Old Witchmare is a small village perched on the side of a hill, where a wide valley opens. They call it the Witches’ Cauldron because of its shape of a semicircle east and west of Mount Crescent. The river Slithe once sprang from the mountain and carved the valley with its many streams, digging deep gorges and caves. Since the 1790s, hundreds of mills multiplied in the valley, making its inhabitants wealthy and its textiles admired all over Europe. However, the river mysteriously dried up around 1880, all the channels turned into stony ditches and the mills were shut. Their wheels still hang today over the empty canals like huge, broken toys. Old Witchmare is picturesque, with its crooked, old buildings made of timber and chalk, of two or three floors, with large bow windows, projecting dormers, and fantastic faces carved on the projecting beams. The locals are friendly, and the oldest pub in the village, Stork & Lamb, always spreads a delicious smell of stew. Like every other place, though, this lovely village has its specks, the first of which is precisely its name. When the hamlet was founded in 1625, the plague had emptied London, and rumour spread that witches and wizards roamed the land unchecked, anointing the walls with venomous concoctions. In the county of B., it was known to everyone that the valley of the Slithe was haunted by witches. Thus, to avert a wave of collective violence, the government authorized the foundation of a military outpost at the mouth of the valley. Within weeks, a square, fortress-looking settlement had been built, with wooden barracks for troops all around the central courtyard and a few shabby buildings made of brick and timber for the officers of the Health Tribunal, the jail, and the canteen. There is no record of what happened there in those years because Old Witchmare was sieged and destroyed by Cromwell’s army during the Civil War when the archive was lost in a fire. What we know about the dark origins of the village is the matter of folktales and gloomy legends of massacres, torture, and executions of many unfortunate people who had found refuge from the plague in the valley, only to be arrested and burned alive as worshippers of the devil. The anonymous chroniclers report that the flames of the stakes were visible every night from the main road that connected London to Bristol. However, those creepy stories have permitted the village to get back on its feet because it is thanks to them that tourists visit the Witches’ Cauldron year-round.
Some years ago, I read about Old Witchmare in the book Witchcraft Legends and Folktales, published in 1948 by celebrated ethnologist Waldo Percival Barnstormer. More interestingly, though, I stumbled once again on the name of this village a few weeks ago as I was attending a geology conference in Lancaster where Dr Brian Jackson delivered a fascinating paper about sinkholes in the Witches’ Cauldron. After the talk, I asked Brian to tell me the rest of his story, which he agreed to do at dinner. Never the saying “curiosity killed the cat” was more appropriate to the context, albeit tragically, as I eventually found out.
The visitors were lucky to explore the Witches’ Cauldron with Jacob Forsyth. He had explored nearly every gorge and cave in the valley and knew all the dark stories about the witch hunt. At the end of every tour, he enjoyed telling one or two anecdotes he rearranged following the inspiration. In his fifties, solitary and shy, he lived alone with his beloved cat Horatio in his house built for a wealthy family of pharmacists in 1670, of which he took care with devotion and for good reasons too. Ancient as it was, it required attention as an elderly lady, the beams creaked and groaned from time to time, and the wooden frames of the windows felt the weight of the centuries. Jacob’s secret refuge was the back garden with its mossy stones, roses, lilies, hydrangeas and daffodils. When evening came, Jacob would sit on the porch with Horatio on his knees, admiring that small corner of peace.
And there he was, at the beginning of this story, sitting in the breeze of a mid-summer evening, smoking his pipe, his heart at peace and his mind clear, for he felt that everything around him was just right. He was smoking lazily with his eyes closed, and when he opened them, he caught in the dim light a small, dark spot on the kitchen floor. Horatio looked half asleep, but his wagging tail revealed that he had noticed the thing too.
“What is it, my love?” Jacob asked.
The thing in the kitchen sprang forward and stopped again. Now it was perfectly in sight.
“What the hell is that? Horatio, won’t you go have a look-see?”
The cat didn’t move. When the dark thingy zoomed and vanished under the cupboard, Horatio jumped off Jacob’s lap and trotted into the kitchen. Jacob stood up, the daydreaming was gone, and a feeling of irritation remained. Horatio had slipped under the cupboard, and only the tip of his tail stuck out.
“Did you find it, darling? What was that?” Jacob asked. Then, he moved the cupboard enough to look behind it but saw just a little dirt. At a closer look, he noticed a small, barely visible crack. It started from the floor, crawled upwards for a few inches, and was just one millimetre wide. Jacob didn’t like that some roach came out of the wall and planned to plaster the crack tomorrow. For now, he just stuck some paper in the gap, but no sooner had he touched the wall than the plaster crumbled all around, revealing a much larger cavity. Jacob quickly withdrew his fingers. He immediately prepared some stucco and closed the hole as if treating a wound. When the work was done, he pushed the sideboard back against the wall and thought no more about it.
The rest of the week passed as usual, but on Sunday, while he was making breakfast and listening to the news on the radio, Jacob saw the black spot on the floor again. Even before the word formed in his mind, his full attention was on the intruder. He stopped scrambling the eggs and slowly turned his head. Horatio, too, was sitting motionless next to the insect, looking down at it. Jacob expected to see his fat cat catch its prey any moment now, and he thought that he could crush the roach under his foot, for it was only a step away. But that thing was big and dark. Jacob looked at the antennae waving in the air and wondered how he had made it through the plaster. Yeah, cockroaches can dig, but that stopper was thick. He stood there with the bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other and watched in horror at the insect. Suddenly, he could see its head as if magnified and its great pincers clacking as if trying to reach some prey. The vision faded and left Jacob paralysed, for he knew the stucco dam could not resist those crushers. Suddenly, the roach zoomed and disappeared under the cupboard.
“You fat bugger”, Jacob whimpered, “why did you stand there like a sucker and do nothing? You must have grown a little too picky. I’m cutting your food, let’s see if another time you’ll eat that lousy roach. Actually no, it ain’t gonna happen again, this thing stops now.”
He moved the cupboard and froze. Feeling as if a heavy, cold ball had descended into his belly, he stared at the wide crack that crawled along the wall up to his chest. The plaster was spread in crumbles.
“What the hell?” Jacob exclaimed in a panic. His heart was pounding, and his throat was dry. It was like looking at the marks of a hideous disease on a friend’s face. A friend, of course! It was then that he called me. He sounded upset, so I told him there was nothing to worry about, for old houses play such nasty tricks. However, I popped by and had a look at the damage. I have seen much worse in old buildings, so I prepared a bucket of cement, and after half an hour later, we were looking with satisfaction at the filled crack. I wouldn’t say it was a fine job, for the line was still visible as a grey, ugly scar. Anyway, the cupboard hid the wound. I left Jacob, who went out for his usual Sunday walk, but despite the sunshine and the warm summer breeze, he could not relax. As he roamed the fields, he thought, for the first time in his life, that the absence of water in the Cauldron was disturbing. He looked at the marks the water had left everywhere, scarring the hills. Jacob stopped suddenly, for a crazy image had formed in his mind. He could see the Cauldron from above as if he was a bird – so he told me – and a complicated web of cracks crisscrossed it. He got back to reality, amazed and scared. Above his head, he could see the branches of a dead tree that drew an intricate pattern of cracks against the blue sky. Cracks, cracks everywhere! He thought about his living room, but even that peaceful image came with disturbing background noise, like a feeble crunch. With the eyes of his mind, he saw the floor move and wriggle as thousands of roaches were vomited from a large crack in the wall.
He looked around, sweating and feeling dizzy. The walk was ruined, and the weather was getting sulky, so he made up his mind to go home. When he arrived, he flung the door open and stood on the threshold listening. Without taking off his boots, he went into the kitchen holding his breath. Everything was silent and still. He even moved the cupboard and saw with relief that the cement was dry and solid. After lunch, the rain began to pour down. Jacob was sitting in the living room with a book, but the dull light entering from the window made him uncomfortable. Not even Horatio was there to comfort him. Despite the rain, the sucker was hanging around. Maybe, he was now sheltering in someone else’s house, the traitor. Jacob decided to go to the pub, where he could at least chitchat with the bartender and me, for I usually spend my Sunday afternoons there. Before leaving, he only glanced into the backyard, in case Horatio was there, but nothing. Instead, she noticed that the rain had formed a large puddle in the corner of the garden between the roses and the hydrangea.
Horatio did not come home that night. Jacob stayed up late waiting for him and left his bowl on the porch, but nothing: apparently, the cat was gone. When the hours got small, he began to worry seriously, although he knew there was nothing to do but wait – cats are like that, especially in spring. They smell a female in heat and take off. “He’ll come home – he said to himself – he’s not that stupid.” And to bed did he go.
The following morning, he got up early for work. He immediately ran downstairs and opened the kitchen window. Horatio was in the garden! Happy as ever, Jacob stepped onto the porch to welcome his friend but stopped with wide-open eyes. Horatio was sitting in the same corner of the garden where the rain had formed the big puddle the day before. Now, the water was gone, and the cat was staring at a wide crack in the ground. Jacob couldn’t take his eyes off it, as if that crevice had swallowed every other thought. The cat lifted its head and meowed softly. The air was still and silent, and not a bird was heard. The whole village seemed fast asleep. Jacob didn’t know what to do with that crack, but it was already late, he really had to go to work. He decided to lock Horatio inside, but as he tried to grab him, the beast leapt and disappeared over the fence. Jacob cursed and stopped looking at the crack. He picked up a twig, and when he scraped the dirt on the edges, some clods disappeared in the dark with a muffled sound. Jacob thought of moles or something like a hedgehog or even a badger, but he knew they wouldn’t crack the ground like that. He wondered if the heavy rain had maybe carved that ditch. Yes! That explained why the water had disappeared so quickly and why the hydrangea and the rose bush seemed slightly lower than usual. The water had formed a stream of great power, and God knows how much damage it could have done if it had not stopped.
That night Jacob returned home quite late after an endless dinner with his colleagues, and on his way back he had found the only road leading to the Cauldron blocked. The cops said that someone had gone off the road and died. When the police finally lifted the blockade, the line of cars moved slowly and like a funeral procession passed by a car smashed in a ditch. The lights illuminated a trace of oil that crossed the carriage like a long crack in the asphalt. Jacob shivered and began to brood and mumble that cracks were opening everywhere, the world itself was cracking, and someone should have done something with that. Suddenly he felt the need to check behind the cupboard again. So he parked his car, got inside, rushed into the kitchen and moved the heavy furniture. The cement was there, an ugly grey scar. He opened the back door and called for Horatio. The garden was quiet, and the moon shed a pale light. With a shiver of horror, Jacob saw a dark shape crouching in the garden that resembled, he told me later, a child. The thing sat on its heels beside the crack in the cold, damp darkness. And then the most terrifying of metamorphoses occurred. Two small lights shone in the centre of the head, and then the being stretched slowly and began crawling rapidly across the courtyard. Jacob nearly screamed in terror as he recoiled and fell on the porch steps when the creature entered the cone of light meowing.
“Horatio! You scoundrel, bloody traitor! D’you wanna see me dead? Nice way to say hello to daddy, you bum!”
The cat seemed in a good mood, but when Jacob stroked him on his back, he noticed that the fur was all caked with mud.
“Where the hell have you been?”, he said again, but Horatio leapt into the night and disappeared again.
The next day Jacob called work to say he was sick and would not be going. He had had a restless night and felt like lying in bed a little longer than usual. However, morning laziness is a joy one can appreciate only with a free mind and a light heart. Jacob didn’t like changes, let alone surprises. Since he had started seeing those incomprehensible cracks everywhere, an unpleasant feeling had built in his guts. Now he could hear them run from the roof down to the bottom of the house. Half asleep, he thought he could catch some ominous creaking in the silence. Then, he fell asleep again and dreamed that the crack in the garden was opening into a chasm, out of which monstrous creatures with flat, long, pale faces and hollow eyes emerged. Jacob woke up very frightened only to discover that the ceiling of his room was crossed by a long crack. He leapt to his feet and gave a high-pitched scream that echoed through the house. His neighbours told me later on that it was awful to hear. I think that the worst crack opened right then in the head of my poor friend, as it were, one that couldn’t be filled.
When he went to the kitchen, Jacob tripped over an uneven tile. He looked more closely and saw in amazement that the floor was oddly wavy, and a long crack ran up the wall to the ceiling. The fissure started from behind the cupboard, and Jacob knew all too well that whatever was pushing from the other side, there was nothing he could do to hold it back. It was only a matter of time before those things would come out. He dialed my number and told me everything, as I accounted for. He still sounded lucid but there was a note of excruciating tension in his voice, as if something in him was about to snap. I was out of town for work and could go to him only in the early afternoon, unfortunately too late. Jacob welcomed me with feverish eyes, wearing his pyjamas. Almost stuttering, he kept telling me that some creatures living under his garden had kidnapped Horatio. He was convinced that those things were trying to bring his house down. I tried to cheer him up and checked out the cracks in the kitchen, and I told him that the damage could be fixed but that we had to act immediately. I promised him that I would send someone to check the hole in his garden, but I dared not suggest that he should send for a doctor too.
The following morning, the County Council sent an engineer to inspect the site, but Jacob insulted him and rudely sent him away. He reported that some madman was barricading himself in a crumbling house, and the matter passed directly into the hands of the police. The house, meanwhile, had begun to lean dangerously towards the backyard, where the crack had spread. I begged Jacob to let in the engineers and firefighters, but he refused to open the door. Everyone in Old Witchmare said that Jacob had lost his wits, and that was no surprise after all, for everyone knew about his sudden episodes of daydreaming when he zoned out only to return some moments later as one who has been abducted by the aliens. His head was full of cracks, everyone said, just like his old house.
While the police chief argued with the firefighters and the prosecutor about whether to break the door and drag Jacob out, I climbed over the fence and immediately noticed that the chasm was literally sucking down the garden. I could see the plants slowly move towards the hole and I had to run away not to be swallowed. In a few minutes, the house fell apart and sank into the hole without leaving a single nail behind. The news spread, journalists came and the lawyers with the insurance agents. Some geologists appeared too, who climbed down a well not far from the village. Their report left us speechless. The underground of the Cauldron is a gigantic anthill, an incredible labyrinth of caves and galleries that has grown over the millennia. The leader of the expedition explained to me that the cavity that had engulfed the house had opened up due to a larger and deeper landslide, which had set off a chain reaction. He said that the water of the Slithe and all the streams of the Witches’ Cauldron must have been sucked into the depth of the earth after some catastrophic collapse. They found the water, deep down, streaming dark and cold. And so, the mystery was explained. The ground was then consolidated and the other houses were declared sound and safe.
The empty space left by Jacob’s house makes me melancholy. What bothers me is thinking that Jacob was inside when it happened. And there’s something more. The geologist who had signed the report called me a week after the collapse. He had sent for a solicitor and wanted me to see something too.
“I’m glad you came”, he told me when I arrived. “We were about to close the well, when we found something that might be worth seeing. You know, you’re an expert and I could use your qualified opinion about that.”
“Ok, let’s see it then”, I said, both curious and reluctant.
He took me to the well and down into a side gallery. Below us, the hole was dark and deep, and the sound of distant water came from the depth. As we entered a half-collapsed chamber, the man explained that this was the epicentre of the collapse. With his lamp, he showed me two dozen skeletons wrapped in rags and stretched out in two parallel rows. Perhaps, this chamber had once been a tomb where they hurriedly buried those bodies. I believe there is some truth to the witch hunt legends for which the Cauldron is famous. In fact, all the bones of the limbs and necks were broken. Those poor devils were broken on the wheel and hanged, maybe as anointers or witches, who will ever know? When we emerged to the light, the solicitor ordered to seal the well and no one objected. Maybe, one day, someone will come and dig into its secrets. For now, it’s best to leave the past and its mysteries alone because the population is still quite shaken and doesn’t need any more scares. Besides, there is something that makes me wonder. In a remote corner of the chamber that I explored on my own, the debris formed a niche, and a white speck attracted me. It was Horatio, lying there, with his neck broken. Have you ever heard of any cat breaking its neck for falling down a well? I did not, but one never knows.
Gianluca Cinelli lives in Italy and is a scholar in Italian and Comparative Literature, editor of the Close Encounters in War Journal, and author of fiction with a taste for the weird, the spooky, and the uncanny. When not writing, he loves building wooden ship models and playing the bass guitar.
“Billy,” said Joshua McIntyre. “Why don’t you get yerself a girlfriend steada watchin’ all that DVD porn?”
Billy Babbitt and Joshua McIntyre, friends since their college days, were sitting in Flakey Jake’s, a dive bar near Putnamville. Both were lifelong inhabitants of the small Indiana farm town, and the two of them met most evenings in Flakey Jake’s. Now in their forties, they lamented the course of their unexceptional lives. Joshua, once a high school gym teacher, had been fired from his job when a CNN video showed him vandalizing the Capital building during the January 6 insurrection. Billy, once an aspiring novelist, had shelved his manuscript years ago when a book publisher dismissed him as a third-rate, James Joyce wannabe. Now a reporter for the Putnamville Gazette, Billy devoted his literary skills to covering local bake sales and high school football games.
“Well, why don’t ya?” Joshua said. “Women in the flesh are a lot more entertaining than women in porno flicks.”
“Tell that to yer wife,” Billy said. “I’m sure she’ll be flattered to hear it.”
“Naw, I don’t wanna spoil her,” said Joshua. “But I will admit to this. Without Stella’s loving touch, I’d just be a bum in a bar.”
“You’re a bum in a bar just the same,” Billy said. “I can’t see where yer wife’s made a difference.”
Joshua shook his head and took a long swallow of beer. “Women keep home fires burning,” he said. “That makes one hellava difference. Wouldn’t ya like to go home to a honey instead of a stack of DVD porn?”
“Women want nothing to do with me,” Billy snapped. “They think I’m a literary nerd. If I had to pick between women and porn, I’d just as soon settle for porn.”
“Maybe ya haven’t tried hard enough.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Get rid of those polyester bell bottoms you’re wearing. Replace ’em with designer jeans. And get yerself a decent haircut ’cause your cowlick’s all over the place.”
“Designer jeans are expensive,” said Billy.
“Well, go sell your porn collection—ya gotta be sick of it by now. That’ll probably net you a fortune, and it wouldn’t be no great loss.”
Billy was unwilling to admit it, but Joshua was right. He had long been bored with his pile of porn and longed for a real female’s touch. But the tyranny of habit still gripped his guarded soul. “Do I gotta sell Deep Throat?” he said.
Joshua sighed like a kettle. “Billy, ya gotta ditch yer distractions. That starts with yer smut collection. You’re not a bad-lookin’ fella, ya know? You just gotta tidy up.”
“So where do I look for a babe in the flesh?”
“Try a singles dance at the Holiday Inn, and practice your line a bit first. Hell, it shouldn’t be long ’til a fella like you is beatin’ ’em off with a stick.”
The thought of beating off love-starved nymphs was more than Billy could resist. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sell my porn, but I’m hanging on to Deep Throat.”
After setting aside his favorite DVDs—Deep Throat and Lesbian Lunch—Billy took his depleted collection to Jaybird, the local porn shop. He sold his collection for only a fraction of what he had paid for it, but the hundred dollars he netted was enough to buy some designer jeans.
A week later, wearing his fancy-new jeans, Billy showed up at a singles dance at a nearby Holiday Inn. He walked into the ballroom confidently, his cowlick slicked into place, but the women were chatting among themselves and none looked in his direction. His confidence suffered further when he asked one of them to dance—a leathery blonde who stifled a yawn as she texted on her cell phone. “I don’t like the band, little man,” she drawled.
“How ’bout I buy you a drink?” Billy countered, “That oughta even things up.”
“How about you don’t,” the woman replied, “and we’ll call it even at that.”
Billy approached several more women and met with equal results—not one of them accepted his invitation to dance. “Hey, don’t I know you?” one said. “Don’t you report for the local paper.”
“I’m really a budding author,” Billy said. “Some call me the Renaissance Man.”
The woman cackled and rolled her eyes. “Is that what they call you, hon? I didn’t know Renaissance men wrote for the Putnamville Gazette.”
After a fruitless hour, Billy abandoned the Holiday Inn. If he had hoped to beat off babes with a stick, he had come to an unlikely place. The ballroom was not filled with wanton belles, as Joshua had suggested, but matrons in their fifties who had led concentrated lives. Lives that enabled them to see Billy for what he was—an underachiever whose desperate baggage was more than they cared to pick up.
Adding to Billy’s disappointment was the all-to-sobering thought that singles dances were no less stale than the porn he had given up. “Stuck-up bitches,” he muttered as he slipped into his car, and he cursed himself for the cash he had blown on a pair of designer jeans.
The following afternoon, Billy pawned his Mac for a hundred and fifty dollars, and then he returned to Jaybird hoping to buy back some of his porn. He realized that renewing his vice would afford him nothing more than the sterile embrace of his television and a change of solitude. But his soul felt so impoverished, so gravelly and bare, that nothing green seemed likely to ever take root in it.
Billy had not expected to meet the love of his life in Jaybird. He had not expected his heart to leap like a rabbit trapped in his chest. But sitting high on one of the shelves, as though watching for his arrival, was a stunning, life-sized brunette so appealing that Billy could not catch his breath. Her eyes were aglow with yearning; her cheeks were flushed with excitement; her pale, slender arms reached toward him in a permanent embrace. And her open, oval-shaped mouth bore the innocence of Eve in Paradise Lost—a naïf who had gasped when first she saw her reflection in a pond. She was wearing a short, frizzy nightie, which did her no justice at all—her perfect, hourglass figure belonged in an elegant evening gown.
“How much for the toy?” Billy asked the sales clerk, a greasy kid with acne. Billy kept his voice condescending as though he were pricing a used car. It would never do for that kid to suspect that he had suddenly fallen in love.
“You’re in luck,” said the kid. “We’re letting her go for a hundred and thirty dollars. She was made in Tijuana. Only the best dolls come out of there.”
“Has she a name?” Billy asked the kid. He knew his question was foolish, but he asked it anyway. It would be presumptuous of him not to know the doll’s name before he escorted her home.
“We call her Blow-Up Bertha,” the kid said, “but name her whatever you like.”
As he paid for the doll, Billy felt proud for the first time in his life. He felt as though he rescued a damsel entombed in a pirates’ cave. The kid winked as he handed Billy the doll, along with his receipt, and Billy was pleased to discover that she was uncommonly light.
After placing the doll in his car and fastening a seat belt over her chest, Billy drove her to the boarding house where he lived in a rented room. A few of the tenants stared at him as he lugged her into the house, but Billy was too excited to care about what they might think of him. Reaching his room, Billy opened the door and carried the doll over the threshold, and then he sat her ceremoniously on the bed and began to take off his pants. It did seem as though he was rushing things, since they had met just met an hour ago, and when a gentle voice admonished him, he felt like a dog caught raiding a cookie jar.
“What are you doing?” the voice purred. “Are you taking liberties with me, sir?”
The tone was sweeter than honey, softer than a summer rain, and the heavy Spanish accent made Billy’s underpants swell. The remarks had come from the doll even though her oval-shaped mouth had not moved, but her eyes were locked upon him as though he had escaped from a cage.
Billy zipped his pants up and hung his head in shame. Since the voice carried the weight of karma, it did not seem out of place. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t think badly of me.”
The doll did not drop her stare. “Have you not kidnapped me, señor, and thrown me on your bed? And is it not your intention to have your way with me? Señor, you give me no choice but to have bad thoughts of you.”
“I’m n-no rapist!” Billy sputtered.
The doll looked at him more appraisingly, and the alarm went out of her voice. “So what are you then? A sad little man who lives in a messy room?”
“I’m a budding author,” said Billy. “They call me the Renaissance Man.”
“Yes, I’m sure they do,” said the doll. “But have you a proper name?”
“My name is Billy Babbitt, and I paid good money for you.”
“Good money does not buy slaves, Meester Babbitt. What a pig you are. And what might my name be, or did you bother to find out”
“I think it’s Blow-Up Bertha,” said Billy. “It says that on my receipt.”
“Dios mio!” the doll exclaimed. “Some stupid boy must have named me. Please address me as Bella Blanco, or I will be very cross with you.”
They looked at each other strategically. Billy struggled for something to say.
After a minute, the doll broke the silence. “So tell me Billy Babbitt,” she teased. “have you greater ambitions, sir? Or is it your calling to grab señoritas and ravage them in this room?”
“Can’t we think of this as seduction?” asked Billy.
“Seduction? Pah!” the doll snapped. “Does seduction not have stages, señior? Should you not date a woman first?”
“I’m out of practice with dating,” said Billy.
“Que pena!” the doll replied. “Have you ever dated a woman, at all? I doubt that, Billy Babbitt.”
“I’ve tried,” Billy said, “but women don’t like me.”
The doll gasped like a broken pump. “Why should women like you. You’re a skinny hombre who lives in a sty, and you probably watch naughty movies. What makes you think any woman would want to waste time on you?”
Billy grew redder than a plum, and his palms began to sweat. “W-would you like to go out to dinner?” he stammered.
The doll gazed at him with pity and sternness. “Dinner?” she spat as though scolding a child. “You want to take me to dinner? All right, I accept your offer, señor. At least, that might give us a start.”
After dressing Bella in a black, evening gown, which he bought in a Goodwill store, Billy took her to Hot Tamales, a Mexican restaurant in Putnamville. The proprietor, perhaps thinking that Bella was a prop for some local play, expressed no objection as Billy seated her at one of the corner tables. Fortunately, the evening was young and the restaurant had no other diners, but Billy still took the precaution of sitting Bella with her back to the door.
Billy ordered a platter of arroz con pollo and a plate for each of them. After heaping both plates with chicken and rice, he said, “Bon appetite.”
Bella did not touch her food, but she seemed pleased by the restaurant’s décor. She was clearly glad to be somewhere other than Billy’s dirty room, and her voice bore a note of approval as she renewed their conversation. “So tell me, Billy, what do you do when you’re not kidnapping innocent women?”
“I write for the Putnamville Gazette.”
“How interesting. Tell me all about it.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Billy shrugged.
“Well, what are your hobbies, señor.”
“I go to the movies a lot, Miss Blanco, but what’s there to say about that?”
Bella chuckled politely, but her tone of voice grew bored. “Billy, it seems I have more questions than you have answers to give me.”
“I’m not much of a talker,” Billy confessed.
“Please make more of an effort, señor. Perhaps you could tell me the reason you are called the Renaissance Man.”
Billy needed no prompting to expound on his pet peeve: the indifference of the corporate-run publishing houses to scribes out of step with the times. He described, in painful detail, the progress he’d made on his book: a dreamscape of poetic allusions that he titled The Sweat of the Sun. Of course, this made him a throwback to an age of literary giants, writers whose towering efforts would never be published today. If he had only lived in Paris, during the 1920s, Billy would have dined with Gertrude Stein and gotten drunk with Hemingway.
Bella listened intently and sighed when Billy was done. “For this, they call you the Renaissance Man, or is that what you call yourself?”
Since his pose had failed to impress her, Billy decided to change his act. Perhaps the role of a paramour would bring him better results. “I’ve given up writing,” he proudly announced. “My passions belong to you. I even pawned my Mac, so I could rescue you.”
“How simpatico,” Bella huffed. “But tell me something, señor. What makes you think I wanted a bobo to take me out of that store?”
“A pervert may have bought you if I hadn’t shown up first.”
“Since you quit your writing to buy me, señor, I am no better off with you.”
“I was hoping you might be grateful,” groused Billy.
A sob crept into her voice. “Grateful for what, Meester Babbitt? A man who buys me cheap dresses and insists he was born too late? Señor, I believe you’ll soon blame me for not finishing your book.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, Meester Babbitt, you are much too fond of complaining. It is bad enough being your captive without becoming your whipping girl too.”
Stunned by Bella’s bluntness, Billy averted her eyes. “L-let’s talk about something else,” he pleaded.
“Let’s end this date,” Bella snapped. “I appreciate your effort, but I’ve lost my appetite.”
As Billy lugged Bella back to his room, his heart began to pound. After all, they had had their first quarrel, so he expected some makeup sex. But his hopes for compensation were dashed when he set Bella back on his bed. She told him not to touch her and went into a lingering sulk.
Bella’s depression continued for days, and Billy felt miserable. Compounding his grief were the tearful laments she would mutter to herself. “Why oh why,” she moaned, “do I not have a loving home. Mother Mary, what have I done to be trapped in this terrible room?” She seemed like a modern-day Emma Bovary, a woman doomed by her dreams, and his was the role of Emma’s drab husband who richly deserved her contempt.
After several days, Billy tried to improve Bella’s opinion of him. He acquired a loan from a local bank, took his computer out of hock, and emailed the first chapter of his manuscript to several small publishers. A week later, a publisher emailed him back and said his chapter showed merit. She liked his stream-of-conscious technique, and she asked him to send her the book. When he told this news to Bella, she practically swooned. “Do send her the book!” she cried. “I want you to be a real author, señor. I want to have good thoughts about you.”
Billy emailed his book to the publisher. She accepted it the next day, describing it as a Proustian gem that did not need much polishing. She promised she would get back to him in two weeks with the edits and cover design, and she said she hoped he would use the time to come up with a marketing plan.
