,” he snapped. “You’re making it drool even more.”
Trixie closed the bag of Cheetos. “But it’s hungry, Virgie.”
“It’s hungry because I’m hungry. Isn’t it time you got my dinner?”
“Alf doesn’t like pizza. I gave him some last night when you were asleep. He made a face and spat it out.”
“But it’s my stomach. Why are you feeding Alf?”
“’Cause I’m bored and he’s cute. Virgie, I need a change. I want to go somewhere I’ve never been. I want do something I’ve never done.”
“Why don’t you try the kitchen?”
“Why don’t you take me out now and then? Or at least you could get me that poodle I been asking for.”
Virgil put his hands on his hips. Wasn’t it enough that freeloaders were bleeding him dry? Did he have to take the queen of the layabouts out on the town? It was time—hightime—that he put her in her place.
“’Cause you don’t deserve it, woman. And ’cause heads are about to roll.”
A month went by, and no statement came from Sarah. The head, perhaps emboldened by Sarah’s silence, had now grown to the size of a cantaloupe. And then a remarkable thing happened. The head perked up one morning and began singing in a deep and abiding baritone. “Everybody looooves somebodysometiiime…”
Virgil leaped to his feet. “It’s possessed. Now they gotta cut it off.”
Trixie put down her nail file. “Golly, Virgie. It sounded just like Dean Martin. I’ve been listening to him while you’re sleeping.”
“Dean Martin’s in hell. He led a wicked sinful life and now he’s paying the price.”
“Dino? He oughta be in God’s choir. I just love Dino.” Trixie hopped from the couch and began to sing. “When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza piiiie…”
“Thas amoreee…” sang the head.
“Enough,” shouted Virgil. Clearly, the head was not taking the situation seriously. And why should it with all the scumbags in its corner? The Green Team, The Coalition for the Homeless, The American Civil Liberties Union, even that squatter in the White House. And Trixie was only making matters worse.
“Enough,” Virgil repeated. “What’s next, woman? Sinatra and Crosby?”
“It’s singing ’cause it’s lonely, Virgie. You oughta make friends with it.”
“It’s got enough friends.”
“But it’s youit’s attached to.”
“Not for much longer—I’m gettin’ it axed. How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“You don’t have to tell me that at all—it’s horrible. Anyhow, what makes you so sure of that?”
“Because, Ms. Jezebel, there’s gonna come a reckoning. I’m familiar with the lay of the land.”
Trixie laughed. “What do you want with the lay of the land? You can’t even satisfy me.”
Virgil slouched his shoulders—humiliated yet again by the familiar dig. The ease with which she deflated him was outrageous. Wasn’t he supporting her, after all? If not for him, wouldn’t she be a welfare slug—yet another leach on the back of the workingman?
“Why do you stay with me?” he asked.
“Why do you love me?” she said.
“Ba ba ba booooo,” sang the head.
The demonstrations began two months later on the Fourth of July. In Washington DC, several hundred protesters swarmed the Capitol, their battle cry—Socialism No—like a snarling wave that would soon shake the building to its foundation. In Wisconsin, members of the American Dairy Association denounced the misuse of their product. The notion that cheese—or even Cheetos—might nurture an alien race was simply un-American. And in Alaska, Sarah Palin finally broke her silence. Her pet phrase—On a clear day you can see Russia—was a reminder of the Red Menace about to engulf the nation.
By Labor Day, the White House itself was under siege. A hundred thousand demonstrators—most of them wearing union buttons and Tea Party logos—clogged Pennsylvania Avenue from one end to the other. So imposing was the crowd that the president—standing on the White House lawn and shielded by bulletproof glass—looked like a caterpillar trapped in a jar. Even so, his speech—a sermon on the sanctity of all life—was delivered so condescendingly that he would have been better off remaining silent. Head lover, cheese burglar, and Commander-in-Thief were among the milder of the epithets that spilled from the crowd. And so, on the second week of the siege, mounted police were turned loose to disperse the mob—a difficult task as the head busting was somewhat complicated. Since many of the demonstrators were sporting second heads, it was often an auxiliary cranium that was laid open by a baton. But the bloodiest deed was reserved for the demonstrators. Ultimately, a large group of them scaled the bomb barriers and threw fifty severed heads onto the White House lawn. The amputated heads, their eyes more vacant than usual, were broadcast on Fox News—a sight so grisly that Trixie quickly changed channels.
“Don’t look at them,” she cried. “It’s horrible.”
“Well, no one invited ’em here,” snapped Virgil. His own second head had continued to grow and was now more irritating than ever. It was as large as a soccer ball, and it smelled like garlic and had a wicked-looking cleft on its chin. And it purred like a cat as Trixie ran a brush through its thick oily hair. Trixie spoke consolingly as she worked. “Don’t worry, Alfie. That ain’t gonna happen to you.”
Soothed by her tone, the head began to croon. “Mooon river wider than miiile.”
Trixie dropped her brush and began to sing along. “I’m courting you in style some daaay.”
“Woman, enough,” shouted Virgil. He could barely hear the news flash that had interrupted One Life to Live. A band of counter demonstrators—college students and priests—had gathered in front of the San Francisco Hall of Justice. They were waiving placards that said Cheese for All and God Hates Abortionists.
Virgil turned off the television. “God hates meddlers,” he spat. “That’s what He hates. There’s far too many of ’em sticking their snouts in where they don’t belong.”
Trixie nodded profoundly. Slowly, soothingly, she continued to groom the head. “No one likes a meddler,” she said.
“Meddlers and Muslims—they’re pretty much all the same. And this here head is a Muslim.”
Trixie arched her eyebrows. “Don’t Muslims have four wives?”
“Now that ain’t the point, Trix.”
“No, Virgie, I guess it ain’t.” She examined the brush and picked off the stray hairs, chuckling as she worked. “That would make you a rascal, Alf.”
The head burbled contentedly as she continued brushing it. After a while, she said, “Virgie?”
“Let’s have no more talk about killing Alf. Youknow I’ll leave you if you ever do.”
“Leave me then.”
“This time I mean it, Virgie.”
Virgil swallowed his panic. If only he loved her less, things would be so very simple. “All right,” he said. “I won’t speak of it again.”
“And talk to him gentle—even if you don’t mean it. It will make things so much easier for me.”
“All right, kitten. I will.”
The head perked up and smacked its full lips. “Much cheesier,” it said.
The demonstrations continued for two more months. Fires scorched cities, troops fought back rioters and federal buildings were pelted with Limburger. And a battalion of National Guardsmen was stationed permanently around the White House. But by Thanksgiving Day, the troops were reduced and the White House offered a compromise. The president announced that amputations would be permitted on one condition: that the heads would be attached anonymously to the shoulders of people who wanted them.
The announcement rocked Virgil to his heels. “Who would want those greasy fuckers?”
“Someone’s bound to want them,” said Trixie. “People who are lonely, people who are blind, people in need of money. The government’s paying out a hundred thousand dollars to anyone who will accept a head.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Virgil. “Those heads are stillgonna spy on people. They’re still gonna eat up our cheese. And they’re gonna keep singing those corny old songs.”
“Hush now, Virgie. You’re gonna wake up Alf.”
The head, which still stank of garlic, was licking its lips while snoring like a truck driver. The sheer bulk of it was displacing Virgil’s own head—so much so that his body now resembled the letter Y.
Virgil lowered his voice. “Trixie,” he said. “What if we reattached Alfto someone? We could give him to one of those losers you’re talking about.”
Trixie put down the brush. She seemed not to hear him. After a minute, she spoke. “That’s so cold, Virgil.”
“Well, at least he won’t be spying on a workingman.”
“But you’ve got no secrets worth spyingon, Virgil. Jeepers, you ain’t even workingright now.”
“How can I work with Alfon my back? He’s heavier than a watermelon.”
“You never worked that much before Alf was born.”
“There’s not that much businessanymore, Trix. Not for a plumber, anyhow.”
“If you get rid of Alf, there’s gonna be even less. Women love Alf—that’s why you’ve been getting all those calls.”
“So let’s give him to one of those women.”
Trixie was now staring at him—staring so coldly that he suddenly envied the parasite on his shoulder. “But, Virgil, the transplantations areanonymous. Didn’t you hear the president?”
“I’m sure Alf will go to a loving home.”
“Or maybe he’ll go to a pervert.”
Virgil clenched his teeth. The conversation had become insane. “Now Trix,” he said patiently. “What would a pervert want with Alf? Alf is a head.”
“But he’s such a beautiful head.”
Virgil hands were now shaking, a spasm so violent that it made his hair stand on end. But his hands always shook when it was time to make a stand. And he was about to make the stand of his life.
“He’s coming off, Trix. I’m gonna call the hospital and arrange it.”
“But you promised, Virgil.”
“I promised not to kill him. I didn’t promise not to give him a new home.”
“You ain’t giving him nothing, Virgil.”
“Don’t give me that, Trix. I got a damn good reason for what I’m doing.”
Trixie folded her arms. Her expression was so fixed that she seemed to be carved from stone. “You’ve always got a damn good reason, Virgil.”
The head stirred as Trixie patted it. The hair on its chin, which now prickled her palm, reminded her that it needed a shave. She started to sob. “Did you hear that, Alfie? Virgil’s got himself a damn good reason.”
Virgil lowered his eyes. He could only hope now that an item or two might be salvaged from the ship he was about to run aground. “Will you be there when it’s over, Trix?”
“You think this is gonna be over?”
“Will you be there? That’s what I want to know.”
“If you’re asking, ‘Am I gonna leave you?’— no. You ain’t getting off that easy.”
Virgil looked at her tenderly, grateful for the pique. If her love for him had ended, her anger would have to do. “At least you were fond of me once,” he replied.
“Once upon a time is how I’d put it. And I ain’t fond of you no more.”
Awake now, the head began to slobber. “Fondue,” it said.
Two months later, Virgil lay resting on a hospital gurney awaiting the removal of the head. He was lightheaded from the morphine drip—a soothing sensation that mitigated the sight of Trixie sitting stiffly beside him. Were it not for the embrace of the morphine, she would have looked like a wax statue.
It had taken six weeks to locate a recipient for the head and two weeks more to complete the paperwork—a mound of forms acknowledging the risks of invasive surgery and assuring the anonymity of both donor and recipient. The confidentiality of the operation struck Virgil as ridiculous: he did not have any desire to meet the head’s new host. And so he chuckled as he lay on the gurney. “Whoever he is,” he remarked, “he’s gotta be a total jerk.”
The head burped, as though affected by Virgil’s comment, and looked at Trixie with glassy eyes. The morphine seemed to have stupefied it—or perhaps it was the dab of Camembert she had snuck it as a parting gift. Trixie gazed at the head as though she were hypnotized. She seemed deaf not only to Virgil but to the bustle of the nurses and the rowdy clamor of the ward’s television. Despite the president’s compromise—despite the successful completion of dozens of transplantations—riots were continuing in cities across America.
Virgil spoke again. “Now don’t worry, Trix. When this is over I’m gonna buy you that poodle you’ve been wanting. This operation ain’t costing me a dime, you know.”
Trixie continued to stare at the head.
“Thank god I still got my insurance,” Virgil said. “Beats socialized medicine any day.”
Trixie did not stir.
“Trixie,” snapped Virgil. “Quit looking at Alf. Now a greaser like him ain’t worth a broken heart.”
Trixie broke her silence. “He is my heart, Virgil. He tickles my womb. Haven’t you noticed that at all?”
“Well he’s my head. And I’ll do with him as I please.”
“Then don’t think you ain’t gonna pay for this.”
Virgil squirmed on the gurney. In spite of the morphine, he could feel the needle in his arm, the chronic ache in his shoulders and the merciless pressure of his ulcer. “Can I pay for it in Vegas?” he said. “We could hit a few slot machines—take in a show. You wanna see the circus there, don’t you, Trix?”
“Fine,” Trixie said. “We’ll go to the circus, Virgil.”
When an orderly came to wheel Virgil away, Trixie hopped from her chair. She said, “Please—one minute more.” Using her pocket brush, she combed Alf’s hair into a thick appealing Mohawk. “You wanna look good, Alf,” she whispered. “You wanna look good for your new home.” She then kissed Virgil hastily on the forehead and walked in the direction of the waiting room.
Six hours passed before the surgeon came to see her—six hours that she barely noticed. She would have almost preferred it if the operation had taken longer: the surgeon’s smug smile, his enveloping handshake, his cheery assurance that everything had gone perfectly only added to her bereavement. How could everything have gone perfectly?
“Do you want to see him now?” he asked.
She nodded woodenly.
Following the surgeon down a long corridor—a hallway that smelled strongly of cleaning fluid—she felt as though she were under assault. The antiseptic stench of the hallway stung her nostrils, the fluorescent lighting burned her eyes, and her high heels seemed to explode upon the slick uncarpeted floor. As she approached the recovery ward, it was all she could do not to bolt from the building.
“He’s awake,” said the surgeon. “Just a little goofy.”
Repressing a dry chuckle, she followed the surgeon into the ward. She walked slowly among the curtained partitions, searching for Virgil’s bed. And when she spotted it, she gasped.
The surgeon touched her elbow. “You all right, Miss?”
She sank into the chair beside the bed. “Go,” she hissed. “Just go.”
The irony of what she saw, its dark predictability, in no way diminished its impact—a sight so freakish that she could barely stop herself from screaming. But it was true: Virgil’s head—Virgil’s splendid head—was no longer attached to his body. Only Alf still remained upon Virgil’s stout shoulders—Alf, who was staring back at her with a bland but infectious smile. The hospital had fucked up big.
Covering her face with her hands, she wept bitterly for twenty minutes. And then she began to laugh.
This story was originally published in Empty Sink (a journal no longer in print) and is included in Mr. Hanna’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. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000
The letter explained to me that apples were no longer allowed. There was no way they could ever be allowed again. As in, there would never be any more. No, I did not know the name of the fruit. The name, no matter how common or obscure it seemed, had been removed from all of us. If I had ever known the reason why, it had been wiped from my memory. My job was to obey orders and do whatever they told me to, as well as let my workers know the rules each morning. So if they said that I was forbidden to ever have apples… Well, I had never even seen an apple in my life, but I knew what they meant. They were not allowed anymore. That’s the story for now. It almost seemed counterproductive since the memory had been erased already, but as usual, I read the memo and rule changes aloud to my underlings.
I looked up from my desk and into the eyes of the others in my office. We all wore the same uniform and had the same expression on our faces, as we had been told to do every day since I had been here three years ago. The color gray. There was no one in the room who felt bad about the new rule. Feelings, after all, are not allowed. None of them cared. I couldn’t understand what that must mean because I had no idea what they were talking about when they talked about it. It was in sharp contrast to what the higher-ups said and did. It was like they were giving orders to people, like we were cattle, and they were the ones with the rights to language, knowing what a word meant and using it with conviction. Care. I think I used to care for things.
Here at the office, everything was held on an even tighter leash than at people’s homes. You couldn’t watch certain things, eat certain foods, or speak to certain people. Even though I was a middle manager and had been altered more than my peers, I still held on to more memories than what was deemed appropriate. I kept it a secret. I remembered what deer tasted like. What it meant to be alone and camping beneath the stars. As I gave my workers their assignments for the day, I thought of the first time I met the higher-ups. And how life used to be. Life used to be strange and wonderful, albeit strange in a familiar way. But nothing was stranger than the day I saw the sky light up and take me to meet the bosses.
The sky was clear that night, and the moonlight reflected beautifully on the lake, creating a picture of tranquility for those looking out on the water. And yet it didn’t last long, because there were three men standing at the shoreline who seemed to have no intention of letting nature remain. Between the mountains and that little valley where I lost my innocence, it was only natural that a predator would catch its prey unaware. It was too beautiful and serene. Like a gazelle suddenly swept off its feet by the hungry lion on the savannah, I felt as if I was lying there, feeling the jaws of my killer close around my neck. I watched them closely as the night sky changed colors.
It wasn’t as if I was trying to escape, either, which perplexed me. But at the time, it only felt right to stand there as they approached. What they wanted to do with me was unknown, but I didn’t mind the situation one bit. I could live with anything as long as it kept me occupied. There were some things that were simply not worth the effort to fight for, and for some reason running away fell into this category. It wasn’t placed there by me. Ever since I left home, my life had consisted of doing what I liked best: being alone and living off the land. And while I would normally walk away from any hunter or fisher that wanted to exchange small talk, their presence had me tethered to the ground. Little did I know, my life as a hermit was about to come to an abrupt end.
It was like they were calling out to me and begging for my attention. The thought never crossed my mind to refuse. At first, when the shadows began to creep into the valleys, I thought that they had been sent by someone I knew from days past. Or perhaps they have been waiting for me. But then I noticed how quiet everything was—how completely still—and my hair stood on end. My heart quickened at the prospect of meeting new people, but a few minutes later I found myself running across the field toward the men’s silhouettes. In the darkness, despite every atom of my being screaming at me to run away, I found the urge to meet them increasing.
And then they were gone. As if God himself had snatched them up and zipped them up into the stars above, they vanished along with the lights in the sky.
I fled, the fear propelling me away until exhaustion made it impossible to continue, and I collapsed at the very foot of a tree. After lying there for several hours, a slight breeze started to blow. It wasn’t warm enough for me to stay outside much longer, but I couldn’t make up my mind to go home just yet. The woods around me looked peaceful, so I lay there contentedly. A soft wind gently swayed the trees over and around me, creating a feeling of serenity. I closed my eyes, and soon I found myself drifting off peacefully and without any nightmares.
When I woke, my body felt refreshed. I tried to move, but discovered my arms and legs moved much slower than normal. I felt terrific yet tranquilized. Slowly but surely, I rose from my earthly bed. And let me tell you, this is when I lost my innocence. There before me, standing just past the forest clearing, the things I thought were men stared at me.
Their faces were contorted and wrong, with expressions I could only describe as mimicking the human condition. Gray and large-eyed, taller than two men, and unnaturally slender, Their eyes burned into mine, commanding me to remain still. Powerless to resist, I could only stand there and scream in fear. Suddenly, the memories of last night flooded my mind.
When the creatures disappeared, they took me with them. They put me in a suit of gray, just like their skin. They gave me a job, expected me to do it with skill, and commanded that I start hiring immediately. One of them put its hideous face inches from mine, commanding me with the darkest thoughts and tongues untold and lost to history. Like demons hissing in the mist, I listened to the voices it telepathically planted. Like the seeds of a horrible plant, they took root and dug deep into my brain. They held me there, perpetually floating in purgatory, and stripped me of my identity. Humanity. Like them, I became inhuman.
“Gerald!” my boss yelled. I snapped out of the memory, realizing I had drifted off again.
My”Yes sir?” I asked the teleprompter, clicking my pen rapidly in nervousness.
“You spaced out again! Take another pill and get back to work!” his voice said as it cracked through.
I opened up my pill bottle, throwing one into the back of my throat before swallowing without water. His voice came through once again.
“And nervously clicking pens is now forbidden. Throw that one away; I will send someone with a fountain pen shortly. You are being watched,” my boss hissed.
I dropped the pen into the little gray wastebasket with a solid clunk. I shifted uncomfortably as one of the higher-ups came into my office. It placed the new pen on the desk.
“Assume the position,” it said with a hungry look in its dead eyes.
I placed my head atop the desk, allowing it access to my brain beneath the glass plate at the rear of my skull. Before I cared, I might have been in shock. But I just sat there as it licked its lips. It was lunchtime. The higher up opened my brain, its black tongue descending to the gray matter like a leech, as I struggled to recollect the unnamed piece of fruit I had in my lunch pail.
Joseph Shaw lives in Buchanan County, MO and works as a foreman for a manufacturing plant. He is an emerging writer with a love and passion for the horror genre. While writing is his passion, his outside activities include fishing, spending time with his wife and child, and cooking.
In this field of flowers,
breathing in their fragrance...
I do not know what kind they are,
they're up to my knees.
centers lit with light,
like a carpet from heaven.
I walk within them.
They bend away from my boots,
as if sensing my intruding steps.
busily over this hillside.
I'm in another world,
or else I'm in a dream.
white doves entwined with black ravens,
singing tunes of doom and escape.
I trudge forward up a hill,
realizing my holster is empty.
My helmet left far behind
in a deep crater,
pitted face of earth,
salty sweat and tears
hiding in the folds of continents.
All of my friends are dead.
None of them wanted to grow old.
But I think they were lying,
eyeballs staring into a mash of lowering clouds.
I swallow hard
blinking them out of my mind.
Reaching the top of the crest,
a toxic smell rising from the other side...
I look below to scarred battlefields
stretching into each other.
Century into century,
iron and rubber and bones and blood...
Every country that's ever been
has been kicked
full of sins...
Twist of time continually
in the land of the end.
Sunlight of Summer
even in the sunlight of summer.
No other way to go.
long time made in the coming
loosening my lips,
wanting to scream, but holding it in.
I dare not look behind me,
being followed by an unseen force.
I don't understand,
but somehow the meaning digs deep.
We have been foolish...
for where few can hide
in new fields blanketed with seeds...
A vast covering too far to see,
fingertip horizon of green,
even in the swamp of winter.
beneath our tramping feet...
Always a gathering...
The final stand,
backed by the everlasting.
Stephen Jarrell Williams loves to stay up all night and write with lightning bolts until they fizzle down behind the dark horizon. He was editor of Dead Snakes, UFO Gigolo, and Calvary Cross. He can be found on Twitter as papapoet.
Beware the flames of Moloch: lest they turn the soul to ash.
Sprawled upon the kitchen floor with paralysis numbing his face, Thomas saw the universe from a different perspective. The circumstances were dire, but a poetic lining lessened the pain. A piece of glass from a broken bulb reflected the light of the sun and created a spectrum of iridescence. Cold seeping through his cheek formed a dusty taste while the other cheek began to spasm inspiring the poet to contemplate if this was what was meant by risus caninus. With vision flickering, pulse quickening, Thomas smelled something smoldering as he slipped deeper and deeper into Moloch’s embrace.
A month prior to the accident, Thomas sat in a lawn chair and drank wine from a paper cup. He watched insects buzzing around a hole in the backyard. Several miles away a train rumbled across the Norrowtuck Trail. A horn sounded in the distance. The irony seemed obvious. A poet of small renown, the professor spent considerable effort searching for images, fusing them in pursuit of beauty and meaning, which wasn’t what he held in his hands. The student papers stacked on the ground appeared as formless as Howl itself. The groan of the train seemed apropos of his status as newly appointed associate professor at the University of Massachusetts.
I am the servant of shit,” he mumbled aloud.
A breeze stirred the lot. The professor took off his shirt and sniffed beneath an armpit. The wine tasted flat, but that was fine. The previous night he and the student had enjoyed three bottles. The effects of the alcohol led to one thing after another and now, grading the student’s paper, he knew in advance she would receive an A for services rendered in spite of the quality of the work or the services.
In the poem titled Howl by Allan Ginsberg the author utilizes a technique known as parataxis, coupled with a fixed base to reinvent poetry in the 1950s. Utilizing hallucinatory imagery, Ginsberg attempts to demolish the old order through a creativity of style and language.
The misbegot misspelled the name! Content was both shoddy and unimaginative. Students failed to grasp that Ginsberg and the Beats were failed poets, failed human beings, a failed movement lacking sublimity. The vulgarity offended, the work expressed no tonalitybut bludgeoned with directness: alcohol, cock, endless balls. Who wanted to be poked by Brando and scream with joy? Madness: hydrogen jukeboxes, Fugazzi’s, pubic beards and lobotomies!
Thomas watched a snake slither toward the buzzing in the middle of the yard and approached to get a better look. The insects were miner bees excavating beneath the dirt. He shooed the snake into the woods and an image sliced the surface of imagination. The serpent was the Moloch of the modern world sent to devour the ascendant bees on their voyage from ground to air. What would inspire worship better than holocaust as the bees were immolated in flight? Rather than plug the hole with a bag of mulch or spray a stream of insecticide into the opening, he would torch the bodies with a can of aerosol and watch them ignite like radiant fireflies flushed into the night. What a glorious image for the heart of a poem. What a glorious tagline: Death at the feet of Moloch.
Wanting to coalesce serpent and bees, integrated through the metaphor of the Ba’al of the Canaanites, Thomas pledged to know Moloch, breathe Moloch, synthesize Moloch into the folds of mind before delivery into poetic ode. He would peel back layers of thought in search of the evil beneath. Eyes shut in a darkened house or standing at midnight in the bog of Lawrence Swamp, Thomas would fathom the underworld entity, the serpent charm of Ugaritica that gave rise to the baby killer mlk—and will it to life. Past the voice of consciousness, spiraling and playing with eddies of cognition, he would tap the spirit of poetic inspiration and conceptualize that the god he sought was none other than Self—always Self, nothing but Self as that was all there was to be! So he mined deeper for the spirit of Moloch and the serpent and the holocaust to follow.
Explain me in petty dreams of pouty girls with hungry mouths, salacious curves, balls squeezed red in tight-clenched fists as vision transforms to nightmare.
I hear you.
Explain me as nullity rampages the world, ravages sons and daughters, immolates meaning as you kneel before my altar staring risus caninus in envy of what you cannot have.
I see you.
Explain me as charred carcass intoxicates the senses and appendages twist into submission to be ground like meal for a rapacity that consumes itself in flame.
I taste you.
Explain the frenzy that rattles the bars of incarceration as I HOWL to escape a prison of non-belief to reclaim my world one mind at a time until the exhalation of smoke-filled breath encompasses earth in a flood of annihilation.
I smell you.
Explain disease in the bowels, waters soiled, crops ravaged, excrement befouling the land as starvation rages across the world.
I feel you.
Explain the progression as man devolves into ever-startling acts of barbarism—erupting into flame in the name of god, incinerating congregants as they pray in the name of Allah; as men of god bury themselves in virginal boys and drive their lust as ghostly member disappears in pain and pleasure; as disparate men search for an angry fix, lash victims to bedposts, violate them before offering a gas-fueled dynamo to the host as the authorities wait for the carnage to subside: all is well in the kingdom of Moloch.
I want you! – in dreamsthat celebrate abnegation through the vision of anointed verse.
“HUUUH!” the poet of small renown startled. Arms flailed at the space surrounding the bed. “HUUUUH!”
Upright, alone in an empty room, he heard silent laughter.
The students stared like ungulates. The stupidity stabbed at the professor’s self-esteem, but such was required of an assistant professor (and poet of small renown) aspiring to climb the ladder of academic success.
“So what do you think of Howl?” the professor asked. “What of the first section? What is Ginsberg attempting to convey?”
Professor Crane listened and nodded, praised and chided, smiled and feigned interest. He paced the perimeter of the room. The clock ticked. Pausing next to a woman, he glanced at her breasts and brushed his fingertips across the top of the desk.
“That’s right,” he said, responding to an inquiry about the use of sexual language. “Word choice is explicit for the period. Ginsberg’s publisher was sued for obscenity laws but vindicated on grounds of artistic merit.”
For half-an-hour a handful of nincompoops parried points back and forth with emphasis on the progressiveness of words and the underbelly of society. Verses were highlighted; context applied when necessary while some phrases remained veiled in incomprehension.
“What of the second part?” he inquired near the end of class, “and the invocation of Moloch?”
The students squirmed. Professor Crane understood it was time to intervene but decided to assail a final student before taking control of the discussion.
Scanning the roster on his desk, matching a name to a face that rarely spoke, he asked: “Nichelle, what do you think Moloch represents?”
“I’m not sure, sir,” she said and looked downward, “evil, I guess, because he writes about the Nightmare of Moloch and describes him in a negative way.”
“Good!” said the professor. “Evil—anything else? Ginsberg explained that Part II ‘names the monster of mental consciousness that preys upon the Lamb.’ What do you think that means?”
Hands sprung upward in support of Nichelle, but the professor continued looking toward her.
“I’m . . . I don’t know, Professor, but in the Old Testament I think Moloch is the false god the Jews worshiped in defiance of God and were punished – so maybe the Lamb is Jesus and Moloch is the devil?”
The professor shook his head in surprise before retreating into the safety of pedagogy.
“Nice, Nichelle, that’s good: thank you. What you say is partially true but things are more complex. You’re correct that Moloch is mentioned in the Bible, but even the Bible doesn’t know exactly who or what he is. For example, in one passage Moloch is referenced as the abomination of the sons of Ammon, which is a mis-transposition. The actual god of the Ammonites was Milcom; they were different deities.”
Recent convert in the ways of a fire-eating demon, Professor Crane walked to the drawing board and jotted down some names.
“You don’t need to know this,” he explained, “but Moloch originally was invented and worshiped by the Ugarits. In Canaan, he was known as Melek before the Hebrews translated him into Moloch and perhaps Malik and Melqart as well.”
In anticipation of lunch the students stared cow-eyed.
“We’re almost out of time. So quickly—we’ll finish next week—can anyone tell me or does anyone know the significance of the historical Moloch? Why Ginsberg invokes him as a malevolent being in the second part of Howl?”
The students fidgetedfor release.
“Because he ate children,” the professor explained. “Deep in the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom the ancestors of the Jews are supposed to have hurled children into the fire of Moloch as tribute to the underworld god. Ginsberg alludes to this when he writes . . . ”
All eyes focused on the professor. He fingered down the lines of the text looking for the proper verse. Not finding it, he closed his eyes and recited from memory.
“Moloch is cannibal! Flaming dynamo whose ear is a smoking tomb, whose hunger knows no end! Such words relate to the god’s taste for flesh in what became known as the Valley of Slaughter.”
The bell rang. The students fled. The professor closed the book and gathered his belongings. Nichelle stood by the desk.
He waited and thought before continuing, “Nichelle?”
Her midnight face radiated the passivity of conviction. The professor intuited this was not a person to be dismissed—and understood the danger.
“I think Moloch is condemned in the book of Jeremiah,” she said with a stillness that was alarming. “ . . . and maybe in Chronicles. I know about it from church, but you said something that bothers me and I wanted to clarify.”
“Of course,” he said, “—what’s on your mind?”
“You alluded to Moloch as an invention of a group known as the U-grits?”
“You caught that, Nichelle,” he said. “Good. I’ve been studying the origins of Moloch for a poem I’m working on.”
“What makes you think the U-grits invented him?” she asked. “I don’t understand. Moloch is Satan, he’s the Devil. How can someone have invented him?”
The professor recognized the agenda. Rather than explain about the stele that was dubbed Ugaritica V and the snake charms found in the ruins of Ras Shamra on the coast of the Mediterranean where mlk was first memorialized, he would disarm the situation and live to fight another day. Zealots were not to be provoked in the halls of an institution of political correctness.
“They were called Ugarits. Let me write it down for you,” he said with a toothy grin. “And you’re right, of course. No one invented the essence of Moloch, they only provided the name. Undoubtedly, evil and everything it represents has existed in endless manifestations since the dawn of time.”
“Since the Garden of Eden.”
“I wasn’t there but, yes, since before the Archangel began his watch. How about that: does that answer your question?”
He handed the student the paper with the word Ugarits across the top.
“It does. Thank you, Professor Crane,” she said and exited the classroom with head held high.
Crisp air pinched the face of the professor as he walked across campus to Lyman Bridge. Looking over the rail, he watched the rivulet and waited. Vision catalogued into a litany of images: contrails of iridescence from oil streaking the surface; strands of web from a pylon; refractive clouds reflecting a halo around his head. If he waited and watched, more would come. Sounds tickled the air: a trickling noise, the rustle of wings, distant voices. Everything existed for extrapolation into meaning. In the midst of it all, a blob stared from the water with half its circumference illuminated by light, the other obscured in shadow. And shadow was where he wanted to be — to embrace the darkness that was half his nature and the realm of Moloch conjured by the intensity of his work.
I see you and through the alchemy of words the reflection transfigured into a Minotaur on fire: Moloch in flames, Moloch consumed in the fever of the poet’s mind. The professor pulled a notebook from his backpack and recorded the image. The work was forming; perhaps a post-modern refutation of Ginsberg’s wastrel verse centered upon Moloch as Ugaritic demon devouring flesh and bellowing the cries of immolated children until death by drowning in a rising tide.
Back home, the professor opened a bottle of wine to celebrate the capture of creativity. Confident of the substance and structure—the only thing remaining was to put all the pieces together. He relaxed at the kitchen table and waited for inspiration. He drank, fiddled with his pen, scribbled doodles as the sun cast shadows across the floor.
Charles Sutphin has lived in Indianapolis for 50 years. His cobbled career includes editor, journalist, writer, attorney, professor, investment manager and venture capitalist. Married for 30 years with two children, he taught at the University of Indianapolis for decades. His fiction was published liberally in the 1990s and recently in The Flying Island and The Helix Literary Review.
Aunty Marcia always said I was good at “stayin’ inside”, and right now I’m really hoping that’s true. Not just, like, staying indoors though. I mean, I kinda had to be good at that too; I was sick a lot as a kid – besides the normal infections and sore throats and stuff that some of the other kids dealt with during childhood, my stomach was never quite the same after momma’s sacrament and many of my days were spent in my bed, simply letting my body repair itself best as it could or waiting for the town doc to come around when it couldn’t. Of course, even that would sometimes take days, on account of Aunty’s farm was way out, about six miles outside of Screven and even if the doc’s car could make it out that far without breaking down once or twice, he was so busy with all the railroad guys and their constant injuries that he didn’t have much time to come check some kid with a sore throat and tummy ache, much as Aunty might worry. So, as I said, I spent a lot of time indoors.
But being good at staying indoors ain’t really much of a feat, and Aunty was not a woman easily impressed anyhow. No, she meant I was good at staying inside my own head, which is a hell of a lot tougher for kids – and adults too, now that I’m really thinking about it (and it seems like I have plenty of time for just that). Aunty said when I was little, like two or three, I would sometimes just sit, not saying nothing, not playing with nothing, not necessarily looking at nothing, just kinda sitting and being. At first, she said she thought I was not-quite-right in my head or something but as I grew I was walking, talking, reading, and writing before all my siblings (the ones that made it to walking, talking, reading, and writing age, anyway) and when I could actually make it to school, I did real well in my studies and made friends just fine.
But even at school, during the lunch and recess break, I liked to just sit by myself, imaging different scenarios in my head, pretending I was one of the Wright brothers flying that clunky yet oh-so-futuristic-lookin’ airplane of theirs, or that I was in the War fighting some angry army before they plunged their dagger into the vitals of the Republic, as our fearless leader was wont to say, or simply just sitting and thinking about life and the future, what was and what could be. Aunty says were my daddy around during my latter days of childhood instead of being gone when I was three, I’d be walking around most days with a hide as tanned as a horse’s saddle, on account of he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a contemplative man himself. He was when he was, and he was where he was; a present man was my daddy, and he suffered no fool who would spend large portions of time thinking rather than doing, according to Aunty.
But alas, daddy was the first one to take the sacrament, which I always thought was kinda strange ’cause he was a Presbyterian and far as I know, they believe only a pastor in a church (which momma most certainly was not) could give out that kinda stuff; and now daddy, the man of action, simply isn’t, and I, with all my thoughts, am. Kinda.
My wife Stephanie always abided my stayin’ inside just fine, though. She ain’t much of a talker herself, which is maybe why we ended up together and why we went so well together. Aunty told me later, once we was already married, that the first couple times she saw us spending time together she thought each time was gonna be the last time on account of how quiet we were. We would sit and hold hands and just be silent with each other, enjoying one another’s company in the way that we have, not necessarily needing noise for there to be connection. We talked sometimes, of course, on account of there can’t be a relationship without at least some kinda intentional communication, but neither she nor I ever babbled on about meaningless malarkey and she never asked about momma and daddy besides just asking where were they and once I told her I don’t know where they were but their bodies are right out back buried next to the oak tree she never asked again, and far as I know she never asked anybody else about it neither and that’s just fine with me on account of what I remember from what happened to my family ain’t so nice and is not something I like thinking about; intentionally, anyway… Though the more I stay inside, the more the inside fills with the scent and the sight and the presence of momma and daddy and my brothers and sisters and that cursed sacrament.
But, see, that’s the downside of being good at stayin’ inside; sure, it’s nice when there ain’t much to do and you got nothing but time to think (like I do now) and you ain’t got no problem with doing just that; but the fact is, when you’re stayin’ inside, no matter how good you are at it and how long you can do it, you ain’t quite as in control of the goings on as you might hope. I mean, really; would a person, if they had they choice, choose to be all depressed and whatnot? Would they choose to think on the horrible things that have happened to them? To remember over and over the rejections they’ve faced or the embarrassments they’ve suffered or the times they should’ve said something and didn’t or shouldn’t have said something and did? Of course not! And yet, how much brain space is taken up with all that blather? And why? Because I want to dredge up things that make me feel bad? No way, uh-uh. Crazy as it sounds, I sometimes think I’m not alone up here; it seems like there’s evil little men hiding in the shadows where all the dark memories are stuffed away, just waiting for the right moment to push out some long-forgotten sin or tragedy right in front of me as I meander through my thoughts, tripping me up and making me fall into the pain and leaving me trying to pick back up and push the memory back to its place in the darkness. But of course, simply pushing it back in place is just that; pushing it back in place, back into the domain of the mean-mind-men; it ain’t getting rid of it, just guaranteeing that I’ll trip over it again sometime, just as I have now.
It was Stephanie’s screams that woke me, if it could be said that I had woken at all. From what she said later, she had shaken me and prodded me, but my hearing’s always been better than my other senses anyway and I sleep about as deep as the ‘Lantic, so I ain’t totally surprised the shaking didn’t do it. I was roused out of my sleep pretty much right away when she started the hollering, on account of she has nightmares at least twice a week, real bad ones that make her jump up right outta bed and run around the bedroom like a bat outta hell until I can quiet her down enough to get her back into the bed, so I woke as usual at the sound of her screams (which were pretty well piercing for such a quiet woman, just by the by).
When I tried to open my eyes, it was dark as the spots on a cow– not too strange; as I mentioned, Aunty’s farm, where we live and help tend to all that needs tending to, is way out in the country and there ain’t lights for at least a mile or so (‘course, I didn’t even consider at the time that maybe my attempt to open my eyes wasn’t quite as successful as I assumed). What was strange was that no matter how much I tried, I could not get up. I tried to say something to soothe my wife but couldn’t do that neither. That’s when I thought maybe I was the one having the nightmare this time, one of those ones where you’re stuck in place between sleeping and waking and you can’t fully cross over to either direction, but I wasn’t sure; all I was sure of was that my wife was freaking out and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
After about maybe a minute or so, I heard her run out of the room and down the stairs and out the back door. While she was gone I tried to do a mental assessment of my body. Problem was, it didn’t seem to be there, by my mental accounting, anyway. I mean, it must’ve been there, otherwise how else could I be, but I just couldn’t feel nothing. Although, thinking about it further, I guess that’s not completely true; I felt like I had been shrunk down real small, that what I thought of as the real me, the essential me, the one that thinks and feels and loves was the size of a little piece of corn kernel that was stuck in somebody’s teeth; but that wasn’t so much a feeling in the strictest sense of the word as it was a sense that I couldn’t seem to shake.
After a moment, I heard the back door open again and Aunty and Steph walk in. They spoke with each other very briefly, Steph right on the edge of panic and Aunty trying to keep her calm and to keep her own self calm. After a few back and forths as they moved towards the stairs, I heard Steph yell, “HE WON’T WAKE UP, AUNTY!” and then I heard them both running up the stairs. I tried to turn my head and see them come in, tried to tell them to cool down, ain’t nothing wrong but a nightmare, tried to ask why is Steph of all people so freaked out, she has them all the time, but I still couldn’t move a muscle so I just sat there and listened as one of them (I figured out pretty quick that it was Aunty, on account of I could hear Steph in the background biting her nails) climbed onto the bed. I remember thinking then that I didn’t know what all she was doing up there with me on account of all I heard for about a minute was silence and of course I still couldn’t feel a thing. After that very long minute passed, my eyes finally opened for real and I could see around her fingers (which were, I realized, holding my eyes open) that it was indeed Aunty leaning over me, looking directly into my eyes.
Everything looked kinda dim and almost cloudy-like but I was so grateful to be able to see anything at all that I completely missed whatever it was Aunty said next. Whatever it was couldn’t have been good though, on account of as soon as she said it, Steph picked up the screaming again. I tried to roll my eyes that way to see her but once again I was stuck and now I was getting angry, really angry, the way a baby must feel when they’re hungry and trying to reach onto their plate for food but just don’t have the coordination or strength to grab it and they feel like it’s the end of the world. But, see, I didn’t want nothing like food or drink or to be rich or live like the Rockefellers or anything crazy like that; I just wanted to roll my eyes just a little bit, just to look at my beautiful bride and to comfort her and to tell her, even if it was only in our silent without-words way, that everything was okay or that if it wasn’t, it would be with time.
But the anger was replaced in an instant with a terror about a million times stronger when I saw Her in the dark in the corner behind Aunty. She was wearing the same black robe as she was 25 years ago and the same hood over Her face and even the shadow was in the same place as it was then, covering everything above Her upper lip, leaving visible only Her mouth. Her thin white lips were still spread in that nasty grin, Her cracked and yet perfectly white teeth shining dully in the dim light of the lanterns and that’s when the darkness closed back over me and I fell inside, hard.
When I came to, Steph and Aunty weren’t there and everything was dark again. I heard voices distant in the background, muffled like they were on the other side of a wall. Then a door creaked open and I could see light streaming red through my eyelids and I heard two sets of footsteps walking toward me.
“What do we got here?”
“Don’t know yet. Guy didn’t wake up, the wife freaked out, the aunt who lived next door couldn’t hear him breathe or find a pulse and hey, we got a brand-new body to look at. And, your lucky day, he ain’t all mangled like all them railroad guys that come in here.”
To put it lightly, I was a little put off hearing them talking about me like that. Dead?! I thought, I’m still thinking! I can hear you! I can see the lights you just turned on! I’m not dead, you idiots!
But of course, they couldn’t hear me. But surely they knew what they were doing, surely they would be able to check my aliveness with instruments better suited for such things than Aunty’s hands. And hey, if not, my school buddies told me a story once about this guy who hit his head real bad and they thought he was dead and they brought him into the room to cut him up and stuff and right as they were about to do it he got goosebumps (or, in one particularly naughty version I heard, some would say the doctor was a pretty lady and he popped a bone-on while she was examining him) and they took a deeper look and realized the guy wasn’t dead, he was only sleeping real deep. So I figured, either way I’d be okay, probably.
“Now, you’ve watched me do ten of these things so far, are you ready to give it a try?”
The second voice, a much younger voice, responded, “Uh, yeah I – I think so, doc.”
“Well, alright then, that’s my boy. Grab that there scalpel and let’s dig in.”
The older voice laughed at his little witticism and the younger nervously joined and I heard tools clattering around on the tray and I started praying for some goosebumps (hell, I wouldn’t even mind a bone-on myself at this point, as long as they don’t CUT ME OPEN!)
“Beginning first incision.”
I braced myself mentally and waited for the hot, white pain of a knife cutting through my flesh. Had I control over my eyes, I would’ve squeezed them shut as hard as you squeeze your cheeks when you’re in school and feel a real trumpet coming on. It never came.
“Good, good. Remember, stop right down at the pubic region and then comeback up for the arms of the Y, which should go to where?”
“To each shoulder joint.”
They were cutting me up like a Thanksgiving turkey and I couldn’t feel a thing. Pretty soon, if the rumors I heard in the schoolyard were true, they were gonna start taking out my guts and looking at ’em and trying to figure out what killed me even though clearly, nothing did, on account of, hey I was still thinking here, but they were going to if they didn’t cut it out, no pun intended.
“Ok, great job, Billy. Now we’re going to open up the incisions and begin the removal of the innards.”
I tuned out the rest of their exploration as much as I could, which honestly wasn’t as hard as you might think on account of I was trying to figure out how I could be dead but still thinking and still sitting in on my own autopsy. That’s when the thought came to me, not for the first time but certainly for the most serious consideration, that perhaps the nightmare I thought I was having wasn’t over yet, that I was just dreaming all this. Maybe I ate something rotten or undercooked like that guy in the Christmas story thought he did when those ghosts came to visit him.
Of course, I knew it wasn’t true, the way you can’t describe the feeling of reality, it’s just something you know deep down in your heart, and I knew I wasn’t dreaming, though the next couple days passed like a dream.
After they finished up the autopsy, they left me in the room for a while alone until somebody else came and picked me up and brought me somewhere else and did this or that with me, but by that time I was stayin’ deep inside and really had no interest in coming back out, maybe ever. That is, until I heard Steph’s voice.
She sounded empty, hollowed out. She talked about what she wanted to dress me in and what kind of service and would there be a minister and where would I be buried and I was screaming, screaming with all my mental power, screaming that they would hear me, that they would realize I’m not dead, that they would stop this madness. But of course, they didn’t hear me, I was stayin’ inside for real now, and inside was airtight, nobody coming in and nobody going out.
They finished up their arrangements and then I heard Steph ask, “Can I have a minute alone with him?” and they said sure and walked out and it was just us.
I don’t know how I know, there’s no way I could’ve known on account of I’m pretty sure my eyes were glued shut at this point and I still couldn’t feel nothing, but I still I know in my heart that she put her hand on my cheek and that she kissed me and I would give anything in the world to be able to kiss her back and to put my own hand on her cheek. She just sat there for a minute, not saying nothing, just being with me, the way we always did, and for that one minute, the screaming in my brain stopped and it was like it was before, just us being with each other in the way that we have, no need for words. The only place I’m better at stayin’ in than inside is with her, and I could’ve stayed there forever.
But of course, all things end and she said I love you in a cracked voice and she ran out, slamming the door behind her.
The funeral weren’t nothing too special. Everyone always talks about how they wish they could go to their own funeral on account of everyone wants the hear the nice things people have to say that they only say once someone is dead, but the fact is, if someone has to be forced to say nice things by an occasion like this, how seriously can you really take what they have to say? For me, not that seriously. It was nice to hear the voices of old friends and family, but the one voice I craved the most didn’t speak. I wasn’t hurt by it though. She may not have been able to get through any kind of speech, and she was never much of a talkative woman anyway, as I have already mentioned.
Aunty went last. She ain’t sentimental or nothing and she’s never been one to sugarcoat nothing and her speech was short and true and meant the most to me out of anyone. She didn’t cry or scream or go into hysterics, just said how she loved me and why she loved me and that she would miss me and if I could’ve, I would’ve been crying like a baby. But, of course, I couldn’t.
Then came the part I was really dreading. I never been scared of closed spaces or nothing, but when I heard the lid of the coffin thump down and the little bit of light coming through my eyelids was shut out completely (and maybe forever) the weight of the situation hit me again and I started hollering inside myself again. But nobody heard me and they carried me away and after a brief graveside service, they put me in the ground where I am now and covered up my new home with dirt and left me alone with silence for my friend and darkness for my companion.
Only, as I mentioned earlier, I ain’t quite as alone as I now hope. The little men in the shadows are extra lively in the dark and they’re moving around all kinds of stuff and kicking up stuff better left buried (HA get it? Buried, but not dead, just like me) and I can’t stop them and they’re pushing it out, pushing Her out pushing out the time when I first met her and when I’m pretty sure all of this began.
All my siblings were on the ground with the empty cups still in their hands, what was left of the medicine and grape juice mixture spilling into small drops on the hard wood floor. Daddy was laying facedown next to me, his arm draped over my chest, his paper cup right next to my ear, making everything on that side sound as if it was coming over the sound of the ocean.
I had taken it too, of course, I was just as much a part of the family as anybody else in the room, but momma always said I had a hole in my lip on account of I couldn’t never eat a meal or drink something without getting at least a little on my shirt and this was no exception, special as it might be. I also always been the pickiest of the family so I eat and drink pretty peckishly, like a bird, you might say, and if I’m behind completely honest, the sacrament tasted awful bitter, not at all like how momma’s fresh muscadine grape juice usually tastes, and I let a little more spill out than might’ve happened on its own while momma was pouring a cup for my little brother Timmy on account of the awful taste. I had some of the same jiggles and wiggles as my siblings once I finished my cup and got a real bad tummy ache and fell on the floor and couldn’t move, just like now, except then my eyes were still open and unfortunately, now they ain’t and even if they were I don’t think I’d see much anyway.
I looked around the room best as I could, on account of I could still move my eyes a little then and saw momma standing by the table with a cup in her own hand and a whispered prayer on her lips. She finished her prayer, a single tear sliding down her cheek, and then she drank her cup and walked across the room out of my field of vision, probably to her favorite rocking chair where she liked to sit and look out the window. Right as she started to make some awful choking noises, another wave of pain went through my tummy and I got all dizzy and things went blurry for a minute.
When I came to again, She was there. At first, I thought it was Momma, on account of she was about the same size and height and her back was to me and she was standing over my big sister Anna, reaching down towards her face and pulling something I couldn’t see out of her mouth. Then she turned around and my heart turned to ice and I realized this definitely weren’t momma, not unless the medicine did something really awful to her.
Her lips were peeled back over her teeth in a grimace that turned to a grin once she saw me looking at her. I remember thinking that she probably wouldn’t be able to completely close her mouth if she tried, on account of her skin was like old, crinkled paper, both in color and texture and looked like it had withered up to the point where stretching it to cover all those terrible teeth would rip it like ten pounds of manure in a five pound bag.
In an instant, she was beside me. Maybe it was the sacrament still working in my system or maybe it was just Her, but I swear I never saw Her walk; it was like one minute She was standing over Anna’s body and the next She was standing over me. She bent down to get next to me and I could smell something like old cabbage and spoiling meat hanging around Her like flies around a pig’s sty. She smiled that awful, cracked smile at me and said in a voice that was gravelly and yet somehow bouncy and brimming with excitement, “Not yet. See you soon.” And the last thing I remember thinking before blacking out was how strange it was that She was able to talk with those awful, cracked teeth still locked together.
It’s impossible to say how long it’s been now. I don’t get hungry no more and I don’t have no light to judge by and I don’t go to the bathroom or cough or sneeze or get tummy aches or headaches. It may have been days or hours or years or seconds since they left me here, but what does it matter anyway? All I know is that I’m in the dark all alone (for now) and as scary as that may sound, it’s actually a comfort, because as the little men do their wicked work and push more and more out of the shadows, I can see a dull whitish glow through my eyelids, like when you hold your breath too long and start seeing them little dots in your eyes. It’s getting closer and closer with each thought, and I can hear Her voice telling me, “Not yet. See you soon.” And I can hear Her laughing now, laughing to bust a gut, laughing through them closed, cracked teeth, Her paperwhite skin not moving like it should be with such a laugh, Her black robe billowing around her as she draws nearer. I think it’s finally time, that “soon” has come because the light is getting brighter and the laugh is getting louder and I’m so scared. I’m starting to think that maybe stayin’ inside ain’t so bad. Stayin’ inside has got to be better than wherever She wants to take me, so I think I’ll just lock the doors keep stayin’ inside as long as I can. I’ll be stayin’ inside until She knocks down my door and drags me out and takes me to momma.
Josiah Furcinitti lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts with his wife. While he has always enjoyed reading and been interested in writing, he began studying and delving into the craft in the past year. He is currently working on his first novel as well as other short fiction.
The man woke in the night with a strange feeling, like he was floating or dreaming or dead. A bright light was shining through his bedroom window, flickering on the walls and dancing across his wife’s sleeping face. He got out of bed and went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Five hours later, he woke up standing calf-deep in a creek in the Emerald Woods.
Michael Longmire, he thought, looking down at his wet pajama pants. You’re a damned fool.
The story was simple, almost painfully so with repetition. The man was a farmer. A hunter. A shopkeeper. He was married. He lived alone. He had twelve children. He was missing a leg. He had brown hair or yellow hair or black. The specifics were irrelevant because the ending never changed: The man followed the light into the woods, and the man died.
So why wasn’t Michael dead? He lifted his nose to the cold March air and sniffed. Wood smoke. That was funny. He didn’t think anyone lived this far out. He clambered over a fallen log, following his nose through the woods.
It doesn’t make sense, he thought, wading through a cold bog. It doesn’t add up, he told himself, mucking across a damp meadow. “I’m nothing like that man,” he said aloud, and then realized no one was listening.
The cottage with the smoking chimney looked perfectly normal. Thatched roof. Brick walls. Sturdy wooden door. He knocked, but no one answered.
The way his mother told the story, the light grew so hot the man’s skin melted off his bones and he burst into flames. Of course, it was just a cautionary tale. Something to keep children from wandering into the woods alone at night. It wasn’t relevant in his situation. He just needed a drink of water and to rest a while before he found his way back home.
He knocked again. This time he heard footsteps, and a woman’s suspicious green eye appeared in the door crack.
“Can I help you?”
Her name was Florence and he loved her. By mid-morning, he had no recollection of anything else. After half a batch of crumb muffins and three or four glasses of lavender brew, he’d forgotten all about the foolish man from the story, and when Florence suggested he stay at her cottage until he regained his strength he nodded in vigorous agreement.
The next day, at her request, he fixed her rotten fence post, sealed the gap in her window, removed the birds’ nests from her eaves, hammered down a few loose floorboards, brushed her stove pipe and, while the light drained out of the sky, patched her roof and watered her cabbage and milked her goat.
Meanwhile, Florence had gone into the woods at dawn with a basket and a hunting knife, and now as the sun disappeared she returned carrying a dead rabbit. She laid his warm carcass on the table, and Michael sliced open his belly and tore out his guts. Then he lifted the rabbit’s ear and whispered,
“Florence caught you hiding in the woods, you little rascal. And now Florence is going to cook you for supper.”
Michael regained his strength within a week; three months later, he was still living at Florence’s cottage. He built a deer fence around her garden, scraped the moss from her shingles, gutted and cleaned the rabbits, and did anything else she asked.
Overall, he was content. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss, and eventually he arrived at the only logical explanation.
“A witch,” he said.
“That’s absurd. Why would you say something like that?”
“My mother used to tell me a story as a child. It was called—”
“I know the one.”
“Then you know that some people think the man wasn’t just a fool. That he was tricked by a witch.”
She laid her sewing on the table. “I don’t know anything about a light in the woods, Michael,” she said firmly. “What you saw could’ve anything. A traveler’s lantern. A porch light. The moon.”
“It wasn’t the moon.”
“Well, you’re still alive. Besides, the man in the story had a wife.” She paused. “Do you have a wife, Michael?”
“A wife?” The question caught him off guard. He didn’t have a wife—did he? Good lord, he did. What was her name? Eleanor? Elodie? Eloise? She’d been lying right beside him that night, and he just ran off and left her alone.
“No,” he said. “Of course not.”
“Well, that settles it,” she said, smiling. “You’re not that particular fool.”
The next morning, the smell of hotcakes and coffee wafted through the cottage, and Michael climbed down from the sleeping loft and into a waiting pair of slippers. The sight of Florence whisking around the kitchen with a sizzling frying pan in her hand and her dark hair sweeping side to side was instantly calming; at once he felt all his worries dissolve. She wasn’t a witch, and he wasn’t a fool. They were just two people in love who’d chosen to make a life together.
He resolved never to mention the light again, and they slipped back into their usual routine. Every day they worked and every evening they sat by the fire and amused themselves with stories they invented about how they met. In one version, Michael was a traveling minstrel on the brink of starvation when he stumbled across Florence’s cottage. In another, Florence was a princess no bigger than a thumb.
By all accounts they were a happy couple, and years passed with nary a quarrel or harsh word exchanged between them. But eventually Florence began to show signs of unhappiness. Her eyes glazed with boredom whenever Michael spoke, and on several occasions he caught her staring longingly out the window, as if there were somewhere else she wanted to be.
Her sudden distance was upsetting to Michael. More bothersome, though, was how eerily familiar the whole thing felt. Choosing to forget his past had been crucial to building his new life with Florence. But now he recalled so little of his previous experience he could never be sure when something was happening for the first time, or if unbeknownst to him it was circling around again.
Then one night he woke with a sudden jolt. The bedsheets were sweaty, and he was shivering from cold. He felt strangely hollow, like one of his appendages was missing, although a quick examination confirmed that all limbs were accounted for. Then he saw the light shining through the window and in a panic reached over to wake Florence.
She was gone.
He scrambled down the ladder and flung open the cottage door. Florence was chasing the light into the woods at magnificent speed, yipping and howling like a wild dog with her long hair trailing behind her. Meanwhile, the light dodged artfully between the trees, leading her in circles as she tried to catch it.
He called her name gently, trying to lure her back home. But the longer he stood and watched things unfold, the more irritated he felt, until he was burning hot with rage. It was playing with her like a toy, didn’t she realize that? She looked like a damned fool.
Bucket Siler’s writing has appeared in Storm Cellar, The Offing, Atticus Review, Bracken, and elsewhere. She lives in New Mexico, where she organizes Santa Fe Zine Fest.
I read someplace, and I can’t remember where, that the loss of a child is a ten on the Richter Scale of human calamities, something to that effect. Whenever Alyssa was undergoing one of her many surgeries, or some particularly horrible treatment, I would Google quotes about pain, loss, death. I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that someone else knew what I was feeling, that helplessness, that hopelessness. I guess we always knew it was inevitable. High risk parameningeal Rhabdomyosarcoma … If you break down all the Latin prefixes and suffixes it explains itself. It emerged in her neck and then followed her lymphatic system everywhere else. The Oncologist said she had a one in five chance of surviving for five years. She lingered twenty-seven months. My wife, Linda, made it about half that. She didn’t die. She wanted to keep on living. I hated her for that and pushed her away from me, literally at times. I wanted to die with Alyssa. I wanted Linda to die with Alyssa too. We went to all the treatments together. We pretended that we were a loving couple for Alyssa’s sake, but when we went to bed, Linda faced one wall and I faced the other. If she tried to touch me, I pulled away.
When we recognized the final futility, we ordered the doctors to remove all the tubes and electrodes. Alyssa fell into a deep coma. About a week later, on a Tuesday morning, she awoke, and mumbled a few, mostly incoherent, syllables. Her gaze seemed to travel from one corner of the room to the other, and then she reached for my hand, looked directly at me for the first time in over a week, and said two words, “with me.”
I squeezed her hand. Her gaze melted away and she went to sleep for the last time, her breathing so shallow that we didn’t even notice the last one. She passed sometime in the night.
Our family and friends visited all day on Thursday. We didn’t want Alyssa buried in a wig, and I think many mourners were reluctant to look at her wilted face too long. We lowered Alyssa into the ground Friday afternoon. The attendants covered her coffin with a spray of red and white roses, and I covered the roses with shovels of loam and clay. I buried her myself.
Linda left immediately after the service and went home with her parents. I told her I would provide her with whatever money she needed, but that I wanted to keep the house. She agreed and offered me a final embrace. I refused.
I didn’t dream about Alyssa Friday or Saturday night, not that I remember anyway, Trazadone, Bullet Rye and exhaustion. Sunday, I cleaned up a little, took a shower, ate some chicken and rice soup, checked some business E-mails and watched TV.
Sunday night, shortly after falling asleep. I found myself walking in the yard and field behind the little Methodist church we attended before Alyssa got sick. The azaleas were blooming and yellow-green pine pollen covered the cars and rooftops. I could hear the congregation singing through the stained glass windows. “blessed assurance Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.”
I was never particularly religious, but I felt some measure of peace. And then I saw her, my Alyssa. She had been obscured by a water oak at the field’s edge. She carried three small grocery bags. I recognized her long flowing dark hair, darker than I remembered it before the Carboplatin took it all away, one strand at a time.
As I approached and saw that her bags were filled with plastic Easter eggs, I realized that I knew this day, this glorious Spring day. Alyssa had volunteered to hide the candy-filed prizes for the younger children to hunt after the service. I followed her through the dream, much as I had done that living day. She seemed not to know I was there. I caught only brief glances of her face as she ran from hiding spot to hiding spot. I watched as she concealed pastel eggs in clumps of grass, under sticks and stones and in the branches of shrubs for the taller kids to find. As she sprinted towards the sanctuary’s door, the pastels began to fade and I awoke. I tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t at first, and when I finally did there were no more dreams, at least none that I could remember.
I didn’t dream of her for two nights. I didn’t dream at all. I feared I might never dream, or hope, again. But on the third night, I found myself walking down our long hallway towards our parlor. The walls on both sides and the floor itself seemed misty, ethereal, and I knew I was dreaming again. I was very happy. I could hear the once- familiar sound of the metronome clicking away, and the sound of E-minor scales being played skilfully on our piano. As I entered the room I could see her from behind, those long locks, the same color as the Clavionva I bought her for her 12th birthday. In her final year her fingers hurt too much to play. Her fingers seemed free now, unencumbered by pain. Her posture was perfect. I wanted to touch her, to feel her warmth again, but as I neared her back, I awoke.
This pattern persisted for many months. Every third night I would dream of her and would observe with the same clarity I had once observed with earthly eyes. Sometimes she was a small girl playing with dolls or laughing with her sleepover friends, and sometimes she was older, reading a book on our porch swing, or playing catch with our retriever in the yard. Sometimes I would find her walking in the first green of spring, and sometimes the wintered leaves were withered, crisp, and sere.
But they were not just dreams, or even a troubled mind trying to heal a broken heart. She was there with me. I could feel her presence everywhere. I began to find authentications of my feelings, her hairbrush on my nightstand, indentations on her bedspread as if she had reclined there. I occasionally heard a single piano note being pressed softly again and again. But even though I knew she was there, I could only see her in my sleep. I soon began to hate being awake. I began to take more and more pills so I might slumber longer, or even forever.
Last night, we were again in the Easter churchyard where I had first seen her on that Sunday night almost a year ago. I followed her for a long time. I’m not sure how long. Dream time has no empirical measure. Again, like on that first night, she ran to the field’s edge, but then stopped and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time since we last spoke on Earth. She reached out her hand and said those same two words I hear over and over again,
“… with me.”
I touched her hand but it was cancer cold. And when I looked at it, it was not a hand at all, but more a mass of feelers and tentacles which wrapped around my wrist and all the way up my forearm. I looked for her face and it was gone, replaced by a pale featureless mask, a hairless skull with purple veins rising an inch high under the skin, and she, or it, repeated, again and again, “with me.”
I awoke. The flesh and muscles of my arm and shoulder ached as if they had been torqued with a powerful force.
I don’t know what happened, if my grief opened a portal for a malevolent being, an imposter, searching for a soul or if my sweet Alyssa is now such a being. I intend to find out in a couple of days.
Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines, including Southern Gothic Creations, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Heartwood Literary Journal, Rural Fiction Magazine, Longridge Review, Deep Wild Journal and many others.
The grimoire sat on the table of a man selling books at a fete in his local high school. He didn’t know it was a grimoire, was in fact unsure as to what exactly it was, or where it had come from. It had caught his eye a couple of times throughout the morning, and each time had made him feel a little worried.
No, he didn’t know it was a grimoire. How could he have? It looked homemade (like someone had put it together using old printer paper from the 1980s), and it had been placed face-down on the table, so that its blank back page faced him. It was stained, dirty. There was also something oddly menacing about it, although the man, who was called Terry, could not have put his finger on what it was about the book that exuded menace exactly.
“Stop fretting,” he told himself. “And anyway, here comes a potential customer, so look sharp.”
“Hello.” He was now being addressed by Mrs Beryl Whyte, the school’s retired headmistress. She had waved goodbye to working life just over a year earlier. A month after that, Mr Whyte had passed away, with some suggesting that his death had been a lucky escape from the chores that Beryl had planned for his own imminent retirement.
“Mrs Whyte. Lovely to see you again,” was how Terry greeted her.
Now, at this point we must address Terry’s accent. He was from London (Peckham, specifically). He had moved to Scotland for love, and had resided there for the last twenty years. His accent had never deserted him, and he hoped it never would. He had often been told he spoke like his late father, and had no wish to lose this one remaining link to the old man, as he had always called him.
“Nice to see you, too, Terry. Keeping well?”
“Can’t complain, Mrs Whyte. Ah…you see anything you like, just let me know.”
She picked up the grimoire and began flicking through it.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“That.” It was the question he had feared she would ask. But, then, why was he afraid? All he had to do was be honest. He decided to give it a go. “Someone left that here, I think; it isn’t one of mine. Sorry.”
“It’s a curious thing.”
“Yes. The pages inside: they’re blank.”
“Are they now? That is odd. Curious, as you say.”
“The Grimoire of Alec O’Dea,” she said, reading the title. “Do you know what a grimoire is?”
Now she was looking directly at him, her baby-blue eyes seeming to be peering at him over non-existent glasses. She had recently turned seventy, but had always looked that age to Terry. Nowadays, he thought, it was hard to believe the age of some of the kids coming into the teaching profession. They all looked as young as his teachers had looked ancient.
“No idea,” he was saying now. “No, wait…Does it have something to do with cooking?”
“What?” She let out a tinkling little laugh. “No, it’s a book of spells.”
“Yes. But there aren’t any spells in here.” She opened the book at a random page and turned it towards him so he could see for himself. “Blank. See?”
“Weird.” He had a sudden flash of inspiration, one that he was confident was far more accurate than the one that had led to him guessing that a grimoire was a cookery book. “I’ll bet,” he said, “that this is someone’s little project.”
“Yeah. Someone’s into all this stuff, magic and the like, and they’ve started making a book to write spells in.”
“Possible,” said Mrs Whyte, nodding her head. “But why leave it here? And why were they carrying it about in the first place?”
“No idea. It’s definitely home-made though.”
“Oh yes, I agree. They might have invested in a better typewriter though. See the title? The “O” key clearly wasn’t working. They’ve had to use zeroes.”
“Yeah? I hadn’t noticed”
“It’s filthy, too,” she added, throwing the book back onto Terry’s table with something approaching disdain.
The book was, indeed, filthy. Coffee mugs had been rested on it on more than one occasion, leaving brown rings, some of which were more prominent than others. Just beneath the title, just to the left, was a drop of what Terry was pretty sure was dried-in blood. Grubby fingerprints were dotted along the outside edge of the front page, parts of which were frayed, while others had been completely torn and then taped back together.
“I’ll give you fifty pounds for it.”
The words seemed like they were being transmitted to him from some other reality. He was sure he’d misheard, and so did not reply straight away.
“Did you hear me?”
Terry looked up. “What?” he asked. “I mean…Sorry?”
“You might as well sell me it,” said Mrs Whyte. “No one’s coming to collect it.”
“What, the book of spells? You want to buy it?”
“Yes. Do you expect someone to come back for it?”
“I…No. I’ve got no idea. But why would you want to pay fifty quid for it?”
This was too much for Terry. He was about to laugh at what he thought must be some not-particularly-funny joke on Mrs Whyte’s part, when he looked at her very stern and business-like face and immediately thought better of it.
“Well?” she said, impatiently.
“No, sorry, Mrs Whyte, no-can-do. Take the book if you want, but I won’t take money from you for it. I certainly won’t take fifty quid.”
“I can well afford it, if that’s the issue.”
“It’s isn’t; I know you can. It’s just the principle of the thing.” He lifted the book. “Here. Take it. Enjoy.”
She placed her navy blue purse, which she had produced in readiness for the transaction, back into her matching handbag.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, solemnly.
“No offence, Mrs. W.”
“None taken, I assure you.”
“Sure? Want to see anything else? Do you like Agatha Christie? I have loads of them here. What about the grandkids? They like Harry Potter? Got a full set.”
“No, they don’t read. Good day, Terry.”
“OK, Mrs. Whyte. Good day to you, too. Give my regards to Mr…”
She shot him a wounded glance.
“To the grandkids,” he quickly corrected.
She smiled and wandered off, leaving Terry feeling very bad and very odd. Outside, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with the rain that had been forecast for the afternoon arriving early, robbing the sky of all traces of blue, accompanied by a whistling, January wind.
The rest of the day was a wash-out in every respect. No one came near Terry’s table, making him wonder, gloomily, whether it wasn’t just Mrs Whyte’s grandchildren who no longer read. Then, for the last hour, as the rain battered the windows, all he could think about was having to haul all his books back out to the car, and then from the car back into the house. What a waste of time it had been.
Four o’clock arrived, and he put the books carefully back into their plastic crates. He placed the grimoire into a crate too, and wished, as he did so, that he had let Mrs Whyte buy it. At least, then, he would have something to show for the day.
He drove home to the two-bedroom house on the outskirts of town that he had been so happy in with Joan. Yes, he had indeed moved to Scotland for love, but the woman he loved had been taken from him by cancer. Nine years had passed since her death, and he still couldn’t really talk about it, because it made him feel sick. He wondered, often, if there was more he could have done. Not about her death (no, nothing could have been done about that), but while she was alive. He had loved her, but could, he knew, have been more to her. The little regrets, when accumulated, could be summed up in one word: guilt. He suspected it was a guilt most widows and widowers felt, or at least that was the thought he tried to comfort himself with when trying to get to sleep at night.
Having put the crates of books away in a cupboard in what had always been the spare room (a room meant for a long-wished-for child that had never materialised), he sat in the darkening living room, watching television and drinking a bottle of wine, until he dozed off.
He woke to noises from upstairs. It was just after midnight, and the television was showing what looked like a pornographic movie. He pressed the remote just to check, but it wasn’t a porn channel he was watching. Then he recognised one of the actors, and then lost interest entirely as he heard the noise again, and decided that he would have to investigate.
Now, Terry was not a man who believed in ghosts. However, most sceptics, when challenged, will admit that a noise like the one Terry was now hearing, while alone just after midnight will give them pause. They might remember a book they once read, or a story they once heard, or a childhood fear or recurring nightmare. Few people, sceptical or not, will race upstairs with gay abandon to investigate the noise. Most will hesitate, take it slowly, and they will certainly be afraid.
Terry crept up the stairs, pausing whenever the noise started again. It sounded like furniture being moved around, which he knew it couldn’t have been. This was interspersed with whispering. The notion that it might be burglars flitted through his mind, and he dismissed it, although he wasn’t sure why.
Up, up he went, reaching the door to the spare room without incident.
“Hello,” he said. But he hadn’t spoken in hours, and so his voice wasn’t much more than a croak.
The whispering began again. It was coming from inside the spare room. What was it actually saying? He put his ear to the door, half-expecting some horror movie jump-scare in the form of a thud on the other side of the door. “Fuck”, he thought, “maybe quite literally from the Other Side.”
Then he thought: “Just open the fucking door.”
And so he did.
Joan stood in the middle of the spare room, waiting for her husband, cradling the tumour-baby. She was naked, and bleeding from the birth, and her long, red hair clung to the side of her face with sweat, but still she stroked the baby and loved it more that she had ever loved anything. More than she loved Terry, even. That was only natural though; this, she knew, was the way it was meant to be.
The baby groaned (growled) in her arms. Its body was a tumour, a wet, purplish mass, with darker lines scoring its surface, like veins. There were some areas of raised, bloody tissue, like cuts only just beginning to heal. It looked a little like a haggis looked before you cut it open. She giggled at the comparison she’d made, and the baby groaned (growled) again.
It had no head. The face protruded up through the membrane of the tumour, and where it did, a milky-looking substance oozed out. It had longish arms that were forever reaching out to her. These arms looked fairly normal, as did the legs. She hoped the rest of the tumour-baby would one day follow suit.