Flushed by the specter of future success, Billy was jubilant, particularly since this wonderful news pulled Bella out of her funk. “Billy, I feel like dancing,” she gushed. “Forgive me for doubting you, sir. Dios mio, I’m glad it was you and not a pervert that bought me.”
Since a celebration seemed in order to keep Bella’s spirits high, Billy took out another loan and booked them a carnival cruise.
Billy was so elated by Bella’s festive mood that he did notice the stares of the passengers as he carried her aboard a plane to Miami. Nor did he hear their laughter as he fastened Bella into her seat or turn his head when a woman cried out, “What kind of airline is this?” A flight attendant suggested that Bella be placed in a carry-on rack, but Billy showed her his extra ticket and she let Bella stay in her seat.
Bella drew even more attention at the cruise terminal in Miami. A child shouted, “Mommy, I want that balloon,” a security guard called for backup, and several people raised their iPhones and took videos of her. But a check-in agent grinned good-naturedly and gave Billy two boarding passes. “Is that prop for the Mardi Graz party?” he asked, and Billy stopped holding his breath. When the security guard waved the couple aboard, Billy squeezed Bella’s hand reassuringly then he clutched her as though she were a life preserver and rushed her onto the ship.
Billy had hoped that a carnival cruise would bring Bella to amorous heights but Bella, a lady of breeding, had no use for the noisy boat. The costume balls did not interest her, the stage shows made her yawn, and she certainly had no desire to be force-fed six times a day. “Billy,” she said, “who are these people who party all day long? Their drunkenness and gluttony are depressing me, señor.”
“How about that sunset?” said Billy as they stood on the promenade deck.
“The sunset is beautiful, mi amor, but must we share it with fools?”
At Bella’s insistence, they deserted the cruise when the ship docked in Nassau, and her mood improved considerably as they explored the island together. The tropical gardens enthralled her, the waterfalls made her gasp, and the flamingos in the nature center took away her breath. She particularly enjoyed snorkeling with dolphins because she had no trouble staying afloat, and she laughed like a child when one of the dolphins nudged her with its nose.
They consummated their relationship in a hotel overlooking a bay, but Billy’s joy turned to panic when Bella sprang a leak. The leak hissed like an angry snake, accelerating Billy’s fear as he cupped his hand over a shriveling breast and lugged her to the front desk. “Help her! Help her!” he shouted. “She’s going into shock!” The clerk summoned the hotel limousine driver who drove the couple to a garage where an attendant glued a tire patch onto Bella’s wheezing breast. A couple of blasts from an air hose restored Bella to her full size, and Billy wept with gratitude as he took her back to their room.
Perhaps Bella considered the patch to be a blot on her beauty, or perhaps their constant sightseeing had sapped her energy. In any case, she had no desire to renew their connubial bliss. “Later, mi amor,” she snapped when he reached for her in bed. “If you start treating me like a plaything, I will not think well of you.”
“You’re the joy of my life,” Billy protested.
“I’m a balloon,” Bella replied. “The joy of your life should not be a balloon You need to complete your book.”
A day after they returned to Putnamville, Billy’s publisher sent him an email with some attachments, and Billy realized that completing his book would prove a daunting task. The edits seemed excessive, the cover image looked trite, and Billy was irked that she’d sent him a contract to split the promotional costs.
“Damn,” Billy grumbled as he scanned the edits. “She’s mending my book with an axe. On top of that, she wants me to pay for butchering my voice.”
“Well, pay her,” said Bella. “Can you not see she has given you a chance? Are you too pigheaded, mi amor, not to bet on yourself?”
Billy took out a third loan and sent the publisher a check, and then he grudgingly read through the edits and tried to revise his book. But his manuscript was suffering the death of a thousand cuts—a torture so cruel and calculated that Billy could not witness it. After deleting the publisher’s emails, Billy cursed his damnable luck, and Bella, unable to cope with him, retreated into herself. She did not need to say anything, her stiffness said it all, and in a matter of days, their common-law marriage had grown intolerable.
Hoping to salvage some vestige of the happiness they had known, Billy contacted a therapist and booked them for couple’s counseling. But Bella refused to open up when Billy took her to their first session, and the therapist took Billy aside and gave him a piece of advice. “Mister Babbitt,” he said. “You’re much too fond of your psychotic break. If you decide to return to normality, you will have to get rid of the doll.”
Since normality meant only rejection and a new pile of DVD porn, Billy refused further treatment and carted Bella home. But Bella, who continued to assault him with silence, seemed increasingly like a balloon, and one afternoon, Billy decided that he would be no worse off on his own.
When he took Bella back to Jaybird, the greasy kid shook his head. “I ain’t paying for damaged goods,” he snapped.
“You can have her for free,” Billy said.
Billy stood as though shackled after handing Bella back to the kid. Her gaze was so dispirited, when the kid put her back on the shelf, that she seemed like a trusting dog who had been surrendered to a pound. He agonized over something to say to her, a tribute to cushion his grief. “At least, we had Nassau,” he blurted, but Bella just stared into space.
That afternoon, Billy yielded to habit and returned to Flakey Jake’s, but the barroom now looked so gloomy, so prohibitive and dark, that he felt as though he had ducked into a cave to evade the judgment of God. Joshua was sitting at their usual table, nursing a glass of beer, but even the sight of his lifelong friend did not cheer Billy up.
After buying them a full pitcher, Billy topped off Joshua’s beer.
“Where ya been all month?” Joshua said. “Did ya get lucky at the dance?”
Billy mentioned the heavenly woman with whom he had broken up. Of course, he did not tell Joshua that she was an inflatable doll; instead, he described her ethereal beauty and her generous resolve to support him when he called himself an elevated soul.
“You make her sound like an angel,” said Joshua as Billy started to fill his own glass. “But if she tried to change ya, it was wrong of her to do that.”
Billy remembered how lost Bella looked when he left her in the shop, how her frozen arms stretched toward him, how she gaped as though calling him back. The memory was so enduring, and so beyond repair, that his hands shook as though they were palsied and he overpoured his beer.
“Let’s talk no more about her,” he griped as the puddle soaked his pants. “At least, she was right about one thing. I like to complain too much.”
“Blow Up Bella” was previously published in the journal “A Thin Slice of Anxiety”.
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
I’ve lit cathedral candles
so you can find your way
down gargoyle aisles of stone
to where naked ghosts are sitting,
cold, and shivering,
waiting there for you.
I’ve lit the forest campfires
for when you’re called to go
beyond your quiet village
to where the elves are laughing,
about what they’re going to do.
I’ve lit the bedroom lanterns
so you can freely make
to shadowed room,
where witches sit
crocheting baby blankets,
little blankets soft and blue.
I’ve turned the neon lights up bright
so you can find this bar
and miles away,
to stumble in the door.
And all the wolves will stop,
and begin to move toward you.
When you’ve reached at last for naked ghosts,
heard the shrill of elfin laughter,
watched the witches slowly stand,
and felt wolf fur on your skin,
then we’ll go back to the darkness,
past the useless light of reason,
to a place where darkness started...
...and it all begins again.
David Hutto has been a featured poet at the Callanwolde Arts Center in Atlanta. From the Georgia Poetry Society he won first place in the Byron Herbert Reece award for 2020, as well as first place for the Alabama State Poetry Society Award for 2021. He currently lives in Gainesville, Georgia, where he keeps the lights on.
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Glass bottles overflowed with brutality.
Tainting the innocence between her legs.
Human trash pile.
Perforate her insides.
Serving pretty pink flesh to the men's table.
Slumped atop red and black Harleys.
Hiding under stale leather cuts.
Flaunting a 1% label.
She embraced anything that made her numb.
She longed for nothingness.
For, it was the only time she felt content.
At peace with herself.
One within her pain.
Unaware of who was entering her.
Desolate to the stranger filling her insides.
Morgan Phaneuf is an aspiring poet and author from the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. A proud mother, wilderness enthusiast, and karaoke queen, she strives to bring consolation to those who relate to the uncomfortability expressed in her writing. Focusing on authentic experiences, she re-creates trauma into words of empowerment.
I’m late for work, but I check in on her. I open the door and peek. She lies there. Naked. Pale. Surrounded by white. Perfect. She is curled in wanton modesty, an arm covering all of one breast but only the tip of the other. A slight tuft of pubic hair escapes the curve of her thigh.
It reminds me of the very first time I saw her. It was summer, hot. The world sat by its window, hoping for a breeze. She had closed her blinds but not completely. I suppose she wanted room for the air to move, an invitation to the breeze goddess.
Whatever the reason, she was visible from my high point of vantage. Her hair then, as now, was strewn about her head and shoulders. Unlike now, her body gleamed with sweat. When she moved, the sheets were patchy-dark with it. She moved very little, though. Only far enough to escape to pale, dry sections of sheet. When she moved, she moved slowly and stiffly, as though hating the effort involved. The slatted light played in op-art patterns on the succulent contours of her body. Her hair tangled on body and bed clothes. I was mesmerized. She is different now, cool and completely still. She is paler and unmarked by zebra stripes of light and shadow. I am still mesmerized. She looks delicious.
It took a week to figure out which apartment held that window, another week to learn the name of the tenant, and yet another for a second sighting, outside and fully clothed. The blinds were never open again, though I looked ceaselessly.
I struck up an acquaintance with the building’s super. Through him, I managed an introduction. We ran into each other in the market and had a short conversation. She agreed to a date. My mouth watered for her but I was most polite and circumspect. I had all the time in the world. She would be mine.
She did not hunger for me. I knew that. It was all right. That wasn’t necessary. When she seemed disinclined to go on a second date, I told her that she had no choice. She was to be mine forever. She was to become a part of me, bit by bit. She laughed and said she didn’t think so but agreed to another date.
I prepared more carefully for that date than for anything in my life. I spent money I still don’t have. I thought of every contingency and covered it. The date was glorious.
We wined French, dined French, and danced the night away. There were violins and violets. A horse drawn carriage. Paper boats in the fountain in the square. We laughed and sang and held hands. We watched the sun rise from the highest point in the city. We had eggs Benedict and Champagne on my terrace at seven AM. She went to bed at nine, alone in the spare room. I didn’t object. I suggested it. There is time. I know she’ll never leave me.
She hasn’t. I see the perfect repose in her face and know that I was right. It was worth it. We shall be one for all time. The time for me to go to work has come and gone, however. I must be away. I’ll be back soon. Quietly, I secure the freezer door and leave.
M. L. Owen lives and writes under the ancient redwoods of Northern California and has had fiction published in numerous literary journals, including, WENSUM Literary Magazine, Cowboy Jamboree, The Headlight Review, Sequoia Speaks, and many others. Prime Woman was published, in 1997, in a small, now defunct, journal named FAYRDAW.
,My sign was the pestle and mortar. My knowledge was roots and seeds, vines and leaves, bulbs and berries. I was a grinder, a blender, a crusher, a mulcher; I was a master of tubers. I mixed the tinctures and measured the powders that might cure or kill. (A single grain may be the difference between health and death.) Mine was a calling. A position of trust. I was the court’s poisoner.
No more. My poisons are at hand, but they are seldom employed. What I was, I was. What I am, I am. I snore in warm corners. I slumber in a feather bed. I shuffle between here and there. If someone speaks, I cock my ear and pretend to deafness. If someone points, I squint and shake my head. My sign is a bent back, an elder stick, an idiot grin. Why do I play the ancient pantaloon? Why do you think? A poisoner has many enemies.
Ladies. Gentlemen. You have asked me for an account of the six poisonings. I will tell you the story but you must know that it is a dangerous tale which never can be spoken of or shared. Have you taken my meaning? Then I will proceed …
—Their father was a loathsome toad.
Queen Utrica had an earthy way with words. The high-born have no fear of low speech while we who serve them search for gracious phrases or sweet ornaments. But I will try to emulate my mistress and speak as plainly as I may.
—He was a brute. As a husband he had nothing to commend him, she said. Nothing except his manliness. His great manliness. His considerable and undeniable manliness.
Queen Utrica sat for a moment, lost in her memories of amatory battle.
—Yes, I wept at his death, she continued. A tear or two. No more. The wonder is that he died peacefully in his bed.
Here I will confess that I loved Queen Utrica. Humbly, wholly and devotedly. As the loam loves the trowel. As the worm loves the rose. As the living love the dead.
—Life was less beastly without him, said Queen Utrica. Much less beastly. I hoped my sons might be better men than their father, but I found I didn’t like either of them.
The Queen sighed deeply.
—I wasn’t made for motherhood, she said.
How I adored her.
—Hector and Cyril! What foolishly mistaken names we gave them. Hector was to have been a hero but he was as limp as a wilting lily. Pale, frail and feeble.
Although, it should be noted, something of a scholar. He excelled at poetry and music. (Mathematics was too vigorous for him.) At a young age, he retired to a single tower in a far corner of the castle grounds. There he wrote verses and played a zither while standing at a high window that overlooked a rose garden.
Hector was never seen with a sword in his hand while his younger brother, Cyril, was seldom seen without one.
Cyril was a roaring child. Fury-filled and certainly no scholar. His tutors were too terrorised to teach him either to read or write. Pain was Cyril’s music; oaths were his verses. A horrid boy. But his father may have loved him.
When the King expired, it might have been argued that Hector, as the first-born, should have succeeded to his throne. But it was an argument no one was willing to pursue. Cyril had spent so much of his youth cutting things off (arms, heads, legs and the like) and running things through (mostly guts and gizzards) that it was wise never to disagree with him.
King Cyril’s coronation should have been a grand affair but it ended abruptly when the King felt it had gone on long enough. He had business to attend to, he said.
After slaughtering his rivals at home, he cast about for enemies abroad. The neighbouring kingdoms of Indium, Gallium and Thulium were conquered and despoiled in quick succession. Hugo Hairshirt, Edgar the Improbable and the Margrave Elector of Shining Badgers all surrendered their territories. (They were, of course, beheaded.) As was a catholic collection of chamberlains and chancellors. (Their heads were set on poles.)
Prince Hector escaped his brother’s savage ministrations and stayed untroubled in his tower; playing his zither, composing his verses and looking down from his high window on the rose garden below.
—I wonder, Queen Utrica sometimes asked, if I should have liked daughters any better.
I will permit myself to suggest that the Queen’s opinion of her daughter-in-law, Rosalind, provides the answer.
—A slight, simpering creature, said Queen Utrica. I don’t know where Cyril found her. Cowering in the cellar of some smouldering castle, I suppose.
No matter. Rosalind adored him. I can only speculate that he must have inherited his father’s great manliness. After the perfunctory nuptials that united King Cyril and sweet Rosalind, there was a discomfiting lull. Indium, Gallium and Thulium had been reduced to rubble and there was no one left to fight. Thank God, then — if this isn’t impious — for the Great Turk’s blasphemy and the Pope’s crusade to save the Holy Kidney. If he had known about him, King Cyril would have set out to fight the Great Turk on his own, but his geography was shaky and it was handy to have the Papal map-reader to guide him to Constantinople, Aleppo and beyond. Thus it was that King Cyril left his kingdom for — as it transpired — seven years.
Queen Rosalind was distraught
—A weepy, willowy girl, said Queen Utrica. I should have liked to snap her in two.
Rosalind took to walking in the rose garden, tearful, wretched, inconsolable. And, from his high window, Prince Hector watched her.
Despatches from King Cyril received at court told of battles, massacres, marches, sieges, trophies taken, prisoners slaughtered. Glorious triumphs in the cause of the Holy Kidney. We all hoped — although we did not admit it — that the Great Turk would continue his stubborn resistance. What we did not want — with the exception of Queen Rosalind, naturally — was King Cyril’s return. Nor did we want him dead. Were King Cyril to be killed, chaos might be unleashed. A hundred clans and factions would twitch to life and — like reattached limbs — writhe and wrestle to take his lands. No, we needed King Cyril to be living. But not here.
Is not God good? This was our thought when first we heard the news that King Cyril had been captured by the Great Turk. It seemed an answer to our prayers. He lived — but far away in a deep dungeon. If we had known that the Great Turk — a chivalrous gentleman — had not in fact confined his prisoner in darkness but permitted him to wander through the luscious foliage and sweet fountains of his courtyard, it might not have troubled us. Although it should have done.
For a period, life was blissful. Harvests were good. Taxes were collected. Our lives at court could be enjoyed to the full. Rosalind, it is true, remained in her state of misery but now she was joined in her walks around the rose garden by Prince Hector who had descended from his tower to commune with her.
And then disaster. News reached us that King Cyril had escaped. Or — as we were later to learn — his escape had been effected by Fatima, the daughter of the Great Turk. She, it seems, had spied the prisoner walking day after day in her father’s gardens and fallen in love with him. It was an unlucky turn of events. In a month or two King Cyril – accompanied by Fatima who, naturally, was now his lover – returned to his kingdom.
If you have read the chronicle, you will know what happened next. The official history is most touching. Fatima, the Great Turk’s daughter, loved King Cyril as much as any woman could, while Rosalind’s joy at her lord’s return was such that she happily forgave her husband’s love for his saviour. She, too, loved Fatima, and Cyril loved them both. He had no wish to choose between them. And so he sought a dispensation from the Pope to take a second wife which — in recognition of his service in the matter of the Holy Kidney — was granted. Cyril and Fatima were joined in holy matrimony and shared their bed with Rosalind. A loving trinity.
Ladies. Gentlemen. You must know that what one reads should not always be believed.
Nonetheless, King Cyril was a much-changed man. Whether he had been chastened by captivity or civilised by the Great Turk, is not for us to judge. And although he didn’t learn to read or play himself, King Cyril could now be seen with his head in Fatima’s lap while Rosalind sang sweetly or read verses of her own composition.
(Prince Hector had returned to his tower.)
If Rosalind frowned, King Cyril, resting beneath fragrant Fatima’s soft bosom, saw nothing.
When Rosalind approached me, I sought Queen Utrica’s counsel.
—Matrimony is a sacrament, said the Queen. It is your duty to restore propriety.
The stems of powdered monk-eye, picked at dawn, served Rosalind well; and Fatima died in frightful agony.
King Cyril, it seems, had favoured the Great Turk’s daughter above adoring Rosalind and, although much reformed, his course was clear.
When King Cyril approached me, I sought Queen Utrica’s counsel.
—The King is the agent of the Almighty, said the Queen. It is your duty to serve him faithfully.
The rind of ground angel-toe, picked at noon, served King Cyril well; and Rosalind died in frightful agony.
Prince Hector, from his high tower, saw all. The murder of beloved Rosalind was more than he could bear.
When Prince Hector approached me, I sought Queen Utrica’s counsel.
—The heart’s cause is sacred, said the Queen. It is your duty to worship at love’s shrine.
The bark of crushed hermit-nose, picked at dusk, served Prince Hector well; and King Cyril died in frightful agony.
There was an interlude when it seemed Prince Hector might now descend from his tower in order to ascend the throne. This was, of course, unthinkable.
—Regicide and fratricide are offences against Nature, said Queen Utrica. It is your duty to ensure justice is done.
The crust of sliced virgin-spleen, picked at night, served Queen Utrica well; and Prince Hector died in frightful agony.
Queen Utrica’s rule was harsh but fair — well, harsh — and all was well. But then — as if for the first time — Queen Utrica seemed to see me. Her loyal servant. Her devoted slave. The court’s poisoner. And I sensed that she was troubled.
I spied her walking in the rose garden, surveying roots and seeds, vines and leaves, bulbs and berries, and I, too, was troubled.
The husk of sieved poet-brain, picked day or night, has always served me well; and Queen Utrica — it pains me to confess — died in frightful agony.
This is an account of the six poisonings. Ladies, Gentlemen, I ask you to raise your glasses to poisoners and their melancholy profession. Drink deep. Drink long. That is good. Ah. You have been counting? The fragrant Fatima. Love-lost Rosalind. Cyril. Hector. And my beloved Queen. That’s five poisonings, you say. Drink deep. Drink long. Flakes of baked Phoenix-tripe are odourless and tasteless in a cup of wine or ale. Drink deep. Drink long. Did I not tell you that this was a dangerous tale that can never be spoken of or shared?
Nicolas Ridley lives in Bath (UK) where he writes fiction, non-fiction, flash fiction, and stage plays under different names. A prize-winner and three times a Pushcart Prize nominee, his short stories have been widely published in anthologies, literary magazines and journals in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA.
He’s outside my window again. I had thought that if I ignored him, then surely, he would move on to ruin someone else’s night instead. Yet every day I’ve heard crying, right outside my bedroom. It hurts. The constant noise hurts my ears, and the sounds of a child in pain hurts my heart. I know he’s not really human, he’s only what’s left of one; the real boy lost to time and the dangers of youth. Still, he comes to my window and wails, and I cannot tune him out.
A week of restless sleep leads me to ask my mother for advice. She suggests I talk to him. Surely, the boy will leave if I ask him to, if I explain the trouble he’s causing. So when he next comes to my window I call out to him. I ask him to spend his nights somewhere else because he’s keeping me awake. He cries. He does not leave, and I go to bed defeated. I dream of dead children. The next night I ask him again to find somewhere else to go. I tell him that he’s hurting me, but the next night he is crying at my window like I never said a word.
After that, I ask my friends for advice. He just won’t leave. He won’t stay away and I can’t hear myself think anymore. My friends suggest he might be hungry. They say I should lead him away with a trail of snacks, and surely he’ll be out of my hair in no time. So, I gather the scraps of my courage, and I open my windows as I cook dinner to entice him. Even monsters must have preferences. I will find his. Every night, a different dish, each a myriad of flavors, and I carefully keep track of which he seems to take notice of and which he leaves be. I don’t sleep a wink for days, stuck watching, and all the while listening to the endless echoes.
Eventually, I feel confident in my knowledge of him. Weaving a trail of offerings along the house feels like hope. Into the backyard, down to the creek, through the trees that shelter the neighborhood to the other side of the wood. Safely out of earshot. By the time I make it back home, it’s nearly night already… yet I hear nothing but birdsong. Maybe tonight, I’ll finally be able to get some real sleep. I hold my breath as I take off my shoes, but the only cries belong to a wren. I check every window before putting my tea kettle on the stove, and all I see are trees. The sky darkens further. I tell myself the only sound I’m listening for is a whistle from the kitchen.
Not even a moment later, no further away than before, anguished sounds fill the room. My heart sinks into my stomach. He’s still at my window, and tonight I’m crying too.
Another week goes by, and I’ve started hearing him during the day. He’s not really there. Most of the time I remember that, but the cries that come from my own mind startle me either way. My mother is worried about me; I’m not sure how to reassure her when I know she’s right to be. She calls my grandparents as I nap on her couch. My grandfather suggests I pray for the ghost, as The Lord will surely help a lost soul. So, I pray to the god they believe in. I pray to some other ones too. I pray to death itself. Night after night, I pray for his peace, I pray that his spirit moves on, I pray that he finds something to comfort him. God does not end his suffering. Death does not answer me. Back to my window he returns.
I ask my neighbors what I should do. I’ve clearly caught them off guard, I’ve never asked for their opinion on anything before. Hopefully, after he leaves my window, I’ll never have to ask again. My neighbors smirk a bit at me, clearly disbelieving the notion of ghosts entirely. They live across the road, their driveway too long and winding to hear him at night. Lucky bastards. I turn to leave, but as I walk back down their driveway, one says to try burning him up. I blink at them, but the other only shrugs, and tells me to call them when I’m sane enough to have lunch together.
Burn him up. I consider it, even though I don’t want to hurt him; it can’t be his fault he’s dead… but I consider the other words. Am I still sane? I hear crying that isn’t there, I can’t sleep without horrible nightmares, and I spend all my time thinking about him. Regardless, I still believe this is a solvable problem. Surely, there has to be some answer I’m missing.
Maybe burning is that answer. I think about fire all day. Then, the sun sets, and he’s outside my window, crying. Always, always, always, always crying and I don’t have anything to ward ghosts away- I don’t have any incense to burn, no candles to light. I open the kitchen cabinet and pull out my camping lighter anyway. He’s still out there, still crying, yet for the first time since his arrival, I go outside while he’s here.
He doesn’t seem phased at all. The crying never stops, not even when I spark the lighter. He does look at me, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen his eyes before. Little lights of his own, inside a dark, hollow shell. I thrust the flame forward; he stares but doesn’t move, only watches. I can’t quite reach him; I have to jump and the flame gutters- he doesn’t move. I’m so close, I can’t give up here, I cup the hot light in my palm against the wind and try again. The flame brushes against him. The crying crescendos, so piercing my lungs rattle and my ears ring. I catch my breath just in time to watch as he flies away, fleeing. He brushes against the whole house as he darts, sparks falling from the air around him.
All at once, stillness sweeps over me, my ears ringing now at the absence of sound. There’s no crying. It’s finally quiet because no one is crying. With nothing left of his presence to chase away, I go back inside. There are flames growing, crackling as they climb the walls and caress the floors, but I cannot hear them over the sweet silence. There is smoke outside my window, inside of it too, but all I see is his absence. He’s not at my window, and I’m so enamored by the sight that nothing else could possibly catch my attention. I slip into my bed, hopeful that I will not dream tonight. I feel nothing past the overwhelming relief which blankets me in breathless victory, not even the fire that licks up my sheets and spreads to my clothes.
He’s gone. Surely, I’ll never see him again.
Neolatry is an emerging poet and writer from the Cincinnati area. Find her in the city seeking inspiration for her genre fiction, penning poems in a park, or admiring her pet snake Mika. Contact information can be found at neolatry.carrd.co
The views and opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of its author. Publication here does not necessarily imply endorsement of or disagreement with these views by The Chamber. This essay is published here to promote healthy intellectual discourse on one of the many aspects of dark literature. Other views on this or any other topic relating to dark fiction and poetry are welcome.
Ever since its inception, the cinematic horror genre has functioned to address the fear of those deemed different or incomprehensible by socially ideological standards. The genre has time and again underscored this matter due in no small part to its flawless marriage of aesthetics, tone, atmosphere, and directorial style and method. However, it is the fundamental heart and soul of the films, the assorted creatures, psychopaths, and outcasts themselves, who most aptly convey just how so many have view those who exist outside of stereotypically normal or acceptable categories. Iconic mainstays like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Gill-Man stalk and slash their way into the very depths of the normative subconscious, conjunctively revealing and forcing the viewer to confront every one of the prejudiced attitudes that society exercises to systematically marginalize individuals who do not faultlessly adhere to white patriarchal ideals.
With their penchant for ingesting blood, composite reanimated flesh, and scale-laden bodies, these legends incontestably symbolize everything queer. They do so across a range of realistic themes, including race, nationality, class, religion, age, and dis/ability. It is undeniable, however, that one of their most prevalent purposes is to dually reflect and subvert archaic views concerning queer gender and sexual identities. Due to their unsettling yet captivating traits, these characters speak to enduring perspectives held by the “normal” social collective: that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) individuals are deviant and immoral; the malevolent Other whose sole objective is to corrupt innocent souls and tear asunder the moral fabric of society itself.
Considering the responsibility of depicting the varying treatment and notions of queer individuals prominently rests with these horror icons, it stands to reason that the archival representation of this dynamic would be structured around them as well. Because the characters’ queer functioning presented in a decidedly connotative manner when exercised during the height of their initial popularity, it also makes sense that the visual documentation of their role be in as equally implicit a fashion. This certainly holds true with the Academy Film Archive-associated Margaret Herrick Library.
Established in 1991, the Academy Film Archive’s primary mission is focused within preserving, documenting, restoring, studying, and exhibiting motion pictures.[i] It contains more than 190,000 records, encompassing every one of the Academy Award-winning Best Picture and documentary films as well as numerous nominated works.[ii] The Archive further holds director-specific collections, including legends Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, and Sam Peckinpah.[iii]
Although the Academy Film Archive possesses an enviable collection in conjunction with an admirable objective, the related Margaret Herrick Library inarguably surpasses the Archive in its preservationist intentions. Founded in 1928, the Library is a “non-circulating reference and research collection devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and as an industry.”[iv] It takes its name from Margaret Herrick (d. 1976), who served as the Academy librarian from 1936 to 1943, and as the institution’s executive director from 1945-1971.[v] As a result of her tireless contributions, Herrick not only diversified Academy activities and initiated the televised presentation of the Awards ceremonies, but acted to render the Library the illustrious establishment it is today.[vi]
Undoubtedly, it is because of Margaret Herrick’s unwavering dedication that the Library currently possesses such a versatile collection. A vast array of cinematic materials comprise the archival inventory, including posters, published and unpublished scripts, papers, drawings, periodicals, and books. However, only (most) of the posters are available for online viewing. It should also be noted that although this discourse entails strictly classic horror films, not every one of the posters discussed are the originals employed at the time of the films’ initial releases. Some are Mondo posters—highly stylized, striking works created in the celebration of important and influential films that often touch upon aspects of a film that were dismissed in the original promotional materials. Therefore, they are perfect for inclusion in a conversation about the implication of queer themes in classic horror characters.