The light was switched on, and in came Terry. She had heard him ascending the stairs, edging warily towards their reunion like he had something to fear from it. Perhaps he was afraid of the whispering. She could hear it too, as she had heard it in life. They had both heard it. Then it had come from the shadow that had briefly haunted their house. Tonight there seemed to be no source, or many; it seemed to be coming from the walls, like the low buzzing of masonry bees, and making about as much sense.
Terry said: “Joan,” and he began backing out of the room.
“Please, no,” she pleaded.
He was looking at the child in horror. Naturally, it was horrific to him. Subtract the maternal love and you were left with nothing more than a groaning (growling) tumour-baby. It needed a mother’s warmth and nurturing to be anything else. It needed all the hopes that a mother imprinted on it. In the eyes of anyone else, it was repulsive. It was a nightmare.
“Wait. The baby,” she added anyway.
He was no longer backing away, but looked like he might faint or throw up.
“It’s ours, Terry. I’ve come back. We’re to raise it together. Please, darling.”
“Joan, you’re dead.”
“No,” she replied; and then added, in a quieter, less certain voice: “Yes.”
Terry managed to glance at the child.
“We’ve both come back to you,” she told him. “Won’t you hold me? Won’t you love us?”
Able to take no more, Terry turned and left the room, and Joan wondered what that meant for her return.
By the time he reached his own bedroom, Terry had convinced himself that what he had seen had been nothing more than the hallucination of a man who had never properly dealt with his grief, who had accepted with civility the advice of friends, had said yes, yes of course, he would think about counselling, and had then disregarded the notion as being foolish, as being something a man would never consider.
He took off his clothes, feeling real terror wash over him suddenly. Real or not, he had seen her, and he had seen it, too.
It had happened like this: Joan had become sick. Ovarian cancer. She had been told she had five years left. Maybe.
Probably a lot less.
Joan had been a practicing Wiccan since leaving school at sixteen. Terry hadn’t believed in it at first. However, three years into their marriage, he had witnessed some things that had changed his mind: just little spells; things made to happen that would not (could not) have happened otherwise.
Upon receiving the diagnosis, Joan had immediately accepted her fate. One night, as they lay in the dark and spoke of what was to come, she even claimed to have dreamt of this long ago, as a teenager. It was the first time in years that Terry hadn’t believed her.
He, on the other hand, refused to accept.
But she died anyway, whether he refused or not. Death was like that. It was the inevitable train, whistling down the black night-time tracks towards you. If you were meant to board it, then you would. It really was as simple as that.
He got into bed, switched off his bedside lamp, hesitantly accepting the darkness, fearful of it for the first time since childhood. Outside, a fox agreed that the dark was, indeed, a terrible thing as it cried its wild, desolate cry.
Pulling the quilt up over his shoulders, Terry rolled over, and pressed all of his weight against the tumour-baby, which groaned (growled), clawed and seeped.
“Be careful of the baby,” said Joan.
Terry leapt out of bed, screaming. He ran downstairs, where someone was standing at his front door, rapping the letterbox.
As he walked towards the front door, he knew who it was that was visiting him at such an ungodly hour.
He knew, but he could not have said how he knew.
“Hello,” said his visitor, when the door was opened to her. “So sorry to bother you. You have a lot on your plate already, I know. I can help with that, of course; I can send them back to where they came from. All you have to do is sell me the book.”
“I will. I’ll do anything.”
“I know. May I come in?”
“Of course, Mrs Whyte.”
They had been sitting in the living room, drinking tea that Terry had reluctantly offered and prepared, when he felt he could no longer resist the urge to ask the question.
“Are they still there?” He glanced up at the roof.
“No,” she replied, sipping her tea from Joan’s old mug, “but they haven’t been sent back yet; they’re in Limbo.”
“Are they real?”
“Yes, Terry, that was your wife and the child she bore. I brought them back from the dead. I can do that. However, being able to do so pales into insignificance when set against the power of Mr. O’Dea’s grimoire. You are the owner of said grimoire, and so only you can sell it. And only in owning it can I wield its power. This is very basic stuff.”
She placed the mug down on the coffee table and clasped her hands over her primly crossed legs.
“Shall I tell you how you came to own it? Shall I tell you how you came to forget?”
Not waiting for Terry to reply, she continued: “You refused to accept. That was where it began. However, like a man lost in a forest who prays for a way out but cannot find one, you searched in a panic, trawling the internet for an answer, the light in the darkness that would show you the path you craved. As is so often the case, the answer came when you had convinced yourself you would never find it. You visited a fete one day, and there it was, as it would be again nine years later. These mischievous artefacts enjoy their symmetries, their little ironies.
“You struck up a conversation with the woman at the book stall. Not all of her books were to do with magic, but there were enough that you could establish a common interest. No one else was coming near the stall, so you had time to talk. You saw the grimoire, and she told you all about it, how it listened to your wishes, translated them upon its blank pages into the gibberish of Alec O’Dea, and then made those wishes come true.”
“How do you know all this?” asked Terry.
“I’ve been looking for that book for a long time. I have crows. They aren’t everywhere, but they are perched in a lot of high places, soaring over a lot of cities and towns. There was one on a windowsill outside the fete. It saw the book, and I saw what the crow saw, but I was too late. That day, you bought the book, and I could only watch as you took it home.
“Of course, I knew why you wanted it. I would wait until you had used it to cure your wife, and then I would offer to buy it from you. However, I did not foresee (although I should have) what happened next.
“Did you ever see the crow, I wonder? Perched on your windowsill, or on a branch or a fence, it saw what transpired: your poor wife was cured, but then came the twist…
“It is that kind of artefact, you see. Why didn’t I take that possibility into account? I’ve known of them before. They are wilful, cruel things that turn on their owners, turn their magic against them.
“When the whispering shadow appeared a few days after the cancer had gone into remission, I didn’t understand at first what it was I was seeing. Then your wife woke one morning, inexplicably and heavily pregnant, and gave birth a few days later to that thing.
“You don’t remember any of this. However, you cut the umbilical cord, held the thing that was more tumour than child, as Joan bled and sweated and screamed.
“And then she died. As I understand it, the shadow is the herald of the curse of Alec O’Dea, and you and Joan were that curse’s latest victims.
“You ran a bath and drowned the child, watching its submerged face as it flailed and splashed and, eventually, died.
“You buried it in the garden that night, and then you climbed into bed beside Joan, and you must have made a final wish.
“The world saw only the result of that wish, as reality was adjusted to make it come true. A small adjustment, unnoticed by all except myself and a handful of other occultists.
“You woke to a new truth: Joan had died in the hospice, peacefully in the end. You had refused to accept her death. Refused, but she had died anyway.
“You did not recall the reality that had been cancelled by your wish, did not recall ever owning the book, which then took it upon itself to vanish.
“Ah, but it needed to be sold. When it reappeared, as I knew it would, it fell to me to compel you to sell it.”
She got up, and Terry got up too.
He felt fatigue wash over him.
“It’s yours,” he said. “It’s upstairs.”
“Thank you, Terry. I’m sorry it had to come to this.”
“And I was being cruel before when I offered you what I did.”
Outside, the dawn birds were beginning their song. Terry had never liked the sound, but today it was sweet, and he was looking forward to listening to it as he fell asleep.
He hoped that he wouldn’t dream about Joan. You might think that to dream of a loved one is as sweet as birdsong, but when that loved one is gone such dreams only lead to bitter awakenings.
“So,” said Mrs Whyte: “name your price.”
Mr. Laverty notes:
“I am currently working on new horror fiction while editing various other pieces and trying to place them with publishers and agents. I live in Scotland and have two daughters. My main horror influences are M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, William Peter Blatty and David Lynch.”
Devil’s Stone, the boundary marker on the furthest edge of what constitutes Chasteborough, was crowned by a thin layer of pure white snow. It had been an unseasonably cold March and the snow had come at its peak, around the second week of the month, and hung about determinedly ever since, refreshing itself with brief and furious flurries whenever the previous bounty began to melt. Now, as April dawned, the highest ridges of the hills still rippled down in banks of mottled grey slush and the black woods were outlined with a glistening halo. Still, the evening skies kept also their strange nocturnal shades of orange and purple-blue.
Devil’s Stone had gained its name on account of a scrap of folklore that also appears in many other forms across many other parishes of England. As it goes locally, the stone had supposedly been dropped by the slovenly Satan in the fifteenth century as he trundled a wheelbarrow of menhirs across the hills to launch at the newly constructed spire of Chasteborough’s church. Most of the rocks had missed their target when eventually thrown and ended up in Knapp’s Stream by the water meadows; the Dark Lord evidently had very bad aim. The Devil had been seen a lot around the town in the Middle Ages—indeed, the entirety of England then appeared to be his stomping ground. He had apparently lost interest and moved on since.
Little Frankie Sharpend had twice slipped out of sight of his parents and miraculously made his way to the stone by himself in the eight years which made up his short life. The first time, he had been found and bought back to town by a couple of elderly hikers; the second, his parents had worked on their suspicions of repetition and found him sheltering from the rain in the woods beside the stone. When he went missing again, this time towards midnight on a Thursday, Devil’s Stone was thus the first place the search party went to look. Stuart Sharpend, his wife Simona and their immediate neighbours fanned out across the trail that led up and across St John’s Nook, the deceptively named eminence which stretched out towards the boundary marker, with watchmen positioned on either end of the line to peer into the darkness of the fields and the trees as they passed by for a tell-tale flash of red. Little Frankie was always dressed in a bright red coat now, just in case he went runaway again.
All the way up, Stuart Sharpend was a mess. He wore a puffed gilet over a flannel shirt and both items were near-soaked with tears. Not once on the track did he raise his eyes from the ground; instead, he hung his head and let others be his lookout. He whispered continuously that things felt different this time, that this time it didn’t feel like Little Frankie would be found so easy, that this time he was looking to be long and solid gone. This irritated the others at first, and Simona had some sharp words for her husband, but in the end, they simply ignored him and let him gibber on. They were too busy concentrating to pay him too much mind.
The group reached the stone at about two-thirty am. In the dark, it looked more like a squat gargoyle fled from the church’s gutters than an obelisk.
Simona led them around the hill in a coordinated pattern, calling out for Frankie, but there was no response and no glimpse of red. Before they reconvened they covered every inch of long grass and gorse with their torch beams. Stuart had worsened by their return and was found wailing with his arms wrapped around the stone. He turned on Simona as soon as he looked upon her. His voice was like cyanide.
“Why did you leave the back door open, woman? Why would you? Who leaves their backdoor open in Chasteborough?”
Simona looked at him without pity.
“We’ve gone at it with our own hands. Now we call the police. Now we let the bunglers have a go to see if they can rescue their good name.”
Stuart told her that he knew by her words and icy tone that she was black-hearted and that she didn’t seem to care much that their son was gone. She replied that she cared a lot, but had been bought up to be practical-minded. Valerie from number twelve bent down and stroked Stuart’s hair and let him sob into her wool cardigan. She was the only one who seemed to be on his side. The rest had apparently developed skin like a rhino’s hide from living in the town so long and watching the endless parade of nightmares and the incomprehensible roll-on by year after year. They seemed inured from too much pain even when their own lives were penetrated by the horror. That was indeed how it was all over; the town lived by apathy and half-interested gossip until it leapt into a fervour when the culprit of any major crime was finally caught. That was when the townspeople let something show; then they had a target for their buried frustration and despair at the way things were; then they had their scarecrow to set alight. At least a couple of members of the search party secretly hoped that someone had taken Little Frankie so that they had someone to hate again. Stuart and Valerie weren’t Chasteborough-born; they were from elsewhere and they weren’t the same.
There was no phone reception on the Nook, so Simona told the rest of the group to take Stuart back home and call the police as soon as one of them could pick up a decent signal. She would stay on the hill overnight and wait to see if her boy appeared. Valerie tried to talk her out of this, but Simona swung her canvas bag from her shoulder and showed the other woman that she had filled it with a sleeping bag and plenty of blankets. Valerie still nominated her husband to stay with Simona in case whoever might have taken Little Frankie was hiding out in the hills. The child-snatcher would probably want to kill any witnesses or people looking for him, she figured. Simona didn’t fight her on this point. She’d been having sex on-and-off with Valerie’s husband for almost a year. She’d be glad of this particular company.
Two hours later, Simona and Richie Clare slept together in the woods looking out on Devil’s Stone. Their love-making was almost mechanical, not like usual, most likely because of the frigidity of the night and because Simona kept an eye out the whole time for that bright coat amongst the trees. This turned out to be, however, the night that her second son, Albie, was conceived, although Simona herself would never be certain on that point, for she had also acquiesced to Stuart’s desperate and dismal advances two evenings previously.
Valerie gave Stuart two of her prescribed sleeping pills when she finally managed to get him into his bed. She slept in the guest room, not Little Frankie’s room, but was continually up and down as the night stretched towards dawn as she thought she could hear Stuart moving around every so often, rooting around in his room for something, but every time she went to check on him, he was in a dead sleep and drooling heavily on the pillow.
Eventually, she broke one of her own sleeping pills in two and took a half to try and encourage herself towards a temporary oblivion.
She’d been prescribed the pills because she’d always found it difficult to sleep in Chasteborough. The town was not particularly large and the pubs did not stay open late for the most part, but there seemed to be roving gangs of giggling and bellicose men who prowled the streets throughout the nighttime hours regardless. Whispers went around that half the local population of post-adolescent young men and middle-aged homeowners were caught up on the cards via a long-running underground high-stakes poker circle which moved regularly between various back alleys, the living rooms of empty rental properties and the backs of shops. The pills usually served to knock Valerie out to the extent that the noise invigorated her dream state and turned the rovers in to jolly laughing fae-folk.
The police didn’t call on Stuart until around nine in the morning, when beams of weak grey workaday light were well established throughout the house. It transpired that the rest of the search party had told the attending officers not to bother with Stuart until he’d slept his way into a state more equitable to conversation.
Valerie opened the door to Sergeant Teller and his men and led the way into Stuart’s room, where she shook the sleeping man awake. He was weak and groggy and not at all friendly in his tone. He’d heard bad things about Teller. Who hadn’t?
“We’ve been communicating with your wife,” the sergeant told him. He was a very large man with heavily-tattooed arms and fingers as thick as railway sleepers. “We’ve got a team out with dogs already. They’re going all over the hills. Besides that, there’s officers on door-to-doors.”
“Has anyone seen anything?” Stuart asked, pulling the duvet up to cover the slight trembling of his body.
“No. We’re hoping it’s the door-to-doors that are most useful though. A small lad like him wouldn’t have taken well to the cold up there last night.”
“Why say that?”
“Reasons of realism and practicality, Stuart. Be optimistic but clear-eyed. Hopeful but never foolish.”
Stuart looked at him. “My wife always bangs on about practicality and realism too.”
“It’s the Chasteborough mentality. We’re proud of it. Yorkshiremen think they’re the paragons of common sense, but they’re wrong. They’re just dull and small and misty-minded about their dales behind it all.”
“It seems to me that Chasteborough’s really got more madness in its mind than most places.”
The sergeant shrugged and told Stuart he’d check in with him again shortly.
Stuart stayed in bed the rest of the day. In contrast to his pessimism the night before, and with Teller’s blasé judgement ringing in his ears, he was more inclined to believe that his son was alive and likely to reappear soon. He couldn’t tell if he was simply being wilfully contrary or not, but the thought comforted him anyway.
Teller returned three times throughout the afternoon and evening, but the news was never positive. The door-to-doors had been useless and the police trackers, eventually joined again by Stuart’s neighbours, had picked up no trace or scent.
Simona remained absent. Valerie stayed and at midnight gave Stuart another one of her sleeping pills. He slept hard again and dreamt about the boundary stone.
In his dream, the Devil, a slender humanoid figure with long flat feet like spades that ended in a single point and a curled black tail akin to a pig’s, sat on the stone and rested his chin in his palm as he watched scarlet clouds float on by over his head. His was a repose of total relaxation and he wore all the time a tiny little smile. The Devil’s expression reminded Stuart of a ranch owner surveying his land, his strong head of cattle and his men-at-work, with the sort of serene pride that only arises at the very end of a man’s life, when there is nothing more that he can do to improve his generous lot. The image of this dream stayed fixed in Stuart’s mind; the only movement came from the long grass in the breeze and the languorous drift of the clouds. The vision hung about until morning.
Valerie again took half a pill an hour after Stuart and dreamt of fleeing the town with him in the back of a freight train, like a couple of dustbowl hobos. She awoke when the train derailed and sent them both rolling down a hill back towards the Sharpend home.
When Valerie drew back the living room curtains the following morning, she was greeted by the sight of five or six television news crews setting up camp in the street and intrepid journalists traipsing towards the window through the neat flowerbeds. Although there appeared to be little reason for it in particular, somehow the national media had come together overnight and decided that this was the missing child story that they were going to focus on this year. Valerie tried to keep Stuart from these perfidious clutches, but he was intrigued by the circus upon waking and decided to speak to the gathered masses. Unfortunately, nearly everything he had to say only served to exacerbate the morbid curiosity and faux-hysteria that the press and rolling television news services were trying to drum up in their consumer base.
In his first conversation with the national channels, Stuart told reporter Jemima Copper, the face of ITV Factual, that Little Frankie had been drawn to the hills as if by a magnetic force for his whole life. Stuart outlined the two previous disappearances, where the boy had been found at Devil’s Stone, and explained that on many other occasions, the child had attempted to toddle out of their front door in the direction of the eminences which showed at the end of their row of terraces, only to be stopped by himself or Simona. He also told Jemima that Frankie frequently peppered his parents with questions about the hills, seeming entirely puzzled as to the reason for their existence.
The reporters, as is their fashion, ran with all this and scoured the archives for every bit of salacious or gory detail that they could find about Chasteborough. The town had long been a source of far from prurient interest for many, Valerie knew, due to the frequency and oddity of the many crimes committed there. It was always seen as a dangerous place, and a deeply insular one, but the half-whispers and careless slurs now became an all-consuming fire of judgement that cast Chasteborough as the new Sodom and Gomorrah, the entry point to Hell and a toll station on the road to the bleak future that awaited so many of the rest of the country’s doomed settlements. The hills became ‘the moors’, with all the associated baggage of horrors that came with that nomenclature, and theories abounded about Little Frankie being led from his home by the ghosts of other murdered children or a serial killer being at work again after escaping justice due to innocents being fitted up for his murders. The religious and overly credulous decided that the name of Devil’s Stone conclusively demonstrated that the spot was a site of Satanic rituals which had ensnared the child.
By day four of the non-stop coverage, an ice cream truck had come and parked at the base of the Nook, blaring a tinny Greensleeves and serving its ware to day-trippers. Locals too began to make a packet renting out their spare rooms to reporters and ‘investigators’. The restaurants boomed; the cafes boomed; the shops boomed; the B&Bs boomed; the souvenir photography hawks, caricature artists who set up on the high street and wannabe-hardmen offering protection services boomed. For two weeks, Chasteborough became the center of the universe: where the tabloids ran with any and all tattle-tale, the broadsheets ruminated on what the town and the case said about England and all of us.
For these two weeks, Stuart did not see Simona hardly at all. She stayed camping out with Richie Clare. The only exception came a couple of days after the disappearance, when she had dropped by the house to collect the family’s tent, some changes of clothes and the rest of the camping gear. She barely spoke to Stuart, but told Valerie that she still half-expected Little Frankie to turn up at the stone, which was why she was staying there, but that she also expected her hopes of this to begin to dwindle as the days went by.
Richie also did not attempt to contact his spouse. From this gesture, all became clear for Valerie. She attempted to seduce Stuart a couple of times as a result of this revelation, slipping into the thinnest of her nightdresses and forgoing her dressing gown as she put him to bed, and even once going so far as to climb in beside him, but Stuart only kept his eyes fixed upon the hill at the end of the terrace which showed from his bedroom window.
Indeed, this staring became the main occupation of his time. Between morning, afternoon and evening, Stuart would move from the bedroom to the garden, where he could see the smaller rising of the Turnover, to the front room’s view of the Nook and then back again. The reporters stopped coming because they couldn’t make him talk any more. The audience at home began to suspect that the man was having some sort of breakdown due to guilt. He became the primary suspect in Little Frankie’s disappearance and many began to think themselves foolish for not suspecting the obviously dodgy father from the very beginning, what with his torrents of rubbish about magnets and the supernatural draw of the hills.
The last time Stuart spoke to his favourite journalist, Jemima, all he told her was that he was “going down the road feeling bad, Lord, Lord.” She had no idea what he meant by this for certain, but eventually decided that the man was crying out to God for clemency.
Sergeant Teller came and picked Stuart up when the public pressure on him became too strong, but Stuart wouldn’t talk no matter how hard the veteran officer went. Teller started easy, talking to Sharpend as if they were old friends, but he ended up accusing him of every perversion he’d ever encountered in the course of his duty. When Stuart still didn’t respond to this provocation, Teller hit him once and then again and again in the places where the bruises wouldn’t show. He completed his performance by dropping down and hissing in his victim’s ear that he knew he was the very Devil himself and that he was going to goddamn chase him and his black hellhounds all the way back down into where they’d crawled up from.
Teller then sent Stuart home to recover from his injuries as he knew the man wouldn’t go telling stories about his treatment. Teller, too, considered him gone because of guilt. He figured that Sharpend’s senses wouldn’t recover until he’d been found out, and maybe even sentenced, if ever. As a cover, the sergeant told Valerie Clare, the murderer’s carer or whatever the hell she was now, that the marks had occurred when a member of the public had got to Stuart at the station when his back was turned and he apologised profusely. He didn’t care if she believed him. It would be best if she was scared of him too.
Simona came back to the house for the second time when she realised she had not had her period. She appeared at the door with a bag from the pharmacy, disappeared into the bathroom for a short while, and then came out to enquire about Stuart’s wellbeing. Valerie didn’t lie and told her that all he did was stare at the hills and repeat the same phrase, that one about going down the road.
Simona told her that the phrase was from a song, or maybe many songs, that she’d heard it cropping up a lot. Stuart had probably heard it when he watched John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath on television the year before. Some old hillbilly sang it in that, she remembered.
“I ain’t gonna be treated this old way,” Simona said. “That’s the next line, the end of the verse. I ain’t gonna be treated this old way.”
“Me neither,” replied Valerie.
Simona quickly tried to work out how much she knew. She decided probably all of it, and that it was best to be practical about the whole affair. The other woman might appreciate some home truths by way of explanation.
“Richie told me that he doesn’t think he should be with someone so lacking in glamour”, she said. “Because of his position, the other men judge every aspect of his life. Now, there’s not much glamour to go around in Chasteborough, as you know. But he said I had a ‘school gates’ version of it and that’s apparently better than nothing. You should have tarted yourself up more. That’s all it would have taken to keep him. You’re not bad looking, you know, and you have a nice enough figure.” Simona stopped and tried to puzzle something else out. “You can sleep with Stuart, if you want.”
“I tried,” Valerie replied.
Simona laughed and looked at the nightdress draped drying over the radiator. “Next time you try, ditch that entirely. Just go in with it all out and act the woman of the world. As it stands, that’s probably your best shot.”
Valerie slapped her as hard as she could. Simona didn’t like that and decided to make sure that the other woman didn’t try something so stupid again. She punched Valerie in her nose and smirked as the woman doubled back, a thin dribble of blood flowing over her lips.
“Don’t be so damned churlish”, Simona lectured her. “Life doesn’t even have to change that much. We could swap husbands for all it matters and have a better time of it that way. But don’t hit me, Valerie. I’m Chasteborough and you’re not. Remember that.”
“Life’s already changed, Simmy,” Valerie spluttered, for some reason lapsing back into the use of an old expression of affection. “Little Frankie’s gone. Did you forget? That should concern you more than Richie. You should be here with Stuart, not me.”
“I’m concerned, Val. I’m real concerned. I’m out looking. You two are hiding.”
“You’re camping. With my husband.”
“Let’s not get onto that again. There’s still a part of me thinks Frankie boy will turn up at that stone, despite what I said last time I was here. It just seems a matter of time. I gotta stick it out, even if I end up laying roots in that rotten place.”
She kissed her old neighbour on the forehead and left. Valerie retired to the armchair and wept.
The media began to lose interest as the fourth week since the disappearance progressed. By week five, they’d had enough. Developments were too few and the opinion piece writers had exhausted every avenue of attack and counter-attack on the story, the town, the people involved, the grisly new tourism trade, and the behaviour of the members of their own industry. Chasteborough’s spare rooms began to steadily empty and the media circus packed up and left behind patches of dead yellow grass in the parks where they’d hitched their wagons and staged their sideshows.
Simona Sharpend and Richie Clare stayed on the Nook and didn’t look likely to return anytime soon. Bob Willeford reported back to Valerie that he had seen her husband stocking up in town and that he looked like a different man. He had grown a long ginger beard and taken to wearing what appeared to be a frayed cowboy hat in order to shield his eyes from the spring sun. In addition, he must have shed about seven or eight pounds and looked as lean as a good steak. No longer was he the picture of modern English professional success, in his three-quarter length zip fleece, but now more like some grizzled mystical moonshiner.
Valerie, perhaps deciding to take up Simon’s advice after hearing this, and wondering where that question of glamour and appearance had got to, decided to swap and marry Stuart. She knew it wouldn’t be an official wedding, what with them both still being married to other people, but it would be enough for her, and screw the thought of that church she still occasionally visited on a Sunday morning.
Stuart, more responsive than he had been but still curiously vacant and prone to only talking occasionally about very minor and immediate things, agreed to it and they performed a small ceremony themselves under the oak tree in the back garden at night, so that no one else could see them. They read vows to each other and promised not to forget the past, but to use it to forge a brighter conjoined future. They both understood that they were a more suited pairing than they had been with their previous spouses, if only because they were, as Simona had said, not Chasteborough, and thus, much better than those that were.
The finger of suspicion started to lift from Stuart and point more toward Simona, for those still interested in the case. Her decision to abscond from society and ‘hide out’ in the hills, where she could possibly engineer her own vanishing if a manhunt for her began, was now seen as the real actions of a guilty party. It beggared belief that one would camp out there for so long otherwise. Besides, Richie Clare was up there with her and wasn’t a new relationship reason enough to try and shed the burdens of a previous life, even if that shedding meant resorting to the horror of infanticide? It certainly wasn’t unheard of.
Stuart, meanwhile, responding as well as he could to the new limitations on his consciousness, decided to make the best of it with Valerie now that they were somewhat freer. Thus began a golden period in the lives of this unfortunate pair, perhaps the only time in their lives when they were ever truly happy.
They began by shutting out all the light in the old Sharpend house. Curtains were drawn and newspaper pages were taped across the windows that didn’t have shades. The idea was to block out Chasteborough, this evil place that still held and imprisoned them, and to create their own world within the walls of their home. They redecorated, repainting everything, each room being dressed out in a new bold colour: the kitchen became as green as the stream by the water meadows; the master bedroom a princely purple; the living room they made the colour of the imagined Mediterranean in summer; the bathroom became as red as the same region’s volcanic clay and the spare room’s yellow shade was inspired by Valerie’s favourite gladioli. The only room they left alone was Little Frankie’s, which was locked and left for the boy’s return.
Every morning, either Valerie or Stuart woke early and cooked the other breakfast. They ate pasta in thick green pesto, then followed that at lunchtime with sausage sandwiches or an omelette and finished the day with stews or casseroles full of local garlic and mushroom.
Valerie decided it would be fun if they gave themselves up to the feral nature of original humanity and they began to forego clothes, not showing any shyness about their aging bodies. They washed rarely, because they realised that they so enjoyed each other’s natural scent, and made pallets on the floor of whatever room they favoured that day. Soon, they began to follow no schedule at all: they slept when they wanted and morning simply became when they woke and night when they started to feel tired. Stuart read Valerie stories, old adventure stories by Verne and Stevenson, or the English fantasias of Grahame or Carroll, those writers who’d similarly created their own worlds outside and inside of their own. Then, when they ran out of material in the house, Stuart wrote his wife new stories, trying his hand at imitating their favourites. Valerie soon followed suit, composing her own songs or adapting others, with rhythms that she drummed out on the upturned living room ottoman, and words that were inspired by Stuart’s readings. ‘The Ballad of Lonesome Nemo’ became a favourite, as did ‘Toady-Went-A-Courtin’’ and ‘The Lament of Sailor Sole’, the latter inspired by the lead character of Stuart’s seafaring fantasies.
The world became, for the first time for both, a wondrous whirl, a shapeless and fluid intermingling of dreaming and reality, a treasure chest whose contents they had made by hand and which they plucked individually each morning with fresh joy from an ever-expanding pile. One day, perhaps because bliss is made not to last except in the great hereafter, or because when one flees from something one sometimes inadvertently manages to gather the strength to face it, Stuart seemed to wake from his daze and decided to go looking for Little Frankie.
Valerie was both saddened and made glad by this change. She regretted the passing of paradise, as is only natural, but knew that her husband was doing what he should in looking for his son, and that, if found, the boy would be a welcome addition to the wonder of their home. He would forget his obsession with the hills, she thought, when he entered the beautiful world that they had created.
Stuart left the following day, carrying a pack of provisions and a blade. Valerie had questioned the weapon, but not too much as the heroes of their favourite stories often took with them something for protection, and besides, her second husband had insisted. He didn’t know what was up there waiting for him. The knife he took was a switchblade, a souvenir he had smuggled back from a family holiday in Spain; a calf was carved into the wooden handle and the metal had a maker’s mark in the shape of the sun.
Valerie watched Stuart’s outline climbing the Turnover from the back garden until his own red coat disappeared amongst the thickest woodlands. She went back in the house and tried to read The Mysterious Island, but she gave up after she only managed four pages in an hour, and sat for the rest of the day staring into space and trying to picture what could be happening to her man.
The truth of it was that, for Stuart, the day was a tough if mundane one. As he trudged across the open hilltops and through the patches of woodland; followed the footpaths across the property of various landowners and skirted the edges of bubbling ponds, the only thing that struck him as unusual was that the whole lot seemed quieter than usual. There were no tourists or hikers- not that there ever were many when there wasn’t a tragedy to entice them- but also no animal life. It was as if the hills had been un-wilded. He didn’t even catch a glimpse of Simona and Richie’s tent, the one that she had taken from the old family home, as he made it over the Nook.
He was not disheartened to not find Little Frankie on his first day of searching. He had rather been expecting this to be the case. Tomorrow, he would cross back the way he came and fully scour the area around the Devil’s Stone. Then, if needed, he would push on beyond the hills as they pertained to Chasteborough; push on out of the county entirely if so needed. He bedded down on The Gleaming, the eminence so named due to the sun, when setting or rising at certain times of the year, bathing the hollows in pools and rays of the most glorious orange-gold light. Tonight, however, all was entirely black.
When Stuart awoke, with the deep brown woods still silent, he breakfasted on some coffee and biscuits and set off back towards the Nook. He took a different route than he had on the way out, trusting in the old map he had found in the hallway cupboard, but again saw and heard nothing of his son or anyone else.
It was as he came back towards the Stone that it began to happen. First, there was the mass of vultures that met Stuart as he came through the small valley towards the rise of the Nook. The birds looked cruelly at him as he approached and stood in a formation that guarded the sight of whatever they had gathered to prey upon from him. Stuart was perturbed, even frightened, by the sheer number of these scavengers, but the eventual shock of their morning meal was worse.
As Stuart finally made it close to them, they parted somewhat to reveal the mass in their middle. Within the circle were two deer, almost entirely stripped of their hide and divested of their organs, as if a trained hunter had been working on them for several hours, and cleanly decapitated. The heads, wearing haunting expressions of frightful surprise, were about six feet from the bodies and a number of the birds were pecking around the eye sockets and line of severance to get at lumps of raw flesh. Beside the heads was a pyramid of large rocks which Stuart did not remember seeing before.
A whole mess of vultures, somehow in England. Stuart fled up the Nook, scrambling and slipping on the slick dewy grass. As he stepped onto the hilltop, the world seemed to waver and tilt, as it does for a vertigo sufferer at the top of a tall tower. Stuart struggled to keep his footing; his progress was slow and strenuous, with his brain seeming to pound against the inside of his skull.
The Devil was on his stone, just like in Stuart’s dream. He carried the same look of dreamy satisfaction; the same long feet like spades; the same pig’s tail. Scarlet clouds rolled by overhead; the hill smelt like a rotting graveyard.
The Devil grinned, jumped from his seat, slid towards another large boulder a few feet from the boundary stone, lifted it over his head, and threw it with tremendous force. It went spiralling up and up and away. A few seconds after it disappeared entirely, there came an enormous crashing sound from the direction of Chasteborough.
“If I had my way,” said the Devil to Stuart, “I would tear this building down.” He laughed. “I’ll settle for the spire on the house of the philistines.”
He turned to go and then leaned in close to Stuart’s ear. His breath smelt like sulphur- what else?
“That stone was Frankie.”
He laughed again and went. Stuart, lost to the world, lost to sense, collapsed by the boundary stone.
Richie Clare found him first. He called Simona over and they both stared down at his prone body for a long time.
Eventually, Richie spoke.
“It’s time, no?”
“Not by ourselves,” Simona said to him. “Let him go back and you tell the others he was here. People will have seen him coming up. Exaggerate, lie, tell tall tales. Say you saw things you didn’t.”
Richie, understanding, nodded and they both walked back to their tent in the clearing across the way.
It was never clear to Valerie exactly how Stuart Sharpend made it back to his home the following day. He arrived in a near-catatonic state and finally collapsed in her arms on the doorstep. She put him to bed, as she had weeks before when Little Frankie first went missing, and this time he didn’t awaken the following morning. Valerie knew this meant the news was bad but did not know how. She pondered and again went into her reveries, but her imaginings of what had befallen her husband could not touch the nature of the terrors he had truly seen and the half-answers he had received.
As if in memoriam of their past bliss, she again abandoned her clothes while she waited patiently for Stuart to come to and tell of his experiences, and spent her days reading the adventure stories and dreaming to herself on the living room carpet. She was neither happy nor unhappy, but this state of being was the natural one to her now.
The mob came five days after Stuart returned to the house, or six days after the spire on St Botolph’s Church had collapsed and sent reverberations like an earthquake through the town. Perhaps it was this fright that had so raised the spirits of the townspeople, but it was more likely that this was simply the moment where Chastebrough finally decided, as it so often had in similar circumstances in the past, to release the pressure valve and seek out the channel through which it could expunge all that was festering within itself.
Richie Clare had, indeed, helped the process along by spreading the word across town that he and Simona had seen Stuart on St John’s Nook digging a hole and then dragging a heavy black rubbish bag towards it. The story, considering the original circumstances of the disappearance and search, made little sense, but enough people had seen Sharpend setting out in the direction of the hills, and enough frustration and anticipation had built amongst a large section of the population, that Richie’s yarn was accepted as gospel, and the suspicion turned again for the final time away from the couple camping on the hill and back to the father.
When the mob arrived at the Sharpend house, they were already carrying a noose, which was held by Bob Willeford and two other neighbours at the front of the group as if it was the ceremonial headpiece of a parade, and dozens of pots, pans, guitars, drums and kitchen utensils.
They smashed the windows of the house and climbed inside. Finding Valerie naked, they clothed her in Stuart’s suit, which hung over her much too large, and forced her screaming and sobbing out into the street.
When she was outside, the orchestra sparked to life. The rough music was really not music of any sort; instead, it was a random cacophony of beaten steel and iron, ricocheting madly up and down the street, joined with random hoots and shouts, cries and chants, all of them vicious and designed to puncture the woman as harshly as a bayonet. She was pushed between members of the crowd, between people she half-recognised as their faces became contorted masks of hatred and those she didn’t know at all; she was kicked and spat on, her hair pulled and a cigarette put out against her back.
After a few minutes of this treatment, when she was finally faced with the straw effigy of herself that wore a wig of singed brown hair and a dress that Richie had taken from her wardrobe, with a clown-like smear of red lipstick daubed across her ‘face’, Valerie fainted. The crowd decided that they had had enough of her and went for Stuart.
He still did not wake, even though they burst into his bedroom and threw his body down the stairs, where it bounced against the wooden floor as it was half-caught by the people below.
“Child-killer!” they yelled, as they carried him out into the street. “Adulterer! Child-killer! Adulterer! Scum, scum, scum!”
People threw stones at the body; they sometimes hit members of the group who were carrying Stuart, and these members peeled off from the mass to strike back at the careless hands who had launched the projectiles.
The rough music again crashed through the street as Stuart was placed in the back of Bob Willeford’s car. Richie Clare climbed into the front seat. Simona was already waiting for him. They smiled at each other and then at the victim in the backseat, who was still asleep but bleeding from gashes and cuts across the head, chest and arms. There appeared to be nothing left in Stuart’s body; he seemed as empty as a corpse, but the slow rhythmic rising of his chest revealed that he still had some degree of life in him. Simona burst out laughing as they set out towards the Nook. The car was rocked and buffeted by the crowd, who jeered and bellowed at the killer within. Richie tried to drive on slowly, but it eventually became too much. The car shook one more time, about two miles from the Sharpend house, and then died, its engine giving out with a pitiful whine. They were not far from the woods which backed onto the railway tracks.
Hands grabbed at the door handles, trying to wrench their way into the vehicle. Richie looked at Simona and shrugged.
“Give them what they want.”
She reached into the back, unlocked the door, and let the mob have at him. Stuart was dragged from the vehicle, his head rebounding with a sickeningly thick thud against the base of the car and then the tarmac, and lifted high. The people became like a twisting serpent, a long line in double file, which followed the body as it was carried into the woods. Silence descended upon many of the people, except for the drummers, including Sergeant Teller, who beat away at their instruments. A couple of singers at the back of the procession sang in hushed verses a song of their own composition, pertaining to be the last words and testament of the shameless murderer Stuart Sharpend, who bragged to the gallows of his conquest of his neighbour’s wife and the killing which had opened the way to the worst of their debaucheries.
When they’d stomped through the mud to the grove in the woods, the crowd stopped and waited for Richie and Simona, who arrived far in the rear of the rest. As they arrived, the noose was slipped around Stuart’s neck. The crowd bristled with excitement but tried to keep its composure.
“He was my man and he did me wrong,” said Simona, as she looked at the curled and pathetic body in front of her.
There was no more hesitation. Two men- the local tree surgeons- carried Stuart up, tied the rope around a heavy branch and pushed him to his death. The crowd below thought that he would die without comment or acknowledgment on his part, but just as the death rattle sounded, the man’s eyes burst open and he looked at them all as if they were dust.
“I’m going down the road feeling good, Lord, Lord”, he said. “I’m in the heavenly band and you’re doomed to Chasteborough, where Satan’s won and the spire has finally fallen. If I had my way, I’d tear the whole town down…”
Then his eyes closed, his face went white and he died, a rictus grin spreading across his face. The mob turned jubilant, laughing at the temerity of the child-murderer to speak of Heaven and lecture them as the forsaken, and began again the rough music, twirling and dancing until the full moon rose above their bacchanalia and they returned to the warmth of their front rooms. Simona and Richie, for the first time in weeks, slept in the bed in the Clare house as Valerie, still unconscious, lay sprawled across the pavement outside.
The following day, after being teased with stories of what had happened the previous night, Valerie went to the grove, carrying her own noose and coughing and spluttering. She found Stuart’s body and spent a few minutes crying at the sight of his battered, lifeless face. She thought of what she had lost; that she had tasted paradise and then been forced to relinquish it. She too cursed Chasteborough, just as Stuart had done, and spat on the awful place. She climbed the tree and then joined Stuart as his false-bride, who was truer than any other. He was her man and he had done her right.
Little Frankie Sharpend was found three weeks later, just after he turned nine years old, sitting in a pew in the collapsing St Botolph’s Church and singing Samson and Delilah. He never spoke of where he had been, or asked after Stuart, seeming to accept Richie Clare as his one and only father. He did, however, become an increasingly sullen and withdrawn young man as he grew, and fled Chasteborough as soon as he was old enough, eventually becoming a minister in some obscure sect of Christianity devoted to a back-to-the-earth philosophy that did not exclude apocalyptic yearning as a precursor to the arrival of the promised land.
The people of Chasteborough used their proceeds from the whole sorry saga to take holidays on far-flung shores or to build extensions to their homes. They felt nothing, even when Little Frankie re-appeared. The Devil never again made a visit to the stone which bore his name.
Billy Stanton is a London-based working-class writer and film-maker, originally from Portsmouth. His short fiction has appeared in Wyldblood, The Chamber, Horla, Rural Fiction Magazine, Tigershark and the ‘New Towns’ anthology. He co-runs the ‘Noli Me Tangere Short Film Festival’. His blog is: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com
Despite their suspicions, the polizia were eventually forced to accept the woman’s story: that a stranger had been stalking her for several weeks, and that she feared for her life.
# # #
Provoked by the chance comment of a mutual friend, Dan had once asked, “Do you really think there’s anything below the surface? Why agonize over it?”
Paul would never have put it that way himself—it sounded too calculatingly cynical—but he thought he knew what Dan meant. Paul had been a collector all his life: stamps and insects when he was a child, prints and old postcards later. Well, most of those were all surface; he liked their flatness, their order; there were no hidden depths.
Insects were different, of course. Insects had been his first passion, and he had spent endless summer hours with a home-made net scouring the ditches and dusty fields behind his parents’ house for dragonflies and grasshoppers. Evenings and nights meant more hours lurking near the yard light, where he waited patiently for moths and bumbling beetles. Should he have been an entomologist? Perhaps, for he had a good eye and enjoyed the splendid solitariness of it all, the hunting and then, later, back in his room, the spreading and pinning of the specimens while they were still soft. But beneath the iridescent metallic sheen of those dragonflies and beetles, there was nothing that attracted him and more than a little that disgusted him.
Then, too, Dan was clearly a success. He seemed to make money effortlessly, women liked him, he moved though life smoothly, as if on skates. He didn’t seem to give things a second thought. Paul did noticeably less well, and while he had never suffered harshly, he had no illusion of skating. His friend—well, acquaintance—had it right.
# # #
“There’s someone there, you know.” Marti stepped closer, stared intently, raised a finger to point to one of the arches. “I can barely see him—I bet it’s a him—peering out.” She stepped closer still.
“And over here … over here is someone else. Is it a woman? I can’t tell. But it’s wonderful to think so, isn’t it?” She clapped her hands. “An assignation! Or—” She frowned then, hesitated for an instant, turned to him. “Where did you get this?”
Marti was Dan’s current girl, current and likely to remain so for some time. She was small but not petite, had the solid body of a swimmer and short, dark hair. Languid much of the time, she was quick and unpredictable in motion—catlike. Paul had a hard time taking his eyes off her, but he turned his gaze to the photograph.
A wide-angle view of the Colosseum, it was nearly five feet wide and more than two high, taken, surely, in the late nineteenth century. It had been printed on heavy photographic paper, and might well date to within a few decades of the original. (Would that be the negative?) It had been framed behind wavy glass in a plain, heavily varnished frame that had turned almost black with age, and had spent untold years gathering dust in the attic of the library where Paul worked. After rescuing the treasure one day from an overly zealous janitor who had been told to make room, Paul had arranged to have it reframed with conservatory glass. He felt as if he had been destined to own it.
He explained some of this to Marti as he stepped up to take a closer look. Dan had once confided that his girl had second sight, lowering his voice as if commenting on the plumpness of her breasts. Paul suspected that Dan didn’t really know what second sight was. Well, Paul did, and didn’t believe it for an instant, wouldn’t have believed it of anyone. But he played along, leaning forward thoughtfully.
To his eye the scene was remarkably free of figures. A small horse-drawn carriage stood on the dirt track encircling the structure, and on first impression these were the only elements—and they were tiny—that suggested the size of the ruin. An elongated smudge near the carriage might have been a person, but it was impossible to make out anyone else.
Marti pointed again at the arch. “See?”
Frankly he couldn’t, or, rather, if there really were someone standing there within the shadowy archway, there might have been multiple someones lurking within all of them.
“And she—whoever—is here.” Marti pointed toward a grove of umbrella pines in the background.
“Uh-huh.” Once again he couldn’t be sure that he was seeing anything, although this smudge did seem a bit more, well, person-like. “That’s the Arch of Constantine on the right, by the way.”
But now that he was examining the photograph more closely, Marti’s attention had wandered. She had slipped outside, out the French windows and onto the deck, presumably to admire the view over the valley. The sun had set and the shadows would be creeping stealthily across the city and up the foothills. Paul started to follow but realized at the last minute that Dan already stood beside her, his left hand resting on her buttocks as they leaned against the railing.
# # #
It was the following May that Paul saw the Colosseum for the first time with his own eyes. He fancied himself a traveler, but somehow had never ventured into Italy south of Florence. After a couple of weeks in Rome, he realized, he could display the old photograph as a genuine trophy, not a piece of meaningless exotica that he had happened to pick up somewhere. He would be able to comment knowingly on whatever restorations had taken place.
The morning before he left, he thought to take out his cell phone to snap several close-ups of the sections in which Marti had seen the figures—seen or, more likely, “seen.”
# # #
Reality, as it so often had turned out to be the case in Paul’s experience, was a little disappointing. Rome was shabby and vulgar compared to Paris, much of its architecture banal compared to Barcelona’s. The seemingly constant traffic was daunting, the crowds rude. The weather alternated between rainy days and hot, stuffy ones. Strangely enough, even the pasta was drab.
But lying just beneath the skin of this modern city were far older ones, the remains of which poked up haphazardly here and there. The Colosseum itself—the impetus, after all, for his trip—was immense, far grander in scope than the photograph with its tiny carriage had suggested. You had no idea of its scale until you stood before it, beneath it. The building’s lowest arches, which looked as if they were twenty-five feet high, would have dwarfed him had he been able to stand within one, but each was closed off with a metal barricade.
Paul spent most of a morning—the weather was pleasant for once—circling the vast amphitheatre again and again, thinking that it was surely a finer sight in ruins than it would have been untouched by time. He was aware of its bloody history, but found it difficult to connect that panoply of gladiators and savage beasts with the weathered stones he saw before him. He photographed it from a dozen angles, but the jostling crowds—augmented by several tour groups and their guides—made it impossible to get any unobstructed shots. With time he might be able to edit out the more distracting faces.
# # #
After four nights in an anonymous hotel Paul broke his Roman holiday with a week in Fiesole, the little town nestled in the hills above Florence that he had discovered so many years before. Florence itself was claustrophobic, its narrow streets packed with cars and sightseers, and once again he ended up photographing as many people as monuments. But cool, still Fiesole with its pines and broad vistas was as delightful as ever.
He returned to Rome for the final ten days of his trip, staying in an apartment near the Baths of Diocletian and taking in the city’s sights almost at random. He had no interest in St. Peter’s or the Vatican, but the Forum drew him repeatedly, and he stood for what might have been hours one crisp morning at the Portico Dii Consentes, gazing across the vast open field with its pillars and piles of brick. He knew from his guidebook that the Portico was the city’s last shrine to the old gods, and contemplating that fact he felt a bewildering, almost vertiginous nostalgia for a world he had never known.
Afterward he found that he had been gripping the iron railing so tightly that his palms were stained with rust.
# # #
Comfortable at last with the pulse of the city, and realizing that his time there had grown short, he bought a baguette, a short salame and a half-liter of Montepulciano on impulse late one afternoon in a grocery. He asked the shopkeeper to open the wine for him, but the sausage presented a different problem, so he added a cheap folding knife from a counter display. Then, after enjoying an al fresco meal on a bench in the Parco Oppio, he made his way to the Colosseum once again.
He wondered briefly whether he might have the place to himself in the dusk, but to his surprise he found the vast structure flooded with light. Small groups of people—they looked more like real Romans rather than tourists—strolled here and there, talking and gesticulating lazily. The cool breeze carried a faint earthy smell, and fat moths flitted in and out of sight. A busker played a plaintive melody—could that really be “Walk on the Wild Side”?—on a tenor sax. He felt a little drunk.
The artificial light was disconcerting, yet it struck Paul that it was somehow preferable to the matter-of-fact light of day. Would he, he wondered vaguely, have felt that way three weeks ago? The question reminded him of the photograph that hung on his wall at home, six thousand long miles away, and he remembered the close-ups on his phone. Could he identify which arch Marti had been pointing at? It would be intriguing to have a record of how it looked today, and if nothing else, it might impress the girl the next time he saw her.
It was difficult to make out the screen, but it occurred to him that he could stand close to the arcade with his back to one of the floodlights and hold the phone in his shadow. The image was better, yet the differences in scale between the tiny screen and the towering, blinding structure before him made comparison impossible.
He turned, searching for more shadows, and then saw her— Marti, of all people, standing slightly apart from the crowd and dressed in her usual tight jeans and some sort of red top. It couldn’t be, of course, but he recognized her swimmer’s figure immediately. He called her name, but she must not have heard, so he called again, louder, “Marti! Marti!” and started off toward her. What on earth could she be doing here?
When she finally looked up, Paul realized his mistake. Her face was that of a much older woman, wrinkled and strangely distorted. It was not Marti at all, of course, she had simply been on his mind …
But now the woman was gesticulating at him, yelling, almost screaming. People turned to look, first at her and then at him. He was befuddled. What was going on?
“Signora, mi scusi!” He stepped forward. “Mi scusi! I am—” He held up the phone, saying, “photo, fotografia—” He tried to think, tried to remember his Italian, pointing at the phone, that earthy smell was filling his nose, it was all some bizarre misunderstanding, but she really was screaming now and he saw her reach into her purse and—
# # #
Despite their suspicions, the polizia were eventually forced to accept the woman’s story: that a strange man had been stalking her for several weeks, in Rome as well as Florence—where her work as a freelance journalist occasionally took her—and that she had felt threatened. She had complained to the polizia, and her complaints were on file. Indeed, she showed up in a number of the photographs on the dead man’s phone. She had obtained a permit to carry the handgun, and insisted that the man, who was found to be armed with a knife, had approached her in an aggressive manner that night—a fact corroborated by witnesses. She had fired to protect herself. She had no criminal background, or she would not have been able to obtain the permit. After undergoing several intensive interrogations, she was finally released. What might have happened to her afterward is unclear, however, as later efforts to contact her in order to confirm certain details proved fruitless.
Originally published in Danse Macabre Feb. 6, 2015.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure; Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal; and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron. He blogs about travel and related subjects at https://worldenoughblog.wordpress.com/author/gkoger/.
They heard the shrill, piercing pitch of its whistle cut through the particles of the spring sky, and the chuffing puffs of its furnace from miles away. A solitary light occupied the top of its monstrous round face, giving it the appearance of a vast, pitiless iron cyclops rolling meter by meter further into the motherland.
As it traversed the pastoral fields of western Russia, belching its dense, enormous, creamy plumes into the pure blue sky, the mysterious train continued to hold the peasants under its sinister spell. Nobody knew exactly from whence this lengthy demon—some had estimated the locomotive plus its railway cars and rolling stock reached over two hundred metres—had come, and by what route it had entered their country. Some said it had been sent from Germany to wreck the Gosduma, while others swore it had meandered through Sweden and Finland like a stealthy snake and was full of dangerous men intent on toppling Kerensky. One thing was certain however: its passengers were coming to claim Russia as their prize, and the souls of her people as additional spoils.
This foreign train did not obey any signals or follow instructions as it careered through the troubled terrain of a burning Russia. It continued past the battles, the gunfire and the screams with its cold, mechanical indifference. The vast plains strewn with the dirty corpses of men in rigour mortis with their eyes staring into the infinite space of death meant nothing to the fiery iron behemoth. Likewise, the corpses swinging by the necks from trees and telephone poles, with deceptive serenity in their faces, made no effect on its progress.
Major Konstantin sat astride his steed and watched the train approach in the distance through his field glasses. He saw the machine emerge from a tunnel that cut through a hill, and he heard the sound of its frightful whistle from a distance of two kilometres. So, this was the troublesome train I have been ordered to stop, he thought to himself wearily. He was an officer serving the Provisional Government, which wasbeing pulled from post to post and struggling to keep the country together with revolutionaries springing out of ditches and from under bridges like rats to ambush his comrades. Towns were being looted, and the virus of dissent was coursing through the army with alarming rapidity. Mutiny, desertion and maintaining public order in the streets of Petrograd were more important issues in his opinion than halting ghostly trains.
He turned to his mounted subordinates, Levchenko and Koralov.
“So, what do you think of this noisy nuisance that our superiors are getting so worked up about? Are they over-reacting about a mere vehicle moving through our land, and getting worked over a mere trifle when the unity of our country is being torn apart?”
Major Konstantin often tested his soldiers with questions intended to measure the calibre of their judgement. Gut instinct was the essence he judged men most highly by in the field, even though it wasn’t listed in the training manuals of the military academy he had attended. He’d been guided by enough of it in the revolution of 1905 to recognise examples of it that served the most valuable utility of survival.
“It probably doesn’t concern us sir. I’d say it’s just a specially chartered train for the royal family. They are probably moving their treasures out of the country, and perhaps their family and entourage, to safety while the rest of us perish in the coming chaos. I’d say that this train is on its way to collect such cargo.” Sergei Levchenko gripped his reins to steady his horse, and he patted its mane with a gloved hand as he continued. “There are probably having their art and their gold sent for safe-keeping to palaces in Austria or Zurich, where their relatives will hoard them, and prepare mansions for the Romanovs. As we all know, there’s no ‘loyalty with royalty’. The elite look out for the elite, who could care less for the fate of the peasant or vassal.”
Konstantin heard this and decided to let Levchenko’s treasonous remarks pass without rebuke, for they were living in turbulent times and the Tsar’s conduct over the past couple of years had significantly eroded his own respect for the man he had once sworn military oaths to serve. He sympathised with Levchenko’s view; the Tsar had acted like a man whose recklessness had set fire to his home and whose weakness and indecision has allowed it to burn. Now that house, Russia, was burning with a destructive intensity which nothing could extinguish.
“And is that why it doesn’t stop at any stations, even when ordered to do so?” Konstantin asked.
“I think that’s a reasonable assumption sir, since royalty is obedient to no one.”
“Do you agree Koralov?” Konstantin sent the question to the lean, swarthy Cossack to Levchenko’s left sitting astride a muscular horse. His cheekbones were angular, and his eyes alert. His moustache and eyebrows were neatly trimmed, and he wore the sturdy hat of his regiment. He looked upon the world with a mystical, penetrating suspicion and was grudgingly admired by his comrades for possessing a ‘sixth sense’ where danger was concerned. This intuition, this sightless recognition of the ominous had alerted patrols to potential ambushes many times and sensed theminute muzzles of distant sniper rifles poking through the ferns on so many occasions. Although his second sight had saved many, it had not earned him the gratitude of all. He was feared and distrusted by some of the god-fearing soldiers, who were uncomfortable with his mysterious pagan aura. Some said he communicated with spirits and could read minds. Many gave him a wide berth in the barracks and mess-halls.
“Sir, this train will bring death, misery and destruction on a huge scale into the country and should be turned around at all costs.”
“I thought that would be your view Corporal Koralov”, said Konstantin. “Tell me, what is this view based on? Is your impression based on rational knowledge or something supernatural?”
Levchenko rolled his eyes derisively and wanted to let out a sigh of disgust, however he knew better than to reveal his contempt for the question. Not only would this be an insubordinate and disrespectful action in front of his commanding officer, but the major would also not stand for any mockery of Koralov, whose powers as a battlefield seer he actually respected. Such nonsense the major believes, thought Levchenko. At that moment, Koralov glanced at him with his intense, penetrating eyes and Levchenko was momentarily unnerved by the idea that his Cossack comrade had intercepted his thought. Koralov then addressed his commander:
“When this train approaches, they say all the birds in the vicinity take flight the moment its whistle sounds and never return. Crops die and wheat fails in the fields that surround the tracks this locomotive of darkness rolls over.”
Konstantin ignored the curling lip of Levchenko forming into a sneer. While he valued Levchenko’s practical qualities as a soldier, he regarded him as a bucolic, simple-minded animal unable to grasp the potential of gut instinct, or of the paranormal.
“I have also met men whose wives have miscarried as the train passed their villages, and villages whose wells have become poisoned by its passing”, said Koralov surveying the fertile steppe that lay in front of them. As he glimpsed the billowing smoke of the train in the distance, he knew that the fecundity of the fields was in peril. He had not tried to explain the terrible visions he had experienced the previous night, while lying awake in his tent. He had seen Russians herded like beasts into cages, whipped, degraded and starved to death. Bloated bodies filled the rivers, and walking skeletons haunted the streets. He had slept, and through sleep came the dreadful montage worse than his lifetime’s nightmares combined. First, the face of the train was hurtling towards him and in the dream the headlight was now a monstrous, glowing Eye of Providence, and the whistle emitted a resounding scream that seemed to encapsulate the voices of millions. The eye’s glow became brighter until it filled his vision with a white wall of light which lasted only a second before it was replaced by a vast mural showing giant men with goatish features, depraved expressions and demented smiles looking down on the mass of helpless people as though they were insects they were going to squash.
Levchenko expelled a dismissive sound. “Wives indeed! I think the tales of old wives are working on Corporal Koralov’s imagination.” Koralov did not respond. He was lower in rank, and a Cossack.
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough who the passengers of this infernal convoy are and whether they are up to no good”, said the major. “Sergeant”, he addressed Levchenko in the tone of command. “Prepare to stop the train.” Levchenko nodded, disappointed in his commanding officer’s judgement. He seized his horse’sreins and cantered forward about fifty yards until he was alongside the row of infantry that had been stationed by the railway embankment for the past two hours. With their flat-peaked caps casting shadow over their weather-hardened faces, and grimy blankets slung over their shoulders, they looked like military vagabonds destined for a lifetime of hardship. Now they were obliged to earn their meagre keep for the new administration, for the train was approaching, growing larger and larger with each puff and each new jet of smog spewed into the sky. Its eye glowed, and the sight made Koralov shudder. He was certain that the devil’s emissaries were approaching. Levchenko bellowed: “Shoulder arms!” The foot-soldiers shouldered their rifles. Levchenko then instructed them to form two lines, with one kneeling and the other standing, so that a double fusillade could be fired at the train from the side should its driver disobey his command to stop. To further compel the vehicle’s compliance, a 12-pounder gun procured from the artillery positioned close to the embankment had its muzzle pointed in the direction of the oncoming train, with two surly-faced gunners ready to load and fire it. The face of the train continued to grow in front of them, and the moving geyser’s foamy column in the sky correspondingly increased in size, while the clack-clack sound of its roadwheels in motion became more pronounced. It was now about three hundred metres down the track, and the glossy black metallic sheen of the locomotive’s boiler and cab glinted in the sunlight, while its piston rods turned frenzied revolutions like giant steel limbs. Major Konstantin had seen a few trains in his life but decided that none looked more intimidating than this one.
The deafening whistle made all of the men start, and Koralov wince. When the Cossack heard the sound, he saw for a brief second a vision of the goatish, sneering tyrants from his dream again. This time they were looking down on the country while seated on vast golden thrones high up in the sky like the corrupted gods of a prostitute pantheon. Shadowy silhouettes loitered behind them, whispering into their ears. These gods were eating caviar and watching masses of people starving so badly that they were eating their own flesh.
“Major! We must not let this train reach Petrograd. It must be stopped or destroyed!”
“Let’s not be hasty Corporal Koralov. We don’t know who or what’s on board”, said Konstantin, feeling it was prudent to be cautious. However, he shared the Cossack’s misgivings about this particular engine. This conscientious and loyal soldier has a special gift, he told himself. He deserves more respect from his fellow men, but how did he know the train was destined for Petrograd?
“All will be revealed soon”, he told Koralov as he looked at Levchenko, who had urged his horse onto the tracks and was now sitting astride it in the direct path of the oncoming locomotive. He withdrew and raised his sabre, pointing it in the direction of the train with the hope that the driver in his cab would not fail to recognize such an unambiguous order to apply the brakes. To reinforce the message, two soldiers held a large wooden sign next to the track with STOP painted in large white letters. However, it became clear that the driver was not willing to take his cue because the train rolled on, until it was less than a hundred metres from Levchenko.
The horse whinnied and snorted and its rider, not wishing to become a gruesome casualty of the major’s pig-headed orders, pulled the reins and the horse trotted off the tracks to the safety of the embankment’s side. “Fire a warning shot!”, shouted Levchenko to the men manning the cannon. One second later the report of the gun was followed by a squirt of smoke from its muzzle. The cannon fired at a forty five degree angle to the approaching train, and the solid projectile whizzed over the locomotive cab, just missing it, and continued its destructive trajectory into the fields beyond. Suddenly the sharp screeching of the brakes occurred, and the train started to slow down, with its massive momentum taking it meter by meter until it edged to a stop some thirty meters beyond Levchenko and the infantry. There, stationary in front of them, was the great iron brute that had stirred so much rumour throughout the land; the mysterious, baleful trespassing machine that had put so much consternation in the heart of the Provisional Government. Maybe there are some spies, or smugglers, or even military deserters on board, thought Konstantin. He was determined to get all of the answers out of this secretive train that had caused him to have a week’s leave cancelled.
When Koralov saw the hissing steam from the boiler dissipating around the tracks, he shuddered. The acrid smell of the smoke filled their nostrils, and Koralov believed they were inhaling the breath of Molech because the malefic presence was so tangible to him. They have come, he told himself. They have come. This thing carries a cargo of cruelty these men will not comprehend until it makes them scream so loud it will be heard for centuries.
Konstantin and Koralov rode forward to the embankment, where the major commanded the troops to surround the train and keep aiming their rifles at the windows and doors of the compartments. Levchenko was ordered to the driver’s cab to locate the operator. When Levchenko was parallel with the small window of the driver cab, he called up to the two middle-aged men in the cab who had grizzled, soot-blackened faces. They did not answer, and Levchenko demanded to know where the train was from and pointed the tip of his sabre at them to encourage their speech.
“Wir sprechen kein Russisch”, said one of the men.
“The driver answered me in German sir”, Levchenko called to the major, who was scrutinizing the red cargo wagons behind the passenger carriages. On the sides of the wagons a foreign language was printed.
“What does it say?” the major asked Koralov pointing to the yellow Roman alphabet running horizontally along the bottom panel of one of the massive crates. Koralov looked at the writing. The limited English he had once learned from the priest of the Orthodox Church who had once taught in his village was not required to decipher the script, for his intuition told him that it was trading name of a banking house in Sweden. “What the devil are they sending into Russia?” asked the major, and he turned his horse around and rode down to meet Levchenko by the main passenger carriage. Koralov followed. They all looked up at the windows of the carriage, which had an exterior of glossy varnished oak, and saw several faces peering down at them from behind the windows. One of the faces was of an attractive woman with jet black hair pulled back into a bun looking down at them all with a disapproving gaze. Suddenly a moustachioed man in a mustard-coloured uniform and wearing a Pickelhaube helmet appeared at the door of the carriage above the Russians.
“Who is aboard this train and where is it going?” asked the major in a stentorian voice.
“Wir sind eine Handelsdelegation aus der Schweiz”, said the man betraying apprehension in his foreign tongue.
“Something about a trade delegation”, said Levchenko, translating crudely.
Konstantin ordered the soldiers to keep their rifles shouldered, and for Levchenko and Koralov to dismount and follow him up the small ladder under the door to board the train. They met no resistance from the guard, who obeyed their instruction to surrender his weapon but was unable to satisfy Levchenko’s demand for identity papers. The three of them passed through the first door into the train compartment. Inside, the interior of the carriage was lavishly furnished in the style of a saloon with a long, plush couch covered in bright red velvet. Opposite the couch was a vast oak table with books, pens and files strewn across it. Thick black curtains embellished each side of the carriage, offering the occupants privacy whenever they desired it. Two standing men confronted Konstantin, Koralov and Levchenko as they entered. They wore high-class, three-piece suits cut from good cloth and looked at the soldiers warily. One was bearded, and well-built while the other was slightly built, with gaunt features, aquiline nose and gold-rimmed spectacles. Seated on the couch was a sallow-faced, balding man with a thick moustache and subtly trimmed remnant of a beard. He was smiling, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. There was a piggy quality to his face, and his dark, deep-set eyes emitted conceit. He sneered at the Russian soldiers, and Konstantin recognized the look with dismay. He had seen such mannerisms only in the untouchables patronized by the all-powerful. It was an insider’s smile. And yet, this man, who clearly lorded it over all occupants of this train with a voiceless authority, including the two lackeys close to him, had a strangely hollow quality that Konstantin could not fathom. It was as if his very presence was an elaborate contrivance, as though his soul was one giant misty illusion created by master magicians. Where was Koralov’s renowned second sight when he needed it, he thought irritably. He glanced at the Cossack corporal and was bewildered by the pale expression present on the soldier’s face which appeared to be enforcing his silence. Say something damn you, thought Konstantin. Give me some guidance. It was Levchenko who spoke first.
“We are soldiers of the Provisional Russian Army and have orders to stop this train. We demand to know your final destination and your business in Russia. If you do not satisfy us with your answers, we will have you arrested and this entire train searched from top to bottom.” Levchenko grasped the hilt of his sabre as he spoke, intending to show some power over the situation. Since it was clear that train was not carrying Romanov treasures as he had suspected, he felt that he now owed his commanding officer his loyalty and initiative in getting this infernal mystery solved. There was a pause before the gaunt, bespectacled man spoke. Before speaking, he gave out a subtle, condescending chuckle which incensed Konstantin.
“Comrade! I think you’ll find our journey and safe passage is guaranteed by those in the highest possible authority.” With this he reached into the breast pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it over to Levchenko, who in turn gave it to Major Konstantin. Konstantin grabbed the paper and glared at the impudent man, and then at the reclining man whose serenity infuriated him. This balding dog acts as if he hasn’t a care in the world, thought Konstantin. And where had he seen that impish, bearded face before? In a faded, time-distant newspaper article about exiled revolutionaries long since discarded? Was the name Vladimir Ilyich? He couldn’t recall: the damned vodka had addled his brain.
“What the devil is the meaning of this!” he exclaimed on reading the note.
“Just as it says comrade”, spoke the entourage’s mouthpiece in an émigré Russian accent which had already aroused Levchenko’s suspicions.
Konstantin passed the note to Levchenko, who gasped when he saw the instruction from the prime minister himself stating that the train was carrying patriots with an important assignment, and that they should not be obstructed on their way to Petrograd under any circumstances.
“Major!” spluttered a gasping Koralov.
Levchenko and Konstantin turned to the Cossack, whose face was possessed by a pallor normally seen on corpses. Terror had prized his eyes wide open and pulled his lips apart. He was also trembling. Koralov saw what ordinary mortals did not. The gift had been recognised and developed by the shaman in his childhood village. Sitting on either side of the bald man, and standing behind his couch, was a historic assembly of evil, brutality and sedition invisible to his colleagues. There was a Persian king of antiquity, his face smothered by a dense black beard holding a gold goblet with what looked like blood flowing from his lips. There were haughty, corpulent men in renaissance tunics, and black robed Venetians in gold masks leaning into the bald man’s ear with cupped hands whispering what could only have been intrigues. Standing between a pair of hawk-featured monarchs decked in jewels and diamonds was Vlad Tepes the Impaler seeking out weakness with his eyes. There were also sinister looking characters from the 17th century foppishly dressed in breeches and wide floppy hats, ready to nonchalantly thrust daggers into hearts with their dandy smiles and beady eyes maintaining the fatal deception. There was also a tall, dark-skinned despotic looking pharaoh grasping a staff with snakes entwined around it staring right into Koralov, who had recognised the bald man as the central character in his recent nightmare. Here was Russia’s tyrannical prodigy with his murderous mentors and criminal patrons of eternity ready to carry out his dreadful enterprise with their backing. Ten minutes later, the locomotive of darkness was moving again in the direction of Petrograd.
Previously published in Horla in 2019
Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His fiction, non-fiction and prose poetry have appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, TheBosphorus Review of Books, HORLA, Literally Stories,Sediments Literary Arts, Fear of Monkeys, Nalubaale Review, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Ramingo’s Porch, The Chamber, S.A.V.A Press, The Rye Whiskey Review, Empty Sink Publishing and The Font. For the past ten years, he has been teaching English for Academic Purposes overseas.
JW Stumble knew that money ruled this world, but he did not know that it controlled the other one too—until he went there.
The last thing he remembered, as his lungs wheezed and sputtered, was the thin shadow of his night nurse slashing across his chest like a black zipper. Then, feeling a strange tug from beneath his mattress, he sank into a turbulent blackness as if caught in the whirlpool of a dark river.
… Yes, it was THAT river, the river that divides Hell from our everyday scaled-down version of the same model. Shamelessly, JW was charged for crossing even though he was there as part of his mortal destiny. A ferry pilot with thin, scrawny arms, a drooling, toothless mouth, and a maniacal grin stuck out one twisted, diseased hand and demanded 20 dollars. In reply to JW’s plea that the hospital’s patient security unit was holding all of his cash, the ferryman agreed to invoice him later, after JW “had settled in.” However, he did not ask JW to sign an IOU.
This impresario bore a passing resemblance to a famous quiz show host who, some years ago, had been convicted of stalking his former contestants. When JW Stumble remarked on this, the ferryman said, “I am indeed that former celebrity. I was sent here not because of my bad TV ratings,” he joked, “but because of that predatory behavior. However, I came to Hell under the old rules that made predatory behavior a cosmic transgression. Now that the law is more flexible and predators are increasingly accepted into important political, corporate, and professional positions, I have petitioned to leave. Excuse the terrible pun”, he said with a slobbering smile, “but I am in a kind of limbo.”
JW could not see the horizon. Both the river and the sky’s edge had slipped into one murky, foggy smudge. Nor could he hear the slapping of water, even though the old boatman vigorously plunged his oars. It was more like silently skimming on dark clouds than being rowed across a river. However, JW did catch a whiff of a wet stench, like rotten eggs.
“What’s happened to the sky and river? Why is there no sound when you row?” JW asked the river pilot.
“That was part of your old life, but all that is fading,” the boatman said, his toothless face morphing into a vanishing, pockmarked blob like a disappearing sponge, “as is my face, which, as you can see, is also slipping away. Your old ways of experiencing things are leaving you. The world is just not interested in you anymore, JW. That stuff is only for the living. Trust me; you will not miss it, I can assure you. Forgetting is a blessing.”
There was a sudden thunk as the ferry bumped up against a rickety wooden wharf. A thin man in a rumpled devil’s costume, with sweat patches under each arm, stood holding a cardboard sign that read:
“Welcome to The Dark Experience: a truly unforgettable adventure.”
The ferry pilot, despite his feeble-looking arms, grabbed JW firmly by the waist, hoisted him up with one powerful, swooping arc out of the boat, and planted him on the wharf, where JW almost butted heads with the thin man in the devil’s costume, who, however, was not wearing a devil’s mask. His face was a thick, swirling, pasty mound of strawberry-red flesh with a ragged slit for a nose, peeping little black eyes, and purple, blistered lips, from which roared an intense heat as if JW were face-to-face with an open furnace.