This quality is most definitely evinced by the Library’s collection regarding Dracula (1931). As it utilizes a scene straight from the film for its image, one of the featured posters aptly speaks to the connotative queer nature of the eponymous blood drinker. The scene in question consists of Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) three Wives timidly retreating from an unconscious Renfield (Dwight Frye) as their master casts them away so that he may be alone with the man. For anyone who possesses even remote knowledge of the Dracula mythology, they know that Renfield is the character who becomes Dracula’s psychotic, unfalteringly-devoted, zoophagus lickspittle upon being hypnotized by the former. Consequently, this scene both foreshadows and initiates the same-sex relationship between the two men. Having banished his wives from the situation, Dracula has effectively removed the feminine element and opened up a homosocial and homoerotic space to engage Renfield. Per stereotypically social and cinematic notions of gay men, this homosexual quality is subsequently conveyed with aplomb—in a veiled manner, naturally—once Renfield has fully surrendered himself to his superior. Due to the dominant/submissive dynamic that characterizes their interactions, the vampire and his servant contribute to the trope of the sadomasochistic gay relationship.[vii] Moreover, because of Dracula’s undead status, his attraction for Renfield goes a step further to conflate homosexuality with necrophilia.[viii] Enhancing the interpretive value of the artwork, the varying aesthetic of the poster (it is the same image, but displayed on two posters of differing schemes) compliments the dichotomy of horrifically queer desire. Whereas a wash of deep, feral crimson on the Wives’ gowns in the first underscores an obviously violent aspect, its absence in the other—the color having been relocated in a simultaneously brighter and contained fashion to Dracula’s cape and the film’s title presented in Old English Text—allows for a frosty silvery-gray color that speaks to an undeniable sensuous passion.
While Dracula’s Wives prove an inconsequential foil to his desires, a more prominent complication presents in the form of Mina Seward (Helen Chandler). As Harry M. Benshoff astutely declares in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, the classic horror genre employed the obligatory heroine figure as the villain’s object of lust; nevertheless, the antagonist’s true desires are always revealed through a sadomasochistic relationship with a submissive counterpart of the same sex.[ix] Such an ineffective deflection of homosexuality is conveyed via the Library’s posters showcasing Dracula with Mina.
One of the works, another variation in a cadet blue and vermillion scheme, respectively, attempts to maintain an air of heterosexual attraction. It shows Dracula casting a sinister gaze off in the distance, a slight smirk playing across his lips, as he sensually places his hand over Mina’s throat while she swoons in his embrace. Conversely, the other poster shatters the illusion of the whole disingenuous affair. While Dracula cradles Mina in his arms, a look of utter wide-eyed, hypnotized petrifaction plagues her countenance. Hers is the expression affected by someone confronted with whom they do not understand. It is the frightened stare exercised by the normal individual being subjected to the disgusting, deviant monstrous queer, and it sublimely exposes an empty heterosexuality.
Nonetheless, the work that most aptly emphasizes the vampire’s queer nature, in a variety of respects, is a portrait solely showcasing Dracula. With the majority of the image steeped in shadow a band of light accentuates Dracula’s penetrating gaze, evincing his aptitude for bending others to his will via hypnosis. Blazing red comprising the highlights in his raven, widow-peaked hair adds an enraged edge to the already sinister sensibility afforded by his dark features. All of these qualities, combined with his affinity for drinking blood as indicated by the subtle red splattering on his white bow tie, serve to metaphorically underscore and constitute Dracula’s queer sexuality.
Another collection in the Margaret Herrick Library that provides a wealth of interpretive information pertaining to both the unique facets and archaic concepts of queer identities in classic horror films is that of Frankenstein (1931). This dynamic is alluded to in a poster depicting Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) looming over and inspecting the shrouded body of his Monster (Boris Karloff), laid out on a slab in his laboratory.[x] On one level, the scene works to establish yet another horror character trope: the queer mad scientist, for Dr. Frankenstein conducts his experiments in a privileged space with the assistance of a hunchbacked man named Fritz (Dwight Frye).[xi] It further posits the specific nature of their queer relationship courtesy of the exhibition of the Monster’s body. Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz strive to achieve homosexual procreation, an objective addressed as well between the titular scientist and Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).[xii] As Benshoff notes, the very condition of queer theoretically favors “death over life by focusing on non-procreative sexual behaviors,” thus rendering it apropos of a genre so heavily concentrated within themes of sex and death.[xiii]Frankenstein queerly subverts this concept by harnessing the theme of procreation, so replete with life, in the service of de-heterosexualizing it via the assemblage of necrotic, composite anatomical parts at the hands of a power-hungry male duo.
Like those for Dracula, some of the promotional materials aim to assert the Monster himself as queer threat. A poster in a green scheme portrays him running towards the spectator in a ghoulish manner, accompanied by the sensational tagline, “The MONSTER that terrorized the world!”[xiv] The cliché is then made even more manifestly obvious in an insert for Frankenstein 1970. Three clean-cut normals flee as the Monster, depicted posteriorly, closes in on them. So as to effectively convey the theme of heterosexual aversion, the individual in closest proximity to him is a beautiful fair-skinned woman who, of course, has fallen in her attempted escape and is staring at the approaching threat in stereotypically swooning terror.
A portrait further affirms the Monster’s off-putting Otherness with a grand, vibrant detailing of his putrid lime green, scarred flesh and bolted neck. Yet, his heavy-lidded, downcast eyes, and mouth sorrowfully slumping at the corners, simultaneously connotes another trite heteronormative concept: that of the sad queer man. This trope is reinforced in images of the Monster sweetly watching a ripple in a lake whilst standing at its edge under a weeping willow, and forlornly gazing down at a daisy gently clasped in his hand. He is an innocent being, too hideous to ever be appreciated, too different and misunderstood to ever be truly loved by anyone, and therefore must relegate himself to the hinterlands of society.
A very distinct and legendary form of the classic horror film, the creature feature, is also represented in the Library’s archives. With their scales, fins, fangs, and perpetually seeping substances, the weird and wonderful characters of the genre are steadfastly cemented as more monstrously queer Other than the most monstrously queer Other conceivable. Such a notion is no more aptly expressed than in the unparalleled Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).
In a three-quarter profile portrait, the eponymous Creature’s, or Gill-Man’s, unique type of Otherness is rendered in exquisite detail. Large, staggered plates of pebble-like scales; a triple layering of feathery gills; and a mask of rippled, undulating flesh comprise his lime green exterior, complicating the animal/human dichotomy. There is a human sense in his general form, but he is undisputedly more prehistorically amphibian than anything. Furthermore, the Gill- Man’s singular features exude a gender-bending quality—his exaggeratedly voluptuous vermillion lips and protruding, golden, almond-shaped eyes evoking the sensibility of a horror-themed drag queen.
Apart from the fantastical nature of the ostensible antagonists themselves, an aspect of creature features—especially those concerning sea creatures—that has always captivated me is the particular condition of their habitats. The thought of being drawn into a dark, watery abyss with no other recourse but to drown while being ravaged by a sinister beast instills one with the utmost dread. Certainly, such fear can be easily applied to the phobic cliché of queer as threat, this conceptual marriage inferred in a classically-designed poster that alternately displays in a striking Technicolor-like palette and a black-and-white scheme. While three scaled-down people swim and dive behind him, the fully submerged Gill-Man, taking prominence in the foreground, menacingly reaches his clawed, webbed hand out to the spectator. He is the queer monstrosity grasping for his vulnerable heterosexual prey. Once he has secured them, he will drag them to the very depths where only he can survive, and where he will obliterate the virtue, innocence, and purity embodied by the straight victim.
This generalized concept is quite obviously conveyed in the film via the extraordinarily gorgeous Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams). Kay is terrified of the Gill-Man, as any heteronormative symbol naturally should be. In what is unequivocally Creature From the Black Lagoon’s most famous promotional image, she screams in abject horror as her amphibious captor carries her underwater to his lair. Such disgust is also depicted in a more aggressive fashion in a poster wherein a woman (most likely not Kay, because the figure is in a bikini and not Adams’ iconic one-piece) donning scuba gear uses her hand to ward off the approaching Gill-Man, who peers up from below the water’s surface.
For all of her glaringly apparent revulsion, though, the film still insists on superficially positing Kay as the Gill-Man’s object of desire. As an original half-sheet proclaims, there are “centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart!”[xv] What makes the tagline particularly fascinating, however, is the potential of whose passion, and of the type so frustratingly harbored within them, it is actually alluding to. By the 1950s—the decade in which Creature From the Black Lagoon was released—there was an increasing realization that not all gay men and lesbians conformed to the respective effeminate and butch stereotypes that they were traditionally categorized as.[xvi] Instead, an even more painful ideological standard prevailed. In alignment with the Cold War paranoia that pervaded the era, it was understood that not only could homosexuals pass as “normal” individuals, but this ability coupled with their alliance with communism, situated them as an insidious threat to the values and virtues upheld by America.[xvii]
This construct of the concealed homosexual is intimated in Creature From the Black Lagoon through its male characters. Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) are forthrightly presented as hyper-heterosexualized scientists, however, their actions and circumstances often betray their true desires. An inset image at the bottom right-hand corner of the aforementioned classic poster shows Kay desperately grasping Mark’s shoulder as the duo gaze bewilderingly into the distance, with Mark holding his rifle at an erect angle in preparation for the impending danger. The phallic motif is also carried out in the poster’s main body, wherein a pair of male divers pursue the Gill-Man with a knife and spear, and further still in the center inset image displaying a male diver clutching a knife in his raised fist while being attacked by the amphibious Creature. In fact, over the course of the trilogy (completed by Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)), the male protagonists hunt the Gill-Man with a myriad of phallic devices, including knives, spears, air tanks and hoses, hypodermic needles and, most blissfully obvious of them all, a squirt-gun that extrudes a cream-based sedative referred to as rotenone.[xviii] Even the Gill-Man himself is asserted as a phallic signifier, for he, too, possesses the desire that Mark and David do for Kay, who, in turn, acts to triangulate the men’s lust for one another.[xix] Ultimately, the film hits the trifecta of classic horror conventions: misogyny by way of a woman’s presence as a mere foil for the deflection of male homosexuality;[xx] barely contained homoeroticism in the form of overdetermined heteromasculine male protagonists; and a being so fantastically queer that he will never be accepted and loved by anyone.
Horror, especially in its classic form, has never really treated LGBTQIA+ individuals in the kindest of ways. By and large it acts to cement them as deviant, immoral, nefarious, vile creatures that desire nothing more than to pervert the moral superiority of the heteronormative hegemony. Though such a concept is pathetically archaic, examining its archival representation is nevertheless imperative because doing so affords us greater insight into how cinema pointedly reflects a variety of queerphobic ideologies that sadly persist to this day.
[vii] Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 61.
[viii] Ibid., 56.
[ix] Ibid., 61.
[x] It, too, is a variant work, with that which is cast in deep, jewel-tone red smacking of Dr. Frankenstein’s all-consuming passion for his creation, and the other in a silvery-blue that underlines the apparent intimacy of the scene. Surely, his homoerotic affinity for the Monster is suggested by a split image of Karloff and Clive that rather forthrightly expresses the parties as dichotomous halves of a complimentary whole.
Shannon Kralovic holds both a BA and MA in the History of Western Art and Visual Culture, along with a Certificate in Public History, from Empire State University. She has curated various virtual exhibitions, and written several essays, focused on film and visual art, and serves as the Public Relations Officer for the Wells Historical Society. Her research lies in various fields, from the representation of LGBTQ+ identities in film and visual art to Scandinavian art. She is currently working on an exhibition concerning the dynamics of women and queerness in slasher films as an independent curator.
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It was a gleeful rainy night. Water in front, water behind, water on the right, and water on the left. More than a tranquil summer storm, it looked like the background of the universal flood. It was raining with anger, as if divine ire had decided to wash away all the sins of humanity in an instant. It was raining with a roar, in a silent pouring scream that seemed to envelop the world. It was raining like I could not recall ever seeing it rain. And I thought out loud: “Shit, look how much it’s raining.”
I had always loved sitting in a soft armchair, in front of the fireplace, watching the raindrops through the opaque glass of a window. But now the armchair was the seat of an old Panda car held together by adhesive tape and prayers, there was no fireplace, and I was starting to get edgy. While I concluded that the most suitable soundtrack for the occasion would have been “Singing in the Rain” celebrated by The Cure, I turned off the radio – which no longer picked up anything – and I paid more attention to the revs of the motor, since the Panda’s electrical system was never that great of a masterpiece. At the first raindrop, in fact, the dashboard had gone off and, in the faint reddish light of the lit cigarette, I could see the fuel indicator go crazy and jump beyond full tank. The current had to travel from the battery to the candles and the lights, and I dared not imagine how long and full of dangers that journey could be. Not to mention the actual risk of wetting cap and the like.
I slowed down, unable to even see the roadside. I lit another Amadis and reflected on whether to stop or not, to wait for the storm to calm down. After all, driving blind was not the best solution, but I had never been able to wait for a situation to resolve itself, doing nothing to screw it up further. I had always preferred to run toward the problem rather than wait for it to reach me, and on that occasion, I didn’t want to be outdone. Reckless, as usual. I began to nervously whistle “Singing in the Rain,” just to play it off, trying in vain for a dark intonation.
To be honest, I was driving along a remote hillside street that I liked very little. I would have challenged the devil himself just to get out of it as soon as possible. It was dark, winding and desolate. In short, one of those streets on which the protagonists of the B series horrormovies end up right before something bad happens to them. A street so disturbing that at night – and with the rain, too – not even Batman would pass through it.
A puddle the size of Lake Garda and the engine started sobbing; it seemed to run only on three cylinders.
“One down,” I whispered. “Fuck.”
And I remembered a boy who had tried the theoretical driving test on my same day, failing to pass the written test and having to fall back on the oral. He was stranded on an answer about the engine, so the examiner, as usual, had then thoroughly investigated.
“What is the radiator water for?” he had asked the boy.
“To extinguish the spark plugs,” the boy had replied.
Perhaps more power would have been useful. I turned off the rear window heater and lingered for a few moments on the lever of the front windshield wipers, which by now was no longer of any use, such was the amount of water pouring onto the windshield. I gently lifted the windshield wiper lever, I could not see anything anymore, I lowered it a little less gently.
But how could I have considered going to say goodbye to Sergio, before he left for the holidays, in that goddamn place in the ass-end of nowhere in which he lived?!
A puddle the size of Loch Ness and a jolt, stronger than the others.
“Two down,” I muttered. “Fuck, fuck!”
I put out the cigarette, only half consumed, and mechanically lit another one. Cold sweat ran down my spine. “Okay, I will stop and wait,” I resigned myself. “I will warm up the engine and maybe stay quiet until it…” All the dashboard lights came on and the dull hum of the fan stopped keeping me company. “…stops raining.” A few second and the windshield was covered with an impassable halo. “Oh shit.”
With the help of a hand, my gaze tried to break through the misted glass but was not pleased with the first thing it could see. The dark shape, the braking, the steering. The 180. The engine went out and the lit cigarette fell on my seat between my legs; I managed to recover it, with a sigh of relief, before it could do damage. I looked all around: the dark shape, if there ever was one, was nowhere to be seen.
“Someone loves me up there,” I whispered, watching the reddish light of the cigarette flicker between my fingers. “Sister, you’re the only thing that hasn’t gone out in here,” I muttered a moment before smothering it in the ashtray. “For solidarity.”
No engine, no lights. I tried in vain to restart everything, but it was like trying to resurrect a dead person, and that was not my area of expertise.
I opened the door, got out of the car and was immediately soaked. I noticed with astonishment that there was no asphalt under my feet, but gravel: I had entered some courtyard, judging by the open space that welcomed me. In the wet night, I thought I caught sight of a wall: how I had managed to slip in there, God only knew. I opened the hood door, looking for an umbrella I was sure I had left there. I lowered it again, peevishly; I was wrong.
Unable to tell where I had come from, I advanced in the dark, in the pouring rain, in any direction. Where there is a courtyard, usually, there is also a house and I would have found it, at the cost of going around in circles for hours. Or for days.
I slipped a soggy Amadis from the package in my jacket pocket and carried it to my mouth; the fury of the rain broke it in two, leaving me only the filter. My nerves had definitely gone quite up.
“Enough!” I shouted. “Where is the olive branch?”
A dim light lit up before me. I ran forward and found myself in front of a building, a window through which a shadow holding a candle pointed to something on the right.
I found the door, opened it, and entered.
“The house is isolated: no light, no telephone, nothing at all. The good news is I have a decent supply of candles.”
My host was a petite brunette in her thirties. Her black eyes radiated heat and the context of her body gave an impression of innocence and fragility; it made you desire to take care of her. Instead, it was she who was taking care of me.
“My car is also isolated,” I said.
She smiled, a sweet smile that invited you to life and made you important.
“We haven’t introduced ourselves yet. I am Elisabetta,” she said, holding out her right hand in a strong, warm grasp.
“I am Stefano.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help you. I don’t have a car. I took refuge up here to escape the hectic city life and ended up turning this house into a hermitage. The only contacts I have with the outside world are my publisher, to whom I send the stories I write, and the van that delivers food and necessities. I am sorry, but you ended up in the wrong place.”
“You say? I don’t think so. Suffice it to say that I owe you my life: you saved me from a principle of drowning.”
She laughed again.
“I’m afraid I’m the one who should thank you instead,” she whispered. “Although I love solitude, this rain is melancholic and seems bound to last forever. A little company will do me good.”
“Do you live here alone?”
It was like a dream, an infinite instant, unrepeatable and always the same. I stopped counting the days after the first, and time lost its meaning. I wasn’t waiting for anything anymore and nothing was waiting for me; my life had ceased to be that long and gruelling wait for someone who is perpetually late. It didn’t matter if, beyond the impassable layer of water that separated us, the rest of the world still existed. Nothing mattered except me and her.
“I love you, Elisabetta.”
“I love you, Stefano.”
Love came for both of us, and it was like never having loved before. It seemed that our two souls had once been one and that now, after long wandering, they were finally reunited. We were complete. And happy.
“I love reading your stories.”
“It is much nicer to write them, now that they are for you.”
Food supplies abounded so that, despite being isolated, we needed nothing.
“Damn, I quit smoking!” I realized one day, who knows when, as I noticed my jacket resting in the armchair where I had left it the day I arrived. “I had been trying for years. Elisabetta, I quit smoking!”
“You don’t need it anymore: you have me.”
“Do you mean that I’ll soon stop drinking and eating?”
And time kept passing, or perhaps there was no time at all? Who knows. Day and night no longer existed, nothing in the surrounding world could reach us, nothing could filter through to us and nothing else besides us counted anyway.
I went to the window and watched it.
“Which position could we do tonight?”
“The lotus flower whipped by the wind.”
“What would it be?”
“First of all, you have to go out and look for a lotus flower.”
I found myself more and more often – if it makes sense to use this term in a timeless life – to my surprise, scrutinizing the nothingness beyond our world. I was complete, what else could I wish for? I was satisfied, happy. Always.
Elisabetta understood. She cried. She spoke.
“If you want to leave, you won’t be able to return.”
That was when I realized. Or, perhaps, I accepted a truth that I already knew.
“Isn’t all this enough for you?”
“I am a man, Elisabetta. I am a man. I will never have peace: this is my damnation.”
A quick kiss, no other word. I grabbed my jacket from the armchair and left, the door closed behind me and I was outside. A couple of steps and I was already soaked. Another pair and I had already turned toward the house, toward Elisabetta.
“You knew it, Stefano. You have made your choice.”
No light, no building; nothing at all. Only water.
Holy water, perhaps.
I turned back on myself and moved forward. A few steps and I saw the dark shape, a few more and I could make out a big tree against which my old Panda was resting, tired. All that remained was a meagre tangle of sheets, the cockpit could no longer be distinguished from the rest of the car. Nobody could have come out alive.
I slipped a wet Amadis out of the package in the pocket of my jacket, took it to my mouth and walked slowly, in the rain, toward the rain.
Loredano Cafaro lives in the hills of Turin, Italy, with his wife and their two sons. In the little free time left to him by his work as a computer scientist, every now and then he imagines stories. Sometimes he writes them down. You can find him at https://loredanocafaro.com.
Solitude pianos over wooden blank
space, each stuck note cries between
walls shorn of art, paintings slatted away,
garden overgrown, plans
forgiven for sins unknown.
Unquiet graves? Why?
Rage pervades the loam,
examine any skull, and see
how jaws gape & vacant eyes
darkling stares describe this arc:
abandoned, head turned away,
faceless, hopeless, breathless,
& changeless. Here’s a précis
for the shattered mind,
change beats you with a steady hand,
from child to creature,
from human to beast.
each note strikes a sinew,
twisting tissue into hot agony.
paintings slatted away,
nothing on the walls,
so each note spikes like
driven iron. Flesh & blood,
soul & risen light fail forwards
The Phantom of the Opera
What would you bargain for now
when all the world repugns your words,
maybe not the world,
maybe not the thousand eyes that arrow
Into that garden supposedly of love,
shredding every leaf,
tearing each fine flower,
maybe not the thousand questions twisting
into that pattering rain, supposedly clean,
order muddies, chalk outlines dissolve,
every face concealed or closed;
inside, where carpets stain
my domain must be, hidden from
those open curtains where
the red-haired man may see me,
throw sticks & stones, cans of tomato juice,
or broken boxes of cereal at me,
if I conceal myself behind a mask,
he may never recognize me,
what would I bargain for now
when silent my mind ponders
how my injury began, whether
fate or accident or price,
whether pain or blood obtains.
Only my fingers remit the rent,
plagal chords finish the line,
a summoning of opera spirits
voices sweet pain torture me.
Must this be also so?
“Hey, tits, how’s it hanging? Both of them, I mean.”
It never occurred to Gabrielle at the time that everyone on the planet was here for a reason, and yes, that even included assholes like Marcus Stoll. During most of study period he had done nothing but lounge at his desk with his dirty-blond hair falling into his eyes, drumming his chewed stub of a pencil on the desk, and making no secret of staring at her chest while she tried to focus on her Sociology essay, aptly titled “Crime and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.”
“You know,” she said, keeping her tone as cold as possible, “You really should give this a read. It might help you in later life.”
Marcus only laughed, a sudden and blunt croak. Nope, there was probably no helping him.
Simon used to say that Marcus liked her, but because he was so emotionally stunted he didn’t know how to show it so he said shitty things to her instead. Gabrielle wasn’t sure, though she often wondered if there was any truth to Simon’s theory.
“You made any new friends yet?” Marcus asked. Gabrielle didn’t need to see the smirk, it was right there in his tone.
She wished Simon was there, sitting beside her, preparing to back her up when she told Marcus to piss off. “Piss off,” she said.
“Hey, I’m just trying to look out for you.”
She refused to glance up from her notebook. The nib of her pen created a vicious smudge of ink across the last word she wrote. Soft denim hissed gently as Marcus slid across one space to sit beside her, in Simon’s old chair. Nobody had sat there since. Marcus smelled like weed and cheap deodorant. He dipped his head so he could speak to her without others hearing.
“I bet you get a lot of attention from guys. But you know, they’re only after one thing, right?”
“Oh? And what are you after?” she said, prickles winding up her back.
Marcus fiddled with the corner edge of her textbook, ruffing up the pages. “I just want to make sure you have a friend to lean on. You know, after all that McCullough stuff.”
Heat flushed through her. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“I know he was your buddy. Maybe he was more than that—who am I to say? McCullough—what was it, Simon?—yeah, he seemed all right.”
Gabrielle was pretty sure Marcus and Simon never exchanged a friendly word. She wondered if Marcus ever exchanged friendly words with anyone.
“So was he your boyfriend?” he asked.
Was this his odd way of trying to make conversation? Up until now, he had only ever teased Gabrielle about the size of her boobs. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no,” she said between gritted teeth. “He was my best friend.” The best friend anyone could dare to hope for.
“Aw man, I didn’t mean to hit a nerve.” Marcus tapped his fingertips on the table. “It’s just rough, is all. How he killed himself—”
Now Gabrielle snapped around to glare at him. “You shut your mouth. Where have you been getting your information?”
“Hey, it’s just been going around.” Marcus idly rubbed his pointed chin where a fine ghost of stubble pushed through. His eyes usually had a dark and lazy quality to them, as if he wasn’t engaged in whatever was happening, but at that moment they were bright and alert, gauging her reactions. He just wanted to get a rise out of her, Gabrielle was sure.
“Well you should check your facts before talking crap,” she said, gathering her books.
“Aw, come on, I’m just trying to make friends with you.” Marcus pressed his hand against her elbow as she shoved her books into her bag. “Don’t be like that. Come on, tits.”
Asshole, she wanted to snap. Bastard. But her throat was too tight and she couldn’t speak another word. She brushed past the back of his chair, her bag knocking him in the shoulder. Trust the rumour mill to make up some horrid story about Simon. Suicide couldn’t be further from the truth. She bet they had all been in each other’s DMs about it, spreading lies until the lies became real for everyone at school who didn’t know how Simon died.
Gabrielle didn’t think twice about skipping her next class.
The tangled, overgrown garden was tucked near the back of the allotments, the one spot that had never been claimed because it was so much smaller than the others although the landowner charged just as much. None of the other allotment owners seemed to mind Gabrielle and Simon using it to hang out, study after school, or watch movies on the tablet with their headphones on. They especially didn’t mind when they eventually began to grow plants—which had been Simon’s idea, on account of him having green fingers, on account of his dad being a landscape artist.
Unlike him, Gabrielle always struggled to keep things alive. She tugged a few weeds out of the dry soil, wishing for more of the little yellow buds that speckled the strange vine-like creepers that covered their patch like veins, though unsure of what they were or how to grow more.
“I’ll make it really easy for you, Gabs. Like, literally give you the easiest plants to take care of. Trust me, a hamster could grow these.”
“What are they?”
“Succulents. Look, they’re kind of small and prickly-looking but they’re nice at heart. A bit like you.”
She wished she could hear Simon’s deep and hearty laughter, just one more time. It would have cheered her up after her encounter with Marcus Stoll and put her at ease about people making up rumours about her best friend. Then again, if Simon was there to ease her worries, there wouldn’t be any rumours about him.
But their garden served another, more secretive purpose, one that only they knew. It had been Gabrielle’s idea, based on a folk tale in a TV show she watched when she was younger.
Take a really bad day, a Marcus Stoll kind of day, a day where you failed a test or, in Gabrielle’s case, a day where you’ve got horrible period cramps and just want to curl up and not. Gabrielle and Simon dug holes between the plants on those days, small in diameter but as deep as they could go with their basic tools.
Then they yelled into the earth, as long and loud as they could, pouring out all of their anger and pain and exhaustion until they felt better. As soon as they were done, they filled the holes in and planted something in their place.
Let’s leave something nice, Simon once said. We don’t want to poison the garden by accident.
Gabrielle stood at the allotment edge, the gardening gloves her grandmother leant her suddenly feeling too big for her hands and the trowel too small to make an impact on the dried, early-summer dirt. Part of her wanted to plunge the trowel into the ground and stab and stab and stab, but Simon had loved this little patch of earth and it didn’t feel right.
It was theirs.
Well, hers now, she supposed.
She shoved her curls out of her face and knelt, picking a random spot and starting to dig out a hole. Maybe, once she had screamed down into it, she would plant something. Simon always said it was better to grow something nice in place of a weed.
She was only a few inches into the dig when a breeze swept across the allotment, far colder than any June breeze had a right to be. On that burst of frigid air came a whisper, soft and sibilant. Gabrielle sat back on her heels and looked around. All the other allotment plots were quiet, not another gardener in sight.
Another strong gust of chill air shuddered across her skin and she dropped the trowel, one of her oversized gloves slipping from her hand. “Hello?” If this was some perv’s idea of a joke she was going to be mad. She’d heard her parents talking about an old local who liked to sit in hedges and watch the traffic, but creeping on a girl on her own just minding her business and digging a scream hole was beyond weird.
“Holy sssssshi—” She forgot the trowel and shoved herself backward on the dirt as something fluttered in the air before her, pale and filmy like smoke. Then, the disembodied voice again.
You didn’t seriously just fall over in the middle of the horror movie, did you? God, how cliche can you get?
It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be Simon’s voice—Simon was dead. But there it was, that familiar tone, always loaded with his gentle sarcasm.
Gabrielle knew grief did strange things to a person. Her counsellor had told her as much during their past sessions. But hallucinating? Nobody had explicitly mentioned that.
Um, hello? This is your friendly dead best friend. Earth to Gabs, do you read me?
The voice was not quite a voice, although Gabrielle heard it clear as a rushing river. Simon’s voice, in her head and her chest and all around her. “Si?” she whispered, as the pale wispy smoke shape grew bigger.
“Oh my God, it’s really you? I can’t even…”
Yeah. So, guess I died then. That’s a shame.
“This isn’t real,” Gabrielle said, more to herself.
OK, whatever you say. But could you still help me? It’s cold here and too quiet. I want to come back. I miss you. Would you believe me if I said I kind of miss school?
“No,” she said almost without thinking. She began shuffling backward on her butt, away from the twisting ghostly figure.
I know this is a lot—
“This is so more than just a lot.”
—right, but… Gabs. There’s a way. A way for me to come back.
“That doesn’t sound right.” Neither did chatting with the ghost of her dead friend, but there you go. Gabrielle was pretty sure she was having a breakdown of some sort. “None of this is right. I think I’ve cracked.”