“He used to be,” the ferryman smirked,” a top-of-the-line fashion model back in his earthly days—the toast of the British fashion scene—but I guess his ‘sex symbol’ life is behind him now. The only gig he could get now is a minor part in a cheesy horror film or in some two-bit carnival sideshow.”
Indignant, the devil-costumed, red-pasty-faced man tried to reply to these insults, but he could only violently mumble, his head shaking, as sporadic heat bursts, not words, flared from his lips.
The ferryman, obviously enjoying himself, continued in the same insolent vein. “He also had the reputation in his storied career of actually being a good conversationalist, unlike his brainless colleagues, but now all his mouth is good for is as a portable heater, and we don’t need those here.”
“What did he do to end up in this place?” asked JW.
The boatman frowned only inside his voice, as his face had wasted away into just a mouthless smear. “Sorry, but our privacy regulations forbid staff from discussing questions about detainees’ personal histories, which reminds me that you are probably late for your meet and greet and orientation.”
He waved dismissively at the ex-fashion model turned portable heater, who then led JW to a pale-red convertible sports car—top down—riddled with rusty bullet holes. JW pretended to ignore the dried bloodstains on the dashboard and upholstery as he slipped into the passenger side’s bucket seat while his companion—whose aggressive mumbling had quieted to a low grumble—started the engine. They drove away.
The road leading away from the pier was a wide, I-95-style highway, cracked and riddled with shattered concrete and large potholes, from which clouds of steam gushed. However, the car raced smoothly over the broken pavement without making a sound. On either side of the highway were vast patches of scorched ground and the shambles of city ruins, where JW could glimpse packs of thin, mangy dogs sniffing about in the rubble. The city’s walls, pockmarked with what appeared to be bullet holes, were smeared with graffiti that read:
ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
HOPE YOU LOSERS BROUGHT A FRESH CHANGE OF UNDERWEAR.
A blue-black mountain range humped on the horizon like a distant parade of paralyzed dinosaurs, the cadaverous twilight sky curdling into the pallor of a sick face. Above, flocks of pale vultures drifted slowly about in swooping, languid waves as if they were lost ghosts.
On the highway up ahead, gangs of dead men in sweat-stained red work clothes, with slack jaws and blank eyes, fumbled about, trying to fill in the potholes with slugs of burning tar. Seeing JW’s driver, now snarling more loudly than the engine, hurtling directly toward them, they confusedly milled about. Moving in a frenetic, herky-jerky fashion like broken wind-up toys, the zombie road gang did not, however, panic and run.
As the car raced madly forward in the steamy wind, JW’s head, too, now felt like a portable heater. Then, turning slightly to see his driver’s squirmy strawberry-fudge face and his beady eyes manically focused on running down the zombies, it suddenly dawned on JW why the former “toast of the British fashion scene” was in Hell: mass vehicular homicide.
However, despite the terrorist driver’s earnest effort to ram the zombies, there was no body-on-metal collision. Its wheels on the broken pavement barely hummed as the vehicle noiselessly, in slow motion, sliced gracefully through the road gang, their bodies melting into ghostly, shifting clouds of leering, toothy faces and taunting, obscene gestures that circled and curled mockingly around the driver’s head like smoke, and then, after a few minutes, vanishing.
Exploding briefly into a fresh confusion of violent mumbling, the former star of the British modeling world then lapsed into a frustrated silence, where he remained as he quietly piloted the car for the duration of their journey. As it had been a long day, an exhausted JW, thankful for the peace, nodded off.
Arriving at a gray-functional office building, a silvery box with darkened windows set out in a flat wasteland of junked, rusting cars the driver parked in the empty lot, littered with bones, old newspapers, and tin cans. Near the building’s revolving door, hordes of large, plump rats, the size of hamsters, skulked about; they vanished as JW and the driver jumped out and cautiously approached them.
JW turned to his driver as if this man could speak real words, not exhale heat bursts, with a quizzical look, but he, still silent, lunged and violently pushed JW into the blades of the door that spun crazily like a berserk merry-go-round.
Slightly dizzy, JW popped quickly out of the whirl but found himself, unbruised, not in a lobby but in a small cubicle-style office: shuttered windows, minimalist furniture—a table and two chairs—and sitting before a man. With a prematurely aging, wrinkled brow, clad in Nike running shoes, designer jeans, and a black sequin shirt, he sported a rich, mahogany tan, a pointed nose, and a lumpy, grizzled chin that jutted out like a plough.
His hearty, slap-on-the-back-style greeting boomed in the close confines like an auctioneer’s voice. “Welcome to the next exciting chapter in your new life, JW Stumble! I am Virgo, but just call me Verge.” He smiled a well-oiled, carefully engineered smile, no doubt cultivated by a thousand sales training workshops, which yet weirdly contradicted his otherwise misshapen, unshaven face.
Then, shifting to a more intimate mood of camaraderie, Verge said in a softer tone, “I have good news for you. You have been selected to interview for a professional position on our staff.” A slight rustle as Verge disturbed a document on his desk. “I have read your resume…”
“My resume? Your ferryman told me my old, everyday life was behind me,” JW replied.
Verge sniffed dismissively: “Quizling is not to be trusted for a moment. He has lied repeatedly under oath about his serial stalking during his earthly days. Imagine! A famous TV quiz host whose job it was to get his guests to answer his questions truthfully was and is, ironically, a pathological liar. I am frankly tired of him. I made a bad hiring decision. We expect all of our employees here to tell the truth, whatever their past history of lying is.”
“Excuse me! Employees? I mean, I thought that in this place…”
“… that we were all lying, corrupt bastards who are not gainfully employed but just lazy layabouts waiting for our daily dose of pain to redeem any lingering guilt leftover from our bad old earth days. No, Mr. Stumble, this place is not some kind of freebie boot camp-style, tough love wellness resort where we harden people to face the struggles, challenges, and punishments that life—sorry, the afterlife, I mean—brings. For starters, as there is no ‘experience’ of past, present, and future here, there is no awareness of past regret or any desire to be better in the future, at least as you know such feelings from your earth-bound days; secondly, our Dear Boss…” Verge pointed a wavering finger at the ceiling, “…demands that our detainees here at The Dark Experience pull their own weight. This organization is run on sound business principles. We don’t tolerate slackers.”
JW wanted to ask an insolent, joking question about how one could have “weight” in a world reserved for dead spirits who no longer had bodies measured in kilos and pounds, but he thought better of it as Verge’s smile vanished and his teeth suddenly and ominously slipped forward like expelled stained dentures looking for something to bite and eat. Even if there was, strictly speaking, no “life” here, JW, staring at Verge’s threatening mouth, did not want to know what The Dark Experience considered the new version of “death.”
“So, what about my resume?” asked JW.
Verge cleared his throat as his threatening teeth popped back between his lips with a sucking sound. His salesman’s mechanical smile returned. He then began to read aloud sections from JW’s work history:
“A Customer Service Representative, assigned to various attitude adjustment camps maintained during encounters with terrorists, whose role was to liaison with the detainees. In this role, he interviewed them regarding their personal data, including financial information, as well as their life histories: acts, motives, interests, goals, and fears. A highly skilled interrogator, he received numerous letters of commendation from his supervisors.”
“…umm…” Verge continued, “I see you have degrees in Banking and an MBA.”
“I did what is known in Intel Ops as ‘Threat Finance,’ following the money—tracking terrorists’ bank accounts used to fund their plots and schemes—which brings me to a question that just occurred to me: why am I here with obvious terrorists, such as my driver who tried to run over harmless road gangs? I mean, I fought terrorists, so why should I be sent here to live with them?”
Verge clucked his tongue—which rattled his dangerous teeth at the same time—like an indulgent parent mildly scolding a child who would not eat his spinach. “Shame on you, JW. Do not try to distract us with hollow pleas regarding your innocence. There is a saying here: ‘The Dark Experience may be dark, but it is secretly lit by the brightness of truth.’ We know the story of your life. You did what your management used to call ‘extreme interviews’—I won’t dwell on the gruesome details, but you know what I am talking about.”
“I did valuable work. I exposed the plans of terrorists,” replied JW irritably, annoyed by Verge’s patronizing tone.
Angry, Verge suddenly thrust his palm up like a cop halting traffic: “Stop. It is pointless to defend yourself, Mr. Stumble. When you were admitted to The Dark Experience, your time of being ‘judged’ was behind you. This place is not a court of law. If you still breathed like a living human, you would be wasting your breath arguing your case. As I have told you already, the past is irrelevant. The fact that you previously physically abused detainees to force them to reveal information is insignificant to me. Others have long ago assessed your case with more authority than I have. They, not I, made the decision to send you here. And that decision is final.”
In a slightly exhausted, milder tone, Verge continued: “Now speaking of people making decisions, let us, shall we, return to the business at hand. Your skills at interviewing detainees can come in handy here. To get straight to the point, I am interested in replacing Quizling or at least adding additional skilled staff to his Point of Entry station that interviews new incoming detainees being transitioned across. We are losing some vital cash flow at the POE because of Quizling’s sloppy financial transaction skills. For example, despite existing protocols, he did not even require that you sign an IOU for the money you left at the hospital’s patient property unit. We get a lot of new Dark Experience detainees coming in with plenty of cash hidden back on earth; a true professional with solid interview skills and savvy at tracing accounts is urgently needed, not a has-been quizmaster who can ask witty questions but is otherwise clueless. In any event, poor performance aside, he probably told you that he has petitioned to leave, so we may have a vacancy in that position soon.
Noticing the questioning look on JW’s face, Verge said, almost apologetically, “Right. I agree. People used to think that ‘Hell’ actually meant a fiery point of no return. ‘Eternal damnation’ is, however, overly dramatic and somewhat antiquated verbiage left over from another, more judgmental age. It is indeed quite possible to leave The Dark Experience now, ah…depending, of course, on a host of factors. In fact, why do you think there are so many ruthless bastards living out their disgusting, exploitative lives on earth today while making others miserable…? Many of those bad actors are, in fact, proud graduates of The Dark Experience, having learned, or at least honed, their craft here…”
Stunned by the seeming absurdity of this assertion but not speechless, JW replied, “How can that be? I thought people were sent to Hell as eternal punishment for their previous evil deeds, not to learn—or ‘hone,’ as you put it—nefarious acts to inflict on others in the future.”
Verge shook his head. “Mr. Stumble, you have much to learn. Like all misguided earthlings who come here, your beliefs about The Dark Experience have been grievously twisted by those old superstitions about ‘forever damnation’ being inflicted on people who have been quaintly called ‘sinners’ as retribution for their past, corrupt lives.”
“You are saying, for example, that terrorists are actually being released from Hell, even after our assassination teams spent so much time and money ensuring that they got here?”
“Brighten up. Mr. Stumble,” urged Verge, cheerily observing the despondent look on JW’s face, “nothing lasts forever—not even Hell.”
Just then, Verge reached across the table and waved his hand in JW’s face. In a brisk ‘the-interview-is-over’ tone of voice, Verge said, “Okay, enough of this idle chit-chat: congratulations, JW, you have passed the first stage of the interview process. You are entering the next phase, which is about to begin now!“
Verge, like a hypnotist, snapped his fingers in JW’s face, awakening him from the 10-second nap he had slipped into when Verge had originally flashed his palm across JW’s eyes—except that this time Verge was no longer ‘Verge.’ Across the desk from JW, Quizling’s face, now fully restored from its earlier vanishing act, grimaced its toothless grin.
JW was actually pleased that Verge was gone, as he was getting to be an insufferable bore. With his precision crafted smile and cliché HR jargon, Verge was what JW, in his sarcastic earthly days, used to call a Generic Rep.
Whether customer service representatives in corporations or bureaucratic functionaries in the government, identical, annoying Verge-types were, in his past, not only everywhere but always crawling into one’s life. Despite what Quizling had originally said—and Verge had reiterated—the past and its memories were obviously not dead in Hell. In fact, if The Dark Experience’s purpose was to punish its detainees, then Generic Reps were actually a good fit here—always the mindless functionaries whose very presence tended to infuriate and frustrate—a kind of softcore psychic torture. However, then what purpose was served by the sudden appearance of Quizling in a professional office, strangely removed from his normal river navigation duties? He certainly was the very opposite of white-collar, bureaucratic Verge-types, who were not usually hired for dirty jobs such as hauling criminals and degenerates across smelly rivers to meet their ultimate fate. Moreover, why was he here conducting JW’s second interview?
“How is your petition to leave going…?” asked JW.
“Don’t try to small-talk me, Mr. Stumble,” interrupted Quizling. “I know you were angling for my job, but I don’t care about keeping it anymore. In fact, I have been promoted…promoted to be your mentor and guide to help you adjust—so to speak—to your new ‘life’ (he chuckled slightly) here in The Dark Experience. Gone are the days when I was everybody’s lowly slave, when I was the good old sweaty ferryman rowing a bunch of new, scared detainees across that stinking river while trying to calm them down, answering their dumb questions, and hustling them for their money.”
“So that means you are not leaving Hell…?”
Yes, that is true…sorry to disappoint you, but you will not be replacing me as the ferryman. You have not passed this second interview. However, I am telling you, you are lucky. You will not be sweating bullets out there on that god-forsaken river in that hot stench while grilling a bunch of incoming terrorists or gangsters about where they have hidden their filthy cash. Trust me: it is not a job that you would ever want—or would ever miss. “
“So what happens to me now?”
“As The Dark Experience and Verge have promised, you are about to enter into an exciting new and adventurous chapter of your afterlife,” Quizling replied thickly as his hitherto toothless mouth suddenly filled with fangs while his words gurgled slightly as he mumbled some gibberish, utterly incomprehensible to JW. Obviously, the interview was over.
The TV news presenter’s purplish-red mottled mouth and lips, slightly oozing a pinkish-bloody foam, almost filled the entire wall screen as the creature—JW could swear that the face was magnified or maybe bloated—droned on in a flat, unemotional voice. “The Dark Experience is happy to announce today that it is expanding its Point of Entry facilities to receive an eventual upsurge in detainees due to the latest reports by our onsite earth surveillance teams of fresh corruption in the earth’s political systems. If you are interested in a career opportunity as an Intake Facilitation Specialist, please contact Verge Dirge in HR by dialing extension 666 on your room phone. Moreover, the first 20 callers will be entered into our Special Leave program contest, allowing the lucky winners, upon management review and approval, to return to earth as Surveillance Operatives, locating the money owed to The Dark Experience by future detainees that Verge and his team have so graciously agreed to receive and shelter. For more details, switch to channel 5 on your wall screen.”
JW sat on the edge of his uncomfortable bed, watching the newscaster. After Quizling had mumbled his particular bit of gibberish—a curse, perhaps? — JW had found himself in a shabby motel room—dark brown, flyspecked walls, frayed grayish-red carpets, and a double bed with a lumpy mattress. On a small bedside table sat a red rotary dial phone, and next to it was a thick, black book, on whose cover were embossed the words, “CURRENT JOB OPENINGS”.
JW opened it and flipped through the pages. They were blank. He leaned back on the bed and winced as he felt its lumps knife into his back. Yeah, he thought, sighing, I am starting to get it. Verge Dirge and this goon Quizling are playing twisted mind games on me. It must be all part of my punishment protocol. One minute I pass a job interview; the next minute I fail a job interview. One minute, their in-house TV channel is advertising jobs; the next minute, there are no jobs. Quizling tells me that there is no past, present, or future here, yet Verge Dirge interviews me about my past career and talks about the future—all obviously psychic torture.
A bell jangled outside the door of his room. JW strode across the floor, his nose inhaling a sudden stink from the tattered carpet, which had had a rather pleasant smell like mildly perfumed wet fur but now suddenly reeked of that awful rotten egg stench from the river, and pulled the knob. It was Quizling dressed in a wrinkled devil’s costume, his (now) toothy, pockmarked face painted neon orange. Speaking in low, gurgling tones like a man muttering underwater, his voice, without its previous sarcastic energy, was emotionally flat and robotic.
“Greetings JW. Happy Halloween,” he mechanically intoned. “I am here to give you some treats, not tricks; management, in its infinite compassion and wisdom, has decided to give you a nice surprise, another big chance. You are the lucky winner in our special leave contest, which you just saw detailed on your wall screen. As advertised, your prize is one of our surveillance specialist positions for tracking illegal financial transactions and collecting information on the identities of various incoming criminals, which, as you know, we will use to, ah, collect their POE entrance fees and calculate their punishment when they finally get here. You will get a full meet-and-greet plus a detailed orientation when you get back to earth. Congratulations! You are now a member of the Dark Experience team.”
JW started to ask Quizling if there was going to be a formal exit interview before he left Hell when a fresh gust of the watery, rotten egg smell from the carpet burst into JW’s nostrils. Woozy, head spinning, and feeling vaguely nauseous, JW fumbled into the bed and fell flat on his face as the mattress’s lumps slammed his jaw; the stinking odor faded, then darkness, then forgetting.
JW was in a different and larger hospital room than before, this one filled with elaborate, shiny medical devices that were humming and blinking. He wore an oxygen facemask; his body was festooned with tubes and wires.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Stumble,” a gentle, professional voice lightly rumbled as its owner stepped into JW’s range of vision. With a thin face and pale skin almost cadaverous underneath a fading tan, a man in a white jacket introduced himself:
“I am Doctor Abbot; however, I won’t be your attending physician.” He turned sideways, motioned toward a shadowy corner, and gently backed away. JW heard his room’s door hiss softly as it shut.
A figure in a pinstriped gray business suit slinked out of the corner. A nametag on his lapel read, “Verge Dirge, Customer Accounts Department/Medical Intern.”
“Hello, Mr. Stumble, I second the good doctor’s greeting.”
He bowed slightly and then bucked his head and body forward as if he were going to grab JW and drag him out of the bed. Instead, he thrust a document in JW’s face and purred viciously. “Here is your IOU invoice for services rendered. This is debt collection time, JW. Since you were once in the business of hustling people for money, you can especially appreciate the urgency of this matter. You owe the hospital money—you have been in a coma the last few days, assigned to the intensive care unit—but further, you also owe The Dark Experience for your counseling, as well as for your transportation costs, your job search, and the apartment we graciously allotted you during your visit with us. However, because Quizling failed to collect an entrance fee from you at the POE, we have generously waived that. Incidentally, I have checked the money you deposited in the patients’ property accounts, and there is not enough to pay us back.”
“I thought I was being offered a new job back on earth. I mean, Quizling said…”
Verge Dirge scoffed, snorting heatedly through his nose. “I told you Quizling is a serial liar. His Halloween visit to you was all tricks and no treats, I am afraid, despite what he claimed. His job offer was a scam, and moreover, remember what Quizling said to you when you first came over: your old life is behind you now.”
JW frowned at the invoice he gripped in his sweaty hand. “I mean, there is no way I can pay all this back!”
“I have a simple solution for you, JW.” Verge burbled cheerfully as he pulled a small syringe from his jacket pocket. “Dead men have no debts…one jab from this, and all of your financial worries are over. Moreover, the good news is that, whereas you came to The Dark Experience before only in an involuntarily temporary near-death state, you can go back now in a voluntary permanent ‘whole-death’ status. If you willingly accept my offer, we will waive all costs for you, as you will be a full, self-guided enrollee—not merely a detainee—in The Dark Experience’s VIP personal improvement program, which features the Special Fire Massage Therapy. Imagine, Mr. Stumble! All those services at no cost, plus free rent for an eternity!
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt,” Verge, murmured seductively as he edged closer to JW’s bed. Sighing wearily but without regrets, JW slowly extended his upraised arm. The needle entered. Verge Dirge had closed the deal.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. He blends horror, noir, and sci-fi with philosophical and theological themes. A Belgium-based magazine, the Sci-Phi Journal, honored by the European Science Fiction Society with its Hall of Fame Award for Best SF Magazine, recently accepted one of Mr. White’s stories.
His other poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
I stared at the hatch, which loomed ten feet above me. The hatch, or plank, as Mom and Dad called it, covered a rectangular hole in the center of the laundry room ceiling. My parents told my sister and me there was nothing to see above the plank and we should never try to remove it. That would have been impossible, anyway. At eight-years-old, I stood only three feet ten inches, and at six, my sister Susan stood an inch shorter. Climbing atop the washer and dryer to my left would do no good—those machines were nowhere near the hole. And the ladder from our garage wouldn’t get me up there, either. I would have had to lean it against the wall, at least ten feet from the hatch. But if someone were capable of reaching the ceiling, they would likely be able to push the hatch open and lift themselves up.
There had to have been something to see above the plank, because whenever I played in the backyard and looked up, I could tell there was a whole other floor, with two large windows. But I couldn’t see inside because all the blinds were closed. And even if I could have somehow reached the roof, the windows would have certainly been locked, and there was no chimney. Other than through the plank, there was no way to get to the second floor from inside. No staircase.
Dad said he and Mom bought our house two years before I was born. They didn’t have much money, so were lucky to get such a big place. Dad began teaching English at the local high school, and it wasn’t too long before Mom was pregnant with me. She was an amateur photographer at the time, and I remembered her developing film in the laundry room. Dad forced Mom to give that up after Susan was born. He said she was neglecting her motherly duties. So Mom abandoned her hobby, and used this first-floor room primarily for laundry. The room had a sink and a toilet, so it subbed as a second bathroom whenever someone was hogging the one in the hall.
I washed my hands for Sunday dinner and turned out the light. I planned to mention the hatch while we ate our spaghetti meal, but Mom and Dad bickered the whole time. They seemed to be doing that a lot lately.
I hoped sometime my parents would take me to the second floor. They trusted me and usually let me do grown-up stuff, like watch R-rated videos. Mom said I was “precocious.” Probably because I got straight A’s and was the only boy in the top-level reading group. Mrs. Hagan, my teacher, said I read and wrote way beyond the fourth-grade level. Neil, the class bully, labeled me “teacher’s pet.”
After dinner, Susan and I biked down to Cole Court. We met Neil and the rest of the kids in the grassy center of the cul-de-sac, which was where we all gathered to play. Chilly fall weather had not yet kicked in, as it was only mid-September, and the sun had not yet gone down. Neil got right to the point.
“Chuck, when can we open the hatch?” Neil always scared me when he talked. He spoke louder than he should and stood a foot taller. But I put up with him because all my friends lived on Cole Court, and liked to play close to home.
“There’s no way to get up there, Neil,” I told him. “None of us are tall enough.” I hoped logic would slow him down.
“Maybe we can drag a table in there.” Neil glanced at the other kids, who nodded.
I wished Susan hadn’t blabbed about the hatch to everybody last week. Mom said it was good that she was starting to open up. But lately, she didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut.
“We might be able to on Saturday,” I said. “If we can distract Maureen.” Maureen was one of our babysitters. Sometimes she invited her boyfriend over. We never told Mom and Dad because Maureen let us stay up late. Grandma never had.
“Good,” said Neil. “We’ll all meet here after supper.” He then closed the subject, and we played Ghost in the Graveyard until dark.
“I can’t wait for Saturday,” said Susan when we got home, clasping her hands together.
“I don’t know how we can do it, Susan. Mom said the movie might be too bloody for her. You know how she’s always changing her mind.” I sure hoped she would. Dad liked to take Mom to those movies, but sometimes she would back out at the last minute.
When Saturday rolled around, Mom made an announcement at breakfast.
“When Dad and I go out tonight, Jimmy Davis will come over. Maureen can’t make it.”
I got nervous. “Who’s Jimmy Davis?”
“He’s Mr. and Mrs. Davis’s son,” said Mom. “Mrs. Davis said he’s looking to earn some extra money.” Mom and Dad have had the Davises over umpteen times since they moved from Brazil. They spoke fluent English and lived in a rented house on Cole Court. I never met Jimmy though.
“Why can’t Grandma stay with us instead?” I asked. If Grandma babysat, then I’d have the perfect excuse to call off Neil’s plan.
“Grandma’s visiting Uncle Dan and Aunt Karen.”
I’d have to tell Neil about the new babysitter, and that we’d have to wait until Maureen came back. With her, we could have snuck around while she and her boyfriend were making out, but Jimmy would probably watch us closer.
After breakfast, I rode over to Neil’s house.
“I’ve seen Jimmy Davis a couple times,” he said. “He’s that nerdy guy who drives a Ford Pinto down our street.”
“We’ll have to open the hatch some other time,” I said. “When Maureen’s there.”
“No way,” he said. “We’ll be over tonight.”
“Forget it, Neil. We’ll get in trouble.” We argued for a while. There was no way to talk him out of it, so I just went home. Jimmy would have to chase the kids away when they got here.
Mom didn’t change her mind about the movie, and she and Dad left at 6:30. Jimmy was tall and scrawny, with lots of pimples. He wore glasses, too, and was very polite. While we watched TV, I asked him how old he was. He said he was sixteen and attended the local high school, but Dad wasn’t any of his teachers. Just after seven, I heard commotion from our driveway. Susan and I exchanged nervous glances. Jimmy opened the front door. I pretended to watch TV. He closed the door.
“There were some kids in the driveway, but they ran away.” He looked at Susan and me. “You know who they could be?” We shrugged.
I suspected what Neil and the kids were going to do next, so I excused myself and left to peek out the back door window. The group was gathered on the patio. Carefully, I opened the door.
“Guys, get out of here,” I whispered. “We can’t do it tonight.”
Neil barged in anyway. I closed and locked the door before anyone else could enter.
“Where’s the laundry room?” he said.
“Get out, Neil.” The laundry room was nearby, but I still didn’t want him to see it. He pushed me out of the way, found it, and went in. I followed.
Neil stared at the ceiling.
“There’s no way to get up there,” I said.
He looked around. “Help me push the dryer over.”
Neil was not very bright. Even if the two of us could have moved the dryer, it would have squeaked on the tiled floor. I stayed put while he stepped over to it and tried to pull it with his hands. It moved a few inches to the right and let out a loud squeak. The living room TV went silent. I heard someone approaching. Neil climbed over the dryer and hid behind it. Jimmy came in.
“What was that noise?” he said.
I couldn’t think up a good answer. “I accidentally slammed the toilet lid.” Then, stupidly, I looked up at the hatch. Jimmy followed my glance.
“What’s that?” he said.
“That’s the way to the attic,” I told him. Jimmy didn’t say anything. He just stared intensely at the ceiling for a few seconds.
“Let’s get on back to the living room,” he said. “Your mom tells me you and Susan like to play Life.”
Jimmy turned out the light and we left. I hoped Neil was too scared to do anything but leave. I didn’t have a chance to check until just before nine o’clock bedtime. He was gone and there were no kids outside.
The next morning Mom declared that Jimmy was now our permanent babysitter. He would return Friday night, when she and Dad went to a party. On Monday morning at school, I told the kids Maureen wasn’t coming back. Neil scowled at me worse than ever.
“How could you be so dumb to tell Jimmy about the hatch?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Now when we go over Friday, he’ll know what we’re trying to do.”
“You’re not coming over,” I said. “No way. Not after what happened on Saturday.”
“We’ll be there,” said Neil. “I’m not gonna let a wimp like Jimmy stop us.”
That night in bed I thought about what to do. In order to stop Neil, I had to approach the situation another way. The next morning at breakfast I startled Dad with a question.
“Did you and Mom meet the prior owners of our house before you bought it?”
Dad and Mom looked at each other. They both frowned.
“No, Chuck,” said Dad. “We bought it through a real estate broker. The prior owners had already moved out. And anyway, why would you ask that?”
I ignored his question and said, “Did this house ever have a staircase? To get to the second floor?”
“No,” said Mom. “There wasn’t a staircase when we bought this house.” Mom and Dad looked worried.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” said Mom. “We asked the broker, and she said it was removed soon after the house was built in 1980.”
“No, no, Barb,” said Dad, glaring at Mom. “It was built in ’78. We bought the house in 1980.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “You’re right, Mike. It was 1978.”
I wasn’t going to let my parents off the hook.
“Why would they build a staircase and then remove it?” I asked.
“We’ll talk about it later,” said Dad. “You two will be late for school.”
At supper that evening I brought up the subject again, but Mom and Dad wouldn’t talk any more about it. After dessert, I told Mom and Dad I needed to check out a book at the library. I rode my bike there, and found Mrs. Newell. She was my favorite librarian because she knew how smart I was and treated me like an adult.
“Do you know how I can find out when a particular house in town was built?” I didn’t think my question would startle her. I was always doing research for school projects.
“That’s funny,” said Mrs. Newell. “There was a young man here yesterday asking the same thing.”
“Was it a kid named Neil Restin? He’s in my class.” Neil wasn’t one to be in a library, but what other kid could it have been?
“No, it was an older boy. High school age. I think his name was Jimmy Davis. He checked out three books.”
I thanked Mrs. Newell and declined any more of her help. I checked out a book from the fiction section and went home.
The next day after school, I rode over to Cole Court and searched for a parked Ford Pinto. I avoided Neil, who was shooting baskets in his driveway. After riding up and down the street, I couldn’t find Jimmy’s car, so I let Neil see me. I was tempted to fill him in on what I was doing, but instead joined him in basketball and let him tease me for double dribbling. Before I left, Neil brought up Friday night.
“What time are your mom and dad going out?”
“I’m spending the night at Justin’s,” said Neil. “We’ll be over at seven.”
“And then what?” I didn’t see how Friday night would be any different than what happened Saturday.
“You’re going to get Susan to distract Jimmy.”
“How am I going to do that?” I had watched enough TV to know what to try, but didn’t think it had any chance of working.
“You’ll think of something.”
In bed that night, I worried about Friday. But I had to admit that I was too curious to not try something. Justin was a lot smarter than Neil, and I hoped together we could come up with a plan to reach the hatch once and for all. The next morning on the playground, Justin devised a scheme that might work. I filled Susan in on it that night.
After Mom and Dad left for the party Friday evening, Susan asked Jimmy if we could watch Batman on video. I cooked some microwave popcorn, and then we started the movie. Shortly before seven, Susan screamed and covered her face.
“What’s the matter, Susan?” Jimmy got up from the recliner and put his arms around her.
“That joker scares me,” she said.
Jimmy turned off the movie. “Yeah, clown faces scared me too when I was your age.”
“Jimmy, would you read me a story?” Susan hugged Jimmy tight. “Please?”
“Sure. Which one?”
“I’ll find one in my room,” said Susan. “Would you come with me? I’m scared.”
“Okay,” said Jimmy, holding Susan’s hand. “You coming, Chuck?”
“No, you two go ahead,” I said. “I want to watch the movie. The Joker doesn’t scare me.”
While Jimmy read to Susan in her room, I sat on the couch and waited. I had the volume turned low and peeked out the front window every few minutes. Neil and Justin didn’t show up. After Susan went to sleep, Jimmy and I watched the movie to the end, and then I went to bed. As I fell asleep, I wondered why my friends didn’t come by. They must have got into the Playboy stash Justin’s father hid in the closet. Once when his parents were out, Justin and I spent hours gawking at the pictures.
I woke up a little later to a noise outside. I looked out the window to see if Mom and Dad had come home. I saw Jimmy standing by the back of his car. At his side stood a stepladder. He hoisted the ladder over his shoulders and headed inside. I stepped away from the window. After waiting ten minutes, I slunk toward the laundry room. The light was on and the door ajar. I peeked from behind it. The ladder stood underneath the hatch. Clumps of black filth polluted the floor, and dust particles saturated the air. I stepped inside and looked up. The hatch was open. I couldn’t see anything beyond, but I heard shuffling. Slowly but firmly, I climbed the ladder. Dust stuck to my pajamas. As I got closer to the ceiling, I realized that the only way to enter the opening was to stand on the top step. My legs weakened with fear, like they did when climbing rope in gym class. Neil always made it to the top, but I never did. The ladder felt sturdier than rope, so I ascended high enough to stick my head above the opening. I saw a faint light flickering around the room. Then I lost my breath. The dusty air had clogged my lungs. I coughed and wheezed. Tears filled my eyes, as the beam of light pointed to my face. I descended the ladder as fast as I could. I reached the floor, ran to my room, and ducked underneath the covers, trying to stifle my cough. After about ten minutes, I was breathing smoothly. I expected Jimmy to come in, but he didn’t. I lay in bed until my parents came home. After they went to sleep, I changed out of my dirty pajamas and hand-swept the dust out of my bed. I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and examined the laundry room. It was clean and the hatch was closed.
The next morning before breakfast I biked to Cole Court and found Jimmy’s Pinto parked in a driveway. I pedaled to the Davis’s stoop and set my bike down. Just as I was about to ring the doorbell, I chickened out. It was so early I figured the parents would be mad. Especially if I woke them up. I walked my bike to Jimmy’s car and looked in the back. The ladder wasn’t there. I glanced into the passenger window and noticed two photographs on the seat. The cardboard frames were frayed and brown. One of the pictures was a portrait of a young woman. The other photo was turned face down with handwriting on the back. I cupped my hands to the window, trying to read the note. It was Mom’s handwriting. I was sure of that. She had written, “Deborah Lisa, August 14,1979.” I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I stepped over to the driver’s side and pulled the handle. The door opened. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, then sat down in the driver’s seat. I grabbed the face-down photo and turned it over. It was a baby. I turned the other picture over. It read “Maria Mendoza, age 16.” I flipped it back and examined the face closely. It resembled a young Mrs. Davis. Was the baby hers?And why would Mom have taken a picture of it?Did Jimmy find the photos last night? I left them as I found them, got out of the car, and rode home.
At breakfast, Dad said he and Mom were going out again that night.
“Is Jimmy coming over?” I asked.
“No,” said Mom.
“Because he let you and Susan watch Batman after I specifically told him not to. And Susan got scared. So Grandma will babysit.”
My sister and I exchanged discouraged glances. Our plan had backfired. I didn’t buy Mom’s reasoning. She couldn’t have known beforehand we planned to watch Batman. I’d have to break it to Neil that Jimmy was fired, and there was no possible way to find out what my parents were hiding on the second floor.
Before leaving with Dad for the evening, Mom rented The Land Before Time. I started the video and cozied up with Susan and Grandma on the couch. Grandma seemed bored and began dozing off about fifteen minutes into the movie. After it got dark, I heard a thump coming from the backyard. Neil and the kids must have returned. I looked over at Grandma, who was almost asleep. I turned to Susan and pressed my index finger to my lips, then snuck to the back door. No one was on the patio. I opened the door and stepped out. In the darkness, I saw the silhouette of a long ladder extending to a second-floor window. Someone was climbing the ladder. I returned inside, switched on the patio light, and went back outside. I found Jimmy scowling at me from the top of the ladder.
“Turn off that light!” he said, fanning his arm down.
I did as I was told and returned, stopping at the ladder’s base.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you later,” said Jimmy. “Now get back inside.”
“No,” I said. “I’m coming up.”
He sighed but didn’t say anything as I climbed the ladder. Jimmy opened the window and slid inside. When I got to the top, he reached out and pulled me in. Then he closed the window and shut the blinds. The air was so musty we both coughed. Jimmy flipped on a flashlight. I stared at him.
“What are you doing up here?” I whispered. “We could get in a lot of trouble.”
“I have to find something out,” said Jimmy. “Just like you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, coughing again. Jimmy put his hand over my mouth.
“I saw you last night,” he said. “If you had stayed in bed, I could have found out what your parents have been hiding.”
I jerked my mouth away. “What could they possibly be hiding, other than Mom’s old pictures?”
Jimmy turned away from the window and shone the flashlight in front of him. “I’m going to find out. You can help me if you keep your mouth shut.”