You and me both, mate. Try being the dead one in this scenario.
She let out an incredulous, involuntary burst of laughter. It sounded so loud and alien among the silent plants. Had it really been that long since she’d laughed?
It was his humour, for sure. That breeze again, chill and whispering, freezing the tears Gabrielle didn’t even realise streaked her face.
Gabs, I need your help. Even if you don’t believe this is real, would you do this for me anyway?
How could she say no to even the hallucination of Simon, the boy she had known since they were little, the boy who always had her back, who would’ve done anything for her?
“What… what do you need me to do?”
It’s easy, I swear. We just need something to exchange. Some hair or a fingernail or something. Nothing major, I promise. But it can’t be yours. It needs to be—look, just relax and I’ll tell you everything.
As the sun began to set, Simon—ghost, hallucination, whatever he was—outlined the plan.
Marcus Stoll caught up with her near the lockers the next day. Gabrielle didn’t notice him approach through the crowds passing between lessons, until he noisily leaned a shoulder against the locker next to hers. One earbud was jammed in his left ear, the other dangling on its wire against his tarnished belt buckle. The hems of his jeans were frayed.
“What’s up, tits. Is that a new shirt?”
“What do you want?” Gabrielle sighed. She needed to play this carefully, although she had a feeling it wouldn’t be too difficult, based on pretty much all of their encounters to date. “And my name is Gabrielle, not tits.”
A tangle of students snickered nearby. Gabrielle’s shoulders tightened but she continued fussing at nothing-in-particular in her locker.
“OK, OK, Gabrieeellllle,” Marcus said. She heard his smirk rather than saw it. He seemed to like an audience and she wondered why since his father was the town drunk and his mother was… well, nobody knew where Mrs Stoll was these days. Sometimes Gabrielle felt bad for him, but then he’d go and open his mouth. “But you can’t blame me for noticing. They’re… impressive.”
She turned and smacked him on the arm, only lightly, hoping it was the right move.
“Whoa, you know I’m teasing, right? Like I don’t really mean any bad. You should be proud anyway. Most of your friends are still flat. Hey,” he leaned in. “You free tonight?”
There it was.
Only now Gabrielle craned her neck to stare up at him. “Why?”
“Wondered if you wanted to go to the beach. My uncle’s staying with my dad and he leant me his car. It’s a banger but should get us to the coast.”
“Tempting,” Gabrielle said slowly.
“C’mon, you’ll adore me once you get to know me. You just need to give me a chance.” It almost sounded believable, if it wasn’t for the way his eyes flicked downward. Was eye contact really that hard? She was also pretty sure she knew what chance he was after.
Gabrielle remembered Simon’s wispy, pale form. There’s a way. A way for me to come back. The way Simon had laid it out that evening on the allotment sounded simple enough. “Hm. All right. But not the beach. I’ve got a better place.”
He lifted one unruly eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”
She just needed to get a bit of his hair, or some small memento from a living person, even if it meant letting him in close. How hard could that be? Let him think she wanted to kiss, then just yank it out. He’d probably swear, call her a bitch, might even shove her. Who cared? This wasn’t about her. It was about Simon.
“Yeah. Here.” She tore a scrap of paper out of her notebook and scrawled the directions. “We can meet here. It’ll be quiet.”
Marcus scanned the paper. “Really? Isn’t that where old people go and hug trees or some shit?”
“It’ll be empty,” she clarified. “Seven o’clock. I need to go home for a bit first and drop off my school stuff.”
“Sweet. Yeah, OK. I’ll bring a smoke. My brother got hold of this great weed, really sticky and strong.”
Gabrielle lifted a shoulder, not willing to agree to anything but not wanting to put him off. A bitter taste rose up in her throat and she swallowed it back.
“Or we can just chill, you know, whatever.” Seriously, he might be convincing if he could just maintain eye contact.
“Yes, whatever,” she said.
Marcus laughed and tossed back his hair. “Whatever gets you off. But let me get stoned first, ‘K?” He shoved himself from the lockers and disappeared into the crowded hallway.
Painfully aware that some of their classmates had stopped chatting so that they could listen to the exchange, Gabrielle turned back to her open locker, wanting to crawl inside it. No doubt the rumour mill would pick up pace again, not to mention the things Marcus would say about her once he realised she was not up for sex.
She would just deal with those rumours, and it wasn’t like there was a lot of time left before the school year was out and then she’d be done with it all and go to uni where nobody knew who she was or what she’d been through. The plan was to go to the same uni as Simon, and now they could make that dream a reality.
This was for a good cause, the best cause, she reminded herself. It would fix everything.
A tight ball of prickles sat in her stomach. It had been there all day and it wouldn’t go away. Gabrielle got to the allotments first just before seven, weaving through the narrow walkways. The change was noticeable before she even reached the boundaries of their plot, and the smell…
The garden bloated with something like life, though it wasn’t the life she remembered Simon cultivating. Fly orchids spiralled up in strange helixes, different from the photos Simon had shown her the day they originally planted them. The delicate dancing girls she had planted with their soft petal arms were pushed down, pinned under the violent arch of sharp red leaves. The parasitic underground hydnora africana gave off a familiar, sickly-sweet and cloying scent, its red flowers worming up through the soil with their hungry mouths gaping open. Fat, moist-looking vines netted the ground, spewing out hundreds of those little yellow buds that seemed to scuttle like insects. Colours oozed together into uncanny spectrums that Gabrielle couldn’t quite wrap her head around.
Weird. It had never looked like this before. It had never made her feel like this before: slightly nauseous. She took a step backward.
A chill breeze lifted her hair from her neck, drying the sweat on her skin. The reassurance was all she needed and she released a breath.
“I’ve got someone. You’re probably not going to like it, but… anyway. It’s Marcus Stoll.”
That cold breeze again, sharper this time. Oh well, it was too late to change it now. Plus, she was sure that if there was a huge part of her eager to see Marcus freak the hell out, there would be a huge part of Simon eager to see it too.
Gabrielle thought she saw the glimmer of something near the hedge at the rim of their allotment, just for a moment. “So how does this work, exactly?” she asked.
But Simon didn’t reply or appear.
Dirt crunched beneath a heavy foot behind her. Gabrielle spun around.
“Holy shit, tits—I mean, Gabrielle.” Marcus stepped off the path and headed toward her, wrinkling his nose and waving his hand in front of his face. “This place stinks.” A thin joint was hooked behind one ear and his eyes were bright with anticipation for something she had no intention of giving him.
“You’ll get used to it,” Gabrielle said. “I told you it was quiet.”
“Yeah.” Marcus didn’t sound too sure. “Quiet and creepy as fuck.”
Here goes. Gabrielle held out her hand.
“Is this like a fetish or something?” Nevertheless, Marcus stepped into the garden to meet her. She was sure to put on her tightest t-shirt after school. “Whatever. It’s not about the venue, right? It’s all about the show.”
Gabrielle grabbed his sleeve and pulled him in close. Marcus stumbled, his feet catching in the vines, and they tumbled together to the ground.
“Hey—” He no longer sounded so self-assured. Beyond them, a grey shadow rose up and loomed above them in the still summer air. It was like time ground to a halt, no distant cars passing through town on the main road, no birdsong, nothing.
Gabrielle grabbed the collar of Marcus’s shirt and kissed him, crushing her mouth against his. Before she knew it his tongue was inside, sliding against her too fast and too forcefully to be pleasant. He tasted of weed and his nose was cold at the tip. She reminded herself that this was a good cause. Just a few strands of hair, Simon had said. Gabrielle reached up to tangle her fingers through Marcus’s dark-blond strands, finding them surprisingly soft.
Through the wet sucking of Marcus’s lips, the air hung heavy with that sickly-sweet scent and Gabrielle finally placed it.
It was rot.
She began to pull back, thinking she might throw up, the prickles churning in her stomach, but Marcus grasped her hard and held her still. A solid rise nudged against her thigh, straining against his jeans.
Just grab the hair, just grab the hair. But her arms were trapped by Marcus’s grip.
“Si!” she tried to scream, but the sound died in her throat.
Something slick and cool snaked around her leg. Gabrielle jerked and their chins struck. “Wait.” She heard her own voice as a distant alarm; her ears started to ring. For a moment Marcus froze, too.
“What?” he said. Then, “Wait. What the hell is that?”
Finally he released her. As Gabrielle scooted backward across the dirt, thorns latched onto her clothes, biting her skin beneath.
She looked over to where Marcus lay. Thick purple, pulsing tendrils wrapped around his legs, rising up past his knees. Tiny thistles burst from the yellow buds and clung to him, and he let out a guttural noise, something between a cry and a curse.
“Tits—Gab—!” he shrieked. “What the hell is this? Is this some kind of—oh, Jesus.”
The vines crept higher, twisting up around his thighs, thickening, lengthening, shining with a dark sap-like goop that stained Marcus’s threadbare jeans. The roots tightened around him. Marcus scrabbled with his hands, dragging lines of dirt but getting nowhere.
Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand. She looked for Simon’s ghost and found it crouched at the edge of the garden, its pale, nebulous arms dug deep into the earth, its head inclined toward the struggling, shrieking Marcus.
“Si, stop. This wasn’t part of the plan!” Gabrielle cried. “What are you doing?”
Marcus gave up trying to drag himself to the edge of the garden, and waved his arms at her as if he expected her to grab him and help pull him free. But Gabrielle couldn’t move. The rise at the front of his jeans had abated. More tendrils sipped up out of the soil, hiking up great clods of earth, breaking flower heads. The tendrils wrapped around Marcus’s arms and stomach, and up, and up, snaking across his exposed throat, slimy trails glistening on his skin. When the vine tip entered his mouth, he let out a noise more vulnerable than anything Gabrielle had heard before in her life.
This isn’t right, what is Si doing? Yet she knew there was no stopping it. The garden—it was too hungry. Simon was too hungry.
A scream burbled up from the pit of Marcus, from somewhere deep inside that Gabrielle didn’t know existed. It was a child’s wet scream. But the garden ate his cries, and the vines visibly tightened around his throat.
“Si!” Gabrielle’s limbs suddenly gave and she shot forward, trying to pry the vines from Marcus’s neck. “Si, stop this!”
As she spoke, the earth shuddered and began to peel, dusty dry soil rolling back away from Marcus. He was sinking. The garden was eating him alive and Gabrielle couldn’t tear the vines from his neck. The garden pulled Marcus down, soil gaping to accommodate him; first his feet, his scuffed and faded Chuck Taylors vanishing beneath the dirt, then his legs. Dirt and the vine sap streaked his belly where his t-shirt had ridden up. His chest heaved with unspent cries, the vine in his mouth so thick now that no sound could escape.
Tears poured down Gabrielle’s cheeks.
I did this.
But Simon would never lie to me.
This can’t be happening.
But it was. Shoulder-deep in the soil, Marcus finally lost consciousness. The vine in his throat, bloated and black, pulsed slowly like a heartbeat. Gabrielle shut her eyes as he sank deeper, and all she was left with was the sounds.
Shuffle. Slurp. Rip. Ssschlop.
Gabrielle didn’t know how long she lay motionless among the plants, eyelids squeezed tight, mouth pursed against the screams that twisted in her throat like vines.
She didn’t want to open her eyes. The garden had grown still and silent. She felt dry, still roots pressing into her back. The thump of her pulse sounded loud, blood-rush like thunder in her ears.
A single bird cawed long and low somewhere nearby, a keening, melancholy sound.
Gabrielle dared to look.
Simon crawled to a sitting position, wobbled back and forth, and then slowly rose to his feet on shaky, stick-thin legs. Mud caked his naked body. He smiled a smile that was almost Simon’s, but not quite.
“See, Gabs.” His voice just a husk of what it once was. Soil fell from between cracked lips. “I told you everything would work out. Easy.”
Jennifer Oliver (she/her) is a writer, gamer and illustrator based in the UK. She writes stories set in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres aimed at both adults and young adults. Her stories have been published in Kaleidotrope and Youth Imagination Magazine. Visit her website at jenniferoliverwriter.com.
Knowing that this was the last waiting room I would ever visit filled me with a desperate, visceral panic. My thigh vibrated frantically against the seat, twitching with the ache to run back through the sealed aluminium doors; to feel on my cheeks even the feeblest ray of sun, which filtered down through the tainted clouds. The clock saw my panic and ticked mockingly, rebukingly at me; its cold hands curved in a metallic sneer. I tore my eyes away from it to gaze nonchalantly around the room, trying to feign calmness, boredom even. I couldn’t see any cameras, but they had long since stopped advertising their presence. Being watched was a guarantee now, not a possibility. Regardless, I couldn’t help resisting, searching desperately for a way to escape the inescapable.
The clock was amused by this.
The way it dripped with scorn made me think of a painting I had seen as a child at school, back when you could learn about things like art. I couldn’t remember its title, or the lesson that my gentle, curly-haired teacher had failed to teach us about it, while we ignored her, giggling, and gossiping under our breath. I could only recall the picture itself: the clocks dripping down a table, like blood from a gunshot wound, and how the sudden sight of it glowing on the screen had stopped me in my tracks, the secret note from my friend forgotten in my hand. I ached to make this clock melt like that, to stop it from laughing at me and from tick-tick-ticking away these last minutes.
For a moment, this blistering yearning overpowered the fear of what I knew waited for me when my name was called.
This fear was also forbidden. Heretical, even. Officially, days like these are nothing more than a fresh start. A tabula rasa. They always said those words oozing with the expectation of gratitude, as if we should thank them for wielding the erasers which wiped us clean. As if today were a liberation, not a robbery. Our memories, our differences, our desires, they were glitches which were corrupting the system of the world, a lacquer of grease and grime which jammed the cogs of society. Thinking of it like that was supposed to make things easier.
They didn’t say for whom.
When I received my notice a few weeks ago that I was due for Recalibration, I did try to think of it that way. I tried to forget that I used to be a word and not just a letter. I tried to see it as a squashed, sideways H, just another meaningless symbol. I wrote it over and over again until it stopped making sense, I reduced it to a doodle, a line and a dot, a dot and a line. It became a flower with all the petals plucked off, the stem and the stamen, she loves me, she loves me not. Sometimes it morphed into a person, with their head detached and floating away from them, weightless and empty like a balloon. I tried to make my head like that, vacant and vacuous. But I couldn’t stop the ‘I’ from jumping out at me in every word, from playing peekaboo on every shop window, from lurking in every television broadcast. So, I gave up. I let my fingers trace it absent-mindedly on my thighs, on tables, I whispered it in my head as a mantra on the bus, in the office, in the toilet. It pumped through my veins again now.
My fingers drummed unevenly against the underside of the fabric-coated chair. I relished the feel, tried to drown in the miniature royal-blue ridges of synthetic wool. My fingers tapped against a loose clump of fibres. They stopped suddenly, and without quite knowing why, a wave of exhilaration bloomed in my stomach. Slowly, cautiously, even though I knew the movement would be hidden under the chair, I pinched and rolled it into a ball between my thumb and forefinger. My heart raced with fervour, my breath quickening in my mounting excitement. I pulled it and felt the ball, my ball, coming loose, I heard the soft tear of nylon fibres, like the snapping of a neck. It was the sound of destruction and it made me hungry. With a rush of private, sadistic triumph, I flicked the clump of blue thread violently away from me; ‘Ha!’ I spat defiantly at the clock in my head, my lips curving into the slightest, most inconspicuous smirk. My blood hummed in my veins, calling ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ with each of my heartbeats, as I ran my finger over the void where the fibres had been, alive with the joy of my legacy, my indelible mark on the world. No matter what they did to me in there, this chair, if nothing else, was irrevocably different because of me, this me. It would stand forever as a relic from this version of myself, like a prehistoric cave etching, screaming into the abyss, to the generations to come. It was a primal, luxuriant joy.
It couldn’t last.
In the end, they didn’t even call my name. A cold, metallic voice whirred around the room, with no discernible source: “Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient may enter.” A door opposite me swung open.
“No,” I breathed quietly. “No. I’m not ready.”
“Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient may enter.”
“I said I’m not ready.” I screamed, my words bouncing, distorted off the pristine walls. I curled up into a ball on the chair, my chest heaving, my arms clinging to each other around my knees.
“Irrelevant. Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient will enter.”
“Please.” I begged, sniveling, without knowing who I was begging. “Please don’t do this.” I gasped for air, staring imploringly at the clock. “Do something,” I yelled at it. “Don’t just stand there looking at me!”
A metallic chittering approached from the darkness of the corridor which had unfolded in front of me. I thought of nails on a chalkboard, of axes gouging metal walls, of the needle on a record player scratching its path. I thought of home, the dew on the grass of our garden, the almond smell of my scented felt-tips, the stuffed bear I’d had as a child. I couldn’t remember its name. “Please, please, just a minute longer, just let me think.” Nothing in my life had ever been so important.
“Negative. Ready to commence Recalibration. Retrieving patient.”
The lights went out. I screamed into the void. It didn’t answer.
Two trainers walked softly through the black corridor. Five fingers absent-mindedly trailed along the wall, lightly feeling their way along. Her other hand swung nonchalantly by her side, occasionally brushing against her trousers. She stepped casually into the waiting room, pushing the door closed behind her as she entered. She made her way towards the exit, without registering the clock hung above her on the icy walls. Her feet carried her closer and closer towards the door, and as she left the room behind her, she crushed underfoot a small, insignificant bundle of blue fibres.
“The killer is among us,” the pastor said gravely, his eyes roaming over the pews, sparsely occupied by the uneasy villagers. “He, or she, is in this room, hearing my voice, breathing this air. Our air.” He paused to let the gravity of the situation seep into the bones of his congregation, along with the ever-present, creeping tendrils of mist. His voice began to rise, as if to drown out the anxious thrumming of heartbeats, the whispered prayers, the stench of fearful sweat. “This ends tonight. We will have no more death on Mortay Island. No more!”
The villagers broke out into a deafening mass of sobs, cheers and shouts of “no more!” Among the uproar, the pastor scanned the room. He allowed a few moments to pass, then held up a single finger. Silence fell instantly. He turned his hand to point at the heavy-set oak doors behind the crowd. “These doors will remain locked until the killer is found. Nobody will get in or out of this church until we are absolutely assured that he will never again strike fear into our hearts, never again rip our loved ones away from us.” His voice escalated into a roar. “Never again take our earthly lives! Never again! Never again!”
The townspeople joined his cry, chanting as one voice, one body, one mind. The pastor smiled with one side of his mouth, satisfied. He confidently stepped down off the stage, making his way toward the audience.
“Now,” he said quietly. The crowd hushed. “Does anyone here have anything they wish to confess,” he paused, looking up at the church ceiling, then continued. “Before God.” He gestured around at the room, “before your fellow man,” he cried, his voice booming around the damp stone walls. “Speak now and be redeemed! If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Silence rang out through the church like a funeral knell. The pastor sighed in exaggerated grief. “Very well.” He proceeded down the nave, away from the stage and towards the doors. Heads turned imploringly as he passed, families, wives and husbands waiting for his next word, for his reassurance. He discretely moved his hand under the black robes to his pocket and turned the match over and over in his fingers. He reached the end of the aisle, his feet were almost touching the door, splattered with mildew like flecks of blood. When he finally spoke, he kept his back to the villagers. “You will make them as a fiery oven in the time of your anger; the Lord will swallow them up in His wrath, and fire will devour them.”
Their eyes fell onto the lit match between his finger and thumb, then to the hungry flames rapidly devouring the cloth hangings on the wall, the fire making its way to the thatched roof. They were stunned into silence. “Farewell, my lambs.” He said quietly, before lifting the heavy iron bolt, slipping out of the door with a flourish, and closing it behind him. He turned the key in the lock just as a clamour started to rise up from the other side of the walls. He took the padlock from his pocket, and clamped that on, for good measure.
With a swift, simple motion, he cast off his robes and left them in a pool by the door. The screams echoed behind him, fading into the silence as he left them all behind, embraced by the snaking arms of the mist.
Hannah Woodvine is a writer and poet from Brighton, England who loves speculative fiction and spoken word. Beyond her job as an English Teacher, she is embedded in the Brighton poetry scene, reaching the final of Hammer and Tongue Brighton’s 2023 slam. This is her first published fiction since childhood.
The pressure built in Leslie’s head as he clenched his jaw, pressed his teeth so hard together his gums ached. The white coffee cup with its green logo rattled about in his grip, spilling droplets of hot black over the back of his hand. He ignored the prickling heat of it, marched toward his office on Pitlair’s dreary high street.
His phone had gone all night. A prick of a client got his personal number, pleading that he couldn’t live without access to his kids.
Leslie couldn’t abide the weak. Everyone who came to him for legal counsel had the same lowlife problems. Didn’t try hard enough at school. World’s against them from the start. Blah, blah, blah. When he sat opposite them, all he wanted to do was scream, tell them to work harder, screw the nut.
The morning autumn light started heating up the dusty concrete. As he approached the cave-like alcove to get into his office, he set his hand into the back pocket of his chinos, brought out his keys. He was always the first here. It was his name above the door, after all. Leslie Bowers, YourSolicitor forCrime and Family Law. It was written in gold. People flocked to gold in this miserable part of Scotland.
He dropped his keys that clattered to the hard ground. Someone was bundled up in sleeping bags outside his office. Her liquor and sweat stench filled the shadowy space.
“Get up,” he said.
“Wha?” said a meek, shivery voice.
The way the bundle of shiny sleeping bags shifted made him think of a pulsing maggot – a maggot he wanted to stomp on. How dare they mar the image of his place of work by sleeping here.
He flicked off the plastic lid of his cup, threw the remaining coffee at the sleeping thing. The bitter steam of it hit his nostrils as he waited for her to jerk about, scream out a complaint. She only shifted, giving him a puzzled, hazed look over the top of her sleeping bag.
“Get away from my shop, you absolute waste of oxygen,” he said, stepping closer. “What were you thinking, eh? Shift it.”
“I… I’m awful sorry. I wasn’t thinking and—”
“You lot never think. That’s your problem. Just expect everyone else to look after you. And then it’s one thoughtless act after another. Then you wonder why you end up on the street?” His voice seemed to build and rebound in the small space as he sucked in a breath. “Aw, diddums? What’s wrong? You gonna cry? Your folks no longer agreeing to fork over their hard earned cash to support your habit?”
“Calm it, mister. Jeez, I—”
“They stop agreeing to give you hand outs, thinking they could save you? Thinking that maybe this time you’ll screw the nut, go back to nursing at college and work your way into a decent person? Cause you had every chance. Every single chance we gave you, and…” His shoulders slumped. “You should go now. Don’t come back. And tell that to all your chums.”
She didn’t look him in the eye as she collected her stuff, shuffled away.
He picked up his keys, went to open the door. The small alcove grew darker. The breeze cut off. Silence fell. The itch of someone’s burning attention dotted his back.
“Didn’t mean to go off on one,” he said over his shoulder. “But, this is my—”
The leaden reek of the air made him close his mouth. The air changed, made the hairs on the crown of his head shift as if a static balloon was held above him.
Slow nightmare sludge lodged in his throat when he turned.
A slab of a man stood in the entrance to the alcove, blocking most of the morning’s light. His broad jaw was caked with dirt and flakes of dried skin. A tattered army jacket hung off his huge shoulders.
It was the eyes that struck Leslie like a physical blow. The golden, swirling irises were ringed by bloodshot lighting bolts. Those eyes were ancient and all-knowing.
The voice was barely a whisper, yet it burned at the centre of Leslie’s brain.
He felt as if his soul was being ripped apart and put back together again, atom by atom.
The man raised a dirty, knobbly finger, pointing at Leslie’s chest.
“Leslie,” the man said with ghostly urgency.
“W-Was that woman your friend? Didn’t mean to go off on her like that. She looked—”
Leslie stopped the thought by pushing the fingernail of his thumb into the side of his index finger. A red line of blood welled, complained at the cool air.
The man turned like a boulder shifting. Without looking back, he moved up the high street and out of sight.
Leslie went about his morning, unable to shake the image of the man’s sad eyes. The feeling that something awful was about to happen coiled in his gut, waiting. Whenever Martha came into his office, he’d flinch, drop papers, spill coffee.
His phone chirped in his pocket and he nearly fell off his cheap office chair. The message was from an unknown number, but he knew who it was.
Got your number saved big bro. That wife got you givin up the golf yet? Anyhoo… I need help. Big time. Dont ignor me like lasttime.
He chucked the phone. It clomped atop his wooden desk. He got up, stared out a small window that looked down at the high street from the second floor.
Anna was at him again for money. It infuriated him how they came from the same house, the same skint family, but he was able to screw the nut, save, work hard, make something of himself. Anna didn’t have that in her. She sent their mum to an early grave with grey worry. Falling in with the wrong people. Leaving home. Drugs. Money issues.
He stood so close to the window, cold radiated from the glass on his forehead. Was there always that many homeless people roaming the high street? Every shop entrance, every alleyway he could see, littered with human garbage. Was Anna among them?
The homeless people glared up at him as one, as if sensing his hate.
He felt the urge to open the window, scream down at them all to go die somewhere hidden. No one would miss them. What purpose did they serve by hanging on?
“Martha?” he called through to his assistant in the other office. “Cancel my day, would you? I’m… I’m done.”
Outside, the salt and pastry of sausage rolls from the bakers mingled with dusty concrete. Leslie clutched at his tweed jacket, trying to keep the cold out. As soon as he’d stepped out of his office, he felt their eyes settle on him. From each shadowed shop entrance, each alleyway, they watched. Where were they all coming from? No one else seemed to notice, just bustled about their day.
Any faster and he’d be jogging, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to be with his wife, safe in the confines of the home they’d built. Their slice of heaven.
As he passed the homeless figures, they stood, shuffled after him like a collection of zombies. There were so many figures forming behind him that shoppers had to slalom through the crowd.
Dread grew in his bones. Each set of eyes burrowed into his back, made him want to stop and scream at them, tell them to—
He crashed into something immovable. When his knee hit the pavement, he let out a strangled yelp. The sun flared above the towering figure. Every instinct told him to get up, flee, escape the horde circling him.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Leslie pushed himself to his feet, patting the street dust from his chinos. He tried to meet the eye of a regular shopper who just ducked his head, moved around the growing crowd. “They’ve got me trapped. Hey! Don’t you see me? I’m Leslie Bowers. I’m one of you. Help me.”
His name dusted out of the figure, blotting out the sun. That voice made Leslie’s knees weak. Made the blood in the lower half of his face turn to ice.
“Who are you?” said Leslie.
“They call me the Keeper. This is your chance to make amends. Heal the pain from your venom words.”
A grunted assent trickled through the crowd. They were so close he could feel their collective body heat. The odour of their unwashed skin. Their desperation.
Leslie turned, spat his shaky anger at the shifting mass. “How many people have been put through hell because of your refusal to work? How many of your folks bailed you out time and time again? Look at yourselves. You couldn’t make it back to the real world, even if you wanted to. No one to blame but yourself. You never listen. Never listen, no matter how hard I tried.”
“Apologise,” Keeper hissed, sorrow aching in his golden eyes.
Leslie aimed his fury at the big man. “You can all circle me like a bunch of tattered druids all you want, but it doesn’t change the problem. And that problem is you. All of you are a stain. Think if I killed you now, the police would do anything? They’d pat me on the back for killing you… you… non-people.”
Leslie had never been in a fight all his life. He prayed the jackals surrounding him wouldn’t pounce.
The molten gold swirl of Keeper’s hurt eyes kept his attention. He was under a telescope, being judged by something not quite human.
Street dirt scraped under Keeper’s boots, making a sound like sandpaper as he stepped aside.
“T-Thank you,” said Leslie, marching past.
“Don’t forget,” Keeper called. “This is the path you chose. We’ll see you on the other side of things.”
The other side of things? The words stewed inside Leslie’s head as he paced down the narrow high street.
Figures still watched from each doorway. Eyes followed him like still paintings in old houses. When Leslie gathered the courage to look at one of them, his vision seemed to blur.
“What’s happening to me?” he said, blinking the dizzy sensation away.
He panicked, almost tripped over his clumsy feet when he ran into an alleyway that looked empty. He shoved his back against the pebbly wall so hard it hurt.
Anna’s sallow face came to him as he gathered his breath, eyed the entrance, prayed the homeless didn’t follow him here.
“Are you with them, sis?” he said. “After all we tried to do for you, is this where you ended up?”
He swivelled his head about, ignoring the ammonia tang of pish that wanted to shove its fingers up his nostrils. He’d gotten himself in a bad situation here. They could box him in, chase him down from either end of this shadow encased alley.
Three figures danced about at the other end of the walkway and doom settled about Leslie’s shoulders like a cloak.
Relief giggled out of his chest as he saw it was just three teenage boys mucking about. They shoved, tried to trip each other up, swore. They burst with life in their white trainers, rows of clean teeth.
A greeting was about to bubble its way from Leslie’s mouth when they set on him. Quick as hyenas, they knocked him to the ground.
“Hey!” Leslie shouted. “You can’t—”
His front teeth ached as they shoved his head into the hard concrete. One kicked at his head. One sat on his back. One rummaged in his back pocket, taking his wallet, his keys.
“Stop! Help!” he called out.