Jimmy stepped forward. I followed him. We entered a wide hallway. The dim light exposed a few quarter-sized spiders on the walls. There must have been plenty more. Their webs enveloped our clothes. Jimmy’s flashlight revealed an open bathroom door to our right. I took one step inside, but Jimmy pulled me back. We walked to the end of the hallway into a large room. He aimed the flashlight at an old-fashioned box TV, sitting on the dust-covered carpet. Cobwebs streamed from the top of the TV to the floor like ropes holding up a tent. Dust coated the wooden-framed screen. The dial was one of those rotary ones, the kind that clicked when you turned it, and the label beneath read “Zenith.” Jimmy pointed the light at a grimy loveseat and then a coffee table, where a box sat. Sticking out were photographs framed in cheap white cardboard—the kind Mom had used for her pictures.
I scrounged through the contents but couldn’t see who was in the photos. “You found pictures of your mother and her baby in here, didn’t you? The ones I saw in your car.”
“That’s not my mother,” said Jimmy. “It’s my sister. And the baby was her daughter, and your half-sister.”
I looked at Jimmy strangely. Before I could say anything, he stepped away, leaving me in the dark. I heard him flip a light switch, but blackness remained. If Mrs. Davis was Jimmy’s sister, why did Mom and Dad say Jimmy was her son?
“Jimmy,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Shut up.” He pointed the flashlight at a doorway and stepped through it. I scurried after him but slammed my foot into something heavy on the floor. It didn’t move. I was glad I wore tennis shoes.
Jimmy hurried over. “Shh! They probably heard that.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “Grandma can’t hear too well.”
He pointed the light at my feet, revealing a dismantled wooden staircase, which lay on its side. The steps were cracked and rotten, partially covering some makeshift floorboards. Next to the staircase lay a long saw, several splintery planks, and a rusty toolbox. I sensed we were standing over the laundry room.
“Mom and Dad said the prior owners removed the stairs.”
“No,” said Jimmy. “Your mom and dad removed the stairs. There were no prior owners.”
“What?” I didn’t believe him at first, but then after thinking about it for a moment, what he told me suddenly made sense.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” he said. “Right now, I’ve got to find the attic. Come on.”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me into another room. There was a bed to the right and a closet to the left. Jimmy slid open the closet door, revealing an old, wooden dresser. He pointed the light upward at a recessed plank in the ceiling.
“This is the real attic,” he said, climbing onto the dresser and pushing the plank up and to the side. He pulled himself in and I lifted myself onto the dresser. I heard a clunk.
“Ow!” yelled Jimmy, as the flashlight fell into my lap. I heard stumbling and then felt a vibrating thud next to me. I pointed the flashlight toward the vibration. Jimmy had his feet planted on the dresser as he sat in the attic with his long legs hanging over the opening. I couldn’t see his face but heard him whimpering.
“You okay?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. His legs disappeared. I jammed the flashlight into my waistband and pulled myself into the darkness above. I inhaled more dust and wheezed as tears rolled down my cheeks. I yanked out the flashlight and waved it around. The ceiling slanted upward about four feet, until it met the other side of the roof. Most everything else I saw was insulation. I found Jimmy about thirty feet away, crouching. I began to crawl toward him. My hands and knees pressed against wood and insulation, which felt like concrete and scratchy cushions. Cobwebs glued themselves to my hair. Then my fingers ran over a warm liquid. I pointed the flashlight at them and saw blood. I reached Jimmy and aimed the light at his face. Blood was trickling from his forehead down to his nose. He snatched the flashlight from me.
“I feel something,” he said, and then pointed the light at what looked like a black tarp. I touched it and it felt more like a trash bag. Jimmy rubbed his hand all around it. He found an opening and pulled the bag down. A weird smell overcame me, difficult to describe. Sort of like when Mom emptied the mousetraps in the laundry room. With hands shaking, Jimmy aimed the flashlight at the bag’s contents. I caught sight of a skull. Jimmy gasped and recoiled. I took the flashlight, located the skull, and pointed the beam below it. I observed clothing—a T-shirt, old jeans, tube socks, and sneakers. Sticking out of the shirtsleeves were arm and hand bones. The light reflected something metal. It was a ring, with a jewel attached. I slid it off the bony finger, put it in my pocket, and pulled the trash bag back over the body. Then I heard a pounding coming from the hatch. Startled, I dropped the flashlight. It slammed against wood and the light went out. I frantically felt around for it but hit Jimmy’s arm instead. I heard more pounding. Then a pause, and then more.
“Where’s the flashlight?” said Jimmy.
“I don’t know.” I fumbled around some more. All I took hold of were dust clumps and insulation. More pounding.
“Someone’s trying to nail the attic shut,” said Jimmy.
After what seemed like forever, he found the flashlight. I heard him slap it and it turned on. He pointed it toward the noise. Long nails protruded from the attic’s entrance. There was more pounding and a new nail arose. Jimmy scrambled over. I followed. A thick board blocked the opening. We were trapped. With a corpse.
Jimmy found the plank that originally covered the entrance and slammed it over the nails. It split in two. He stomped the new board with his heel, but it didn’t budge. He crouched on top of it, then lifted me over the nails and pulled me next to him. I jumped up and down, but the board wouldn’t give.
“Who’s down there?” shouted Jimmy. “Let us out!”
A familiar voice sounded from below. “Jimmy, you can quit playing Sherlock Holmes. And who the hell is up there with you?”
“Carlos, you bastard!” Jimmy walloped the board with his fist.
“I’m taking the baby,” said the voice. I recognized it as Mr. Davis.
“Let us out, Carlos!” said Jimmy. “I found Dad’s body.”
That was Jimmy’s dad’s body? I thought Mr. Davis was Jimmy’s dad.
“Congratulations,” said Carlos. “And I found the dead baby.”
What dead baby?
Jimmy’s voice calmed. “Dad killed her…Didn’t he?”
“Who do you think?” said Carlos. “You think he came all the way here to make amends with Mike? After what he did to Maria?”
“You should have told me that a long time ago!”
“I didn’t trust you, brother,” said Carlos. “I’m outta here!”
“Don’t you leave us up here, asshole!” Jimmy beat the board with both fists. I did the same but quit. It hurt too much.
After a few seconds, Jimmy stopped, and we listened. There was silence. He climbed off the board and stretched out on some insulation. I could smell his sweaty body.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“My brother,” said Jimmy.
“Mr. Davis is your brother? I thought he was your father.”
“No,” said Jimmy. “The body over there was my father.” Then, in a hurried tone, he said, “We’ve got to get out of here. Your parents are in danger.”
That was more than I could take. “What do you mean? What the hell did they do to your brother?” Jimmy didn’t answer. “Susan would have heard us by now. And Grandma—she would have called the police.”
Jimmy was silent.
“Well, wouldn’t she?”
“Sure,” he said. But I wasn’t convinced.
I started to hyperventilate. I covered my mouth. Jimmy pointed the flashlight at me. He sat up and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Your mom and dad will be home soon,” he said. “They’ll get us out.”
I started to cry. Then I smelled smoke.
“Oh shit,” said Jimmy. He coughed as fumes entered the attic. The smoke intensified. The air was hot.
“Oh my God,” I said. “The house is on fire!” Then dizziness overcame me. I passed out. The next thing I knew I was lying flat on the board with Jimmy on top of me. We had fallen out of the attic onto the closet dresser. A sharp pain pierced my calf. I reached down and felt a sharp nail poking through my jeans.
“Come on,” said Jimmy, as he jumped off the dresser. He picked me up and set me down on the floor. As I tried to stand, my leg gave way. I started to fall. Jimmy yanked my arm and held me up. Neither of us had the flashlight, so he pulled me along in the dark, and then bumped into the wall. He found the doorway. The smoke was so thick that I felt like I was about to pass out again. Jimmy pulled me down to the floor. I grabbed his shirttail. We crawled until we reached the dilapidated staircase, where the temperature got super-hot.
Jimmy backed into me. “Carlos set fire to all the wood!” He grabbed my collar and we squirmed away from the heat.
Then I heard a bunch of squeaking. The sound reminded me of Harvey, a guinea pig I once had, but these squeaks were more strident. I groped around the floor. My fingers touched fur. Then whiskers. Then sharp teeth and I felt pain. I pulled my hand back.
“Rats, Jimmy! Lots of rats!”
Jimmy groaned. “Come on, Chuck. This way.”
He pulled me back toward the bedroom and then toward the hallway. I could see pale light shimmering at the end of it. We followed the gleam and reached the window. The blinds were already open. Jimmy pushed up the window and stuck his head out.
“Shit!” said Jimmy.
“The ladder’s gone!”
The heat from the center of the room spread toward us. Rats started to pile onto one another below the window. A few reached the sill and leaped out.
I stood up and looked out and down. The ladder lay on the lawn.
“Chuck, I’m going to have to jump. Then I’ll put the ladder back up.”
“You can’t,” I said. “You’ll break your legs.”
“Haven’t got a choice, Chuck.”
“Maybe if we toss the rats out, they’ll cushion the fall.”
“Gross,” said Jimmy. He climbed onto the sill, crouched, and got ready to jump.
Then I heard a grunt from below. The ladder slammed against the house. Jimmy jumped back inside, and we looked out the window. I saw a child on the lawn.
The child shouted, “Climb down before the whole house blows up!” I recognized the voice.
He pointed his finger up at me. “The flames are right behind you!”
Jimmy hoisted me over his shoulder and stepped out onto the ladder.
“Hold on tight!” He slowly descended the ladder. I grabbed the back of his shirt. Jimmy stumbled and I felt as though I was flying. Then the ladder rammed back against the house. Jimmy took a firm hold of my legs and I shrieked as his hand pressed against my wound. He continued descending. We reached the ground and stumbled to the edge of the backyard.
“You guys okay?” said Justin. “I saw the smoke from my house and called 911.”
Flames engulfed the house from bottom to top. I tried to focus my mind. I pictured my toys and books burning. Then my mind became clear.
“Susan! Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” said Justin.
I limped as fast as I could around the house. I found a body sprawled on the stoop. It was Grandma. Her head was soaking in a pool of blood. The front door was open. I started to enter but Jimmy grabbed my arm.
“No, Chuck. Don’t.”
I tried to pull away from him. “I got to get Susan!”
Jimmy picked me up and carried me all the way to the sidewalk. He set me down. A sonic boom shook the earth as an enormous plume shot out the front door. Windows shattered. The entire front of the house tumbled down. Sirens blared nearby. I covered my ears and screamed. My baby sister was burned alive! I turned to Jimmy and started punching him. He grabbed my wrists and pulled me to the curb, where his car was parked. He opened the driver’s side door, picked me up, and plopped me in the passenger seat. He started the ignition. I opened the passenger door as Jimmy revved forward, forcing me to shut it. As we sped off, I saw a little girl running down the sidewalk.
“Susan!” I yelled. Jimmy slammed on the brakes and opened the door. He picked up my sister and put her beside me. We hugged. I didn’t see any blood or bruises on her, just tears and sweat. Jimmy floored the accelerator. We passed two fire engines.
“Where are we going?” I asked. Jimmy didn’t answer, but he motored toward Cole Court.
We made it there in less than a minute. I saw Neil in our play area. He ran toward us waving his hands back and forth over his head. Jimmy swerved around him and sped to his house. He slammed on the brakes. We screeched to a halt along the curb. I saw Carlos standing on the front lawn with his hands in the air. Maria pointed a gun at him. She held a blanketed bundle in her arm.
“Stay here,” said Jimmy. He got out and slammed the door. Susan and I ducked down in our seat. I rolled down the window halfway.
“Carlos tried to kill me!” Jimmy’s voice was loud and clear. I expected to hear a gunshot.
I whispered, “Get ready to run, Susan.” I clutched the door handle.
“We couldn’t let you go to the police, Jimmy,” said Carlos. His voice sounded calm for a man who was at gunpoint.
“But that didn’t mean I wanted you to kill him!” yelled Maria. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”
“Jimmy should have stayed out of it. Now put the gun down, Maria.” I heard footsteps and then a gunshot. Susan screamed. I hugged her tight.
“Let’s go, Jimmy,” said Maria. “Mike is already at the airport.” Was she talking about Dad? She had to be. She couldn’t have meant anyone else.
“I’m not going with you,” said Jimmy. “Not a chance. I don’t trust you. Mike killed Dad, and now you want to take him home with us.”
I didn’t understand any of the conversation, except to realize I had now lost trust in everyone.
“Jimmy, we don’t have much time! Mike is a great man and I love him. I’ll explain later.”
“I don’t know how you can love a man who raped you.”
Nothing more was spoken. I just heard a car driving away. I lifted my head and peeked out the window. Jimmy was standing on the lawn, staring at a dead Carlos. Then he looked at me and approached the car. He got in and Susan and I sat up. He drove back to our house. Firemen were hosing down the inferno as bystanders watched, including Justin and Neil. Police cars were parked along the curb, their lights flashing. I saw Mom. Susan got out and ran to her. I stumbled behind. Mom gasped as she reached out and held us.
Susan, Mom, and I spent the night in the hospital. My leg required twelve stitches, and I had to endure a tetanus shot. Miraculously, the rat bite did not break the skin. Susan had no physical injuries. Mom had to leave our hospital room the next morning to speak with the police. I slept until early afternoon when the nurse taught me how to walk on crutches. The doctor discharged me soon after. The nurse pushed my wheelchair all the way to the parking lot, where Uncle Dan and Aunt Karen were waiting for us. We spent the next week at their country bungalow thirty miles away, only leaving once for Grandma’s funeral. Mom, Susan, and I had to share a bedroom, where I slept on a mattress between their beds. I didn’t ask any questions about what happened, until Jimmy came over. He and Mom sat alone in the living room, and I joined them. I didn’t need the crutches anymore.
Mom startled me by announcing, “Jimmy’s going to be living with us until he graduates.”
I thought about that for a moment. “He’s going to live here? It’s crowded enough already.”
“We’ll find an apartment,” said Mom. “Or rebuild. It won’t be easy, but we’ll manage.”
“Is Dad coming back?”
“Where is he?” I knew the answer but wanted Mom to say it.
“He’s in Brazil, with Maria.”
“Why would he go there, Mom?”
Mom didn’t answer, so Jimmy broke in. “Your dad is in love with Maria. She had his baby in 1979, when she was an exchange student in one of his classes.”
I turned to Mom. “You mean he had an affair?” She nodded.
Jimmy continued. “But when my dad found out, he came all the way from Brazil and drowned the baby. In the upstairs bathroom. Then your dad killed him. I didn’t find that out for sure until we found his body in your attic. Carlos and Maria told me they were moving here to take the baby back to Brazil for a proper burial. But I didn’t know Carlos was also out for revenge.”
I asked Mom, “But why didn’t the police find out about the dead baby?”
“We decided not to tell anyone. If the police found out, Dad would have gone to jail for having sex with an underage girl. And I wouldn’t have been able to support you and Susan.”
“But why would you want to stay with Dad after what he did?”
“Because I forgave him. And he promised never to see Maria again. She went back to Brazil, and we carried on. But…” Mom paused.
“Dad was never really in love with me. And when Maria moved back here, I found out Dad’s love for her had never really gone away.”
“But I swear, Barb,” said Jimmy. “That was not her plan. She just wanted to find the baby and go back.”
“Maybe,” said Mom. “I was terrified when she moved back here. I thought everything would break wide open. I tried to make her happy by letting you babysit. But then I found out that she and Mike were seeing each other again.”
“And Carlos would have killed Mike if he had gotten the chance,” said Jimmy. “I’m glad Maria killed him. And with the gun he just bought.” He looked at me and then back at Mom. “I’m sorry, Barb. Chuck shouldn’t be hearing this.”
“It’s okay,” I said. We all remained silent for a minute, and then I asked, “I take it your name’s not really Jimmy Davis?”
“It’s Jimmy Mendoza.”
“Mom, will we ever see Dad again?” I was already starting to hate him, and I’ll never trust grownups again.
“Maybe some time,” said Mom. She didn’t look as if that was important.
“But how are we going to live without him?” I was worried because Mom never had a job and didn’t have a college degree.
“I’ll find work somewhere,” said Mom.
“Me too,” added Jimmy.
“But it’ll be tight for a while,” said Mom.
Then I remembered the ring from the attic. “Just a minute,” I said. I retrieved it from the bedroom and showed it to Mom. “Can we sell this? Maybe it’s worth something.”
“Let me see that,” said Jimmy. He studied it. “This is my dad’s wedding ring. He and my mother each had one like this. Where did you find it?”
“On your dad’s finger.”
“I can’t believe it was up there this whole time.” Jimmy looked incredulously at Mom. “Why didn’t you take it off when you hid the body?”
“I didn’t see it, and had to act fast,” said Mom. “After Mike clubbed your father to death, we left the baby in the bathtub and put your father in the attic.”
“Well, this ring is worth a fortune!” said Jimmy. “When my mother died, Carlos sold hers and bought our house in Brazil with the money.”
“We can’t sell it,” said Mom. “It’s an heirloom.”
“Like hell it is!” Jimmy stood up, excited. “It would only be fitting to sell it after what my family did to yours!” He rushed from the house and drove away. He came back the next day driving a Mercedes, then sped off again with Mom. The next weekend, the four of us drove to our new two-story house in the Youngbriar neighborhood, the rich part of town. And far away from Neil Restin. We had access to a golf course and a swimming pool. And our new home had four bedrooms.
“You and your sister can have your pick,” said Mom.
Susan and I inspected the two on the first floor, and then climbed the staircase to check out the others. Mom and Jimmy followed. In the hallway, I noticed a hatch in the ceiling. Jimmy saw me staring at it.
“This is the kind of attic where you pull a rope and stairs come down to the floor. You two can go up there anytime.”
“I think we’ll take the bedrooms downstairs.” I looked at Susan and she nodded. “If Dad ever comes to visit, he and Maria can sleep in the attic.”
Brian P. Kalfus has a lifelong love of reading. He enjoys literature for the emotional power of a perfectly written scene. After working many office jobs, Brian rekindled his love of stories by writing his own. His work has been published in the online magazine Founder’s Favourites. Brian resides in Missouri.
In Budapest, across from the St. Anna Parish Church in Felsővíziváros, there stands a small inn on the corner of Batthiány Square. It is a narrow building with a high gable and dusty windows. I traveled to Budapest to study the art of bygone eras, the masterpieces of skilled craftsmen, but my money quickly ran out, so this memento of a magnificent city became the backdrop for the darkest days of my life. Lacking money, I painted portraits, postcards, and sketches. I captured the constantly moving, laughing outlines of wealthy gentlemen and aging wigged ladies on paper, with varying degrees of success. Of course, lacking knowledge of art, they were satisfied with the end result and happily paid the small amount of coins I requested. However, deep down, I felt the weight of my pitiful situation. Upon returning to the inn, the owner incessantly chased after me, exacerbating my miserable state with offensive and mocking remarks. “Well, I hope you’ve earned enough money now to settle your debt! Do you even know how much money you owe? Oh well… Why would it interest you? You eat, drink, sleep peacefully, and then in the morning hours, you sit out in the square painting for tips!” Those who had never before unleashed such a torrent of words upon me could not fathom how quickly the passion for art, creativity, love for beauty, and desire to create dissolve into nothingness. One feels foolish and defeated. During the dark and lonely hours, during the darkest hours, depressive thoughts assail, stealing even the remaining tiny joy of being able to rest and start the new day with a clear mind. No. Only the hopelessness of tired days remained, enduring humiliations, surrounded by pompous gentlemen and wigged old ladies. After an unsuccessful afternoon, I didn’t even have enough money to buy myself a slice of bread. I hadn’t dreamt of a hot meal for a long time. With a rumbling stomach, I sat hungry within the moldy walls of my room, staring at the beam above me. The temptation of suicide lingered in my thoughts. At least that way, I would have caused serious financial harm to the innkeeper. The comical aspect of the situation was that I didn’t even have money for a rope, I had no belt, and my necktie wasn’t strong enough for such a purpose. There was nothing left but suffering and the dying hope that perhaps one day the cursed wheel of fortune in my life would turn.
Thoughts like these and countless others darted through my mind like lightning. I didn’t dare to stand up because I thought that if I were to move at this very moment, somehow I might still put an end to my own life. It is an undeniable fact that a hungry person is capable of anything. Gathering all my strength, I blew out my candle and went to bed. Peaceful sleep eluded me, as my mind was besieged by strange images that had never occurred in my previous life. At first, I attributed them to the tormenting hunger and the traumas I had experienced, but the intermittent flashes of peculiar scenes were replaced by a continuous narrative. I saw a dark, cobblestone street leading among crumbling walls, sparsely lit by the glow of street torches. A figure wearing black boots, a long coat, and a hat walked with determined steps on the filthy road, clutching a hammer in their gloved hand. They frequently glanced back over their shoulder, as if afraid of being seen. They hurried into a side alley between two buildings, each step producing an unpleasant, damp squelching sound. The pale light of the moon filtered through the chimneys, illuminating a woman. She stood alone near the side exit of a bar. Her blonde, curly hair cascaded gently onto her shoulders, and her face was adorned with heavy but low-quality makeup. The deep neckline of her dress left no doubt that she was open to anything. The prostitute smiled, then seductively beckoned the man towards her. The stranger approached with determined steps, then struck the surprised woman forcefully multiple times. She had no time to scream. After the first powerful blow, she fell to the ground, and her attacker did not cease the assault. My heart did not beat rapidly, nor did sweat cover my body. I simply observed the cruel scene with a kind of chilling pleasure. I woke up and, disregarding my hunger, began to paint by the dim light of my candle.
Perhaps my miserable state of mind caused such violent fantasizing in me, or perhaps my whispering muses took pity on me with some kind of sincere inspiration. I couldn’t know the answer, but I genuinely rejoiced in a few minutes of liberated and profound painting, which was the reason I came to this city and had been missing from my life for a long time. I didn’t make any sketches, didn’t measure proportions, and didn’t pause to examine my work. I simply let this peculiar inspiration engulf me and transferred the horrors projected by my disintegrating mind onto the canvas. After completing the artwork, I sighed and pondered the sights for a long time by the pale light of my candle. I had created a violent, cruel, and terrible act, yet it emanated the deepest human emotions… Anger and hatred. It was a masterpiece. I looked out of my window and gazed at the stars in the nighttime sky. My eyes grew heavy, and the agonizing hunger began to torment me again. Sadness returned to my soul, and I decided to go back to sleep instead.
I had barely slept for two hours when I was already awake. The first rays of dawn illuminated Budapest, and I reveled in the sleepy scenery of the awakening city. Lost in my thoughts, two small, gentle knocks brought me back. It was too beautiful a morning to be bothered by the innkeeper’s early commotion, so I ignored it. My thoughts revolved around my peculiar painting. I had never been a violent person, and I recoiled at the sight of blood as well. I couldn’t comprehend my own bizarre creation, but even in my rested state, I believed I had created a masterpiece. I thought I would visit the hidden corners of the city where serious money was paid for such art. Perhaps luck would find me today.
I heard more faint knocks on my door, but this time they were firmer and more impatient. I sighed in annoyance, then stood up and approached the door. In my soul, I was already prepared for another futile and futile argument, but when the door opened, it wasn’t the innkeeper standing there, but an unfamiliar man who appeared to be quite wealthy. I was taken aback and speechless. The stranger wore a black tailcoat, a white shirt, an elegant bow tie adorned his neck, and he wore a top hat. In response to my surprise, the stranger spoke.
“Hello! My name is Bertalan Kemenes, I am a police magistrate.”
Suddenly, my violent and rough painting came to mind. I couldn’t find my voice, I merely opened my mouth, but no sound came out. The police magistrate chuckled pleasantly and extended his hand.
“Please forgive my rudeness! I can assure you that you haven’t done anything wrong, I didn’t come here to arrest you. The innkeeper mentioned that you are a painter. Well, I myself would be an art collector, and I thought before starting my work, I would ask you if you would be willing to create a few portrait paintings?”
“Of course,” I replied.
The police magistrate looked over my shoulder, straight at my painting. I cautiously glanced back and thought I could see Mr. Kemenes’s pupils dilate, and his tone of voice changed.
“Did you paint this?” he asked, then carefully stepped aside and entered the room.
I must admit the presence of the man in my meager dwelling unsettled me. I looked around at the patched furniture, the moldy walls, and the faded, completely worn-out carpet. I felt ashamed. Clearly, the man was not concerned about the strong musty smell or my pitiful surroundings and questionable state. He was mesmerized by the painting.
“I painted it last night,” I said.
“To create such a masterpiece in just one night? Simply astounding! How much does it cost?” he asked.
“I haven’t thought about it. The paint has barely dried on it.”
The police magistrate leaned closer to the painting, furrowing his brow. A long and uncomfortable silence filled the room. I could only hear the distant sounds from outside and the increasingly stronger beating of my own heart.
“I will pay four gold coins for it,” he said.
Bertalan Kemenes took out four coins and placed them on the table. He cleared his throat, then walked out the door, but before he left, he called back over his shoulder:
“I will have it taken away this afternoon!”
The police magistrate left as quickly as he arrived. I muttered to myself. Startled by my own surprise, I realized how rudely I had behaved. “I didn’t even bother to thank him or introduce myself,” I thought. I rushed out of my room, through the inn’s dining hall, and straight onto the street, but there was no sign of Mr. Kemenes anywhere. The past few hours felt even more peculiar. Thoughts of the four gold coins and a plate of warm food lingered in my mind. My stomach growled loudly, and I saw stars dancing before my eyes.
Summoning all my strength, I stepped back into the inn and addressed the repulsive and gruff innkeeper in an impolite tone.
“Have ‘hot soup and a slice of bread’ on the table by the time I come downstairs! Do you hear me?”
The innkeeper looked at me in bewilderment, then angrily tossed his kitchen towel to the ground. He retorted, “Only when you pay your debt can you eat! Until then, you won’t receive a crumb from me!”
As I hurried down the stairs, I couldn’t resist shouting back, “I have money, damn you, you scoundrel!”
The appearance of the police magistrate filled me with a newfound vigor. I practically soared with joy. Of course, my jubilant state of mind was aided by the knowledge that I no longer had to hunger. Four gold coins… The most esteemed artists receive such a hefty sum at auctions held in the elite quarters, from the wealthiest individuals. I glanced up at the beam above me. It seemed pitiful and laughable that just a few hours ago, I contemplated how to end my own life. I looked at my worn-out, tattered brushes. I would need to purchase new ones if I wished to create further masterpieces.
Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that I had no inspiration. I stared at the freshly set empty canvas, hoping for a trace of mysterious inspiration, but unfortunately, it was not to be. I felt completely burnt out, empty and devoid of anything, like someone who had poured their life’s work onto the canvas and nothing remained but a worn-out and hollow shell.
I must have looked pathetic when the innkeeper rudely barged into my room. Sweat trickled down his trembling jowls, and flakes of dandruff the size of snowflakes fell onto the shoulder of his unwashed clothes from his balding head. A wave of nausea washed over me as I remembered that he had prepared my meal, and similar – presumed spices – pieces were found in my soup. His eyes fixated on the four gold coins, and he exclaimed triumphantly.
“Well, well, young man! Have you abandoned painting and resorted to other earthly pleasures, given the amount of money I find on you? Pay your debt, and I’ll bring you even more customers!”
Suddenly, all the humiliations and cruel behavior he had shown towards me flooded my mind. Anger engulfed me, and in a sudden surge, I grabbed his garment and forcefully pushed him away. The innkeeper’s pupils dilated in surprise, and he cried out. He stumbled and tumbled backward, rolling down the stairs.
I didn’t care about his fate; I slammed the door with impatience, locked it, and rushed to the window. Taking deep breaths, I tried to calm my tense and nervous body. My heartbeat began to slow, and my breathing returned to a more normal pace. I needed to return to normal life, and for that, I needed new brushes and better canvases. I could recall several shops in Buda from my memories. I decided to visit them, hoping they could provide some advice on where I could sell my bizarre paintings. I believed I would continue creating similar works in the future. I no longer cared about the wealthy gentlemen.
I became aware of a strange noise. I heard the loud thuds of leather boots. I looked out the window and saw four gendarmes marching toward the inn. Did I accidentally kill that miserable innkeeper? How peculiar is life’s sense of humor. During the night, I had wanted to put an end to my own life, and now icy terror gripped me at the thought of hanging. The gendarmes reached the inn, and I heard the thunderous sound of their footsteps on the stairs. They pounded on the door insistently. In a state of shock, I stood petrified by the window.
“This is the royal gendarmerie! Open up!”
No matter how much I tried to move, I was unable to. The possibility of escape flashed through my mind, but I felt it would only worsen my situation. The gendarmes had guns, knives, and batons. They were trained to pursue criminals. They fought against murderers, violent offenders, and looters. I, on the other hand, was nothing more than a fragile painter who had always neglected his own body.
“In the name of the law, open the door, or we’ll break it down!”
Summoning all my strength, I approached the door. I turned the key in the lock and opened the door. Two gendarmes rushed into the room, pointing their rifles forward. I raised my hands and could only plead.
“I’m sorry!” I begged. “I didn’t mean to kill that wretched innkeeper; it was just an accident!”
The two gendarmes didn’t move; they simply held their rifles steadily on target. I glanced towards the door and saw the terrified face of the innkeeper. I didn’t understand what was happening. The police magistrate, Kemenes, walked up the stairs with measured, elegant, and slow steps, then entered my room. This time, he carefully surveyed my pitiful living environment and thoroughly examined me. I saw astonishment and disgust in his eyes. He approached the painting again, then gestured to a third gendarme who took the painting and left the room with it. The police magistrate looked at me and spoke: “I am arresting you on charges of sexual assault, robbery, and lustful murder! You’re coming with us now!”
Kemenes nodded, and the two gendarmes seized me and dragged me out of the room. I couldn’t utter a word; I just waited for my fate, frozen in shock, disbelief, and fear. What kind of murder? My painting? Could it be considered a crime in Hungary to create something like that? But I didn’t know!
They threw me into a prison transport wagon parked on the street, and they handcuffed my hands and feet. We set off. I heard the people on the street shouting “killer” and “rapist” at me, but I still didn’t understand what was happening. One of the officers spoke to me in an eerie and menacing tone.
“Now you’ll learn how we Hungarians deal with lustful murderers!”
My blood ran cold in my veins.
My situation was far from brilliant. Just as I had barely escaped starvation and the tormenting thoughts of suicide, I found myself in yet another dire predicament. I cursed my misfortune and dreadful fate. I knew that escaping Hungarian prisons was not easy, and I didn’t harbor much hope for it, but my longing for truth burned strongly within me. I was not a murderer. I hadn’t killed anyone, and I had no idea why they singled me out. Perhaps it was because of my painting; perhaps Police Judge Kemenes believed I had captured some previous heinous crime on canvas, but I can easily prove that it is not the case. Every detail of my painting is merely a twisted fiction of my shattered mind. It couldn’t be that I lead a double life and unknowingly turned into a nocturnal predator. Such questions and doubts raced through my mind as they led me towards the prison.
The prison transport carriage came to a stop in a vast, shadowy, gray, lifeless courtyard. Not a blade of grass or a shrub in sight, not even a single tree symbolizing life. No, just gray stones, worn-out walls, barred windows, and a rusty weathervane. It was only slightly worse than the inn, but I was certain that the company here would not be as quiet and cordial as the unpleasant guests of the inn. I recalled the prison rumors I had heard before—what prisoners do to each other, the tales of abuse, the horrors of violence in the showers. I grew dizzy and struggled with my tears. Physically, I was too weak to defend myself, and words do not deter perpetrators of violence. I wanted to go home, more than anything else.
The jailer escorted me to my cell and calmly closed the dark gray-painted iron door behind me. I looked around and realized I was alone in here. This provided me with a bit of relief. The walls seemed to have been recently whitewashed, appearing white and relatively clean given the circumstances. It occurred to me that I hadn’t had a trial, hadn’t been sentenced, so I couldn’t have any fellow inmates. The thought gave me a glimmer of hope that perhaps I could still explain myself out of this situation. After all, it could only be a terrible misunderstanding.
A faint light streamed in through the tiny window. Inside the dungeon, there was nothing but a straw sack in place of a bed and a bucket for my needs. It wasn’t an uplifting sight. I sat down and buried my face in my hands. I wanted to cry, but I was too afraid to show my weakness. I feared that if a future cellmate became aware of it, they might see me as an easy target and harm me. I had no idea how long I had been sitting like this when I heard footsteps from outside. The jailer opened the door of my cell, handcuffed my hands behind my back, placed heavy chains on my legs, and forcefully pushed me. I lost my balance and landed hard on the floor, hitting the stone with a loud thud. Sharp pain surged through me, and stars danced before my eyes. The jailer, unconcerned with my agony, simply shouted at me, “Get up!”
As I was unable to comply with his request on my own, he roughly grabbed me and forced me to stand up. We proceeded along a narrow, long, and enclosed corridor illuminated by evenly spaced lamps. Somewhere deep inside, I found the country’s level of development fascinating. It was unusual to have electricity even in prisons. This meant that they could execute people in the electric chair. I envisioned a glorious future ahead. Passing by one of the barred cells, I caught a glimpse of the “mummifier” from the front pages of the newspapers, a figure well-known to me. He would cut out the organs of his victims, soak them in preservatives, store them in jars, embalm their bodies, and hide them in his secret cellar. He was a horrifying, bestial, and cruel killer whose notoriety had spread throughout Europe. He lifted his disturbed and insane gaze to me, then grinned maniacally and exclaimed, “Good to see you again, buddy! They’ll hang me tomorrow, and there’s a spot for you on the gallows too!”
Mad laughter erupted from him, and the jailer pushed me again. Trembling with indescribable terror, I quivered like a leaf. I must have presented a pitiful sight.
The jailer shoved me into a spacious courtroom, where straight rows of benches were tightly arranged behind one another. It was an empty room with barred windows, worn-out and dreary walls, and above the judge, the portrait of the emperor adorned the wall. A crucifix was placed on the judge’s podium, depicting the outstretched, bleeding Christ. The room and its atmosphere perfectly expressed my state of mind. In my childhood, I still believed in God, but all of that was in the past. I had given up on prayers, and I hadn’t even dreamed of any spiritual or intellectual purification. I had never felt the need for it. Perhaps, when it comes to receiving the last rites, my opinion will change, and I will be given one last chance for salvation.
Facing me on the podium sat police magistrate Kemenes, accompanied by his two colleagues. A peculiar shadow cast a dull light on their faces, giving them an almost eerie appearance. Not far from them, seated farther away, was the clerk who typed mechanically on his typewriter without even looking up. I knew that I was nothing more to him than one of the many scoundrels guilty of atrocious acts. I believed less and less in my release, even though I knew I was innocent. They made me sit down, and then police magistrate Kemenes spoke: “Thierry Clermont – Tonnere. Where did you acquire this painting?” He pointed toward the painting with his left hand, which two gendarmes had brought into the room.
They made me stand up, and then they pushed me toward the painting. I examined it thoroughly and couldn’t decide what to answer. I couldn’t come up with any lies, and I still believed that by telling the truth, I could clear my own name.
“I painted this picture last night, sir!”
A foreboding silence fell upon the room, and my judges huddled together, engaged in earnest discussion. The monotonous clicking of the typewriter echoed in the room. Finally, the police magistrate turned to me again: “So, you painted it. And what does it depict?”
“I merely brought the fiction of my deranged mind onto canvas! I beg you, I had no idea that such visual representation is punishable by law in Hungary! I promise that if you release me, I will cease this, and immediately return to France and never come back to your country again!”
Judge Kemenes raised his glasses resting on his nose and spoke to me in a stern tone: “Thierry… Are you certain that you painted this picture? And if so, are you absolutely sure that you didn’t copy it from anywhere?
“I told the truth, Your Honor! “
“Record that! – he said to the clerk. – And the woman whom you depicted in such detail, did you also invent her?”