An agony like a lightning strike in his back blotted out all thought, made him seethe in a breath. An electric chill spread from his lower back, jarring up his spine into his brain.
The one sitting on him slipped the knife into Leslie’s back again and again.
He tried to shout, but all that came out was a pathetic whine. Fiery blood trickled down his sides, collected in the broken concrete below.
“Stickered him right good,” one boy hooted.
“The red, the red.”
“You’re pure dead, man. Like, dead dead. For realsies.”
The knife silvered in and out of him as the hyenas cackled and danced around him, taking turns.
When they skittered away like they’d done no more than drop an empty crisp packet, Leslie summoned the last of his strength, army crawled to where the alley met the high street.
The weak sunlight marking the street danced over him, prickled his skin.
An elderly lady shuffled closer, leaned down to look at Leslie’s quivering form, sighed. She got out her phone, pushed buttons, told emergency services about ‘rascals that had wired in about someone’.
When she was done, she leaned down again, clucked her tongue, then walked on as if the whole thing had been an affront to her day.
Leslie tried to lift his head. The tendons in his neck shook with the effort of it. As the darkness crept in around his vision, he saw her. Anna. His sister standing among the collected non-people watching his demise. Her eyes were filled with longing.
He wanted to call her name, wanted to say he was sorry.
The darkness came.
Leslie sat bolt upright, sucked in great gulps of air. He patted himself down. There was no blood. The phantom pain of the stab wounds ebbed away to nothing. He hadn’t died. He was still on the high street. Had he made the whole thing up?
The pain the knife caused had been all consuming. The ghost of it clouded his thoughts.
He stared at the sleeping bag he was wrapped up in. Unreality washed over him as he stared up from where he sat. He was in a dark alcove. Wrapped in a sleeping bag. Smelled like he’d gone three weeks without a drop of water on his face.
He kicked the sweaty sleeping bag off, stood. He was in the entrance of Greggs the baker. Pitlair high street was dark and dead.
A heavy anorak hung limp and stinking as rotten skin over his shoulders. The dirt wouldn’t come out of his crusted jeans, no matter how hard he hit it. He reeked like a soppy food bag left out too long on the kitchen counter.
“What is this?” he said to himself.
He walked out into the open, eyeing the closed, barricaded shops. Dark pinpricks like stars gazed at him from shadows, following him. The non-people watched.
Leslie turned, looked up at the figure who’d just appeared out of nowhere. Despite it being dark, gold constellations swirled in his sad eyes.
“W-What’s happening?” said Leslie, staring his strange, baggy clothes.
“This is the other side of things.”
“You did this to me? Had those kids knock me out, and then you… what? Stole my clothes? This your idea of a joke?”
He waited for Keeper to say something, anything, but he just stared at him with his shadow haunted eyes.
“I’ll get the police down here and firebomb all you bastards.”
“You belong with us now.”
Leslie had never run so fast. Through Pitlair and into the nice, quiet part of Balekerin where he lived with his wife, Teresa. He laid a hand against the wall next to the front door, caught his breath. Behind him, he saw old Mrs. Rutger peek out from behind her blinds. When he waved at her, she shot back into the room like he’d just levelled a shotgun.
He turned his attention to the front door. Walk in. Scoop Teresa into a big squish. Plant her with a kiss like they were in their twenties. Then a scalding shower. Scrub the dirt away until his skin was scratched and red.
He smelled the homely aroma of his wife’s bolognese seep through the door before noticing it was open a crack. He pushed the door open, let the smell fill his heart. Teresa’s cooking made this house a home. Without it, his world would be thin and grey.
“Teresa?” he called. “It’s me. I… I had some issues. Don’t be judging me for the stench, alright? I’ll just grab a quick shower, if—”
Something solid and invisible kept him outside. He pressed a hand against it, pushed with all his might.
It felt like he laid his hand on a block of ice. The cold got into his bones, made him shiver.
“T? You there? I can’t get in.”
She hummed gently to herself, holding the handle of a large pot of steaming pasta. When she saw him at the door, she shrieked, let go of the pot, stepped away. The pot clanged, spilling spaghetti and whitened water over the wooden floor.
“I’m calling the police,” she said. “You get away now.”
“Teresa, it’s me. It’s—”
She stepped over the pasta, marched toward him, slammed the door closed. Locks clicked into place. He’d never seen such a look of terror on her face. Like she was one step away from heart failure.
“Honey, it’s me.” Leslie knocked on the door. “I’ve had such a strange day. You need to help me. Teresa? You there?”
“Police on their way.” Her voice drifted through the heavy door. “We don’t take to your kind here. Leave.”
All the neighbours were curtain twitching as he turned around. He wanted to scream that he belonged here. That his name was Leslie. He was one of them.
The sound of his wife sobbing in fright was what made him move along.
Back to the full dark high street. He slumped to the cold floor by the door to his practice, put his head in his hands. “What am I going to do?”
“One of us.”
Leslie’s head jerked up so fast his neck twinged with pain. “You!” He got to his feet. “You did this to me.”
The giant figure of Keeper stood over the entrance like a stone about to block him in.
The baritone rumble of his voice bothered at Leslie’s stomach. “You did this to yourself.”
“You’ve cast some kind of dirty spell.”
“You’re on the other side of things now.”
“How dare you take it all from me? My wife. She didn’t even recognise me. Stop this game right now.”
“We play no game. This is trapped. Payment, you might say.”
“You’re making no sense. How is this even possible?”
“Kill yourself. Maybe then, you’ll see.”
The suggestion turned Leslie’s blood cold, made the hand tugging at his hair pause midway. “What?”
“One of us.”
“W-Why are there so many of you?” Behind Keeper, he saw the twinkling eyes of many as they gathered like a collection of quiet ghosts. “Where did you all come from?”
“We are the trapped ones. We were human, once.”
“End yourself. It is necessary.”
Keeper reached into his coat pocket. Pills rattled against plastic as he took out a small bottle. The noise they made was like collected teeth as he set the bottle on the ground between them. When he straightened, there was an aching in his otherworldly eyes.
“Do it,” said Keeper. “End yourself.”
Long days went by. None of the real people saw Leslie. He’d phased through to some other dimension, stuck in his place on the high street as life went on. He’d tried his house again and again, never able to get in, even when he smashed the glass on the patio doors. The unseen barrier stopped him.
And all the time, the orange bottle of pills stood where Keeper had left them. It was like they called out to him, begged to smooth their way down his throat, into his gut, cushion him in a chemical embrace.
“No one deserves this,” he said, shivering as he brought his knees closer to his chest.
He tried to throw himself at the mercy of the police when they appeared. They shooed him off like a bothersome fly, never seeming to take in his presence.
Before he knew what he was doing, he unscrewed the lid of the pills, his palm absorbing the juddering pops as he undid the child-proof cap.
It was as if the homeless sensed what was about to happen. They came to watch. The hundreds that massed outside his alcove all had the same sadness in their eyes.
“You come to send me off?” he said, hating how petty he sounded.
He felt the chemical burn roll through him as the drugs took hold. Felt it spreading through his chest with every heart beat. It clamped his jaw. Froze his eyes open. Everything seemed to slow, become more vibrant, pulsating with colour.
“I’m sorry,” he said through clenched teeth. “I… I’m sorry.”
He sat bolt upright, wheezing in a panicked lungful of air. His hands reached for the side of him like he’d been pushed underwater and he was resurfacing from somewhere cold. He was alive. Alive. He placed a hand on his chest, relishing the rhythm of his heart.
As he closed his eyes, the familiar scents of slept-in clothes and sweaty sleeping bag flooded his senses. The concrete dirt smell of his skin. The grit filled wind.
He felt the presence of Keeper. The look in his golden eyes was not unkind. Instead of lurking in the doorway, he came into the alcove, ducking his head before sitting cross-legged opposite him.
Panic started bubbling up from Leslie’s gut. He knew then he was in the company of some deity. Some being not of this world.
Keeper nodded his large head sombrely.
“I… I’m on the other side of things,” said Leslie, the realisation making his blood sludgy in his veins. “Those boys. They killed me, didn’t they? And this…”
He looked at the high street coming to life in the early morning. The gathered others who waited. All eyeing him like they wanted to come hug him. Ease his burden.
This was his purgatory for being such an arsehole, he knew. It was why Keeper’s eyes were filled with tears. They fell silently down his unshaven face, silvered in the meek light that shone into the alcove.
“We come here after a life of regrets,” said Keeper. “It’s our forever place. You see now?”
“Am I trapped?”
“We have each other. And that is all.”
His sister’s face came to him as a tear warmed his cheek. Every argument, every shouting match where he’d told her to screw the nut. That he couldn’t deal with her being a waste. And now, he was doomed to walk the high street unnoticed. His soul trapped.
In the shadowy space beneath the gold letters of the life he’d built, he watched the shoppers go by.
Paul O’Neill is an award-winning short story writer from Fife, Scotland. As an Internal Communications professional, he fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have been published in Crystal Lake’s Shallow Waters, Eerie River’s It Calls From The Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, The Horror Tree, and many other publications. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.
The summer after Brad graduated from the State University of New York at Canton with a degree in Veterinary Technology, he took a job with the Albany County Animal Hospital. The pay wasn’t great, but he liked the work. He fell into a comfortable routine: long days spent anesthetizing, intubating, castrating, spaying, suctioning, and suturing dogs and cats – and the occasional domestic rodent – following by long evenings drinking beer and watching the sports channel at T Foot’s Bar & Grill.
His routine changed a few months later when Millie began her internship. She was working on her DVM at Cornell and was clearly out of his league. Pale skin, straight dark hair cropped short, pretty hazel eyes always sliding away. She had a few years and about a hundred IQ points on him, but that just made her more interesting. He tried to get a rise out of her once in a while – crack a joke or comment on the weather. He was happy to get the faintest smile.
She could handle a scalpel or run a cannula like nobody’s business, and she was great with the animals. They’d submit to her touch in a way they never did for him. He’d get scratched and bitten just taking cats’ vitals. For her, they would stay stock-still, as though entranced.
One day, in August, while Brad was filling prescriptions, he heard a commotion in the waiting room, turned to see Millie sweep down the hall, and followed her into one of the examination rooms. A kid and his mom were standing there, bawling their eyes out. They lifted a blob of wet fur out of a wicker basket and set it on the stainless-steel table. Turned out they hadn’t seen the kitten climb into the washing machine – those damn front-loaders. At least they found him before the spin cycle.
While Brad stood there trying to decide what to do, Millie picked up the cat with both hands and started pumping the chest with her thumbs. Then she lifted the cat’s face to her mouth and blew once or twice. The vet came in, saw what was going on, and said softly, “Millie.” She gently set the animal down. No one moved.
Then the cat twitched. It rolled over, opened its eyes, and let out a pathetic wet squeak. The vet jumped back and bumped into a cabinet, rattling bottles. The little boy scooped up the cat and pressed it to his chest. The vet pulled himself together, checked the cat’s heart – checked it again – and pronounced it fine. Everyone left the room but Brad, who stood there thinking, what the hell just happened?
At quitting time, he made a point of walking out with Millie. It was dusk; a warm summer evening. Heat radiated from the sidewalk and the brick of the buildings they passed. The scent of lilacs drifted over from the park across the street.
“That was something,” he said, “I’ve never seen anyone do CPR on a cat.”
“It wasn’t CPR.”
“Whatever you call it. Maybe you can teach me.”
“I doubt it,” she said. “The cat was dead when I picked it up.”
He glanced at her. She was serious.
They stopped at the corner. His Civic was parked at the curb.
“It’s getting stronger,” she said with a shiver, crossing her arms. Then she said good night and walked away.
“What’s getting stronger?” he asked.
She kept going.
“You need a ride?” he shouted after her.
She waved a hand, turned the corner, and was gone.
That night at T Foots, he had trouble concentrating on the game. He kept seeing the cat in her hands; replayed their conversation. He wanted to get inside her head. It wasn’t the first time he’d become obsessed with a crazy woman. He reminded himself how it usually ended and ordered another beer.
He saw her at the hospital the next morning, but they were both busy and didn’t get a chance to talk. Mid-afternoon, a middle-aged couple brought in their old Australian Shepherd to be euthanized. Buster had lived a long and happy life, they said, and was only suffering now. They didn’t stay to watch the vet do his thing.
At the end of the day, when Brad was putting out the pickup for the incineration service, Millie came to the loading dock.
“Hey,” he said. “What a day. Lots of nip and tuck. That catch and release program. Feral cats. Nasty. But I’m getting better with needles.”
She walked slowly around the sealed black bags of animals and organs, oblivious to his babble.
“It’s happy hour at T Foots,” he said. “How bout a beer?”
She stopped and closed her eyes, held her hand palm down, fingers splayed.
“I want to show you,” she said, reaching out and touching one of the bags.
“Show me what?” Something was building in the air, slowing everything down. A bead of sweat ran down his temple. He stuck a finger inside the collar of his tee-shirt and tugged it away from his neck.
Millie glanced at him and smiled.
He couldn’t understand the leaden feeling that overcame him then, the tripling of gravity that drained his strength. It was all he could do to stay on his feet. Maybe it was food poisoning, he thought, something he ate.
A low growl rose from the bag beneath her fingers. He spun away and doubled over, baffled by his own reflex. There was a yip or two, the rustling of plastic, clicking of toenails on concrete, and then Buster was licking his face.
Millie looked at him and said, “See?”
Dread pooled in his guts.
Buster trotted off and sniffed at the bags, wagging his tail.
“How is that possible,” he said.
“Let’s take a drive. Take him with us.”
“Take him where?” He walked woodenly to the car as his mind raced.
He drove. She told him to head south. They left the city and drove through the burbs, past farms and fields, into the hills. Buster was in back. Every now and then he got excited and licked Brad’s ears. The road led through dense forest. Millie gazed out the window.
“Park,” she said. “Now.” He hit the brakes and Buster flew halfway into the front seat. They slewed to a stop on the shoulder. Millie got out, walked a few steps back, and knelt down out of sight behind the car. He wanted to drive off, but felt powerless to do so.
“Come here,” she said.
He pulled himself out of the driver’s seat and around the car to where she was squatting. A scrap of gray fur and some bones were flattened in the gravel. She touched them. Nothing happened.
A wave of relief washed over him – maybe the natural order was intact after all.
But then the fur and bones began to rise. His stomach rose with them and he hurled its contents into the drainage ditch. He waited until he heard something scamper off into the woods before he turned to her.
She had a glow about her. She’d never looked so beautiful.
“I wonder how little can be left, and still come back?” she said. “A hair? A single cell? A molecule?”
This was too much for him. The absurdity of it – her conceit! He doubled over again, laughing this time, tears streaming down his face.
She ignored him, kneeled down, lay her hand flat on the dirt along the shoulder, and closed her eyes. He watched them move under the lids. Buster circled her nervously, whimpering. His circles got larger and more frantic, until finally he tore off into the woods.
The earth churned under her hand. Fleshy lumps erupted from the soil, wet and shiny, like some grotesque species of mushroom in a time-lapse video.
He ran to the car as in a dream, in slow motion, found himself in the drivers’ seat, gasping for breath, without strength even to close the door. Millie stood close to him.
“Dead things,” she said, “are everywhere.” Her fingers fluttered against his face, like so many butterflies. Her hazel eyes went wide. “In you,” she whispered, “so many dead things!”
The next morning, a few miles away, a farmer found an Aussie cowering in the stable. No tags, no collar.
“Hey fella, where’d you come from? I bet someone’s looking for you.” The farmer scanned the edge of his property, where the fields met the forest.
The underbrush was alive with movement.
Rob Tyler lives in a barn on 30 acres of scrubland in Upstate New York. His short fiction tends toward the absurd, the weird, and horror. When not writing, he can be found wrangling his feral cat, running hills, or shooting pool at the local watering hole. Online at robwtyler.com.
“Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la nôtre…. Voila toute la différence.”
Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s seizure of the Samoan Islands, had left no visible scars upon the republic, and the temporary occupation of Norfolk by the invading army had been forgotten in the joy over repeated naval victories, and the subsequent ridiculous plight of General Von Gartenlaube’s forces in the State of New Jersey. The Cuban and Hawaiian investments had paid one hundred per cent and the territory of Samoa was well worth its cost as a coaling station. The country was in a superb state of defence. Every coast city had been well supplied with land fortifications; the army under the parental eye of the General Staff, organized according to the Prussian system, had been increased to 300,000 men, with a territorial reserve of a million; and six magnificent squadrons of cruisers and battle-ships patrolled the six stations of the navigable seas, leaving a steam reserve amply fitted to control home waters. The gentlemen from the West had at last been constrained to acknowledge that a college for the training of diplomats was as necessary as law schools are for the training of barristers; consequently we were no longer represented abroad by incompetent patriots. The nation was prosperous; Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, white and imperial, and more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its plaything in 1893. Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York, a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the existing horrors. Streets had been widened, properly paved and lighted, trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished and underground roads built to replace them. The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks which proved a god-send to the population. The subsidizing of the state theatre and state opera brought its own reward. The United States National Academy of Design was much like European institutions of the same kind. Nobody envied the Secretary of Fine Arts, either his cabinet position or his portfolio. The Secretary of Forestry and Game Preservation had a much easier time, thanks to the new system of National Mounted Police. We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England; the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation, the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity. When the Government solved the Indian problem and squadrons of Indian cavalry scouts in native costume were substituted for the pitiable organizations tacked on to the tail of skeletonized regiments by a former Secretary of War, the nation drew a long sigh of relief. When, after the colossal Congress of Religions, bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves and kindness and charity began to draw warring sects together, many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world which after all is a world by itself.
But self-preservation is the first law, and the United States had to look on in helpless sorrow as Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium writhed in the throes of Anarchy, while Russia, watching from the Caucasus, stooped and bound them one by one.
In the city of New York the summer of 1899 was signalized by the dismantling of the Elevated Railroads. The summer of 1900 will live in the memories of New York people for many a cycle; the Dodge Statue was removed in that year. In the following winter began that agitation for the repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide which bore its final fruit in the month of April, 1920, when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.
I had walked down that day from Dr. Archer’s house on Madison Avenue, where I had been as a mere formality. Ever since that fall from my horse, four years before, I had been troubled at times with pains in the back of my head and neck, but now for months they had been absent, and the doctor sent me away that day saying there was nothing more to be cured in me. It was hardly worth his fee to be told that; I knew it myself. Still I did not grudge him the money. What I minded was the mistake which he made at first. When they picked me up from the pavement where I lay unconscious, and somebody had mercifully sent a bullet through my horse’s head, I was carried to Dr. Archer, and he, pronouncing my brain affected, placed me in his private asylum where I was obliged to endure treatment for insanity. At last he decided that I was well, and I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder, “paid my tuition” as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily, and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.
The fall from my horse had fortunately left no evil results; on the contrary it had changed my whole character for the better. From a lazy young man about town, I had become active, energetic, temperate, and above all—oh, above all else—ambitious. There was only one thing which troubled me, I laughed at my own uneasiness, and yet it troubled me.
During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time, The King in Yellow. I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. When the French Government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.
It was, I remember, the 13th day of April, 1920, that the first Government Lethal Chamber was established on the south side of Washington Square, between Wooster Street and South Fifth Avenue. The block which had formerly consisted of a lot of shabby old buildings, used as cafés and restaurants for foreigners, had been acquired by the Government in the winter of 1898. The French and Italian cafés and restaurants were torn down; the whole block was enclosed by a gilded iron railing, and converted into a lovely garden with lawns, flowers and fountains. In the centre of the garden stood a small, white building, severely classical in architecture, and surrounded by thickets of flowers. Six Ionic columns supported the roof, and the single door was of bronze. A splendid marble group of the “Fates” stood before the door, the work of a young American sculptor, Boris Yvain, who had died in Paris when only twenty-three years old.
The inauguration ceremonies were in progress as I crossed University Place and entered the square. I threaded my way through the silent throng of spectators, but was stopped at Fourth Street by a cordon of police. A regiment of United States lancers were drawn up in a hollow square round the Lethal Chamber. On a raised tribune facing Washington Park stood the Governor of New York, and behind him were grouped the Mayor of New York and Brooklyn, the Inspector-General of Police, the Commandant of the state troops, Colonel Livingston, military aid to the President of the United States, General Blount, commanding at Governor’s Island, Major-General Hamilton, commanding the garrison of New York and Brooklyn, Admiral Buffby of the fleet in the North River, Surgeon-General Lanceford, the staff of the National Free Hospital, Senators Wyse and Franklin of New York, and the Commissioner of Public Works. The tribune was surrounded by a squadron of hussars of the National Guard.
The Governor was finishing his reply to the short speech of the Surgeon-General. I heard him say: “The laws prohibiting suicide and providing punishment for any attempt at self-destruction have been repealed. The Government has seen fit to acknowledge the right of man to end an existence which may have become intolerable to him, through physical suffering or mental despair. It is believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst. Since the passage of this law, the number of suicides in the United States has not increased. Now the Government has determined to establish a Lethal Chamber in every city, town and village in the country, it remains to be seen whether or not that class of human creatures from whose desponding ranks new victims of self-destruction fall daily will accept the relief thus provided.” He paused, and turned to the white Lethal Chamber. The silence in the street was absolute. “There a painless death awaits him who can no longer bear the sorrows of this life. If death is welcome let him seek it there.” Then quickly turning to the military aid of the President’s household, he said, “I declare the Lethal Chamber open,” and again facing the vast crowd he cried in a clear voice: “Citizens of New York and of the United States of America, through me the Government declares the Lethal Chamber to be open.”
The solemn hush was broken by a sharp cry of command, the squadron of hussars filed after the Governor’s carriage, the lancers wheeled and formed along Fifth Avenue to wait for the commandant of the garrison, and the mounted police followed them. I left the crowd to gape and stare at the white marble Death Chamber, and, crossing South Fifth Avenue, walked along the western side of that thoroughfare to Bleecker Street. Then I turned to the right and stopped before a dingy shop which bore the sign:
I glanced in at the doorway and saw Hawberk busy in his little shop at the end of the hall. He looked up, and catching sight of me cried in his deep, hearty voice, “Come in, Mr. Castaigne!” Constance, his daughter, rose to meet me as I crossed the threshold, and held out her pretty hand, but I saw the blush of disappointment on her cheeks, and knew that it was another Castaigne she had expected, my cousin Louis. I smiled at her confusion and complimented her on the banner she was embroidering from a coloured plate. Old Hawberk sat riveting the worn greaves of some ancient suit of armour, and the ting! ting! ting! of his little hammer sounded pleasantly in the quaint shop. Presently he dropped his hammer, and fussed about for a moment with a tiny wrench. The soft clash of the mail sent a thrill of pleasure through me. I loved to hear the music of steel brushing against steel, the mellow shock of the mallet on thigh pieces, and the jingle of chain armour. That was the only reason I went to see Hawberk. He had never interested me personally, nor did Constance, except for the fact of her being in love with Louis. This did occupy my attention, and sometimes even kept me awake at night. But I knew in my heart that all would come right, and that I should arrange their future as I expected to arrange that of my kind doctor, John Archer. However, I should never have troubled myself about visiting them just then, had it not been, as I say, that the music of the tinkling hammer had for me this strong fascination. I would sit for hours, listening and listening, and when a stray sunbeam struck the inlaid steel, the sensation it gave me was almost too keen to endure. My eyes would become fixed, dilating with a pleasure that stretched every nerve almost to breaking, until some movement of the old armourer cut off the ray of sunlight, then, still thrilling secretly, I leaned back and listened again to the sound of the polishing rag, swish! swish! rubbing rust from the rivets.
Constance worked with the embroidery over her knees, now and then pausing to examine more closely the pattern in the coloured plate from the Metropolitan Museum.
“Who is this for?” I asked.
Hawberk explained, that in addition to the treasures of armour in the Metropolitan Museum of which he had been appointed armourer, he also had charge of several collections belonging to rich amateurs. This was the missing greave of a famous suit which a client of his had traced to a little shop in Paris on the Quai d’Orsay. He, Hawberk, had negotiated for and secured the greave, and now the suit was complete. He laid down his hammer and read me the history of the suit, traced since 1450 from owner to owner until it was acquired by Thomas Stainbridge. When his superb collection was sold, this client of Hawberk’s bought the suit, and since then the search for the missing greave had been pushed until it was, almost by accident, located in Paris.
“Did you continue the search so persistently without any certainty of the greave being still in existence?” I demanded.
“Of course,” he replied coolly.
Then for the first time I took a personal interest in Hawberk.
“It was worth something to you,” I ventured.
“No,” he replied, laughing, “my pleasure in finding it was my reward.”
“Have you no ambition to be rich?” I asked, smiling.
“My one ambition is to be the best armourer in the world,” he answered gravely.
Constance asked me if I had seen the ceremonies at the Lethal Chamber. She herself had noticed cavalry passing up Broadway that morning, and had wished to see the inauguration, but her father wanted the banner finished, and she had stayed at his request.
“Did you see your cousin, Mr. Castaigne, there?” she asked, with the slightest tremor of her soft eyelashes.
“No,” I replied carelessly. “Louis’ regiment is manœuvring out in Westchester County.” I rose and picked up my hat and cane.
“Are you going upstairs to see the lunatic again?” laughed old Hawberk. If Hawberk knew how I loathe that word “lunatic,” he would never use it in my presence. It rouses certain feelings within me which I do not care to explain. However, I answered him quietly: “I think I shall drop in and see Mr. Wilde for a moment or two.”
“Poor fellow,” said Constance, with a shake of the head, “it must be hard to live alone year after year poor, crippled and almost demented. It is very good of you, Mr. Castaigne, to visit him as often as you do.”
“I think he is vicious,” observed Hawberk, beginning again with his hammer. I listened to the golden tinkle on the greave plates; when he had finished I replied:
“No, he is not vicious, nor is he in the least demented. His mind is a wonder chamber, from which he can extract treasures that you and I would give years of our life to acquire.”‘
I continued a little impatiently: “He knows history as no one else could know it. Nothing, however trivial, escapes his search, and his memory is so absolute, so precise in details, that were it known in New York that such a man existed, the people could not honour him enough.”
“Nonsense,” muttered Hawberk, searching on the floor for a fallen rivet.
“Is it nonsense,” I asked, managing to suppress what I felt, “is it nonsense when he says that the tassets and cuissards of the enamelled suit of armour commonly known as the ‘Prince’s Emblazoned’ can be found among a mass of rusty theatrical properties, broken stoves and ragpicker’s refuse in a garret in Pell Street?”
Hawberk’s hammer fell to the ground, but he picked it up and asked, with a great deal of calm, how I knew that the tassets and left cuissard were missing from the “Prince’s Emblazoned.”
“I did not know until Mr. Wilde mentioned it to me the other day. He said they were in the garret of 998 Pell Street.”
“Nonsense,” he cried, but I noticed his hand trembling under his leathern apron.
“Is this nonsense too?” I asked pleasantly, “is it nonsense when Mr. Wilde continually speaks of you as the Marquis of Avonshire and of Miss Constance—”
I did not finish, for Constance had started to her feet with terror written on every feature. Hawberk looked at me and slowly smoothed his leathern apron.
“That is impossible,” he observed, “Mr. Wilde may know a great many things—”
“About armour, for instance, and the ‘Prince’s Emblazoned,'” I interposed, smiling.
“Yes,” he continued, slowly, “about armour also—may be—but he is wrong in regard to the Marquis of Avonshire, who, as you know, killed his wife’s traducer years ago, and went to Australia where he did not long survive his wife.”
“Mr. Wilde is wrong,” murmured Constance. Her lips were blanched, but her voice was sweet and calm.
“Let us agree, if you please, that in this one circumstance Mr. Wilde is wrong,” I said.
I climbed the three dilapidated flights of stairs, which I had so often climbed before, and knocked at a small door at the end of the corridor. Mr. Wilde opened the door and I walked in.
When he had double-locked the door and pushed a heavy chest against it, he came and sat down beside me, peering up into my face with his little light-coloured eyes. Half a dozen new scratches covered his nose and cheeks, and the silver wires which supported his artificial ears had become displaced. I thought I had never seen him so hideously fascinating. He had no ears. The artificial ones, which now stood out at an angle from the fine wire, were his one weakness. They were made of wax and painted a shell pink, but the rest of his face was yellow. He might better have revelled in the luxury of some artificial fingers for his left hand, which was absolutely fingerless, but it seemed to cause him no inconvenience, and he was satisfied with his wax ears. He was very small, scarcely higher than a child of ten, but his arms were magnificently developed, and his thighs as thick as any athlete’s. Still, the most remarkable thing about Mr. Wilde was that a man of his marvellous intelligence and knowledge should have such a head. It was flat and pointed, like the heads of many of those unfortunates whom people imprison in asylums for the weak-minded. Many called him insane, but I knew him to be as sane as I was.
I do not deny that he was eccentric; the mania he had for keeping that cat and teasing her until she flew at his face like a demon, was certainly eccentric. I never could understand why he kept the creature, nor what pleasure he found in shutting himself up in his room with this surly, vicious beast. I remember once, glancing up from the manuscript I was studying by the light of some tallow dips, and seeing Mr. Wilde squatting motionless on his high chair, his eyes fairly blazing with excitement, while the cat, which had risen from her place before the stove, came creeping across the floor right at him. Before I could move she flattened her belly to the ground, crouched, trembled, and sprang into his face. Howling and foaming they rolled over and over on the floor, scratching and clawing, until the cat screamed and fled under the cabinet, and Mr. Wilde turned over on his back, his limbs contracting and curling up like the legs of a dying spider. He was eccentric.
Mr. Wilde had climbed into his high chair, and, after studying my face, picked up a dog’s-eared ledger and opened it.
“Henry B. Matthews,” he read, “book-keeper with Whysot Whysot and Company, dealers in church ornaments. Called April 3rd. Reputation damaged on the race-track. Known as a welcher. Reputation to be repaired by August 1st. Retainer Five Dollars.” He turned the page and ran his fingerless knuckles down the closely-written columns.
“P. Greene Dusenberry, Minister of the Gospel, Fairbeach, New Jersey. Reputation damaged in the Bowery. To be repaired as soon as possible. Retainer $100.”
He coughed and added, “Called, April 6th.”
“Then you are not in need of money, Mr. Wilde,” I inquired.
“Listen,” he coughed again.
“Mrs. C. Hamilton Chester, of Chester Park, New York City. Called April 7th. Reputation damaged at Dieppe, France. To be repaired by October 1st Retainer $500.
“Note.—C. Hamilton Chester, Captain U.S.S. ‘Avalanche’, ordered home from South Sea Squadron October 1st.”
“Well,” I said, “the profession of a Repairer of Reputations is lucrative.”
His colourless eyes sought mine, “I only wanted to demonstrate that I was correct. You said it was impossible to succeed as a Repairer of Reputations; that even if I did succeed in certain cases it would cost me more than I would gain by it. To-day I have five hundred men in my employ, who are poorly paid, but who pursue the work with an enthusiasm which possibly may be born of fear. These men enter every shade and grade of society; some even are pillars of the most exclusive social temples; others are the prop and pride of the financial world; still others, hold undisputed sway among the ‘Fancy and the Talent.’ I choose them at my leisure from those who reply to my advertisements. It is easy enough, they are all cowards. I could treble the number in twenty days if I wished. So you see, those who have in their keeping the reputations of their fellow-citizens, I have in my pay.”
“They may turn on you,” I suggested.
He rubbed his thumb over his cropped ears, and adjusted the wax substitutes. “I think not,” he murmured thoughtfully, “I seldom have to apply the whip, and then only once. Besides they like their wages.”
“How do you apply the whip?” I demanded.
His face for a moment was awful to look upon. His eyes dwindled to a pair of green sparks.
“I invite them to come and have a little chat with me,” he said in a soft voice.
A knock at the door interrupted him, and his face resumed its amiable expression.
“Who is it?” he inquired.
“Mr. Steylette,” was the answer.
“Come to-morrow,” replied Mr. Wilde.
“Impossible,” began the other, but was silenced by a sort of bark from Mr. Wilde.
“Come to-morrow,” he repeated.
We heard somebody move away from the door and turn the corner by the stairway.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Arnold Steylette, Owner and Editor in Chief of the great New York daily.”
He drummed on the ledger with his fingerless hand adding: “I pay him very badly, but he thinks it a good bargain.”
“Arnold Steylette!” I repeated amazed.
“Yes,” said Mr. Wilde, with a self-satisfied cough.
The cat, which had entered the room as he spoke, hesitated, looked up at him and snarled. He climbed down from the chair and squatting on the floor, took the creature into his arms and caressed her. The cat ceased snarling and presently began a loud purring which seemed to increase in timbre as he stroked her. “Where are the notes?” I asked. He pointed to the table, and for the hundredth time I picked up the bundle of manuscript entitled—
“THE IMPERIAL DYNASTY OF AMERICA.”
One by one I studied the well-worn pages, worn only by my own handling, and although I knew all by heart, from the beginning, “When from Carcosa, the Hyades, Hastur, and Aldebaran,” to “Castaigne, Louis de Calvados, born December 19th, 1877,” I read it with an eager, rapt attention, pausing to repeat parts of it aloud, and dwelling especially on “Hildred de Calvados, only son of Hildred Castaigne and Edythe Landes Castaigne, first in succession,” etc., etc.
When I finished, Mr. Wilde nodded and coughed.
“Speaking of your legitimate ambition,” he said, “how do Constance and Louis get along?”
“She loves him,” I replied simply.
The cat on his knee suddenly turned and struck at his eyes, and he flung her off and climbed on to the chair opposite me.
“And Dr. Archer! But that’s a matter you can settle any time you wish,” he added.
“Yes,” I replied, “Dr. Archer can wait, but it is time I saw my cousin Louis.”
“It is time,” he repeated. Then he took another ledger from the table and ran over the leaves rapidly. “We are now in communication with ten thousand men,” he muttered. “We can count on one hundred thousand within the first twenty-eight hours, and in forty-eight hours the state will rise en masse. The country follows the state, and the portion that will not, I mean California and the Northwest, might better never have been inhabited. I shall not send them the Yellow Sign.”
The blood rushed to my head, but I only answered, “A new broom sweeps clean.”
“The ambition of Caesar and of Napoleon pales before that which could not rest until it had seized the minds of men and controlled even their unborn thoughts,” said Mr. Wilde.
“You are speaking of the King in Yellow,” I groaned, with a shudder.
“He is a king whom emperors have served.”
“I am content to serve him,” I replied.
Mr. Wilde sat rubbing his ears with his crippled hand. “Perhaps Constance does not love him,” he suggested.
I started to reply, but a sudden burst of military music from the street below drowned my voice. The twentieth dragoon regiment, formerly in garrison at Mount St. Vincent, was returning from the manœuvres in Westchester County, to its new barracks on East Washington Square. It was my cousin’s regiment. They were a fine lot of fellows, in their pale blue, tight-fitting jackets, jaunty busbys and white riding breeches with the double yellow stripe, into which their limbs seemed moulded. Every other squadron was armed with lances, from the metal points of which fluttered yellow and white pennons. The band passed, playing the regimental march, then came the colonel and staff, the horses crowding and trampling, while their heads bobbed in unison, and the pennons fluttered from their lance points. The troopers, who rode with the beautiful English seat, looked brown as berries from their bloodless campaign among the farms of Westchester, and the music of their sabres against the stirrups, and the jingle of spurs and carbines was delightful to me. I saw Louis riding with his squadron. He was as handsome an officer as I have ever seen. Mr. Wilde, who had mounted a chair by the window, saw him too, but said nothing. Louis turned and looked straight at Hawberk’s shop as he passed, and I could see the flush on his brown cheeks. I think Constance must have been at the window. When the last troopers had clattered by, and the last pennons vanished into South Fifth Avenue, Mr. Wilde clambered out of his chair and dragged the chest away from the door.
“Yes,” he said, “it is time that you saw your cousin Louis.”
He unlocked the door and I picked up my hat and stick and stepped into the corridor. The stairs were dark. Groping about, I set my foot on something soft, which snarled and spit, and I aimed a murderous blow at the cat, but my cane shivered to splinters against the balustrade, and the beast scurried back into Mr. Wilde’s room.
Passing Hawberk’s door again I saw him still at work on the armour, but I did not stop, and stepping out into Bleecker Street, I followed it to Wooster, skirted the grounds of the Lethal Chamber, and crossing Washington Park went straight to my rooms in the Benedick. Here I lunched comfortably, read the Herald and the Meteor, and finally went to the steel safe in my bedroom and set the time combination. The three and three-quarter minutes which it is necessary to wait, while the time lock is opening, are to me golden moments. From the instant I set the combination to the moment when I grasp the knobs and swing back the solid steel doors, I live in an ecstasy of expectation. Those moments must be like moments passed in Paradise. I know what I am to find at the end of the time limit. I know what the massive safe holds secure for me, for me alone, and the exquisite pleasure of waiting is hardly enhanced when the safe opens and I lift, from its velvet crown, a diadem of purest gold, blazing with diamonds. I do this every day, and yet the joy of waiting and at last touching again the diadem, only seems to increase as the days pass. It is a diadem fit for a King among kings, an Emperor among emperors. The King in Yellow might scorn it, but it shall be worn by his royal servant.
I held it in my arms until the alarm in the safe rang harshly, and then tenderly, proudly, I replaced it and shut the steel doors. I walked slowly back into my study, which faces Washington Square, and leaned on the window sill. The afternoon sun poured into my windows, and a gentle breeze stirred the branches of the elms and maples in the park, now covered with buds and tender foliage. A flock of pigeons circled about the tower of the Memorial Church; sometimes alighting on the purple tiled roof, sometimes wheeling downward to the lotos fountain in front of the marble arch. The gardeners were busy with the flower beds around the fountain, and the freshly turned earth smelled sweet and spicy. A lawn mower, drawn by a fat white horse, clinked across the green sward, and watering-carts poured showers of spray over the asphalt drives. Around the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, which in 1897 had replaced the monstrosity supposed to represent Garibaldi, children played in the spring sunshine, and nurse girls wheeled elaborate baby carriages with a reckless disregard for the pasty-faced occupants, which could probably be explained by the presence of half a dozen trim dragoon troopers languidly lolling on the benches. Through the trees, the Washington Memorial Arch glistened like silver in the sunshine, and beyond, on the eastern extremity of the square the grey stone barracks of the dragoons, and the white granite artillery stables were alive with colour and motion.
I looked at the Lethal Chamber on the corner of the square opposite. A few curious people still lingered about the gilded iron railing, but inside the grounds the paths were deserted. I watched the fountains ripple and sparkle; the sparrows had already found this new bathing nook, and the basins were covered with the dusty-feathered little things. Two or three white peacocks picked their way across the lawns, and a drab coloured pigeon sat so motionless on the arm of one of the “Fates,” that it seemed to be a part of the sculptured stone.
As I was turning carelessly away, a slight commotion in the group of curious loiterers around the gates attracted my attention. A young man had entered, and was advancing with nervous strides along the gravel path which leads to the bronze doors of the Lethal Chamber. He paused a moment before the “Fates,” and as he raised his head to those three mysterious faces, the pigeon rose from its sculptured perch, circled about for a moment and wheeled to the east. The young man pressed his hand to his face, and then with an undefinable gesture sprang up the marble steps, the bronze doors closed behind him, and half an hour later the loiterers slouched away, and the frightened pigeon returned to its perch in the arms of Fate.
I put on my hat and went out into the park for a little walk before dinner. As I crossed the central driveway a group of officers passed, and one of them called out, “Hello, Hildred,” and came back to shake hands with me. It was my cousin Louis, who stood smiling and tapping his spurred heels with his riding-whip.
“Just back from Westchester,” he said; “been doing the bucolic; milk and curds, you know, dairy-maids in sunbonnets, who say ‘haeow’ and ‘I don’t think’ when you tell them they are pretty. I’m nearly dead for a square meal at Delmonico’s. What’s the news?”
“There is none,” I replied pleasantly. “I saw your regiment coming in this morning.”
“Did you? I didn’t see you. Where were you?”
“In Mr. Wilde’s window.”
“Oh, hell!” he began impatiently, “that man is stark mad! I don’t understand why you—”
He saw how annoyed I felt by this outburst, and begged my pardon.
“Really, old chap,” he said, “I don’t mean to run down a man you like, but for the life of me I can’t see what the deuce you find in common with Mr. Wilde. He’s not well bred, to put it generously; he is hideously deformed; his head is the head of a criminally insane person. You know yourself he’s been in an asylum—”
“So have I,” I interrupted calmly.
Louis looked startled and confused for a moment, but recovered and slapped me heartily on the shoulder. “You were completely cured,” he began; but I stopped him again.
“I suppose you mean that I was simply acknowledged never to have been insane.”
“Of course that—that’s what I meant,” he laughed.
I disliked his laugh because I knew it was forced, but I nodded gaily and asked him where he was going. Louis looked after his brother officers who had now almost reached Broadway.
“We had intended to sample a Brunswick cocktail, but to tell you the truth I was anxious for an excuse to go and see Hawberk instead. Come along, I’ll make you my excuse.”
We found old Hawberk, neatly attired in a fresh spring suit, standing at the door of his shop and sniffing the air.
“I had just decided to take Constance for a little stroll before dinner,” he replied to the impetuous volley of questions from Louis. “We thought of walking on the park terrace along the North River.”
At that moment Constance appeared and grew pale and rosy by turns as Louis bent over her small gloved fingers. I tried to excuse myself, alleging an engagement uptown, but Louis and Constance would not listen, and I saw I was expected to remain and engage old Hawberk’s attention. After all it would be just as well if I kept my eye on Louis, I thought, and when they hailed a Spring Street horse-car, I got in after them and took my seat beside the armourer.
The beautiful line of parks and granite terraces overlooking the wharves along the North River, which were built in 1910 and finished in the autumn of 1917, had become one of the most popular promenades in the metropolis. They extended from the battery to 190th Street, overlooking the noble river and affording a fine view of the Jersey shore and the Highlands opposite. Cafés and restaurants were scattered here and there among the trees, and twice a week military bands from the garrison played in the kiosques on the parapets.
We sat down in the sunshine on the bench at the foot of the equestrian statue of General Sheridan. Constance tipped her sunshade to shield her eyes, and she and Louis began a murmuring conversation which was impossible to catch. Old Hawberk, leaning on his ivory headed cane, lighted an excellent cigar, the mate to which I politely refused, and smiled at vacancy. The sun hung low above the Staten Island woods, and the bay was dyed with golden hues reflected from the sun-warmed sails of the shipping in the harbour.
Brigs, schooners, yachts, clumsy ferry-boats, their decks swarming with people, railroad transports carrying lines of brown, blue and white freight cars, stately sound steamers, déclassé tramp steamers, coasters, dredgers, scows, and everywhere pervading the entire bay impudent little tugs puffing and whistling officiously;—these were the craft which churned the sunlight waters as far as the eye could reach. In calm contrast to the hurry of sailing vessel and steamer a silent fleet of white warships lay motionless in midstream.
Constance’s merry laugh aroused me from my reverie.
“What are you staring at?” she inquired.
“Nothing—the fleet,” I smiled.
Then Louis told us what the vessels were, pointing out each by its relative position to the old Red Fort on Governor’s Island.
“That little cigar shaped thing is a torpedo boat,” he explained; “there are four more lying close together. They are the Tarpon, the Falcon, the Sea Fox, and the Octopus. The gun-boats just above are the Princeton, the Champlain, the Still Water and the Erie. Next to them lie the cruisers Faragut and Los Angeles, and above them the battle ships California, and Dakota, and the Washington which is the flag ship. Those two squatty looking chunks of metal which are anchored there off Castle William are the double turreted monitors Terrible and Magnificent; behind them lies the ram, Osceola.”
Constance looked at him with deep approval in her beautiful eyes. “What loads of things you know for a soldier,” she said, and we all joined in the laugh which followed.
Presently Louis rose with a nod to us and offered his arm to Constance, and they strolled away along the river wall. Hawberk watched them for a moment and then turned to me.
“Mr. Wilde was right,” he said. “I have found the missing tassets and left cuissard of the ‘Prince’s Emblazoned,’ in a vile old junk garret in Pell Street.”
“998?” I inquired, with a smile.
“Mr. Wilde is a very intelligent man,” I observed.
“I want to give him the credit of this most important discovery,” continued Hawberk. “And I intend it shall be known that he is entitled to the fame of it.”
“He won’t thank you for that,” I answered sharply; “please say nothing about it.”
“Do you know what it is worth?” said Hawberk.
“No, fifty dollars, perhaps.”
“It is valued at five hundred, but the owner of the ‘Prince’s Emblazoned’ will give two thousand dollars to the person who completes his suit; that reward also belongs to Mr. Wilde.”
“He doesn’t want it! He refuses it!” I answered angrily. “What do you know about Mr. Wilde? He doesn’t need the money. He is rich—or will be—richer than any living man except myself. What will we care for money then—what will we care, he and I, when—when—”
“When what?” demanded Hawberk, astonished.
“You will see,” I replied, on my guard again.
He looked at me narrowly, much as Doctor Archer used to, and I knew he thought I was mentally unsound. Perhaps it was fortunate for him that he did not use the word lunatic just then.
“No,” I replied to his unspoken thought, “I am not mentally weak; my mind is as healthy as Mr. Wilde’s. I do not care to explain just yet what I have on hand, but it is an investment which will pay more than mere gold, silver and precious stones. It will secure the happiness and prosperity of a continent—yes, a hemisphere!”
“Oh,” said Hawberk.
“And eventually,” I continued more quietly, “it will secure the happiness of the whole world.”
“And incidentally your own happiness and prosperity as well as Mr. Wilde’s?”
“Exactly,” I smiled. But I could have throttled him for taking that tone.
He looked at me in silence for a while and then said very gently, “Why don’t you give up your books and studies, Mr. Castaigne, and take a tramp among the mountains somewhere or other? You used to be fond of fishing. Take a cast or two at the trout in the Rangelys.”
“I don’t care for fishing any more,” I answered, without a shade of annoyance in my voice.
“You used to be fond of everything,” he continued; “athletics, yachting, shooting, riding—”
“I have never cared to ride since my fall,” I said quietly.
“Ah, yes, your fall,” he repeated, looking away from me.
I thought this nonsense had gone far enough, so I brought the conversation back to Mr. Wilde; but he was scanning my face again in a manner highly offensive to me.
“Mr. Wilde,” he repeated, “do you know what he did this afternoon? He came downstairs and nailed a sign over the hall door next to mine; it read:
MR. WILDE, REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS. Third Bell.
“Do you know what a Repairer of Reputations can be?”
“I do,” I replied, suppressing the rage within.
“Oh,” he said again.
Louis and Constance came strolling by and stopped to ask if we would join them. Hawberk looked at his watch. At the same moment a puff of smoke shot from the casemates of Castle William, and the boom of the sunset gun rolled across the water and was re-echoed from the Highlands opposite. The flag came running down from the flag-pole, the bugles sounded on the white decks of the warships, and the first electric light sparkled out from the Jersey shore.
As I turned into the city with Hawberk I heard Constance murmur something to Louis which I did not understand; but Louis whispered “My darling,” in reply; and again, walking ahead with Hawberk through the square I heard a murmur of “sweetheart,” and “my own Constance,” and I knew the time had nearly arrived when I should speak of important matters with my cousin Louis.
One morning early in May I stood before the steel safe in my bedroom, trying on the golden jewelled crown. The diamonds flashed fire as I turned to the mirror, and the heavy beaten gold burned like a halo about my head. I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed—dared not, even in the spring sunshine, there in my own room, surrounded with familiar objects, reassured by the bustle from the street and the voices of the servants in the hallway outside. For those poisoned words had dropped slowly into my heart, as death-sweat drops upon a bed-sheet and is absorbed. Trembling, I put the diadem from my head and wiped my forehead, but I thought of Hastur and of my own rightful ambition, and I remembered Mr. Wilde as I had last left him, his face all torn and bloody from the claws of that devil’s creature, and what he said—ah, what he said. The alarm bell in the safe began to whirr harshly, and I knew my time was up; but I would not heed it, and replacing the flashing circlet upon my head I turned defiantly to the mirror. I stood for a long time absorbed in the changing expression of my own eyes. The mirror reflected a face which was like my own, but whiter, and so thin that I hardly recognized it. And all the time I kept repeating between my clenched teeth, “The day has come! the day has come!” while the alarm in the safe whirred and clamoured, and the diamonds sparkled and flamed above my brow. I heard a door open but did not heed it. It was only when I saw two faces in the mirror:—it was only when another face rose over my shoulder, and two other eyes met mine. I wheeled like a flash and seized a long knife from my dressing-table, and my cousin sprang back very pale, crying: “Hildred! for God’s sake!” then as my hand fell, he said: “It is I, Louis, don’t you know me?” I stood silent. I could not have spoken for my life. He walked up to me and took the knife from my hand.
“What is all this?” he inquired, in a gentle voice. “Are you ill?”
“No,” I replied. But I doubt if he heard me.
“Come, come, old fellow,” he cried, “take off that brass crown and toddle into the study. Are you going to a masquerade? What’s all this theatrical tinsel anyway?”
I was glad he thought the crown was made of brass and paste, yet I didn’t like him any the better for thinking so. I let him take it from my hand, knowing it was best to humour him. He tossed the splendid diadem in the air, and catching it, turned to me smiling.
“It’s dear at fifty cents,” he said. “What’s it for?”
I did not answer, but took the circlet from his hands, and placing it in the safe shut the massive steel door. The alarm ceased its infernal din at once. He watched me curiously, but did not seem to notice the sudden ceasing of the alarm. He did, however, speak of the safe as a biscuit box. Fearing lest he might examine the combination I led the way into my study. Louis threw himself on the sofa and flicked at flies with his eternal riding-whip. He wore his fatigue uniform with the braided jacket and jaunty cap, and I noticed that his riding-boots were all splashed with red mud.
“Where have you been?” I inquired.
“Jumping mud creeks in Jersey,” he said. “I haven’t had time to change yet; I was rather in a hurry to see you. Haven’t you got a glass of something? I’m dead tired; been in the saddle twenty-four hours.”
I gave him some brandy from my medicinal store, which he drank with a grimace.
“Damned bad stuff,” he observed. “I’ll give you an address where they sell brandy that is brandy.”
“It’s good enough for my needs,” I said indifferently. “I use it to rub my chest with.” He stared and flicked at another fly.
“See here, old fellow,” he began, “I’ve got something to suggest to you. It’s four years now that you’ve shut yourself up here like an owl, never going anywhere, never taking any healthy exercise, never doing a damn thing but poring over those books up there on the mantelpiece.”
He glanced along the row of shelves. “Napoleon, Napoleon, Napoleon!” he read. “For heaven’s sake, have you nothing but Napoleons there?”
“I wish they were bound in gold,” I said. “But wait, yes, there is another book, The King in Yellow.” I looked him steadily in the eye.
“Have you never read it?” I asked.
“I? No, thank God! I don’t want to be driven crazy.”
I saw he regretted his speech as soon as he had uttered it. There is only one word which I loathe more than I do lunatic and that word is crazy. But I controlled myself and asked him why he thought The King in Yellow dangerous.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, hastily. “I only remember the excitement it created and the denunciations from pulpit and Press. I believe the author shot himself after bringing forth this monstrosity, didn’t he?”
“I understand he is still alive,” I answered.
“That’s probably true,” he muttered; “bullets couldn’t kill a fiend like that.”
“It is a book of great truths,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “of ‘truths’ which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don’t care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It’s a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages.”
“Is that what you have come to tell me?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I came to tell you that I am going to be married.”
I believe for a moment my heart ceased to beat, but I kept my eyes on his face.
“Yes,” he continued, smiling happily, “married to the sweetest girl on earth.”
“Constance Hawberk,” I said mechanically.
“How did you know?” he cried, astonished. “I didn’t know it myself until that evening last April, when we strolled down to the embankment before dinner.”
“When is it to be?” I asked.
“It was to have been next September, but an hour ago a despatch came ordering our regiment to the Presidio, San Francisco. We leave at noon to-morrow. To-morrow,” he repeated. “Just think, Hildred, to-morrow I shall be the happiest fellow that ever drew breath in this jolly world, for Constance will go with me.”
I offered him my hand in congratulation, and he seized and shook it like the good-natured fool he was—or pretended to be.
“I am going to get my squadron as a wedding present,” he rattled on. “Captain and Mrs. Louis Castaigne, eh, Hildred?”
Then he told me where it was to be and who were to be there, and made me promise to come and be best man. I set my teeth and listened to his boyish chatter without showing what I felt, but—
I was getting to the limit of my endurance, and when he jumped up, and, switching his spurs till they jingled, said he must go, I did not detain him.
“There’s one thing I want to ask of you,” I said quietly.
“Out with it, it’s promised,” he laughed.
“I want you to meet me for a quarter of an hour’s talk to-night.”
“Of course, if you wish,” he said, somewhat puzzled. “Where?”
“Anywhere, in the park there.”
“What time, Hildred?”
“What in the name of—” he began, but checked himself and laughingly assented. I watched him go down the stairs and hurry away, his sabre banging at every stride. He turned into Bleecker Street, and I knew he was going to see Constance. I gave him ten minutes to disappear and then followed in his footsteps, taking with me the jewelled crown and the silken robe embroidered with the Yellow Sign. When I turned into Bleecker Street, and entered the doorway which bore the sign—
MR. WILDE, REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS. Third Bell.
I saw old Hawberk moving about in his shop, and imagined I heard Constance’s voice in the parlour; but I avoided them both and hurried up the trembling stairways to Mr. Wilde’s apartment. I knocked and entered without ceremony. Mr. Wilde lay groaning on the floor, his face covered with blood, his clothes torn to shreds. Drops of blood were scattered about over the carpet, which had also been ripped and frayed in the evidently recent struggle.
“It’s that cursed cat,” he said, ceasing his groans, and turning his colourless eyes to me; “she attacked me while I was asleep. I believe she will kill me yet.”
This was too much, so I went into the kitchen, and, seizing a hatchet from the pantry, started to find the infernal beast and settle her then and there. My search was fruitless, and after a while I gave it up and came back to find Mr. Wilde squatting on his high chair by the table. He had washed his face and changed his clothes. The great furrows which the cat’s claws had ploughed up in his face he had filled with collodion, and a rag hid the wound in his throat. I told him I should kill the cat when I came across her, but he only shook his head and turned to the open ledger before him. He read name after name of the people who had come to him in regard to their reputation, and the sums he had amassed were startling.
“I put on the screws now and then,” he explained.
“One day or other some of these people will assassinate you,” I insisted.
“Do you think so?” he said, rubbing his mutilated ears.
It was useless to argue with him, so I took down the manuscript entitled Imperial Dynasty of America, for the last time I should ever take it down in Mr. Wilde’s study. I read it through, thrilling and trembling with pleasure. When I had finished Mr. Wilde took the manuscript and, turning to the dark passage which leads from his study to his bed-chamber, called out in a loud voice, “Vance.” Then for the first time, I noticed a man crouching there in the shadow. How I had overlooked him during my search for the cat, I cannot imagine.
“Vance, come in,” cried Mr. Wilde.
The figure rose and crept towards us, and I shall never forget the face that he raised to mine, as the light from the window illuminated it.
“Vance, this is Mr. Castaigne,” said Mr. Wilde. Before he had finished speaking, the man threw himself on the ground before the table, crying and grasping, “Oh, God! Oh, my God! Help me! Forgive me! Oh, Mr. Castaigne, keep that man away. You cannot, you cannot mean it! You are different—save me! I am broken down—I was in a madhouse and now—when all was coming right—when I had forgotten the King—the King in Yellow and—but I shall go mad again—I shall go mad—”
His voice died into a choking rattle, for Mr. Wilde had leapt on him and his right hand encircled the man’s throat. When Vance fell in a heap on the floor, Mr. Wilde clambered nimbly into his chair again, and rubbing his mangled ears with the stump of his hand, turned to me and asked me for the ledger. I reached it down from the shelf and he opened it. After a moment’s searching among the beautifully written pages, he coughed complacently, and pointed to the name Vance.
“Vance,” he read aloud, “Osgood Oswald Vance.” At the sound of his name, the man on the floor raised his head and turned a convulsed face to Mr. Wilde. His eyes were injected with blood, his lips tumefied. “Called April 28th,” continued Mr. Wilde. “Occupation, cashier in the Seaforth National Bank; has served a term of forgery at Sing Sing, from whence he was transferred to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane. Pardoned by the Governor of New York, and discharged from the Asylum, January 19, 1918. Reputation damaged at Sheepshead Bay. Rumours that he lives beyond his income. Reputation to be repaired at once. Retainer $1,500.
“Note.—Has embezzled sums amounting to $30,000 since March 20, 1919, excellent family, and secured present position through uncle’s influence. Father, President of Seaforth Bank.”
I looked at the man on the floor.
“Get up, Vance,” said Mr. Wilde in a gentle voice. Vance rose as if hypnotized. “He will do as we suggest now,” observed Mr. Wilde, and opening the manuscript, he read the entire history of the Imperial Dynasty of America. Then in a kind and soothing murmur he ran over the important points with Vance, who stood like one stunned. His eyes were so blank and vacant that I imagined he had become half-witted, and remarked it to Mr. Wilde who replied that it was of no consequence anyway. Very patiently we pointed out to Vance what his share in the affair would be, and he seemed to understand after a while. Mr. Wilde explained the manuscript, using several volumes on Heraldry, to substantiate the result of his researches. He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. “The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever,” he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King. Fascinated and thrilled I watched him. He threw up his head, his long arms were stretched out in a magnificent gesture of pride and power, and his eyes blazed deep in their sockets like two emeralds. Vance listened stupefied. As for me, when at last Mr. Wilde had finished, and pointing to me, cried, “The cousin of the King!” my head swam with excitement.
Controlling myself with a superhuman effort, I explained to Vance why I alone was worthy of the crown and why my cousin must be exiled or die. I made him understand that my cousin must never marry, even after renouncing all his claims, and how that least of all he should marry the daughter of the Marquis of Avonshire and bring England into the question. I showed him a list of thousands of names which Mr. Wilde had drawn up; every man whose name was there had received the Yellow Sign which no living human being dared disregard. The city, the state, the whole land, were ready to rise and tremble before the Pallid Mask.