“Think carefully!” – the police magistrate spoke again. – “And consider your words, Thierry! Are you completely sure that you have never seen this woman? Perhaps during an evening stroll, a midday lunch, or briefly at the market square?”
No matter how much I pondered, I was absolutely certain of my answer. I merely shook my head and replied.
“I am completely sure, sir, she is only a creation of my imagination.”
The police magistrate and his colleagues began a wild murmuring once again, and their gestures clearly revealed their angry and annoyed emotions. Mr. Kemenes looked at me once more and spoke to me in an irritated tone: “You’re in deep trouble, young man!” – he glanced at the gendarmes and continued. – “Take him back to the prison transport, we’re heading to Johannes Platz! “
The prison transport moved slowly through the midday crowd. Hurried pedestrians, bureaucrats, and ordinary workers, who had no idea how fortunate they were. They could breathe the free air, and no one would take it away from them. I remained disturbed. Fear burned inside me, and my thoughts revolved around my own death. I considered the death penalty for a simple painting to be excessive and unreal. I took deep breaths and tried to think clearly. Could it be that my strange vision, in which I witnessed the horrendous crime, was real? Did my mind somehow connect with the killer’s mind? Could it be possible? I had heard of peculiar spiritualists and mysterious occult sciences in France, but I never gave any credence to these forbidden superstitions. However, now as I sit here, I think that perhaps there might have been some truth to them. After all, every legend has a kernel of truth.
We arrived at Johannes Platz, and the two gendarmes led me with heightened attention and caution, my hands and feet in chains, to one corner of the square. They took me to a secluded side street that I immediately recognized. The filthy, foul-smelling street was adorned with broken cobblestones, and as I looked up, I saw the chimney faintly illuminated by the moon, just as it appeared in my vision. At the end of the street stood magistrate Kemenes next to a woman’s lifeless body. Her blonde, curly hair spread like a bloody rag around her. Her cheap and poor-quality makeup smudged on her tortured face, and her bulging eyes were forever marked by terror. I didn’t want to believe what I saw. My heartbeat quickened, my breath caught, and I started to sweat.
“Oh God, no!”
I cried out, attempting to free myself from the grasp of my captors, but to no avail. The police magistrate looked at me with pity.
“Well, Thierry… Do you wish to share something?”
I didn’t answer; I whimpered like a child, wanting to escape, but I was incapable of it. At that point, I was almost certain they would hang me. Police magistrate Kemenes, knowing no mercy, continued his monologue.
“So, you admit that last night you killed this woman, raped her, and then painted her in hopes of profit? Don’t think I’m unfamiliar with France, Thierry! I know the atrocities you commit and the despicable, dark arts you practice! But this is Hungary! We do not tolerate degenerate and abnormal ‘art’! You will hang for your crime, and I will personally see to it!”
All I could do was sob and plead for mercy.
“It wasn’t me!” I screamed. “I only saw it in my dream, a vision, how someone killed her!”
Kemenes didn’t say anything; he simply left. The gendarmes took me back to the prison, but this time they threw me into a dark, dirty, and foul-smelling cell with no bucket or straw. Leaning against the hard stone, I pondered my own sad fate. I myself began to doubt my own innocence. Deprivation, hunger, poor conditions, and constant stress had shattered my mind like a powerful trauma, and I started a secret life of which I had no awareness. I had become a murderer. I couldn’t think of anything else. Perhaps I deserved death. But I didn’t want to die. I was still so young, and I had seen so little of this world. I didn’t yet grasp the depths of art, the soul of painting. Tears streamed down my face. After years of hardship, I made the decision to fold my hands in prayer and plead for mercy. Perhaps the Lord would truly forgive me, and perhaps He would allow my wretched, pitiful life to be spared by some miracle. I bowed my head to the ground and begged. I wept and crawled on the floor, but nothing happened. God didn’t hear me. He didn’t pay attention to me, as He never had before.
“Perhaps He doesn’t even exist,” I whispered.
“But He does,” a woman’s voice replied from the dark corner.
An icy terror ran through me, and in fear, I looked up. Red eyes stared at me from the dark corner. Hellish eyes gleaming in an otherworldly hue. Had I already died and ended up in hell? It was dark, but the woman emerged, and I could see her beautiful figure, enchanting gaze, and long red hair clearly. She wore a tight black leather outfit that didn’t conform to any current or past fashion, as if she had stepped out from another dimension’s world. It seemed too real to be a creation of my imagination. I slowly stood up with awkward movements and waited to see what would happen next.
“A dark cell is unpleasant, isn’t it?” the woman asked in a peculiar, mysterious, otherworldly voice.
I didn’t answer. I simply stood frozen, observing another strange turn of fate’s wheel.
“I heard you cry, and I came to you. I’ve done it before. Perhaps you’re not satisfied with your painting?” she said.
“It was you…” I exclaimed. “You showed me that murder! You committed it, and they will hang me for it!”
The woman smiled, then approached me and gently caressed my face with her cold, lifeless hand. A chill ran through me.
“Yes, it was I who showed it to you,” she said. “And I have a purpose for you. It’s up to you whether you walk out of this prison as a free man or exhale your soul on the gallows.”
Her words pierced through the fatal depression in my soul like a last ray of hope. Excitedly, I stepped closer to the woman.
“What do you want? What should I do? Who are you, anyway? How can I know that you’re not another manifestation of my sick mind?” I asked.
“Do you have any other choice?” she asked mysteriously.
I lowered my head and sighed. Indeed, I had no choice. Either I would enter this insane game or I would die. It couldn’t get any worse.
“What do I have to do?”
“Be the soul of my art! I want you to paint, create, and spread my blasphemous, infernal art in the world! And in return, you shall have a long, happy, and wealthy life. “
“Why me? “
“Because you heard my voice in the darkness. You alone witnessed my vision. “
“And how do you plan to free me from here? “
The woman grabbed my collar, our gazes almost touching.
“Create! ” – she touched her cold hand to my forehead, and I fell into some kind of sick trance.
I remembered that my solid graphite pencil was still in my pocket, the gendarmes hadn’t taken it away. So, I took it out and approached the bare stone wall. Before my eyes appeared the figure in a long coat, leather boots, and gloves, but this time I saw it face to face. It held a hammer in its hand and raised its weapon over the blonde-haired prostitute. It struck her, again and again. Madness and paranoid fear emanated from its eyes, fueled by rage and hatred. I saw its face clearly, and I recognized it instantly. I surrendered myself to the muse of hell and let my hand draw. The graphite scratched on the cold stone wall, and I had no idea how much time had passed until I finished. The wild and bizarre images besieging my mind didn’t cease like last time. I saw the man sneaking through the shadows between low-roofed houses, through streets and squares, all the way to the Battyhiány Square inn where I myself had stayed. He rushed into the cellar, took off his coat, boots, and gloves. He hid the hammer in a wooden barrel among the wines.
The vision ended as abruptly as it began. I looked around, but the mysterious woman was nowhere to be found. I glanced at the wall, where I saw another masterpiece. Under different circumstances, I would have been proud of it, but now I saw the key to my escape. I immediately rushed to the door of the cell and began pounding on it.
“Jailer”! – I yelled. – “Jailer, come here immediately! “
I heard the sound of cursing and swearing as my captor approached. Nervously, he entered and stared wide-eyed at the drawing on the wall.
“Is this possible? ” – he asked in astonishment, then rushed off.
Shortly after, he returned accompanied by police magistrate Kemenes, who stood perplexed in front of the drawing.
“Would this be some kind of strange trick, Thierry? The evidence is clear! “
“No! ” – I answered, surprising myself with my newfound courage. – “The murder weapon is missing, isn’t it? I know where it is! I had another dream! The inn where I stayed, in the cellar, the innkeeper hid it! A black coat, a hammer, boots, and gloves hidden in a barrel among the wines! Confront him with it, and he will confess his terrible deed! I have been imprisoned innocently! “
The judge turned to the jailer.
“Immediately inform the gendarmes and search the cellar of the inn! You will stay here in the meantime, ” – he looked at me.
The magistrate left the cell, and I collapsed to the floor, exhausted, immediately falling asleep. The sound of footsteps woke me up. Those who have never walked in the shadow of the valley of death cannot know or understand the cruel torment of the seconds filled with anticipation. Therefore, they cannot even imagine the tense atmosphere felt by a death row prisoner awaiting his release. Kemenes returned. His face displayed a peculiar mix of astonishment, shame, and surprise. He approached me and personally removed my handcuffs.
“Please forgive my hasty judgment! That cursed innkeeper immediately started to flee as soon as we began searching his cellar. After apprehending him, he confessed. We found everything exactly where he said, but unfortunately, there was more. The body parts, locks of hair, and personal belongings of additional victims. “
I stood in a state of shock, unable to speak. I had been saved. The woman, the mysterious infernal presence, had spoken the truth. Kemenes escorted me out of the prison and took me to an elegant hotel. He insisted on covering the remaining duration of my stay in Hungary. He provided me with new canvases, a set of brushes, and quality paint. However, my state of mind was far from calm. I had made a demonic pact, perhaps in exchange for my soul, but I had not yet fulfilled my part of the deal. Each night, I waited for the red-haired demon, but she did not appear. Until last night.
I woke up in the middle of the night, and she sat at my table with casual elegance, sipping fine French champagne. She addressed me. I got up and sat at the table. Her captivating red eyes were beautiful yet terrifying. We observed each other for a brief moment. She smiled and spoke.
“It’s better than I expected, – I replied. – What do you want? “
“Straight to the point… I like that. I want my due. “
The woman handed me a sealed metal tray adorned with peculiar symbols I had never seen before, along with some sort of unfamiliar script carved into its side.
“I want you to mix my cursed blood into the paint. You will paint portraits of wealthy and influential individuals, thus spreading my art. “
“But why? – I asked. – What do you gain from this? “
“Their souls. Because every being must feed, don’t they? “
“Ferenc K. Zoltán is a Hungarian writer born in 1992 who specializes in historical fiction and horror novels. He has published three novels so far: “The Color of Death is Red,” “The Gospel of the Devil,” and “The Black Monastery,” all in the Hungarian language. He has been nominated twice for the Dugonics András Literary Award in his homeland and is also the owner of Morningstar Publishing, a book publishing company. He supports emerging or completely novice writers through short story and novella competitions, providing them with an opportunity for publication. Currently, he resides in the Scottish Highlands, in city of Oban.”
Have you ever felt lost in your life? Like a character who has stumbled into the wrong story. You weren’t supposed to be here. This was not the adventure you had mapped out in your adolescent dreams. All you can see is the same stressful day reoccurring for the next twenty years before a psych ward claims you. When did the aspirations do a midnight flit? Was it after the first student lied about you? After the first time the weekday refused to end when you shut your eyes? The cliché of a rat on a wheel continually revolves around and around in your head. Planning, teaching, admonishing, marking, worry, nightmares, blame. Planning, teaching, admonishing, marking, worry, nightmares, blame. Planning…round and round. You would choose a cliché – typical and indicative.
This is what Annabelle is mentally writing as the opening paragraph of her first novel as she robotically walks to class. The humidity is oppressive – claustrophobic. Hat on head, she weaves her way around the loiterers – sidesteps bands of unruly boys; ignores their shirt ends flapping in the wind, mildly observes the giggling pods of girls; gold earlobes glinting in the sun. She adjusts her yellow scarf, worn to convey an arty bent. She fixes a smile and summons the energy needed to face Year 10 English. Energy better spent on the remaining 324 pages she has yet to imagine.
The students line up noisily – if you could call it a line. It is more of a straggled impression of a pregnant snake recently run over by a road train. The front of it starts out resembling a line (usually the early ones know how to do these things) but as time goes on and the latecomers bound in, adjoining themselves to the head rather than taking their proper place shamefully at the tale and the teenage girls who prefer to chatter, gather in clusters, instead of silently waiting in the correct formation, it becomes a distorted mass. Annabelle stands at the door and fumbles with her keys. Finally managing to get it open, she turns, sighs in resignation, and says, “In you come then, Year 10.” As usual, no one takes any notice. In fact, the only response is rather an odd one, but she has found children are rather odd. The boy at the front looks aghast and turns to his counterpart in shock,
“Did you see that, Eric? The door…?” He pushes at it nervously and slowly enters.
That is all it takes. The rest of the bunch surge behind him, a tsunami of hormones and sweat, jostling to get to the back row. Shaking her head, Annabelle follows them.
“What are you lot doing inside?” Ronald Mac strides into the room, laptop bumping rhythmically against his showy, overdeveloped thighs – shorts one size too small surely? Annabelle looks up confused. Why has he interrupted her class? His arrogance is as pungent as his overpowering aftershave.
“Door was open, sir” the students chorus.
Fuming, Annabelle attempts to raise an eyebrow to convey her surprise at the rude intrusion. “Mr Mac, can I help you?”
He ignores her, rather like she imagines he ignores his slight imperfections when preening in the mirror at the gym. “Right, you’ve got me today so get out your exercise books and write this heading…” Whiteboard marker brandished, with the focus of a cross-fitter completing a personal PB, Ronald makes his way to the board. It appears he intends to take this lesson. She knows she should protest but suddenly she feels the energy drain out of her. Why not? Let him endure the fifty minutes. He seems so keen, so robust, and besides, as she looks down, she realises there is nothing in her hands and no laptop on the desk. She drifts to the cupboard; she will stand here in the corner and observe. She lets her gaze settle on the students. The thoughts return, they fall into a rhythm in her head: Got to plan Year 11 Lit. Was I clear yesterday when I explained Thesis Statements? Don’t forget to follow up that detention at lunch. Twenty-six essays to mark on the weekend. What if Jeremy fails this unit? I hope I sleep tonight. Why didn’t I write a thesis statement on the board?
It’s interesting watching from this vantage point. Ronald is clearly caught up in his performance and cannot see what she can. Slight manoeuvres of hands under tables sliding into pockets, quick furtive glances, thumbs sporadically jerking and then freezing when he turns to play to the class. One girl (a quiet one, so Annabelle can’t remember her name – quiet brunettes with bland features blend in her head) is pulling her pen apart and Jeremy (defiant, loudmouth with bully parents) surreptitiously types on his laptop. Annabelle can’t see what he is typing but she doubts it has anything to do with English. She thinks about interrupting Ronald to alert him to this blatant disengagement when his booming baritone cuts the air,
“Jeremy, get off your laptop!”
Annabelle snaps back to reality. I should float – use proximity. She reprimands herself and begins to move around the room. Jeremy has started to take down the notes, but she notices he is omitting key information and his lazy scrawl is hardly legible. She hovers behind him, a little nervous to intervene. Last term, his mother wrote an email to the Head of School, accusing her of ‘picking on him’ after he failed to pass in his final assessment. Inhaling deeply, she screws her courage to the sticking place and leans in to whisper gentle encouragement.
“You might need to be able to read what you write Jeremy.” (Humour is generally the most effective approach with the difficult boys.) “Slow down.” Jeremy starts in his chair and shivers. “You know you are worth a capital I. ” she adds as Jeremy’s hand shoots into the air.
“Sir! Sir! It’s really cold, can you turn off the aircon?”
Groans punctuate the classroom as students protest. “It’s not cold” “Don’t turn it off sir!” “Put a jumper on!”
Ronald pauses, “You’re not even under the aircon Jeremy. Man up.”
He turns back to the board. Annabelle feels a sudden rush of pity for the gangly boy, the goosebumps rising on his pale, skinny arms. She gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Like a Skyrocket, Jeremy explodes from his seat, and turns on the boy next to him.
“What the fuck!” he cries, pushing him hard. “What’d you do that for?”
“Jeremy, outside now!”
Ronald has spun around. He seems to have grown two inches taller and his voice has dropped an octave whilst simultaneously rising in decibels. Annabelle is impressed; If only she had his presence, if only she could grow in size and volume when confronted by provocative students. A woman yelling is never impressive – the pitch is too high, there’s no impact. She often thinks she sounds like a cat on heat – not at all the desired or appropriate effect.
Jeremy suitably abashed, slinks outside.
With the intensity of sumo wrestlers preparing to battle, gathering clouds squat over the valley in which the school sits. The room darkens. An odd raindrop taps a warning on the tin roof. Annabelle looks to the outside courtyard. An ominous breeze is tugging at the palms that line the pathway just beyond the window, teasing the litter on the grass. She hopes it is not the threat of a storm. She hates driving in the wet and it can be torrential at this time of year. The rain begins to spatter, patter, and then pound as if God were a teacher who had held on throughout a six period day and at last is able to relieve himself.
Jeremy is at the door.
“Sir, can I come back in now?” he whines.
“In! And no more bad language.” Ronald brusquely gestures in response.
The lesson continues for another ten minutes without further disruption. Annabelle remains at the back of the room, looking to see that students are not deviating from the task and worriedly checking for signs the downpour will abate. Several girls put their school jackets on as she passes but their focus is admirable.
Then at two o’clock, two figures appear at the door, shaking their umbrellas. There is a polite knock. Shuffling in awkwardly with one of the counsellors, the Principal appears sombre.
“Sorry for the intrusion Mr Mac but I need a few moments of your students’ time.”
Ronald shrugs, “Go ahead Mr Bolton, they are all yours.”
At some point in this exchange, the student mass becomes a wriggling serpent; it shifts, coils and hisses.
“Who’s that bloke?”
” The Principal idiot!”
“What’s going on?”
“What’s she doing with him?”
“If I can just have your attention, Year 10…” The Principal clears his throat.
Well yes you can, but may you? Annabelle automatically responds in her head.
“When you are quiet…” He waits as the serpent slowly settles. “Thank you, Year 10. We have just received some very bad news and before it gets out on social media or you hear it second-hand, I wanted to tell you what the school knows.” The class shushes, expectant faces all raised in anticipation, eyes widen as they lean forward.
Nothing like a good piece of macabre goss. The thought springs into Annabelle’s mind before she can stop it.
The Principal takes a deep breath, “I have just heard from the family this afternoon… I am very sorry to have to tell you all this… but your teacher, Ms Jordan has passed away. She was found this morning. I can’t go into too much detail,” he lifts a hand as the shocked murmurs begin, “but what I can tell you is that Ms Jordan was a very dedicated teacher who devoted her life to her students. Her husband wanted me to know that she was found at the kitchen table, her laptop open and your assessment papers in front of her.”
“Did she kill herself?” squeaks the girl in the front row (Shannon – with the band aid covering her nose ring).
“No, no, nothing like that,” the Principal quickly interjects. “We’re not exactly sure what happened but it was a natural death. This is understandably a very distressing event so if any of you need to talk to someone then…”
During his speech, Annabelle is having an outer body experience; the room wavers in front of her and the Principal’s words have become an indiscernible distortion of sound. Why is he telling them she is dead?
“I’m right here!”she goes to protest, making her way through the desks towards him. “Look at me!”
Although she has raised her voice, no one seems to be taking any notice. Some of the students have begun to cry in their dramatic teenage ways – faces scrunched, shuddering sobs, acne reddening with the effort. Annabelle gets right to the front of the classroom, just as thunder smacks the blue grey sky hard followed by a flash of lightning, causing the whole class to start in fright. There is an awful scream.
“I just saw her!” Jeremy has jumped from his chair and is pointing right at Annabelle, shaking like a palm frond in a cyclone. “I just saw Ms Jordan! I swear!” His eyes roll back in his head and his body crumples; Ronald just gets to him before he completely collapses on the floor.
“Call the nurse!” The counsellor is shouting instructions, the students are wailing, and Annabelle is nodding frantically and repeating,
“He did see me! I’m here! Right here! He saw me! Where else would I be?”
She lurches around the room, appealing to student after student. A hysteria has taken hold, they seem to sense her presence, shrinking away, gasping and gripping each other. Jeremy has come to but is quietly moaning.
The Principal can’t seem to call order. He stands in the centre of the mayhem, ineffectively clapping his hands and calling, “Eyes to me!” which just adds to the general chaotic racket.
The realisation is slowly sinking in. They can’t see or hear me.
As she comes to grips with this, Annabelle retreats to the corner and slides awkwardly down the wall to sit on the floor, legs splayed. No one notices – not even the fact that she is wearing a pencil skirt that has ridden up and now her knickers are definitely on view. That is the clincher.
I’m really dead, I really am. She thinks and then the more terrifying thought follows…If I’m dead, why am I here? Her stomach churning, Annabelle suddenly recalls a distant night of wine and deep discussion on what the afterlife might look like. Her words return to her.
“I think you go wherever your brain takes you – whatever you fixate on becomes your reality when you die.”
Her tongue is fat and furry with the sour acidic aftertaste of shiraz.
I will never escape the wheel.
I am here forever.
And for the first time in a class, Annabelle drops her voice an octave, raises the decibels and screams.
Nicola Pett recently begun to explore gothic writing as a form of amusement and finds it quite cathartic. She lives with her husband and three children in the rainforest in Northern Queensland, Australia. She has worked in Media, The Arts and Education.
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.
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]
Tonight, The Chamber starts an experiment into a new feature called “The Monday Night Miscellany”. I know this is an ugly title, but I am too sleepy to put any significant effort into finding something better at the moment. I will explore other options later this week–maybe.
This article will be somewhat regular, starting out on Monday nights, though this may change later. The focus of it will be the art of writing, particularly the writing of dark literature. I will author probably most of it and a lot will be reprints of classic essays such as this one.
I hope to have a guest blogger now and then, so if you feel up to the task, please let me know. Initially, I would like to have guest posts in the form of essays from roughly 1,000 to 5,000 words. I do not have a preferred type of essay, the author is free to use whatever type/style/form he/she thinks is most suitable for the topic. As with stories and poems, there is no pay except a publication credit.
Tonight, we start with one of the most famous essays on writing by the master of dark literature himself: Edgar Allan Poe.
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says— “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.
We commence, then, with this intention.
The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.
Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.
My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration—the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast—but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.
Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.
The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem—some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects—or more properly points, in the theatrical sense—I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.
These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.
The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.
I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query—that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer—that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.
Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning—at the end where all works of art should begin—for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil! By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore, Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn, It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore— Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”
I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.
The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.
I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.
I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.
About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible—is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”
Not the least obeisance made he—not a moment stopped or stayed he, But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.
In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:—
Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, “Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven, Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore— Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?” Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly, Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore; For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door— Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, With such name as “Nevermore.”
The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness—this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.
From this epoch the lover no longer jests—no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.
With the denouement proper—with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.
But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.
Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line—
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming, And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted—nevermore.
LONDON PRINTED FOR SHERWOOD, NEELY, AND JONES PATERNOSTER ROW
[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…”
By THE light of a tallow candle, which had been placed on one end of a rough table, a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light upon it. The shadow of the book would then throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent and motionless, and, the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.
The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness—the long, nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged faces—obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity—farmers and woodmen.
The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco: his footgear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found among the dead man’s effects—in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.
When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.
The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.
“We have waited for you,” said the coroner. “It is necessary to have done with this business to-night.”
The young man smiled. “I am sorry to have kept you,” he said. “I went away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of what I suppose I am called back to relate.”
The coroner smiled.
“The account that you posted to your newspaper,” he said, “differs probably from that which you will give here under oath.”
“That,” replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, “is as you choose. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as a part of my testimony under oath.”
“But you say it is incredible.”
“That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true.”
The coroner was apparently not greatly affected by the young man’s manifest resentment. He was silent for some moments, his eyes upon the floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his eyes and said: “We will resume the inquest.”
The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.
“What is your name?” the coroner asked.
“You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?”
“You were with him when he died?”
“How did that happen—your presence, I mean?”
“I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him, and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories.”
“I sometimes read them.”
“Stories in general—not yours.”
Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humor shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.
“Relate the circumstances of this man’s death,” said the coroner. “You may use any notes or memoranda that you please.”
The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held it near the candle, and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he wanted, began to read.
“…The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged from the chaparral, Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly, we heard, at a little distance to our right, and partly in front, a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.
“‘We’ve started a deer,’ said. ‘I wish we had brought a rifle.’
“Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and imminent peril.
“‘O, come!’ I said. ‘You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot, are you?’
“Still he did not reply; but, catching a sight of his face as he turned it slightly toward me, I was struck by the pallor of it. Then I understood that we had serious business on hand, and my first conjecture was that we had ‘jumped’ a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan’s side, cocking my piece as I moved.
“The bushes were now quiet, and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.
“‘What is it? What the devil is it?’ I asked.
“‘That Damned Thing!’ he replied, without turning his head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.
“I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.
“Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember—and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then—that once, in looking carelessly out of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage, and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulders and fire both barrels at the agitated grass! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud savage cry—a scream like that of a wild animal—and, flinging his gun upon the ground, Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke—some soft, heavy substance that seemed thrown against me with great force.
“Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan’s retreat; and may heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.
“All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly. During the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard from the throat of man or brute!
“For a moment only I stood irresolute, then, throwing down my gun, I ran forward to my friend’s assistance. I had a vague belief that he was suffering from a fit or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but, with a feeling of such terror as even these awful events had not inspired, I now saw the same mysterious movement of the wild oats prolonging itself from the trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and look at my companion. He was dead.”
The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether naked and showing in the candle light a clay-like yellow. It had, however, broad maculations of bluish-black, obviously caused by extravasated blood from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in strips and shreds.
The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their curiosity, and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the handkerchief upon the dead man’s neck, the coroner stepped to an angle of the room, and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another, each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only thing that was new to them being Harker’s testimony.
“Gentlemen,” the coroner said, “we have no more evidence, I think. Your duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to ask you may go outside and consider your verdict.”
The foreman rose—a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.
“I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner,” he said. “What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?”
“Mr. Harker,” said the coroner, gravely and tranquilly, “from what asylum did you last escape?”
Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose and solemnly filed out of the cabin.
“If you have done insulting me, sir,” said Harker, as soon as he and the officer were left alone with the dead man, “I suppose I am at liberty to go?”
Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The habit of his profession was strong in him—stronger than his sense of personal dignity. He turned about and said:
“The book that you have there—I recognize it as Morgan’s diary. You seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying. May I see it? The public would like—”
“The book will cut no figure in this matter,” replied the official, slipping it into his coat pocket; “all the entries in it were made before the writer’s death.”
As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered and stood about the table on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper, and wrote rather laboriously the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:
“We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”
In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries mentioned can not be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away; the part of the entry remaining is as follows:
“… would run in a half circle, keeping his head turned always toward the centre and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.
“Can a dog see with his nose? Do odors impress some olfactory centre with images of the thing emitting them? . . .
“Sept 2.—Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively disappear—from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all that were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it, and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! I don’t like this. . . .”
Several weeks’ entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.
“Sept. 27.—It has been about here again—I find evidences of its presence every day. I watched again all of last night in the same cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not sleep—indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable! If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.
“Oct. 3.—I shall not go—it shall not drive me away. No, this is my house, my land. God hates a coward….
“Oct. 5.—I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a few weeks with me—he has a level head. I can judge from his manner if he thinks me mad.
“Oct. 7.—I have the solution of the problem; it came to me last night—suddenly, as by revelation. How simple—how terribly simple!
“There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail, for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a hill.
“It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.
“As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale’ I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see.
“And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!”
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842– circa 1914) was an American short story writer, journalist, poet, and American Civil War veteran. His book The Devil’s Dictionary was named as one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature” by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. His story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has been described as “one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature”, and his book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (also published as In the Midst of Life) was named by the Grolier Club as one of the 100 most influential American books printed before 1900…”
Donna Cheever leaned—immured where she sat in a colorful mound of crumpled paper—and plucked the green envelope from its perch among the bottom branches of the family’s seven foot artificial pine tree. Behind her the twins capered madly about the den clad in new AR headsets, interacting with a host of genial digital beings only they perceived. Richard was looking at her with an eager smile that seemed to transform him briefly into the little boy Donna hoped so futilely he would remain forever, and which she thought now endearing and mysterious. Twelve years old, Richard was just beginning his voyage into broody pubescence, and that smile, bright and unassuming, was increasingly rare. Donna arched a brow at her husband, as if to ask: What have you done? Tony, seated next to Richard midst a great piling of balled paper, smiled back and nodded, as if to respond: You’ll see.
“Go on, hon. Open it.”
She popped her thumb beneath the seal.
Inside was a slip of white stationary on which was printed a single couplet. Donna read: “I came from the machine that writes our documents and such… You’ll find my brother… at the one that makes our lunch?” She laughed. “Tony what is this?”
“Not sure,” the colonel answered as Richard sprang to his feet and bounded away, shreds of wrapping whispering in his wake like dry leaves. “But if I had to guess I’d say it’s a clue.”
“Mom in here!” called Richard from the kitchen. “C’mon!”
Tony put his chin in his hand. “Wonder what that’s all about.”
Donna stood, an avalanche of paper tumbling across the floor.
They found Richard at the Fabricator. The first thing Donna noticed was that several of the machine’s element canisters were reading low. I’ll have to order some more calcium, she thought. Carbon too… And then, scanning past the holiday greeting cards affixed by magnets to the Fabricator’s sleek black façade (from other military families, each presenting in miniature a portrait of striking similarity to the one currently hanging above the Cheevers’ fireplace: N.U. officers in dress blues, posed with spouses and children on wide lawns in front of sprawling homes, beneath rolling flags: the stars and stripes of the former United States, and the swinging sword and sunburst of the New Union), she saw another green envelope, taped over the dispensation bay.
The second note read:
Well that was easy, but Dickey showed the way… Find my sister on your own this time, in a cottage where the girls like to play.
Too easy, Donna thought, feeling herself swept up in the game. She uncovered the next clue in the twins’ playhouse in the backyard (at a hundred square feet, complete with functioning bathroom, kitchenette, and state-of-the-art nanny surveillance system, the designationwas something of a misnomer), taped to the entertainment center’s wireless projector. She took down the now familiar green fold.
“Look at you go! That one was obvious, I know… Seek my mate where it’s dry, hiding beneath a cup of snow…
“How did you do this?” she said to Tony, brandishing the slip.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” His grin faded and he looked up as, overhead, a fleet of airships went tearing west across the pale December sky, causing the playhouse’s walls to rattle. He was the only one to react to the sound of their passing. In the other world Tony occupied, on the opposite end of their torn country, jets were a vital component of everyday life; for Donna and the kids, for whom the logistics of war were more an abstraction than anything, the drone of distant turbines was so regular it scarcely registered.
The next one took a bit longer, but she got it eventually: tucked under the high-definition, holographic snowglobe on the mantel back in the living room. The envelope hadn’t been there that morning, Donna was sure of it. So Tony had enlisted the help of the twins in this escapade, who joined them now in their flashing goggles looking very proud for having accomplished the mission Daddy had set for them while their momma was being distracted outside.
So it went. Clue after clue the green envelopes conducted her through the house—out, into the garage, to the kennel of the home security drone (courtesy of the New Union, for the colonel had many enemies); inside again—Richard and the twins racing ahead in their excitement, Tony on point. Lastly she was led into her bedroom where, as another set of jets shook the sky above, Donna beheld hanging on the wall a black rectangular pane, perhaps three feet wide by six feet tall, with a red bow stuck to its upper corner.
“Merry Christmas Mom!” the children trilled in unison.
“What is it?” She stepped closer and could see her reflection—featureless smudge of skintone—appear across its surface. The device looked like a television screen or computer monitor and it was thin as tapestry.
“Window on,” said Tony.
The pane lit up, becoming a sheet of lambent silver like the backing on a mirror.
“Tony,” Donna said. “What—”
“Juniper,” he said. “You there? Come out and meet the family.”
For a beat nothing happened. Then color flooded the screen, and Donna was staring at an amused and pretty face not her own, so clear and textured it seemed the only thing that separated them was a layer of glass.
She jumped. It was a woman’s face, taut and tan, green eyes twinkling. The sides of her head were shaven. Her short pink hair arose in a wispy spume from the crown of her scalp and her cheeks were high and pointed. A metal stud glinted in the left nostril of her bladelike nose. She had on a sleeveless neoprene shirt and matching compression shorts (Spin clothes, Donna thought of them) and her arms and legs were slim, muscular, sinewy in the way of old tree roots, and her bust was small and flat. She peered at Donna out of a radiant silver void, as if suspended in a prism. She was smiling.
“You must be Mrs. Cheever,” she said. “I’m Juniper. I’d offer to shake, but…” She shrugged and held up her hands: What’re ya gonna do?
“Hi Juniper!” said the twins in tandem, coming up to the screen.
“And you’re the girls I’ve heard so much about,” she said. “Who’s Ally?”
“That’s me,” Ally said.
“Then you must be Erin.” Juniper smiled at them, one to the next. “Nice to meet you.” She put her hands on her thighs, leaned forward at the waist. “Those are some sweet headsets. Did Santa bring them for you?”
“There’s no such thing as Santa,” said Ally.
“Wow,” said Erin, craning her neck, pushing her goggles up onto her forehead like the world’s tiniest bombardier. “It knows our names…”
“She,” Tony said. “She’s a real person, hon. Be respectful.”
“That leaves Richard,” Juniper said. She gave him a lingering, appraising look. “Handsome boy. Nice jammies.”
Richard flushed and looked at the floor.
“Tony,” Donna said, turning. “What is this?” She glanced back at the girl in the screen. “Who is that?”
“That is a Window,” he said. “It’s an interactive smart display. Juniper is one of its apps.”
“She’s… an app?”
“Technically she’s a personal trainer. Your personal trainer.”
“I’m a real-time, on-demand fitness instructor,” Juniper said. “And yes, as Colonel Cheever just explained, I’m a person, not a bot—here to fulfill all your family’s health and wellness needs. You’re signed up for premium membership. That includes training, nutritional advice, round-the-clock consultations, blood analysis. The works.”
“You got me a trainer?” Donna’s hand went unconsciously to the budding paunch harbored beneath her sweater. Why would he get me this? she thought.
“A Window,” Tony said. “It also has a video messaging system, so we can chat while I’m away and it’ll be like I’m right here in the room with you.” He looked at her. “You seem… underwhelmed.”
“Huh?” she said. “No Tony. It’s great.”
“Really,” she said. “I like it.” She watched the girls, exploring the boundaries of the device; the trainer above, looking on and laughing. Richard stood off to the side, observing furtively, shoulders slumped, hands in his pockets.
“Are you sure?” Tony asked. “Because if not we can return it. I just thought it was something cool. Rodrigs got one for Eloise and said the family loves it. Said the chat feature really helps during deployments.”
“No Tony, honest,” Donna said. “I like it. It’s unexpected, is all. I look forward to using it. Thank you.”
She raised up on her toes and kissed him on the lips.
“Excellent.” He put his arm around her shoulder and faced the screen. Juniper and the girls were giving dap, bumping knuckles to their respective panes as if all that existed between them was a veil of glass. It was uncanny; she seemed so present. So tangible. Donna wondered where the feed originated, how much space actually divided them. She couldn’t say yet how she felt about the device (there was no denying the spell of insecurity the wiry trainer provoked)—but she had to concede the technology piqued her interest. And the chat feature would be nice. No substitute for the real thing, but still…
“Thank you,” she said again, meaning it. She leaned and kissed him on the cord of his stubbled neck.
“Merry Christmas love,” he said.
He left the following morning. To a battlefield in California, faraway. He couldn’t predict when he would return. “Might be a while,” he told Donna, before walking down the drive to the automated town car idling at the curb. “These rebels… They’re just kids. They have the conviction of kids who don’t know better.” He shook his head. “Have Juniper walk you through the Window set-up, will you? We’ll talk when I can.”
She watched as the town car drove away and disappeared and, like a kind of sendoff, a brace of bomber jets roared westward out of the base nearby. Off to rain fire on the heads of the secessionists, Donna supposed. Where her husband was headed. Her husband the hero.