The time had come, the people should know the son of Hastur, and the whole world bow to the black stars which hang in the sky over Carcosa.
Vance leaned on the table, his head buried in his hands. Mr. Wilde drew a rough sketch on the margin of yesterday’s Herald with a bit of lead pencil. It was a plan of Hawberk’s rooms. Then he wrote out the order and affixed the seal, and shaking like a palsied man I signed my first writ of execution with my name Hildred-Rex.
Mr. Wilde clambered to the floor and unlocking the cabinet, took a long square box from the first shelf. This he brought to the table and opened. A new knife lay in the tissue paper inside and I picked it up and handed it to Vance, along with the order and the plan of Hawberk’s apartment. Then Mr. Wilde told Vance he could go; and he went, shambling like an outcast of the slums.
I sat for a while watching the daylight fade behind the square tower of the Judson Memorial Church, and finally, gathering up the manuscript and notes, took my hat and started for the door.
Mr. Wilde watched me in silence. When I had stepped into the hall I looked back. Mr. Wilde’s small eyes were still fixed on me. Behind him, the shadows gathered in the fading light. Then I closed the door behind me and went out into the darkening streets.
I had eaten nothing since breakfast, but I was not hungry. A wretched, half-starved creature, who stood looking across the street at the Lethal Chamber, noticed me and came up to tell me a tale of misery. I gave him money, I don’t know why, and he went away without thanking me. An hour later another outcast approached and whined his story. I had a blank bit of paper in my pocket, on which was traced the Yellow Sign, and I handed it to him. He looked at it stupidly for a moment, and then with an uncertain glance at me, folded it with what seemed to me exaggerated care and placed it in his bosom.
The electric lights were sparkling among the trees, and the new moon shone in the sky above the Lethal Chamber. It was tiresome waiting in the square; I wandered from the Marble Arch to the artillery stables and back again to the lotos fountain. The flowers and grass exhaled a fragrance which troubled me. The jet of the fountain played in the moonlight, and the musical splash of falling drops reminded me of the tinkle of chained mail in Hawberk’s shop. But it was not so fascinating, and the dull sparkle of the moonlight on the water brought no such sensations of exquisite pleasure, as when the sunshine played over the polished steel of a corselet on Hawberk’s knee. I watched the bats darting and turning above the water plants in the fountain basin, but their rapid, jerky flight set my nerves on edge, and I went away again to walk aimlessly to and fro among the trees.
The artillery stables were dark, but in the cavalry barracks the officers’ windows were brilliantly lighted, and the sallyport was constantly filled with troopers in fatigue, carrying straw and harness and baskets filled with tin dishes.
Twice the mounted sentry at the gates was changed while I wandered up and down the asphalt walk. I looked at my watch. It was nearly time. The lights in the barracks went out one by one, the barred gate was closed, and every minute or two an officer passed in through the side wicket, leaving a rattle of accoutrements and a jingle of spurs on the night air. The square had become very silent. The last homeless loiterer had been driven away by the grey-coated park policeman, the car tracks along Wooster Street were deserted, and the only sound which broke the stillness was the stamping of the sentry’s horse and the ring of his sabre against the saddle pommel. In the barracks, the officers’ quarters were still lighted, and military servants passed and repassed before the bay windows. Twelve o’clock sounded from the new spire of St. Francis Xavier, and at the last stroke of the sad-toned bell a figure passed through the wicket beside the portcullis, returned the salute of the sentry, and crossing the street entered the square and advanced toward the Benedick apartment house.
“Louis,” I called.
The man pivoted on his spurred heels and came straight toward me.
“Is that you, Hildred?”
“Yes, you are on time.”
I took his offered hand, and we strolled toward the Lethal Chamber.
He rattled on about his wedding and the graces of Constance, and their future prospects, calling my attention to his captain’s shoulder-straps, and the triple gold arabesque on his sleeve and fatigue cap. I believe I listened as much to the music of his spurs and sabre as I did to his boyish babble, and at last we stood under the elms on the Fourth Street corner of the square opposite the Lethal Chamber. Then he laughed and asked me what I wanted with him. I motioned him to a seat on a bench under the electric light, and sat down beside him. He looked at me curiously, with that same searching glance which I hate and fear so in doctors. I felt the insult of his look, but he did not know it, and I carefully concealed my feelings.
“Well, old chap,” he inquired, “what can I do for you?”
I drew from my pocket the manuscript and notes of the Imperial Dynasty of America, and looking him in the eye said:
“I will tell you. On your word as a soldier, promise me to read this manuscript from beginning to end, without asking me a question. Promise me to read these notes in the same way, and promise me to listen to what I have to tell later.”
“I promise, if you wish it,” he said pleasantly. “Give me the paper, Hildred.”
He began to read, raising his eyebrows with a puzzled, whimsical air, which made me tremble with suppressed anger. As he advanced his, eyebrows contracted, and his lips seemed to form the word “rubbish.”
Then he looked slightly bored, but apparently for my sake read, with an attempt at interest, which presently ceased to be an effort. He started when in the closely written pages he came to his own name, and when he came to mine he lowered the paper, and looked sharply at me for a moment. But he kept his word, and resumed his reading, and I let the half-formed question die on his lips unanswered. When he came to the end and read the signature of Mr. Wilde, he folded the paper carefully and returned it to me. I handed him the notes, and he settled back, pushing his fatigue cap up to his forehead, with a boyish gesture, which I remembered so well in school. I watched his face as he read, and when he finished I took the notes with the manuscript, and placed them in my pocket. Then I unfolded a scroll marked with the Yellow Sign. He saw the sign, but he did not seem to recognize it, and I called his attention to it somewhat sharply.
“Well,” he said, “I see it. What is it?”
“It is the Yellow Sign,” I said angrily.
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” said Louis, in that flattering voice, which Doctor Archer used to employ with me, and would probably have employed again, had I not settled his affair for him.
I kept my rage down and answered as steadily as possible, “Listen, you have engaged your word?”
“I am listening, old chap,” he replied soothingly.
I began to speak very calmly.
“Dr. Archer, having by some means become possessed of the secret of the Imperial Succession, attempted to deprive me of my right, alleging that because of a fall from my horse four years ago, I had become mentally deficient. He presumed to place me under restraint in his own house in hopes of either driving me insane or poisoning me. I have not forgotten it. I visited him last night and the interview was final.”
Louis turned quite pale, but did not move. I resumed triumphantly, “There are yet three people to be interviewed in the interests of Mr. Wilde and myself. They are my cousin Louis, Mr. Hawberk, and his daughter Constance.”
Louis sprang to his feet and I arose also, and flung the paper marked with the Yellow Sign to the ground.
“Oh, I don’t need that to tell you what I have to say,” I cried, with a laugh of triumph. “You must renounce the crown to me, do you hear, to me.”
Louis looked at me with a startled air, but recovering himself said kindly, “Of course I renounce the—what is it I must renounce?”
“The crown,” I said angrily.
“Of course,” he answered, “I renounce it. Come, old chap, I’ll walk back to your rooms with you.”
“Don’t try any of your doctor’s tricks on me,” I cried, trembling with fury. “Don’t act as if you think I am insane.”
“What nonsense,” he replied. “Come, it’s getting late, Hildred.”
“No,” I shouted, “you must listen. You cannot marry, I forbid it. Do you hear? I forbid it. You shall renounce the crown, and in reward I grant you exile, but if you refuse you shall die.”
He tried to calm me, but I was roused at last, and drawing my long knife barred his way.
Then I told him how they would find Dr. Archer in the cellar with his throat open, and I laughed in his face when I thought of Vance and his knife, and the order signed by me.
“Ah, you are the King,” I cried, “but I shall be King. Who are you to keep me from Empire over all the habitable earth! I was born the cousin of a king, but I shall be King!”
Louis stood white and rigid before me. Suddenly a man came running up Fourth Street, entered the gate of the Lethal Temple, traversed the path to the bronze doors at full speed, and plunged into the death chamber with the cry of one demented, and I laughed until I wept tears, for I had recognized Vance, and knew that Hawberk and his daughter were no longer in my way.
“Go,” I cried to Louis, “you have ceased to be a menace. You will never marry Constance now, and if you marry any one else in your exile, I will visit you as I did my doctor last night. Mr. Wilde takes charge of you to-morrow.” Then I turned and darted into South Fifth Avenue, and with a cry of terror Louis dropped his belt and sabre and followed me like the wind. I heard him close behind me at the corner of Bleecker Street, and I dashed into the doorway under Hawberk’s sign. He cried, “Halt, or I fire!” but when he saw that I flew up the stairs leaving Hawberk’s shop below, he left me, and I heard him hammering and shouting at their door as though it were possible to arouse the dead.
Mr. Wilde’s door was open, and I entered crying, “It is done, it is done! Let the nations rise and look upon their King!” but I could not find Mr. Wilde, so I went to the cabinet and took the splendid diadem from its case. Then I drew on the white silk robe, embroidered with the Yellow Sign, and placed the crown upon my head. At last I was King, King by my right in Hastur, King because I knew the mystery of the Hyades, and my mind had sounded the depths of the Lake of Hali. I was King! The first grey pencillings of dawn would raise a tempest which would shake two hemispheres. Then as I stood, my every nerve pitched to the highest tension, faint with the joy and splendour of my thought, without, in the dark passage, a man groaned.
I seized the tallow dip and sprang to the door. The cat passed me like a demon, and the tallow dip went out, but my long knife flew swifter than she, and I heard her screech, and I knew that my knife had found her. For a moment I listened to her tumbling and thumping about in the darkness, and then when her frenzy ceased, I lighted a lamp and raised it over my head. Mr. Wilde lay on the floor with his throat torn open. At first I thought he was dead, but as I looked, a green sparkle came into his sunken eyes, his mutilated hand trembled, and then a spasm stretched his mouth from ear to ear. For a moment my terror and despair gave place to hope, but as I bent over him his eyeballs rolled clean around in his head, and he died. Then while I stood, transfixed with rage and despair, seeing my crown, my empire, every hope and every ambition, my very life, lying prostrate there with the dead master, they came, seized me from behind, and bound me until my veins stood out like cords, and my voice failed with the paroxysms of my frenzied screams. But I still raged, bleeding and infuriated among them, and more than one policeman felt my sharp teeth. Then when I could no longer move they came nearer; I saw old Hawberk, and behind him my cousin Louis’ ghastly face, and farther away, in the corner, a woman, Constance, weeping softly.
“Ah! I see it now!” I shrieked. “You have seized the throne and the empire. Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!”
[EDITOR’S NOTE.—Mr. Castaigne died yesterday in the Asylum for Criminal Insane.]
The sky didn't answer,
so beneath an oak,
I buried my hope,
my wishes in the ground.
Words like seeds,
too fearful to speak aloud.
Watered them with tears,
longing to be anywhere else.
Mud, dirt, and dust -
Trust lay beneath the soil
and shadows of limbs.
The words sank deeper,
taking root in the dark,
making friends with dead leaves
and chipped bark.
The garden bloomed in fall.
I was gone - free.
The tree cut down.
The earth salted with grief.
The others left behind,
hate me for escaping.
I keep returning, in my mind.
Some roots never die.
Heather Cline is a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University (social science), a caregiver by day, and resides in Missouri, USA. She has works accepted by Bright Flash Literary Review and Five Minutes Lit, and can be found on Twitter @hmclinewrites.
It goes past the powers of my pen to try to describe Reelfoot Lake for you so that you, reading this, will get the picture of it in your mind as I have it in mine. For Reelfoot Lake is like no other lake that I know anything about. It is an afterthought of Creation.
The rest of this continent was made and had dried in the sun for thousands of years—for millions of years for all I know—before Reelfoot came to be. It’s the newest big thing in nature on this hemisphere probably, for it was formed by the great earthquake of 1811, just a little more than a hundred years ago. That earthquake of 1811 surely altered the face of the earth on the then far frontier of this country. It changed the course of rivers, it converted hills into what are now the sunk lands of three states, and it turned the solid ground to jelly and made it roll in waves like the sea. And in the midst of the retching of the land and the vomiting of the waters it depressed to varying depths a section of the earth crust sixty miles long, taking it down—trees, hills, hollows and all; and a crack broke through to the Mississippi River so that for three days the river ran up stream, filling the hole.
The result was the largest lake south of the Ohio, lying mostly in Tennessee, but extending up across what is now the Kentucky line, and taking its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splay, reeled foot of a cornfield negro. Niggerwool Swamp, not so far away, may have got its name from the same man who christened Reelfoot; at least so it sounds.
There are stretches of unbroken woodland around it and slashes where the cypress knees rise countlessly like headstones and footstones for the dead snags that rot in the soft ooze. There are deadenings with the lowland corn growing high and rank below and the bleached, fire-blackened girdled trees rising above, barren of leaf and limb. There are long, dismal flats where in the spring the clotted frog-spawn clings like patches of white mucus among the weed stalks and at night the turtles crawl out to lay clutches of perfectly round, white eggs with tough, rubbery shells in the sand. There are bayous leading off to nowhere and sloughs that wind aimlessly, like great, blind worms, to finally join the big river that rolls its semi-liquid torrents a few miles to the westward.
So Reelfoot lies there, flat in the bottoms, freezing lightly in the winter, steaming torridly in the summer, swollen in the spring when the woods have turned a vivid green and the buffalo gnats by the million and the billion fill the flooded hollows with their pestilential buzzing, and in the fall ringed about gloriously with all the colors which the first frost brings—gold of hickory, yellow-russet of sycamore, red of dogwood and ash and purple-black of sweet-gum.
But the Reelfoot country has its uses. It is the best game and fish country, natural or artificial, that is left in the South today. In their appointed seasons the duck and the geese flock in, and even semi-tropical birds, like the brown pelican and the Florida snake-bird, have been known to come there to nest. Pigs, gone back to wildness, range the ridges, each razor-backed drove captained by a gaunt, savage, slab-sided old boar. By night the bull frogs, inconceivably big and tremendously vocal, bellow under the banks.
It is a wonderful place for fish—bass and crappie and perch and the snouted buffalo fish. How these edible sorts live to spawn and how their spawn in turn live to spawn again is a marvel, seeing how many of the big fish-eating cannibal fish there are in Reelfoot. Here, bigger than anywhere else, you find the garfish, all bones and appetite and horny plates, with a snout like an alligator, the nearest link, naturalists say, between the animal life of today and the animal life of the Reptilian Period. The shovel-nose cat, really a deformed kind of freshwater sturgeon, with a great fan-shaped membranous plate jutting out from his nose like a bowsprit, jumps all day in the quiet places with mighty splashing sounds, as though a horse had fallen into the water. On every stranded log the huge snapping turtles lie on sunny days in groups of four and six, baking their shells black in the sun, with their little snaky heads raised watchfully, ready to slip noiselessly off at the first sound of oars grating in the row-locks.
But the biggest of them all are the catfish. These are monstrous creatures, these catfish of Reelfoot—scaleless, slick things, with corpsy, dead eyes and poisonous fins like javelins and long whiskers dangling from the sides of their cavernous heads. Six and seven feet long they grow to be and to weigh two hundred pounds or more, and they have mouths wide enough to take in a man’s foot or a man’s fist and strong enough to break any hook save the strongest and greedy enough to eat anything, living or dead or putrid, that the horny jaws can master. Oh, but they are wicked things, and they tell wicked tales of them down there. They call them man-eaters and compare them, in certain of their habits, to sharks.
Fishhead was of a piece with this setting. He fitted into it as an acorn fits its cup. All his life he had lived on Reelfoot, always in the one place, at the mouth of a certain slough. He had been born there, of a negro father and a half-breed Indian mother, both of them now dead, and the story was that before his birth his mother was frightened by one of the big fish, so that the child came into the world most hideously marked. Anyhow, Fishhead was a human monstrosity, the veritable embodiment of nightmare. He had the body of a man—a short, stocky, sinewy body—but his face was as near to being the face of a great fish as any face could be and yet retain some trace of human aspect. His skull sloped back so abruptly that he could hardly be said to have a forehead at all; his chin slanted off right into nothing. His eyes were small and round with shallow, glazed, pale-yellow pupils, and they were set wide apart in his head and they were unwinking and staring, like a fish’s eyes. His nose was no more than a pair of tiny slits in the middle of the yellow mask. His mouth was the worst of all. It was the awful mouth of a catfish, lipless and almost inconceivably wide, stretching from side to side. Also when Fishhead became a man grown his likeness to a fish increased, for the hair upon his face grew out into two tightly kinked, slender pendants that drooped down either side of the mouth like the beards of a fish.
If he had any other name than Fishhead, none excepting he knew it. As Fishhead he was known and as Fishhead he answered. Because he knew the waters and the woods of Reelfoot better than any other man there, he was valued as a guide by the city men who came every year to hunt or fish; but there were few such jobs that Fishhead would take. Mainly he kept to himself, tending his corn patch, netting the lake, trapping a little and in season pot hunting for the city markets. His neighbors, ague-bitten whites and malaria-proof negroes alike, left him to himself. Indeed for the most part they had a superstitious fear of him. So he lived alone, with no kith nor kin, nor even a friend, shunning his kind and shunned by them.
His cabin stood just below the state line, where Mud Slough runs into the lake. It was a shack of logs, the only human habitation for four miles up or down. Behind it the thick timber came shouldering right up to the edge of Fishhead’s small truck patch, enclosing it in thick shade except when the sun stood just overhead. He cooked his food in a primitive fashion, outdoors, over a hole in the soggy earth or upon the rusted red ruin of an old cook stove, and he drank the saffron water of the lake out of a dipper made of a gourd, faring and fending for himself, a master hand at skiff and net, competent with duck gun and fish spear, yet a creature of affliction and loneliness, part savage, almost amphibious, set apart from his fellows, silent and suspicious.
In front of his cabin jutted out a long fallen cottonwood trunk, lying half in and half out of the water, its top side burnt by the sun and worn by the friction of Fishhead’s bare feet until it showed countless patterns of tiny scrolled lines, its under side black and rotted and lapped at unceasingly by little waves like tiny licking tongues. Its farther end reached deep water. And it was a part of Fishhead, for no matter how far his fishing and trapping might take him in the daytime, sunset would find him back there, his boat drawn up on the bank and he on the outer end of this log. From a distance men had seen him there many times, sometimes squatted, motionless as the big turtles that would crawl upon its dipping tip in his absence, sometimes erect and vigilant like a creek crane, his misshapen yellow form outlined against the yellow sun, the yellow water, the yellow banks—all of them yellow together.
If the Reelfooters shunned Fishhead by day they feared him by night and avoided him as a plague, dreading even the chance of a casual meeting. For there were ugly stories about Fishhead—stories which all the negroes and some of the whites believed. They said that a cry which had been heard just before dusk and just after, skittering across the darkened waters, was his calling cry to the big cats, and at his bidding they came trooping in, and that in their company he swam in the lake on moonlight nights, sporting with them, diving with them, even feeding with them on what manner of unclean things they fed. The cry had been heard many times, that much was certain, and it was certain also that the big fish were noticeably thick at the mouth of Fishhead’s slough. No native Reelfooter, white or black, would willingly wet a leg or an arm there.
Here Fishhead had lived and here he was going to die. The Baxters were going to kill him, and this day in mid-summer was to be the time of the killing. The two Baxters—Jake and Joel—were coming in their dugout to do it. This murder had been a long time in the making. The Baxters had to brew their hate over a slow fire for months before it reached the pitch of action. They were poor whites, poor in everything—repute and worldly goods and standing—a pair of fever-ridden squatters who lived on whisky and tobacco when they could get it, and on fish and cornbread when they couldn’t.
The feud itself was of months’ standing. Meeting Fishhead one day in the spring on the spindly scaffolding of the skiff landing at Walnut Log, and being themselves far overtaken in liquor and vainglorious with a bogus alcoholic substitute for courage, the brothers had accused him, wantonly and without proof, of running their trot-line and stripping it of the hooked catch—an unforgivable sin among the water dwellers and the shanty boaters of the South. Seeing that he bore this accusation in silence, only eyeing them steadfastly, they had been emboldened then to slap his face, whereupon he turned and gave them both the beating of their lives—bloodying their noses and bruising their lips with hard blows against their front teeth, and finally leaving them, mauled and prone, in the dirt. Moreover, in the onlookers a sense of the everlasting fitness of things had triumphed over race prejudice and allowed them—two freeborn, sovereign whites—to be licked by a nigger.
Therefore, they were going to get the nigger. The whole thing had been planned out amply. They were going to kill him on his log at sundown. There would be no witnesses to see it, no retribution to follow after it. The very ease of the undertaking made them forget even their inborn fear of the place of Fishhead’s habitation.
For more than an hour now they had been coming from their shack across a deeply indented arm of the lake. Their dugout, fashioned by fire and adz and draw-knife from the bole of a gum tree, moved through the water as noiselessly as a swimming mallard, leaving behind it a long, wavy trail on the stilled waters. Jake, the better oarsman sat flat in the stern of the round-bottomed craft, paddling with quick, splashless strokes. Joel, the better shot, was squatted forward. There was a heavy, rusted duck gun between his knees.
Though their spying upon the victim had made them certain sure he would not be about the shore for hours, a doubled sense of caution led them to hug closely the weedy banks. They slid along the shore like shadows, moving so swiftly and in such silence that the watchful mud turtles barely turned their snaky heads as they passed. So, a full hour before the time, they came slipping around the mouth of the slough and made for a natural ambuscade which the mixed breed had left within a stone’s jerk of his cabin to his own undoing.
Where the slough’s flow joined deeper water a partly uprooted tree was stretched, prone from shore, at the top still thick and green with leaves that drew nourishment from the earth in which the half-uncovered roots yet held, and twined about with an exuberance of trumpet vines and wild fox-grapes. All about was a huddle of drift—last year’s cornstalks, shreddy strips of bark, chunks of rotted weed, all the riffle and dunnage of a quiet eddy. Straight into this green clump glided the dugout and swung, broadside on, against the protecting trunk of the tree, hidden from the inner side by the intervening curtains of rank growth, just as the Baxters had intended it should be hidden, when days before in their scouting they marked this masked place of waiting and included it, then and there, in the scope of their plans.
There had been no hitch or mishap. No one had been abroad in the late afternoon to mark their movements—and in a little while Fishhead ought to be due. Jake’s woodman’s eye followed the downward swing of the sun speculatively. The shadows, thrown shoreward, lengthened and slithered on the small ripples. The small noises of the day died out; the small noises of the coming night began to multiply. The green-bodied flies went away and big mosquitoes, with speckled gray legs, came to take the places of the flies. The sleepy lake sucked at the mud banks with small mouthing sounds as though it found the taste of the raw mud agreeable. A monster crawfish, big as a chicken lobster, crawled out of the top of his dried mud chimney and perched himself there, an armored sentinel on the watchtower. Bull bats began to flitter back and forth above the tops of the trees. A pudgy muskrat, swimming with head up, was moved to sidle off briskly as he met a cotton-mouth moccasin snake, so fat and swollen with summer poison that it looked almost like a legless lizard as it moved along the surface of the water in a series of slow torpid s’s. Directly above the head of either of the waiting assassins a compact little swarm of midges hung, holding to a sort of kite-shaped formation.
A little more time passed and Fishhead came out of the woods at the back, walking swiftly, with a sack over his shoulder. For a few seconds his deformities showed in the clearing, then the black inside of the cabin swallowed him up. By now the sun was almost down. Only the red nub of it showed above the timber line across the lake, and the shadows lay inland a long way. Out beyond, the big cats were stirring, and the great smacking sounds as their twisting bodies leaped clear and fell back in the water came shoreward in a chorus.
But the two brothers in their green covert gave heed to nothing except the one thing upon which their hearts were set and their nerves tensed. Joel gently shoved his gun-barrels across the log, cuddling the stock to his shoulder and slipping two fingers caressingly back and forth upon the triggers. Jake held the narrow dugout steady by a grip upon a fox-grape tendril.
A little wait and then the finish came. Fishhead emerged from the cabin door and came down the narrow footpath to the water and out upon the water on his log. He was barefooted and bareheaded, his cotton shirt open down the front to show his yellow neck and breast, his dungaree trousers held about his waist by a twisted tow string. His broad splay feet, with the prehensile toes outspread, gripped the polished curve of the log as he moved along its swaying, dipping surface until he came to its outer end and stood there erect, his chest filling, his chinless face lifted up and something of mastership and dominion in his poise. And then—his eye caught what another’s eyes might have missed—the round, twin ends of the gun barrels, the fixed gleams of Joel’s eyes, aimed at him through the green tracery.
In that swift passage of time, too swift almost to be measured by seconds, realization flashed all through him, and he threw his head still higher and opened wide his shapeless trap of a mouth, and out across the lake he sent skittering and rolling his cry. And in his cry was the laugh of a loon, and the croaking bellow of a frog, and the bay of a hound, all the compounded night noises of the lake. And in it, too, was a farewell and a defiance and an appeal. The heavy roar of the duck gun came.
At twenty yards the double charge tore the throat out of him. He came down, face forward, upon the log and clung there, his trunk twisting distortedly, his legs twitching and kicking like the legs of a speared frog, his shoulders hunching and lifting spasmodically as the life ran out of him all in one swift coursing flow. His head canted up between the heaving shoulders, his eyes looked full on the staring face of his murderer, and then the blood came out of his mouth and Fishhead, in death still as much fish as man, slid flopping, head first, off the end of the log and sank, face downward, slowly, his limbs all extended out. One after another a string of big bubbles came up to burst in the middle of a widening reddish stain on the coffee-colored water.
The brothers watched this, held by the horror of the thing they had done, and the cranky dugout, tipped far over by the recoil of the gun, took water steadily across its gunwale; and now there was a sudden stroke from below upon its careening bottom and it went over and they were in the lake. But shore was only twenty feet away, the trunk of the uprooted tree only five. Joel, still holding fast to his hot gun, made for the log, gaining it with one stroke. He threw his free arm over it and clung there, treading water, as he shook his eyes free. Something gripped him—some great, sinewy, unseen thing gripped him fast by the thigh, crushing down on his flesh.
He uttered no cry, but his eyes popped out and his mouth set in a square shape of agony, and his fingers gripped into the bark of the tree like grapples. He was pulled down and down, by steady jerks, not rapidly but steadily, so steadily, and as he went his fingernails tore four little white strips in the tree bark. His mouth went under, next his popping eyes, then his erect hair, and finally his clawing, clutching hand, and that was the end of him.
Jake’s fate was harder still, for he lived longer—long enough to see Joel’s finish. He saw it through the water that ran down his face, and with a great surge of his whole body he literally flung himself across the log and jerked his legs up high into the air to save them. He flung himself too far, though, for his face and chest hit the water on the far side. And out of this water rose the head of a great fish, with the lake slime of years on its flat, black head, its whiskers bristling, its corpsy eyes alight. Its horny jaws closed and clamped in the front of Jake’s flannel shirt. His hand struck out wildly and was speared on a poisoned fin, and unlike Joel, he went from sight with a great yell and a whirling and a churning of the water that made the cornstalks circle on the edges of a small whirlpool.
But the whirlpool soon thinned away into widening rings of ripples and the cornstalks quit circling and became still again, and only the multiplying night noises sounded about the mouth of the slough.
The bodies of all three came ashore on the same day near the same place. Except for the gaping gunshot wound where the neck met the chest, Fishhead’s body was unmarked. But the bodies of the two Baxters were so marred and mauled that the Reelfooters buried them together on the bank without ever knowing which might be Jake’s and which might be Joel’s.
From Wikipedia: “Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, editor and columnist from Paducah, Kentucky, who relocated to New York in 1904, living there for the remainder of his life. He wrote for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer‘s newspaper, as the highest paid staff reporter in the United States.
“Cobb also wrote more than 60 books and 300 short stories. Some of his works were adapted for silent movies. Several of his Judge Priest short stories were adapted in the 1930s for two feature films directed by John Ford.”
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It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I purpose detailing are of so extraordinary a character that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity and scorn. I accept all such beforehand. I have, I trust, the literary courage to face unbelief. I have, after mature consideration, resolved to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can compass, some facts that passed under my observation, in the month of July last, and which, in the annals of the mysteries of physical science, are wholly unparalleled.
I live at No. — Twenty-sixth Street, in New York. The house is in some respects a curious one. It has enjoyed for the last two years the reputation of being haunted. It is a large and stately residence, surrounded by what was once a garden, but which is now only a green enclosure used for bleaching clothes. The dry basin of what has been a fountain, and a few fruit trees ragged and unpruned, indicate that this spot in past days was a pleasant, shady retreat, filled with fruits and flowers and the sweet murmur of waters.