“No need to be shy, Mrs. Cheever. This is part of the process. Think of it like a check-up.”
“Please Juniper. Call me Donna. Or Don. And you must understand this makes me uncomfortable.”
“Of course, Don. I get it. But since we can’t meet in person, this is the only way I can get a sense of where we’re at and where we’ll go from here.” She smirked. “What? Think you got something I haven’t seen before? Now strip, girl. Let’s see them moneymakers.”
Donna laughed. Her blouse was halfway off her shoulders when a thought occurred to her and she dropped her hands.
“How do I know you’re the only one who can see me?”
“There are strict privacy parameters governing the operation of the Window,” Juniper said. “Tell the truth, tech is not my wheelhouse, but there are a buncha firewalls that make our stream pretty much unhackable. And as far as other people being here with me now, I would have to disclose that information to you. If I didn’t I would lose my job and probably face some jail time, too.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Still she hesitated.
“I’ll prove it to you,” Juniper said. And before Donna could say anything more, the trainer pulled her shirt up and over her head and cast it aside, facing into Donna’s bedroom with her lean chest bare to the world.
“Juniper!” Donna gasped, looking away.
“Told ya,” the trainer said. “Just us in here. See? Nothing to worry about.”
She didn’t have a single tan line. No scars or stretch marks. Her breasts were straps of muscle from which jutted two tiny pink nipples and her waspish waist was sharply defined. Toned wasn’t the word for it, Donna thought, the woman was ripped—and for an instant she was lost in a startling vision of dainty hands, perhaps her own, tip-toeing down the warm ingots of the trainer’s naked abs, so vivid the ends of her fingers tingled and a pleasant heat, not so much confusing as surprising, bloomed in the pit of her stomach—then she realized she was staring and looked away again. Her heart was thudding.
“Okay Don. The ice has been broken. Shall we continue?”
After a moment, Donna did.
When she was finished she stood before the Window in bra and panties, her ears and cheeks burning, neck flushed. She waited.
“Jeeze,” Juniper said. “You’re gorgeous!”
Donna’s blush deepened. “Thanks.”
“I’m serious. And I want you to remember it. You don’t need me. You’re already a healthy, beautiful human being. But our bodies are works-in-progress, and there’s always room for improvement. Right?”
“If you say so.”
“Let’s get started.”
They began with three sessions a week, each lasting about forty-five minutes during which they would enact together a series of exercises ranging from bodyweight calisthenics and plyometrics to yoga and recuperative stretching, as well as twice-monthly meetings in which they went over Donna’s progress. Though her initial reaction to the gift had been lackluster (in fact, with its implications of a certain inadequacy, the device had hurt her feelings), she came to enjoy her work with Juniper, and by February the twins were joining in the weekly yoga classes and Richard was on a weightlifting program. By summer, as the insurgency in the west raged on, the pace was upped to five sessions a week, Donna felt better than ever, and everybody in the house had come to regard the girl in the Window as a trusted friend.
One day Donna came home to find Richard in her bedroom.
He was standing at the Window, gazing into it, the fingers of his right hand at rest lightly on the screen. As soon as Donna entered the hand fell and he turned to her with stricken eyes that set her internal alarms to ringing. “What’s going on?” she said, striding forward.
Richard spun as if to block her view and stove his hands into his pockets. “Nothin,” he said.
She looked at the screen. Juniper was there, smiling.
“Afternoon Don,” she said.
“Juniper.” Donna looked at Richard. “What are you doing in here?”
He made as if to leave but Donna caught his arm.
“What have I said about using the Window when I’m not home?”
His eyes were flat, distant; his aspect surly. He would not look at her.
“Close the door behind you,” she said, letting him go.
“Sorry about that,” said Juniper. “Kid just wanted to talk. I didn’t know you had rules against it.”
“What did he want to talk about?”
“Oh, usual teenaged boy stuff. Apparently some maid has spurned our Richard’s advances.”
“That’s all. I think he just wanted a woman’s take on the situation. And, you know… It’s not exactly the sort of thing a guy feels he can talk to his mom about.”
“He can talk to me about anything.”
“Sure. But I’m a foreigner here, and thus my opinion is unclouded by bias. Besides,” she said. “You know how kids are. Teenagers can be secretive…We still on for tonight?”
“No,” said Donna, shaking her head. “No I don’t think so. I’m feeling tired right now, and I still have to get dinner ready, and later I have a chat scheduled with Tony. I just want to rest.”
“You’re not coming down with something are you?” The trainer’s eyes sparkled with concern. “Summer bug or something like that? Because you’ve been sleeping well, according to my charts…”
“No, nothing like that. It’s just these chats with Tony… They take a toll. You know?”
“Of course. The distance has gotta suck. You should know I’m also here for you if you need me. Day or night. Total health is about more than just physical wellbeing.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Donna said.
“Please do. And listen to your body.”
She logged off.
Donna remained as before, looking at the blank screen.
“When you coming home, baby?”
Tony’s grin faltered.
“I told you I can’t say. The guerillas are pushing back hard. I’m responsible for an entire battalion. We can only do so much with drones in a fight like this; this war requires boots on the ground, and those boots need directing. We have to stop them here. If we don’t…”
He didn’t finish. Donna wagged her head. “Okay,” she said.
She said no more. Tony watched her. He was in a field tent somewhere in the Sierra Nevada and in that longitude it was early evening and he was alone. On his end the chat was being streamed through a laptop and his wife’s face appeared small and sad and for a moment he was panged by his inability to palliate her loneliness. From Donna’s perspective it was as if his upper body studied her from a lamplit alcove cut in the very wall. As if she could but reach out a hand and stroke his cheek.
“Hey,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“How about how great you look. The work with Juniper is really paying off.”
A pause. The colonel’s grin returned. Tentative. Devious.
“The kids asleep?”
Donna knew what he was getting at and she smiled then a bleak and melancholy smile despite her worry and frustration. Sex through the Window amounted to no more than mutual masturbation with a convincing projection—but it was better than nothing. Besides, Donna thought, it was sort of kinky. Sort of fun. Hot, even. Especially with the figure she’d acquired since Tony’s deployment, which made her feel sexy and powerful and which, having earned it with her sweat, she was learning she enjoyed showing off. Perhaps a bit of distraction wasn’t what she needed right now—no, what she needed was her partner back—but it couldn’t hurt, either.
She stood, turned and went into her bathroom, Tony calling after her: “Don? I wasn’t trying to upset you, I just thought—”
When she came back she was naked and her husband’s protests were cut short, as if he’d forgotten how to breathe. She liked that.
She sat in the floor in front of the Window, propping herself on her elbows. Arched her back. She flashed him a coquettish smile. The colonel’s face lit with a combination of surprise and excitement that Donna loved. She brought her knees together slowly, and then, slowly, parted them again. “What?” she said. “You just thought what?” Her hand lifted from the carpet. Touched her breast. She traced the skin of her areola with the tip of her index finger and the nipple stood erect as if fanned by an icy whisper. She saw Tony rise stripping off his shirt and fumbling with his belt and her hand circled lower, lower, skating like a breath across the smooth flat span of her stomach.
“Well?” she said.
She was almost there when she saw something in the Window that made her stop.
“What is it?” Tony said. “What’s wrong?”
Donna was on her feet, arms covering her breasts and groin.
The colonel glanced hastily over his shoulder as if he thought someone might be sneaking up on him and reached for his sidearm, never far. He was still alone. Donna came up to the screen and stood scrutinizing it intently. Had she really seen that just now? she wondered.
But there was only the murk of Tony’s field tent, three thousand miles away. Only Tony, topless and bewildered. Donna stepped back and frowned.
“Don? What is it? Is it the kids?”
“It’s nothing,” she said. She did not sound certain.
“Nothing,” she said. “I thought maybe the machine was glitching out.” She smiled wanly. “I’m sorry. I’m such a spaz. I’ve gone and spoiled the mood, haven’t I?”
He looked round again, his eyes mischievous, hopeful.
“Yes, Tony,” she said, and at the expression of boyish despair that went tumbling down his face Donna laughed, notwithstanding the misgiving in her pounding heart.
Later she stood at the Window again, dressed in a bathrobe and studying the silver home screen.
She was thinking: What was that?
Is it even possible?
What she’d seen was a pair of translucent green eyes hovering disembodied in the upper corner of the Window’s pane, observing Donna as she pleasured herself and alight with an unmistakable glee she recognized at once. After all: she saw it many times a week, often as she struggled through the final set of whatever tortuous routine Juniper had devised for the day. Donna believed that look evidenced a mild sadistic streak and thought probably all good personal trainers had a cruel vein running through them. But Juniper was not supposed to be able to make herself appear on her own. The policy was one of numerous security measures in place to protect the Cheevers’ privacy and Donna didn’t understand how it could be breached. She wasn’t even sure it had been, and the longer she stood staring at the changeless argent rectangle the more she became convinced the fleeting vision was just her imagination. Although why she would imagine Juniper’s eyes on her as she was achieving climax with Tony was something she didn’t want to think about. Discomfited by this track of thought, telling herself she was acting paranoid, Donna turned from the screen. She went to her bureau against the far wall and began hunting through its drawers for a set of nightwear: cotton pajama shorts and one of her husband’s old holey infantry shirts.
She did not turn around as she dressed, but if she had she would have seen that the Window’s screen was no longer blank. A figure had materialized in the pane: pellucid, partial, a faint silhouette like a person manifesting in a bank of fog. Spectral. Watching.
The figure receded. And when delicate prickles like wraiths’ fingers fluttering at the nape of her neck did prompt Donna to face about and regard the device, she was confronted only by an empty screen.
Beyond the shut door to Donna’s bedroom the house was quiet. Down the hall the twins snoozed soundly in their bunks. Across from their room Richard’s door was closed and locked. A blue light shone through the gaps surrounding this door, emanating from the room within.
In a dream Donna was thrashing in the undergrowth of a torrid jungle and it was dense and verdant and she was fighting it as the boiling green closed in and threatened to engulf her like a crashing wave… She woke panting to the realization she couldn’t breathe. Coughing fire, she sat up in bed and clawed the air; then her body heaved and she flopped to her side and puked on the floor.
That’s when she saw Juniper in the Window. The trainer was naked, lying on her stomach with her chin in her hands, toes kicking behind her. She tilted her head and gave a little wave:
“What—” was all she could manage. She coughed; her body was wrenched by a paroxysm of pain; she fell from the mattress. Now her eyes and nose were burning, her vision hazed, and the room seemed to be spinning around her. She inhaled and whooped breathlessly; it was as if she was drowning in air.
“Did you know crude mustard gas can be made from just four elements? I bet you didn’t—weapons of mass destruction are your husband’s forte—but it’s true. Carbon, sulfur, chlorine, hydrogen. All of which can be purchased through any common household Fabricator. Easy enough to make if you know the proportions, although not so easy to control once it’s vaporized. Isn’t that interesting?”
Donna pressed her mouth and nostrils into the nap of the carpet and discovered she was able to breathe a little easier. With her first draught of semi-clear air a single imperative leapt into her mind like a shout:
Juniper, as if reading her thoughts, went on:
“The gas is fatal to adults if they’re exposed to it for too long—but I wouldn’t worry if I were you. A strong woman like yourself… It could take hours before the effects became lethal. But with kids…” The trainer shrugged. “Who can say? Their constitutions are just so underdeveloped…”
Donna pushed to her feet. Now was not the time for questions. Impelled by a fierce instinct she had never before experienced, she tore the coverlet from her bed, bunched it against her face and rushed into the hall. Juniper watched her go, smiling.
The trainer was waiting for her on the flat screen in the twins’ room when Donna burst through the door.
“Gee,” she said. “That’s too bad… It appears you’ve come too late.”
The girls were in the floor in their matching pajamas, entangled in one another’s arms, foreheads together, as if frozen in an act of shared comfort. It would have been a sentimental image if not for the vomit that coated them and the utter motionlessness of their mirrored forms. Their stillness was lapidary in that moonlit gloom and it struck Donna with the force of awful irrevocable certainty. She went to them and dropped to her knees, moaning through the blanket. When she touched them their bodies jostled bonelessly. Ally’s mouth fell open.
“Ouch,” Juniper said. “Don’t I know that hurts. I found my parents just like that in the rubble of our apartment after an NU airstrike leveled my hometown. It was one of those central-nowhere California burgs along the interstate, and it was wiped from the map that day. My parents, my brother, my friends. All gone. The New Union believed our town sheltered a rebel stronghold. That was two years ago, at the start of the Revolution. The man who’d ordered the strike was a captain by name of Anthony Cheever.”
“Course, the cap’n goes by colonel now. I imagine he scored a nice commendation for what he did that day…”
Donna looked down at her girls for the last time. There was nothing she could do for them now. And she did not grieve them, not yet; rather, she was bolstered by the knowledge that while they were gone her son might still be saved. She went out the door, Juniper calling after her:
The boy’s door was locked. Donna kicked it in without thinking. She found him splayed in the floor, prone on his stomach. As she turned him over Richard’s television winked on, and there was Juniper, looking down.
“Here’s our little man! You know, if it weren’t for him none of this woulda been possible. Dickey here was my skeleton key.”
Donna ignored her. She held the back of her hand beneath Richard’s nose. C’mon, she thought. Please…
“Wasn’t hard neither,” Juniper cajoled. “Boys. They’re so easy to manipulate. All I had to do was show him a lil bit of skin with the promise of more if he gave me what I needed to access the home network.”
Yes, Donna thought.It was there: breath, flowing. She could feel it coming and going, so faintly on her skin. Richard was alive.
“Told him if he did that we could have all the fun we wanted in the privacy of his bedroom. Course that’s the problem with these smart homes: one network controls everything. Your appliances, for example. The ventilation system, for another.”
No time for relief. Donna scooped Richard into her arms and took off running down the hall, the stairs and out the front door, Juniper’s mad laughter ringing in her ears…
The black night air was cold and clean. Donna let the coverlet down from her mouth and breathed. The air was more delicious than anything she’d ever tasted. She was weeping but didn’t know it. In her arms Richard’s brow knotted and he began to cough. Donna looked back at the house they’d flown, rearing against the starry sky, its windows dark.
She’d forgotten about the Hound.
The security drone came barreling into the yard, steel limbs flashing in the starlight. Donna saw the headlamps of its eyes first, streaking towards them. She had time to discern its open maw, its terrible talons, and then—still driven by a ferocious survival instinct she hadn’t known she possessed—she understood in a flare of insight that the machine was under Juniper’s control, and it was coming for them. She also knew the Hound was a weapon designed to subdue and kill dangerous people (Threats, Tony called them) and if it got its claws on her there would be nothing she could do.
She hugged her son to her chest and ran, bare toes digging in the grass.
The Hound was closing in when she came in sight of the playhouse. She achieved the door, hoping against hope it was unlocked, knowing if it wasn’t they were finished. The knob twisted in her hand; the door swung. She stepped inside and slammed it shut behind her, threw the latch and sank to her heels. A moment later there was a tremendous crash at her back—the entire structure shuddered for the impact—and Donna rose, turned, and backed away into the tiny cell, staring at the door as it shivered in its frame. There came another crash. A rift appeared in the wood, wide enough Donna could see the moving glint of steel on the other side as the drone tried to fight its way in.
She looked round as if to seek an exit but there was none.
With a click and whir the wireless projector snapped to life. Juniper’s slim nude likeness luminesced across the far wall.
“Hi Don! Boy you’ve got yourself in quite a pickle haven’t you?”
Another vicious crash. Another splinter lanced across the door.
“Why are you doing this? Whatever was done to you it wasn’t us. Let us go! Please!”
“I wonder: how many times has your husband been rewarded for blasting some innocent town out of existence? How much collateral damage has he dealt in the name of his fascist union? No one I knew was part of the Revolution when the bombs began to fall. I joined the cause the very next day.”
“Please,” Donna sobbed. “Please. He was just following orders…”
“Well. He had his and I have mine. I must say the infiltration went more smoothly than anticipated. You service families are so predictable… One of em gets a new toy and all the rest just have to have one too.”
Rodrigs, Donna thought. The playhouse shook as the drone attacked again. She could hear the door beginning to give. Richard stirred. Opened his eyes.
“Mom? I don’t feel so good…”
He retched. Donna looked over her shoulder to see the Hound’s red eyes flickering through the cracks in the door.
When she looked back Juniper had changed positions and her legs were spread and she was watching the door as it came down, piece by piece. At the sight of what the trainer’s hands were doing a surreal swoon descended over Donna and she sat in the floor.
“No one will know what happened here,” said the trainer, gyring her hips. “No one. Your husband will come home to find his house in ruin, his family murdered by the technology he thought would keep them safe…”
“Mom,” said Richard. “Momma…”
“…And I’ll be here, watching. Every moment.” Her voice rose: “Such privilege. Such…”
There was a snap like a bone breaking and the door shattered.
Juniper cried: “Yes! Yes, yes, yes!”
“Momma,” said Richard.
She heard a noise behind her like the points of many knives skittering in the floor. The urgency of Juniper’s cries increased. Donna pressed her face into the crown of Richard’s head, tasting the reek of the gas trapped in his hair, and closed her eyes.
M.P. Strayer resides in Corvallis, Oregon. Most recently, his work has appeared in Alien Dimensions, Loch Raven Review, and Carmina Magazine.
The man reached for my chest. I could not move or scream. “What’s wrong?” he said. “You agreed to this, remember?” His fingers were knives. They pierced my skin. Blood ran down his arm as his hand plunged deeper and deeper…
That was the part when I woke, clutching my chest. I got up and opened the curtain.
It was already noon. The hotel walls were a pale, scratched green, like the color of hibiscus leaves beset with white flies. At one time, those walls were a hue that would have been soothing, but decay had made them splotchy, unsightly, rather like the metropolis in which I lived.
A tent card, old and limp, advertised a nearby brothel. A muted TV showed a nautilus consuming a crab, its legs disappearing through rippling tentacles.
Like a barnacle on a ship, I had attached myself to Coraldeth, a company. I was constantly pushing out tendrils in the hope of catching something, and I had just caught a juicy one. I sat down at my computer and communicated my plans for this new project.
Years ago, I worked with animals in a small office, I think. Dogs and cats, I think. One day a man approached me and offered a different career. I cannot remember his name or his face, but I must have agreed.
I started work with Coraldeth. The preparation for my new job involved darkness, needles, and blood, but at the end of it I became a resourceful talent manager.
The Metro was a huge city, sucking life out of the districts that surrounded it. If I had ever been to those places, I could not remember them. The city was a giant hive, but unlike bees, no one worked for the collective good. I knew I did not.
Many girls arrived at The Metro from the districts, transfixed with the sound of the buzzing hive, the movement, the opportunity. Those girls would do anything to escape the rural poverty and oppressive local government. I did not blame them.
In desperation for something resembling the family they had just left, they clung to their old religion, like a hermit crab to its shell. The Metro had churches for them, of course. The girls did not understand that the churches were rotten like all the other institutions of this foul city.
I had sourced all my girls from the churches. I felt comfortable there. The talent was just the right kind for me to use. I was the only manager who recruited this way.
Leilani was my juicy one. She had a high forehead, large dark eyes, pouty lips, and pale skin smoothed out over an expressive face. She was soloing at St. Konan’s, a church in a vast industrial area where I had discovered many girls. They sang well but could never become stars until I had them processed.
I started with Leilani the same way I did with all the other girls. After Mass was over, I would ask to have a word. It was important to get them alone. I would tell them I was a talent scout and that I could make them a star. Their eyes would always light up.
I took Leilani to a diner where she ordered a beans and rice meal typical of her district. As she straightened her blouse, I noticed its collar had tiny kittens embroidered into it. She worked at the boot mill, a foul facility that made its workers silly with the chemicals they used. Back where she came from, her mother limped on her left foot when she was tired, and her father always asked the same question about dinner when he arrived home to a household with six daughters and three sons.
Besides singing at her church, she also taught religion to the children and visited the old folks’ home. I chewed on my BLT sandwich and kept her talking. I would need to get her far away from this parish.
I told Leilani about being a star, and that a large entertainment organization with the right connections was necessary. I told her that Coraldeth could make her famous and that everyone would want to see her. I also told her that every star needs to have cosmetic work done.
She was nodding her head. She took the “cosmetic work” without reacting, so I moved in to close the deal. I told her that all my stars underwent a special procedure which turned ordinary people into spectacular singers. I gave her examples of celebrities that Coraldeth had already transformed. Leilani hung on every word.
I pulled out a contract for her to sign while I casually lied about other prospects I was about to choose from that day. I pointed out the pay, the benefits, and the support. I neglected to mention how the procedure causes lost memory, and other long-term health problems. The money always helped. As soon as I gave them money, they would give me their trust. They would quit their jobs and be ready to do anything.
She signed immediately. She did not even ask about the side effects of the procedure.
Once they signed, I took my projects to “Doctor Ernie,” a fat old sea slug of a man. In the middle of his loose jowls sat a small mouth with jutting lips, usually hanging open. His rapacious smile displayed rows of chipped teeth. He would laugh when I called him “Doctor Ernest” in front of the girls. They often got nervous at this point, and I had to work hard to keep them calm. Leilani asked to bring a friend. I told her there was no time, and that I would look after her.
The procedure took a couple of hours. I waited in a nearby park that had a half-dried lake and occasional patches of grass. A homeless man approached me and held out his hand.
I told him I had something for him. Putting some gloves on, I walked around to an alley adjoining the park. The surprised look on his face when I caught him on my backhanded fist was amusing. So was his ragdoll appearance on the ground when I walked away.
My projects usually needed a few days to recover. After some rehearsing, I would take them to The Docks, a lawless part of The Metro with foreigners, money, and contraband.
Kids thronged to “Squawkers,” a night club where aspiring musicians could get a start. The chain link fence had trash wedged into its openings. Puddles of luminescent waste filled the potholes, and the night hid the faded paint on the outside walls. Inside, the tired smell of cigarettes and addictive drugs filled the air. It was there that Leilani gave her first performance.
I had recruited the band from lists that Coraldeth provided me. The musicians came to gigs with their tattoos, colored hair, filed teeth and surgically altered appendages. I ignored their appearances and paid them, making everyone happy.
The chaotic slam of drums destroyed the pre-performance quiet. A guitar screech was so loud you did not need ears to hear it. Leilani started jumping across the front of the stage, screaming, and thrashing with such energy that her body parts barely seemed connected. The band banged out song after song with wrenching intensity and the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy.
At the end of the evening the band milked its final note, while Leilani ran from one side of the stage to the other, screaming and crashing into the musicians. They laughed. When the curtain fell, she stood rooted just behind it while the musicians put away their gear.
“Leilani, why are you standing there like that?” I asked. She turned to me. Emotion twisted her face as she realized she had finished her first successful concert. She sprinted in my direction and slammed into my chest, nearly throwing me to the floor. Her tiny body convulsed with sobs as she clung to me.
She was so different from my other girls. Usually, they would strut off stage with the cold arrogance of an established star, waiting for everyone to bow down and worship. Ernie’s procedure was supposed to take the emotion out of my projects, but it did not work this time. I did not report this to my bosses. Leilani had made a lot of money for everyone that night.
Just as strange, Leilani continued going to church every Sunday. Again, I did nothing. She was far away from St. Konan’s, and the schedules of churches and night clubs rarely conflict. Protective of my investment, I accompanied her, and even got to know the pastor. But she no longer sang as cantor. She belonged to me.
After church we would sit outside for donuts and coffee. She would gaze at me with those surgically enhanced eyes and ask me questions. I could not remember much about my past, so I described my job. I told her a few stories of how I handled club owners who did not pay. She looked at me like a small child, infatuated with a grandpa. She made fun of the gray on my temples, laughed at my jokes, and called me “Papi.”
She would break off pieces of her donut and feed them to the pigeons as they surrounded her. I would laugh, and she would hide her face.
And what a voice. No disappointments with the procedure this time. Leilani’s voice grew from two and a half octaves to five. Once, just for fun, I measured her singing with a studio oscilloscope. She nailed every pitch, exactly. With a little coaching, she mastered the use of breath, dynamics, and microphones. She could growl, yodel, and scream precisely on key, and it all came so easily to her.
Her favorite music was a kind of techno chick pop. She sang it with a gritty voice, broadening its appeal. She packed night clubs with girls who dressed like her. Then the boys came. As her celebrity grew, I could hire some of the best writers in the industry for new material.
Her emotional fits after concerts did not subside.
“Leilani, are you okay?” I asked when she was, once again, in tears.
She slapped herself in the face and grunted like a pig. “I wish I wasn’t losing it all the time. What’s my fucking problem?”
We were trapped in a spider’s web. I was hanging limp. As she shook the web with quaking emotion, blood began to flow in my veins. I also began to struggle, thinking, “maybe it is not so hopeless.”
A knock on my hotel door woke me. I opened my eyes and rolled over. I ignored the aches of my aging body as I hobbled to the door.
It was Leilani. She was looking down at the floor.
“Can we go to the zoo?”
“What time is it?” I asked, stifling a yawn.
“About ten in the morning. Can we go to the zoo? I know it’s stupid, but can we go?” Then she looked up at me with those big, merciless eyes.
It had been so long since I had been there. Would I even be able to find it?
Her eyes lit up. “Thank you. I’ll be in the lobby.”
The zoo smelled like manure and the day was hot. The enclosures, although large, had been denuded of all vegetation. Fascinated with the monkeys, she jumped around, saying “Hey monkey! Hey monkey!” Then she looked back at me, searching for any sign of disapproval. A laughing snort escaped my chest. She went back to jumping around, hooting, and calling, “Aaaack! Aaaack!”
After she figured out that I was just laughing, she leapt up and grabbed a hook under the eaves of the monkey house and swung. She kept playing the monkey, leaping around on all fours.
I was laughing all afternoon, and my chest felt a vigor it had not experienced in years. Then we got to the wolves. The enclosure had one wolf only. It was old, graying at the muzzle. Its canine gait and the way it scratched at its ears made something tighten deep in my stomach. I felt like I had a word on the tip of my tongue. Then the wolf stopped pacing and looked directly at me. Its eyes had a ravenous, longing hunger, like it had lost something long ago.
Leilani stopped jumping around and looked at me. “Papi. Are you okay?”
I shook my head as if waking. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”
We stopped in front of the pigeons in lofts. The sign described how they could always find their way home, no matter where they were. A nest holding tiny eggs was inside one of the cubbies. Leilani put her head on my shoulder. Her touch felt electric. No one had touched me in a long time.
We visited the zoo every week. I did not report any of this.
One rainy night after a concert, the limousine failed to show up and take Leilani, so I drove her myself. “Papi. Please take me up to my room,” she said as I pulled in front of the hotel. It was nice to be staying at shiny places with huge lobbies for a change. I shut off the motor and accompanied her. She needed a couple of attempts with the hotel key, but finally her door opened, revealing a pigeon walking about on the floor.
“Leilani,” I said. “Why is there a pigeon in your room?”
She covered her face and sighed.
“He crashed into my balcony window, and I couldn’t just leave him there. But he seems better now.”
She approached the bird. It was tame in her hands. “Could you open the sliding door for me please?”
I opened the door, and she walked out on the balcony. She whispered a few words to the bird, and then cast it out to the sky. Its silhouette flapped against the lights below.
“Thank you for helping me, Papi,” she said, looking up at me like a small child. That girl was such an idiot. She did not understand how I was using her.
I went out to a convenience store for some marijuana. I got the good stuff this time. I went back to my car and smoked a bowl. Then I fell asleep.
Small hands freed me from the lofts. I was overjoyed to feel the air of the sky. I knew the ground, the trees, the houses below me. My wings had awakened and knew where to go.
When my eyes opened, I was still high. I did not notice or care whether it was dark or light. I turned on the ignition, pulled out onto the street, and drove. I passed through traffic lights and rotaries. Left, left, straight, right, left, straight. I drove on and on through empty streets.
It was still dark when I pulled in front of a small set of worn identical houses by a dirt road with no sidewalk. I got out of my car and approached the third door.
The lock, like many locks in The Metro, was fingerprint activated. I pressed my hand to the device, and it turned green. I pushed. The door gave me some resistance and then it creaked open.
The walls had paintings of animals, especially dogs and cats. The air smelled of stillness, nothingness. The furniture of the sitting room was coated with dust and cobwebs. The refrigerator in the kitchen had food that was brown and rotted. Then I went into one of the bedrooms. My room.
A guitar leaned against a corner by the closet. I picked it up and sat down on the bed to tune it. I played. My fingers knew exactly what to do. The melody was in a minor key, haunting me, calling me. I thought of incense and the colors of stained-glass windows.
The song ended. I got up, put the guitar back and straightened the covers on the bed. Why did I do that? My bed. It was meticulously made.
I felt tired. The long night and the marijuana were catching up with me. I crawled back onto my bed and collapsed.
I was banging against a door. It would not open. The bones in my hands were breaking. My blood was spattering the floor. The door was beginning to crack.
I woke, went to a desk, and started digging through the drawers.
I found a small, green book in the first drawer. I paged through it and a number caught my eye. The number was in large script, and it had been crossed out in a single stroke that cut through the page. I could still read the number, however.
I picked up an old phone on the desk and heard a tone. I dialed and listened to the ringing. A woman answered.
Her voice was gentle and tired. It had a singing cadence, a lilt typical of the northern districts. I knew this voice. My eyes squinted. A response broke out from deep in my chest.
“Benjamin? Benjamin? Is that you?”
She called out away from the phone, desperation screeching through her voice. “Richard! Richard! It’s Benjamin! He’s on the phone now!”
A man’s voice took over. “Benjamin? We’re sorry. We didn’t mean any of those things we said. Where have you been? What happened to you?”
“Dad. I’m okay. I know it’s been a while.”
I felt confused. My insides felt like paper tearing into pieces.
“Wait. I don’t think I should have done this. I’m sorry. I have to go now. I’m sorry.”
“Benjamin…Wait! Don’t go! Where are you?”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Goodbye.”
I put the phone back on the desk. My fingers, shaking, sifted through the drawers. I found a photograph of a man holding a dog, with a wall of cages behind him. His head was tilted back laughing and his eyes were closed. In another photo, that same man was holding a guitar alongside a few other people. A woman held a tambourine. They were standing in front of a church. I felt sick. This man was a churchgoing, guitar-playing animal-loving pussy!
I closed the desk drawer and walked out back to my car. I got away, but the feeling that I had torn something would not go away.
Leilani had become a master of working an audience. She had a smirk that never left her face as she gestured with her microphone. Her emotion-driven performances gave her a stage presence I had never seen before. In hit after hit, her voice dominated radios and bars across the Metro.
I began staying at my old house, despite the long trips involved. I cleaned it up, painted the walls and bought new furniture. Then, Leilani started staying in the bedroom opposite mine. She tried to hide it, but she was giving food to stray animals. Whenever I found a bowl of food on the porch, she hid her face in her hands.
“I’m sorry, but he looked so hungry.”
I did not really care, but she seemed to want to hide these activities from me and even from herself.
The trajectories of my projects ran their course, like everything else of this brutal world. The fans were fickle and few of my girls had the talent necessary to continue for long.
But the fans were not the worst thing. The procedure did not take long to catch up with my projects. After a couple of years, they could not hit the high notes anymore and their pitch would deteriorate. Even worse, they would become paranoid and argumentative.
Leilani’s crying was getting worse, but at least she was still making money. Otherwise, I would have had to develop another girl quickly. I wondered how difficult moving on would be or if it was even possible. I was squeezing in concerts, and taking her to the movies, the zoo, and other outings every day.
The end came faster than I anticipated. I was coming back home with milk and burritos, and I found her seated at my computer, hanging up the phone. I felt my stomach crinkle up. Did I close out those password-protected files before I left?
Her eyes were creased, and her face was frozen. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“What you’ve done to all those other girls? Is that going to happen to me too?”
“Leilani. None of those girls were like you.”
“I suppose that means they never trusted you like I did.”
“No. It’s not like that.”
“How long before you get rid of me too? It seems like I don’t have much time left, do I?”
“Leilani. That was different. You’re different.”
“You’re lying! I’ll bet that’s what you tell all of them!” She got up and started gathering her things.
“Where are you going?”
“Away from you!” Her movements were quick and clumsy.
I was walking behind her. “Leilani! No! You’re different. I have taken you into my house. I don’t want you to go. I don’t care how many fans you have. I don’t care about the money. You don’t understand what’s really going on. Please. You have to believe me!”
She was not even looking at me. I reached out as she approached the door, and she batted my hand away like it was a snake.
A cab had arrived and was waiting to pick her up. She walked out and slammed the door. Then she was gone.
I plopped down in front of my desk and opened a tracking program on my computer. The procedure had placed a transmitter in her head. I watched a little brown dot on the computer, superimposed on a map of the city. When I figured out where she was going, I got into my car, bracing myself for what I had to do. I could have done it all remotely, but I wanted to see her.
She was going to a church nearby. I drove as creatively as possible, through alleys and across yards. When I arrived, Leilani was getting out of the cab, grim and determined.
With my previous projects, the last step was simply separating the girl and moving on. But not this time. My hands shook as I pulled out my phone and accessed the Leilani file. I wanted to throw up. I looked at Leilani and pressed “END PROJECT.”
The effect was immediate. Leilani put a hand on her right temple, stumbled, and then collapsed in front of the doors of the parish office. The procedure had given me the option of initiating what would appear to be a memory-wiping stroke, usually lethal.
A man in black emerged. He looked at her, and then at me. His eyes narrowed. He called for help and crouched down beside Leilani. I got back into my car and drove away.
I knew the pastor would not expose what he saw. He was in a government church, and Coraldeth had lots of ties with the government.
Because of Coraldeth’s connections, the public records of Leilani’s celebrity would be deleted. The star would disappear.
I sat, stuck in traffic, in places I had never seen. The sun set and traffic eased. I refueled two times as the night wore on. The sun rose again. That man in the photograph with the guitar would not go away. The words “traitor” and “murderer” kept slipping out of my mouth.
I went back home. For the next few days, I played guitar in my room. The following Sunday I drove to the church where I had last seen Leilani. My heart was pounding. What could I have been hoping to find?
I sat in the same pew where she and I sat. Mass began. Leilani had always been so emotional and so compassionate towards animals, and she hated it, considering it her worst weakness. But it was, in fact, her greatest strength.
After Mass I climbed into my car and left. I sent a text to my boss, saying I needed to talk to him.
As I pulled up to my house my vision was getting awful, like looking out through a tunnel. I had to watch the ground with every step. As I opened the door, my right temple felt like it was splitting open. Spots of brilliant colors were flying though my eyes. I pushed through the door and felt relieved that I was in my own place, instead of a hotel.
As I struggled with spiraling pain, I turned on the TV and saw a nature show. I collapsed into the bed and tried to focus on the screen as the spots and colors got bigger and bigger in my eyes.
The show featured a frog that could remain dormant in the desert ground for months, or even years, and then wake again with the next big rainstorm.
The agony in my right temple spread throughout my whole body. My room, the nature show, and the bed were slipping away.
The pain gave way to a sleepiness, and I felt like I had been sleepy for such a long time. Existing in a sort of half-life. Not my life. Somebody else’s life.
Then the strangest thing happened. The spots in my eyes became dogs and cats, of all breeds, and of every color. Hundreds of them were barking and meowing in a glorious cacophony, and they were all coming to me. Gentle guitar music played.
The animals crowded out everything else. They shielded me from the nightmare that had become my dreadful world and enveloped me in their paws, their muzzles, and their fur. I reached out to them and laughed.
Mike Neis lives in Orange County, CA and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in The Stray Branch, Rind Literary Magazine and elsewhere. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language. His blog: mrneisblog.home.blog