The house is very spacious. A hall of noble size leads to a large spiral staircase winding through its centre, while the various apartments are of imposing dimensions. It was built some fifteen or twenty years since by Mr. A——, the well-known New York merchant, who five years ago threw the commercial world into convulsions by a stupendous bank fraud. Mr. A——, as every one knows, escaped to Europe, and died not long after, of a broken heart. Almost immediately after the news of his decease reached this country and was verified, the report spread in Twenty-sixth Street that No. — was haunted. Legal measures had dispossessed the widow of its former owner, and it was inhabited merely by a caretaker and his wife, placed there by the house agent into whose hands it had passed for the purposes of renting or sale. These people declared that they were troubled with unnatural noises. Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night, piled one upon the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of unseen silk dresses, and the gliding of viewless hands along the massive balusters. The caretaker and his wife declared they would live there no longer. The house agent laughed, dismissed them, and put others in their place. The noises and supernatural manifestations continued. The neighbourhood caught up the story, and the house remained untenanted for three years. Several persons negotiated for it; but, somehow, always before the bargain was closed they heard the unpleasant rumours and declined to treat any further.
It was in this state of things that my landlady, who at that time kept a boarding-house in Bleecker Street, and who wished to move further up town, conceived the bold idea of renting No. — Twenty-sixth Street. Happening to have in her house rather a plucky and philosophical set of boarders, she laid her scheme before us, stating candidly everything she had heard respecting the ghostly qualities of the establishment to which she wished to remove us. With the exception of two timid persons,—a sea-captain and a returned Californian, who immediately gave notice that they would leave,—all of Mrs. Moffat’s guests declared that they would accompany her in her chivalric incursion into the abode of spirits.
Our removal was effected in the month of May, and we were charmed with our new residence. The portion of Twenty-sixth Street where our house is situated, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, is one of the pleasantest localities in New York. The gardens back of the houses, running down nearly to the Hudson, form, in the summer time, a perfect avenue of verdure. The air is pure and invigorating, sweeping, as it does, straight across the river from the Weehawken heights, and even the ragged garden which surrounded the house, although displaying on washing days rather too much clothesline, still gave us a piece of greensward to look at, and a cool retreat in the summer evenings, where we smoked our cigars in the dusk, and watched the fireflies flashing their dark lanterns in the long grass.
Of course we had no sooner established ourselves at No. — than we began to expect ghosts. We absolutely awaited their advent with eagerness. Our dinner conversation was supernatural. One of the boarders, who had purchased Mrs. Crowe’s “Night Side of Nature” for his own private delectation, was regarded as a public enemy by the entire household for not having bought twenty copies. The man led a life of supreme wretchedness while he was reading this volume. A system of espionage was established, of which he was the victim. If he incautiously laid the book down for an instant and left the room, it was immediately seized and read aloud in secret places to a select few. I found myself a person of immense importance, it having leaked out that I was tolerably well versed in the history of supernaturalism, and had once written a story the foundation of which was a ghost. If a table or a wainscot panel happened to warp when we were assembled in the large drawing-room, there was an instant silence, and every one was prepared for an immediate clanking of chains and a spectral form.
After a month of psychological excitement, it was with the utmost dissatisfaction that we were forced to acknowledge that nothing in the remotest degree approaching the supernatural had manifested itself. Once the black butler asseverated that his candle had been blown out by some invisible agency while he was undressing himself for the night; but as I had more than once discovered this coloured gentleman in a condition when one candle must have appeared to him like two, I thought it possible that, by going a step further in his potations, he might have reversed this phenomenon, and seen no candle at all where he ought to have beheld one.
Things were in this state when an accident took place so awful and inexplicable in its character that my reason fairly reels at the bare memory of the occurrence. It was the tenth of July. After dinner was over I repaired, with my friend Dr. Hammond, to the garden to smoke my evening pipe. Independent of certain mental sympathies which existed between the Doctor and myself, we were linked together by a vice. We both smoked opium. We knew each other’s secret, and respected it. We enjoyed together that wonderful expansion of thought, that marvellous intensifying of the perceptive faculties, that boundless feeling of existence when we seem to have points of contact with the whole universe,—in short, that unimaginable spiritual bliss, which I would not surrender for a throne, and which I hope you, reader, will never—never taste.
Those hours of opium happiness which the Doctor and I spent together in secret were regulated with a scientific accuracy. We did not blindly smoke the drug of paradise, and leave our dreams to chance. While smoking, we carefully steered our conversation through the brightest and calmest channels of thought. We talked of the East, and endeavoured to recall the magical panorama of its glowing scenery. We criticized the most sensuous poets,—those who painted life ruddy with health, brimming with passion, happy in the possession of youth and strength and beauty. If we talked of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” we lingered over Ariel, and avoided Caliban. Like the Guebers, we turned our faces to the East, and saw only the sunny side of the world.
This skilful colouring of our train of thought produced in our subsequent visions a corresponding tone. The splendours of Arabian fairyland dyed our dreams. We paced the narrow strip of grass with the tread and port of kings. The song of the rana arborea, while he clung to the bark of the ragged plum-tree, sounded like the strains of divine musicians. Houses, walls, and streets melted like rain clouds, and vistas of unimaginable glory stretched away before us. It was a rapturous companionship. We enjoyed the vast delight more perfectly because, even in our most ecstatic moments, we were conscious of each other’s presence. Our pleasures, while individual, were still twin, vibrating and moving in musical accord.
On the evening in question, the tenth of July, the Doctor and myself drifted into an unusually metaphysical mood. We lit our large meerschaums, filled with fine Turkish tobacco, in the core of which burned a little black nut of opium, that, like the nut in the fairy tale, held within its narrow limits wonders beyond the reach of kings; we paced to and fro, conversing. A strange perversity dominated the currents of our thought. They would not flow through the sun-lit channels into which we strove to divert them. For some unaccountable reason, they constantly diverged into dark and lonesome beds, where a continual gloom brooded. It was in vain that, after our old fashion, we flung ourselves on the shores of the East, and talked of its gay bazaars, of the splendours of the time of Haroun, of harems and golden palaces. Black afreets continually arose from the depths of our talk, and expanded, like the one the fisherman released from the copper vessel, until they blotted everything bright from our vision. Insensibly, we yielded to the occult force that swayed us, and indulged in gloomy speculation. We had talked some time upon the proneness of the human mind to mysticism, and the almost universal love of the terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me, “What do you consider to be the greatest element of terror?”
The question puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly lifted arms, and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she drifted, shrieks that rent one’s heart while we, spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her last supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests a huge terror, the proportions of which are veiled. But it now struck me, for the first time, that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear,—a King of Terrors, to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?
“I confess, Hammond,” I replied to my friend, “I never considered the subject before. That there must be one Something more terrible than any other thing, I feel. I cannot attempt, however, even the most vague definition.”
“I am somewhat like you, Harry,” he answered. “I feel my capacity to experience a terror greater than anything yet conceived by the human mind;—something combining in fearful and unnatural amalgamation hitherto supposed incompatible elements. The calling of the voices in Brockden Brown’s novel of ‘Wieland’ is awful; so is the picture of the Dweller of the Threshold, in Bulwer’s ‘Zanoni’; but,” he added, shaking his head gloomily, “there is something more horrible still than those.”
“Look here, Hammond,” I rejoined, “let us drop this kind of talk, for Heaven’s sake! We shall suffer for it, depend on it.”
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me tonight,” he replied, “but my brain is running upon all sorts of weird and awful thoughts. I feel as if I could write a story like Hoffman, tonight, if I were only master of a literary style.”
“Well, if we are going to be Hoffmanesque in our talk, I’m off to bed. Opium and nightmares should never be brought together. How sultry it is! Good night, Hammond.”
“Good night, Harry. Pleasant dreams to you.”
“To you, gloomy wretch, afreets, ghouls, and enchanters.”
We parted, and each sought his respective chamber. I undressed quickly and got into bed, taking with me, according to my usual custom, a book, over which I generally read myself to sleep. I opened the volume as soon as I had laid my head upon the pillow, and instantly flung it to the other side of the room. It was Goudon’s “History of Monsters,”—a curious French work, which I had lately imported from Paris, but which, in the state of mind I had then reached, was anything but an agreeable companion. I resolved to go to sleep at once; so, turning down my gas until nothing but a little blue point of light glimmered on the top of the tube, I composed myself to rest.
The room was in total darkness. The atom of gas that still remained alight did not illuminate a distance of three inches round the burner. I desperately drew my arm across my eyes, as if to shut out even the darkness, and tried to think of nothing. It was in vain. The confounded themes touched on by Hammond in the garden kept obtruding themselves on my brain. I battled against them. I erected ramparts of would-be blankness of intellect to keep them out. They still crowded upon me. While I was lying still as a corpse, hoping that by a perfect physical inaction I should hasten mental repose, an awful incident occurred. A Something dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plumb upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling my throat, endeavouring to choke me.
I am no coward, and am possessed of considerable physical strength. The suddenness of the attack, instead of stunning me, strung every nerve to its highest tension. My body acted from instinct, before my brain had time to realize the terrors of my position. In an instant I wound two muscular arms around the creature, and squeezed it, with all the strength of despair, against my chest. In a few seconds the bony hands that had fastened on my throat loosened their hold, and I was free to breathe once more. Then commenced a struggle of awful intensity. Immersed in the most profound darkness, totally ignorant of the nature of the Thing by which I was so suddenly attacked, finding my grasp slipping every moment, by reason, it seemed to me, of the entire nakedness of my assailant, bitten with sharp teeth in the shoulder, neck, and chest, having every moment to protect my throat against a pair of sinewy, agile hands, which my utmost efforts could not confine,—these were a combination of circumstances to combat which required all the strength, skill, and courage that I possessed.
At last, after a silent, deadly, exhausting struggle, I got my assailant under by a series of incredible efforts of strength. Once pinned, with my knee on what I made out to be its chest, I knew that I was victor. I rested for a moment to breathe. I heard the creature beneath me panting in the darkness, and felt the violent throbbing of a heart. It was apparently as exhausted as I was; that was one comfort. At this moment I remembered that I usually placed under my pillow, before going to bed, a large yellow silk pocket handkerchief. I felt for it instantly; it was there. In a few seconds more I had, after a fashion, pinioned the creature’s arms.
I now felt tolerably secure. There was nothing more to be done but to turn on the gas, and, having first seen what my midnight assailant was like, arouse the household. I will confess to being actuated by a certain pride in not giving the alarm before; I wished to make the capture alone and unaided.
Never losing my hold for an instant, I slipped from the bed to the floor, dragging my captive with me. I had but a few steps to make to reach the gas-burner; these I made with the greatest caution, holding the creature in a grip like a vice. At last I got within arm’s length of the tiny speck of blue light which told me where the gas-burner lay. Quick as lightning I released my grasp with one hand and let on the full flood of light. Then I turned to look at my captive.
I cannot even attempt to give any definition of my sensations the instant after I turned on the gas. I suppose I must have shrieked with terror, for in less than a minute afterward my room was crowded with the inmates of the house. I shudder now as I think of that awful moment. I saw nothing! Yes; I had one arm firmly clasped round a breathing, panting, corporeal shape, my other hand gripped with all its strength a throat as warm, as apparently fleshy, as my own; and yet, with this living substance in my grasp, with its body pressed against my own, and all in the bright glare of a large jet of gas, I absolutely beheld nothing! Not even an outline,—a vapour!
I do not, even at this hour, realize the situation in which I found myself. I cannot recall the astounding incident thoroughly. Imagination in vain tries to compass the awful paradox.
It breathed. I felt its warm breath upon my cheek. It struggled fiercely. It had hands. They clutched me. Its skin was smooth, like my own. There it lay, pressed close up against me, solid as stone,—and yet utterly invisible!
I wonder that I did not faint or go mad on the instant. Some wonderful instinct must have sustained me; for, absolutely, in place of loosening my hold on the terrible Enigma, I seemed to gain an additional strength in my moment of horror, and tightened my grasp with such wonderful force that I felt the creature shivering with agony.
Just then Hammond entered my room at the head of the household. As soon as he beheld my face—which, I suppose, must have been an awful sight to look at—he hastened forward, crying, “Great heaven, Harry! what has happened?”
“Hammond! Hammond!” I cried, “come here. O, this is awful! I have been attacked in bed by something or other, which I have hold of; but I can’t see it,—I can’t see it!”
Hammond, doubtless struck by the unfeigned horror expressed in my countenance, made one or two steps forward with an anxious yet puzzled expression. A very audible titter burst from the remainder of my visitors. This suppressed laughter made me furious. To laugh at a human being in my position! It was the worst species of cruelty. Now, I can understand why the appearance of a man struggling violently, as it would seem, with an airy nothing, and calling for assistance against a vision, should have appeared ludicrous. Then, so great was my rage against the mocking crowd that had I the power I would have stricken them dead where they stood.
“Hammond! Hammond!” I cried again, despairingly, “for God’s sake come to me. I can hold the—the thing but a short while longer. It is overpowering me. Help me! Help me!”
“Harry,” whispered Hammond, approaching me, “you have been smoking too much opium.”
“I swear to you, Hammond, that this is no vision,” I answered, in the same low tone. “Don’t you see how it shakes my whole frame with its struggles? If you don’t believe me, convince yourself. Feel it,—touch it.”
Hammond advanced and laid his hand in the spot I indicated. A wild cry of horror burst from him. He had felt it!
In a moment he had discovered somewhere in my room a long piece of cord, and was the next instant winding it and knotting it about the body of the unseen being that I clasped in my arms.
“Harry,” he said, in a hoarse, agitated voice, for, though he preserved his presence of mind, he was deeply moved, “Harry, it’s all safe now. You may let go, old fellow, if you’re tired. The Thing can’t move.”
I was utterly exhausted, and I gladly loosed my hold.
Hammond stood holding the ends of the cord that bound the Invisible, twisted round his hand, while before him, self-supporting as it were, he beheld a rope laced and interlaced, and stretching tightly around a vacant space. I never saw a man look so thoroughly stricken with awe. Nevertheless his face expressed all the courage and determination which I knew him to possess. His lips, although white, were set firmly, and one could perceive at a glance that, although stricken with fear, he was not daunted.
The confusion that ensued among the guests of the house who were witnesses of this extraordinary scene between Hammond and myself,—who beheld the pantomime of binding this struggling Something,—who beheld me almost sinking from physical exhaustion when my task of jailer was over,—the confusion and terror that took possession of the bystanders, when they saw all this, was beyond description. The weaker ones fled from the apartment. The few who remained clustered near the door and could not be induced to approach Hammond and his Charge. Still incredulity broke out through their terror. They had not the courage to satisfy themselves, and yet they doubted. It was in vain that I begged of some of the men to come near and convince themselves by touch of the existence in that room of a living being which was invisible. They were incredulous, but did not dare to undeceive themselves. How could a solid, living, breathing body be invisible, they asked. My reply was this. I gave a sign to Hammond, and both of us—conquering our fearful repugnance to touch the invisible creature—lifted it from the ground, manacled as it was, and took it to my bed. Its weight was about that of a boy of fourteen.
“Now, my friends,” I said, as Hammond and myself held the creature suspended over the bed, “I can give you self-evident proof that here is a solid, ponderable body, which, nevertheless, you cannot see. Be good enough to watch the surface of the bed attentively.”
I was astonished at my own courage in treating this strange event so calmly; but I had recovered from my first terror, and felt a sort of scientific pride in the affair, which dominated every other feeling.
The eyes of the bystanders were immediately fixed on my bed. At a given signal Hammond and I let the creature fall. There was a dull sound of a heavy body alighting on a soft mass. The timbers of the bed creaked. A deep impression marked itself distinctly on the pillow, and on the bed itself. The crowd who witnessed this gave a low cry, and rushed from the room. Hammond and I were left alone with our Mystery.
We remained silent for some time, listening to the low, irregular breathing of the creature on the bed, and watching the rustle of the bed-clothes as it impotently struggled to free itself from confinement. Then Hammond spoke.
“Harry, this is awful.”
“But not unaccountable.”
“Not unaccountable! What do you mean? Such a thing has never occurred since the birth of the world. I know not what to think, Hammond. God grant that I am not mad, and that this is not an insane fantasy!”
“Let us reason a little, Harry. Here is a solid body which we touch, but which we cannot see. The fact is so unusual that it strikes us with terror. Is there no parallel, though, for such a phenomenon? Take a piece of pure glass. It is tangible and transparent. A certain chemical coarseness is all that prevents its being so entirely transparent as to be totally invisible. It is not theoretically impossible, mind you, to make a glass which shall not reflect a single ray of light,—a glass so pure and homogeneous in its atoms that the rays from the sun will pass through it as they do through the air, refracted but not reflected. We do not see the air, and yet we feel it.”
“That’s all very well, Hammond, but these are inanimate substances. Glass does not breathe, air does not breathe. This thing has a heart that palpitates,—a will that moves it,—lungs that play, and inspire and respire.”
“You forget the phenomena of which we have so often heard of late,” answered the Doctor, gravely. “At the meetings called ‘spirit circles,’ invisible hands have been thrust into the hands of those persons round the table,—warm, fleshly hands that seemed to pulsate with mortal life.”
“What? Do you think, then, that this thing is——”
“I don’t know what it is,” was the solemn reply; “but please the gods I will, with your assistance, thoroughly investigate it.”
We watched together, smoking many pipes, all night long, by the bedside of the unearthly being that tossed and panted until it was apparently wearied out. Then we learned by the low, regular breathing that it slept.
The next morning the house was all astir. The boarders congregated on the landing outside my room, and Hammond and myself were lions. We had to answer a thousand questions as to the state of our extraordinary prisoner, for as yet not one person in the house except ourselves could be induced to set foot in the apartment.
The creature was awake. This was evidenced by the convulsive manner in which the bed-clothes were moved in its efforts to escape. There was something truly terrible in beholding, as it were, those second-hand indications of the terrible writhings and agonized struggles for liberty which themselves were invisible.
Hammond and myself had racked our brains during the long night to discover some means by which we might realize the shape and general appearance of the Enigma. As well as we could make out by passing our hands over the creature’s form, its outlines and lineaments were human. There was a mouth; a round, smooth head without hair; a nose, which, however, was little elevated above the cheeks; and its hands and feet felt like those of a boy. At first we thought of placing the being on a smooth surface and tracing its outlines with chalk, as shoemakers trace the outline of the foot. This plan was given up as being of no value. Such an outline would give not the slightest idea of its conformation.
A happy thought struck me. We would take a cast of it in plaster of Paris. This would give us the solid figure, and satisfy all our wishes. But how to do it? The movements of the creature would disturb the setting of the plastic covering, and distort the mould. Another thought. Why not give it chloroform? It had respiratory organs,—that was evident by its breathing. Once reduced to a state of insensibility, we could do with it what we would. Doctor X—— was sent for; and after the worthy physician had recovered from the first shock of amazement, he proceeded to administer the chloroform. In three minutes afterward we were enabled to remove the fetters from the creature’s body, and a modeller was busily engaged in covering the invisible form with the moist clay. In five minutes more we had a mould, and before evening a rough facsimile of the Mystery. It was shaped like a man,—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen. Gustav Doré, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived anything so horrible. There is a face in one of the latter’s illustrations to Un Voyage où il vous plaira, which somewhat approaches the countenance of this creature, but does not equal it. It was the physiognomy of what I should fancy a ghoul might be. It looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.
Having satisfied our curiosity, and bound every one in the house to secrecy, it became a question what was to be done with our Enigma? It was impossible that we should keep such a horror in our house; it was equally impossible that such an awful being should be let loose upon the world. I confess that I would have gladly voted for the creature’s destruction. But who would shoulder the responsibility? Who would undertake the execution of this horrible semblance of a human being? Day after day this question was deliberated gravely. The boarders all left the house. Mrs. Moffat was in despair, and threatened Hammond and myself with all sorts of legal penalties if we did not remove the Horror. Our answer was, “We will go if you like, but we decline taking this creature with us. Remove it yourself if you please. It appeared in your house. On you the responsibility rests.” To this there was, of course, no answer. Mrs. Moffat could not obtain for love or money a person who would even approach the Mystery.
The most singular part of the affair was that we were entirely ignorant of what the creature habitually fed on. Everything in the way of nutriment that we could think of was placed before it, but was never touched. It was awful to stand by, day after day, and see the clothes toss, and hear the hard breathing, and know that it was starving.
Ten, twelve days, a fortnight passed, and it still lived. The pulsations of the heart, however, were daily growing fainter, and had now nearly ceased. It was evident that the creature was dying for want of sustenance. While this terrible life-struggle was going on, I felt miserable. I could not sleep. Horrible as the creature was, it was pitiful to think of the pangs it was suffering.
At last it died. Hammond and I found it cold and stiff one morning in the bed. The heart had ceased to beat, the lungs to inspire. We hastened to bury it in the garden. It was a strange funeral, the dropping of that viewless corpse into the damp hole. The cast of its form I gave to Doctor X——, who keeps it in his museum in Tenth Street.
As I am on the eve of a long journey from which I may not return, I have drawn up this narrative of an event the most singular that has ever come to my knowledge.
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at http://www.gutenberg.org
“[O’Brien’s] earliest writings in the United States were contributed to the Lantern, which was then edited by John Brougham. Subsequently, he wrote for the Home Journal, the New York Times, and the American Whig Review. His first important literary connection was with Harper’s Magazine, and beginning in February 1853, with The Two Skulls, he contributed more than sixty articles in prose and verse to that periodical. He likewise wrote for the New York Saturday Press, Putnam’s Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the Atlantic Monthly. To the latter, he sent “The Diamond Lens” (1858) and “The Wonder Smith” (1859). “The Diamond Lens” is probably his most famous short story, and tells the story of a scientist who invents a powerful microscope and discovers a beautiful female in a microscopic world inside a drop of water. H.P. Lovecraft was an admirer of the work. “The Wonder Smith” is an early predecessor of robot rebellion, where toys possessed by evil spirits are transformed into living automata who turn against their creators. His 1858 short story “From Hand to Mouth” has been referred to as “the single most striking example of surrealistic fiction to pre-date Alice in Wonderland” (Sam Moskowitz, 1971). “What Was It? A Mystery” (1859) is one of the earliest known examples of invisibility in fiction…”[from Wikipedia]
The phone rang just as Steven Becker was finishing up the notes on his previous patient. He never took them during a session; it was a distraction to the therapy and, for some patients, intimidating. He had a sharp enough memory and could recall conversations verbatim when they were fresh in his mind, as they were during his ten minutes between patients.
It was nearing the end of a long day. In the past eight hours, he’d been taunted by a sociopathic teenager, screamed at by a paranoid husband, questioned as to his humanity by a neo-Nazi, and almost vomited on by a female patient who showed up drunk. His final patient for the day, Adam Fiske, was waiting in the next room.
The phone rang again, and he stared at it. He was tired enough to let it go to voice mail, but since he had a few minutes before Adam’s session, and he did take calls when he could, he reached over and picked it up.
“Hello, is this Doctor Becker?” It was a woman’s voice, and it sounded nervous.
“Yes, it is. Can I help you?”
“My name is Carolyn Fiske. My husband is one of your patients. I believe he’s in your waiting room right now.”
“That’s right, I think he is. Do you need to speak with him?”
It was nearly a scream. It startled him.
“Are you all right, Mrs. Fiske?”
“No. No, I’m not!” The nervousness in her voice had become panicky. “He just called me on his cell phone. He…he told me…” Her next words were garbled, melting into sobs.
“Mrs. Fiske, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t hear you just now.”
She began to wail.
“He said he was going to kill you! And then he was coming home to kill me!”
Steven was speechless. Partly from shock and partly because, of all his patients, the least likely to do, or even say, something like that would be Adam Fiske.
“Were those his exact words?” It was all he could think of.
She didn’t seem to hear him. “Oh, dear God,” she moaned.
“Mrs. Fiske, please try to stay calm. Have you called the police?”
“What!? No, I haven’t called the police! What would they do? Even if I convinced them to go to your office, it would be too late. You’re his shrink, so I called you! You’re supposed to be able to reach him!” She started to cry again. “He really means it. You’ve got to stop him.”
“I can’t stay here anymore; it’s too scary. I’m sorry to call you like this, Doctor Becker, but I needed to warn you. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Please be careful; he’s very dangerous. I have to go now.”
The line went dead.
Steven sat at his desk, staring at the phone in his hand. He’d been seeing Adam Fiske for two years now, a diminutive, fifty-three-year-old man whose picture could have been in the dictionary next to the word “unimposing.”
He weighed 130 pounds at most, and what hair he possessed was thin and graying. His mild brown eyes looked out benignly through rimless glasses, and his voice was so soft that, many times, Steven had to ask him to repeat himself.
It never seemed to bother him. In fact, it was hard to get him to express any anger at all in therapy. His main mood was worry. And lately, a lot of that worry had been for his wife.
She became frightened, for no apparent reason. It could be about anything and could happen anytime. She’d been seeing a therapist for six months, but the situation had not improved. Adam felt helpless.
Steven wondered if he’d, just now, heard an example of her problem. That was more likely than Adam actually threatening to kill her, wasn’t it?
And me too, he remembered, with an involuntary chill.
Could she have fantasized it? If so, she’d have to go from an inexplicably fearful woman to someone so delusional, she hears imaginary death threats.
He only knew her as Adam described her, so he didn’t really know her at all. Anything was possible. Including the possibility she was telling the truth.
Three minutes remained until the session. He reached into his desk drawer, took out Adam’s file, and looked through it, trying to find any indication of hostility. Maybe Adam’s helplessness could be masking feelings of resentment. But homicidal rage?
And even if he was, somehow, harboring these violent thoughts, why was Steven included? Last session, they’d talked about Adam’s difficulties in his job as a high school guidance counselor. He and the principal were having a disagreement over a student. After one of Steven’s observations, Adam had said, “You sound just like Carolyn.”
He’d written it down because it was unusual. Was it more than that?
He remembered Greta Horowitz, an early patient of his. She was a forty-eight-year-old housewife who, like Adam, displayed nothing more than common, manageable neuroses. After a session that was otherwise unremarkable, she used his bathroom. An hour later, when his next patient found the bathroom door locked and called out to him, he broke in and discovered her lying on the floor unconscious, with an empty bottle of her daughter’s Valium beside her.
He’d gotten her to the emergency room in time for them to pump her stomach and save her, but that was when he realized, if a patient wanted to hide something badly enough, Steven was powerless. Was Adam Fiske hiding something? Something lethal?
For an irrational moment, he felt the urge to rush to his office door, lock it, and call the police. But every professional instinct said, no.
Just go on with the session, he told himself, but be careful.
But be careful of what? He could feel his heart beating as he crossed the room and opened the door.
Adam, wearing a light blue turtleneck, was sitting where he usually sat, on the far side of the waiting room, reading one of the New Yorker magazines Steven kept out for his patients. What was different about the scene was the heavy woolen topcoat, which would ordinarily be hanging on the coatrack. Instead, it was sitting in his lap.
Adam looked up at him.
“Hi there,” he said placidly as he got up from the chair, clutching the coat.
“Hi, Adam, come on in.”
Steven stood in the doorway as Adam, coat in hand, preceded him into the office.
He sat down on the couch and carefully placed the coat next to him. Steven sat in his chair and tried to keep his voice light.
“You expect it to get cold in here?”
“No,” said Adam, quite seriously, “I just didn’t want to leave my coat out in your waiting room.”
“Why is that?”
He shrugged. “I guess, for the first time, it occurred to me that you don’t keep the front door locked. So anyone could come in and take it.”
Steven was bigger and stronger than Adam, and he knew he could subdue him if it came to it, but not if there was a gun in that coat pocket, inches away from his right hand.
“Has anything ever been stolen from here, that you know of?”
“Hey, I hope you don’t think it’s because I don’t trust your office security.” Adam gave him a sheepish grin. “It’s just that I’d feel more comfortable with my coat in here, that’s all.”
Steven maintained an expression of composure as he frantically tried to figure out where to take this. Should he tell him about the phone call? He didn’t think so. Whether it was from instinct or trepidation, he knew he didn’t want to go there, not yet. Better to stay in the here and now.
“I’m wondering,” he said, “why it occurred to you just today that your coat might not be secure in my waiting room.”
For an instant, Adam’s right hand moved toward the coat. Steven’s stomach lurched, but then Adam brought his hand back, joining the other one in his lap.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Steven glanced again at the coat. This had to be the strangest session he’d ever experienced. Talk about subtext…
“Did anything unusual happen to get you thinking that way?”
“I don’t know. Does it bother you that I brought it inside?”
“Not at all. But you seem to feel less safe here today, and I wondered why.”
Adam mumbled something Steven couldn’t make out.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said,” Adam replied in a tight voice that wasn’t any louder, just clearer, “that I think I’m going to be fired.”
He pulled the coat closer, as Steven inwardly tensed. Then he let go of it and began to crack his knuckles.
“Phil Grayson has been sending reports about me to the Board of Ed. I found that out today.”
“Phil Grayson is your principal.”
He was looking, not at Steven, but into the space between them.
“What kind of reports?”
“You know what really gets me?” There was a bitter, bemused smile on Adam’s face. “Carolyn, with all her irrational fears, was right about this one. I guess even crazy people can get lucky.”
This was the opportunity, if Steven wanted to take it. Should he? He decided, yes.
“How is Carolyn doing?”
Adam’s eyes narrowed, and he pursed his lips, as he often did when he was upset. “Not good, not good at all. I just had a very disturbing phone conversation with her.”
Easy now, easy, Steven told himself. “What was disturbing about it?”
He noticed how Adam’s hands were clenched so tightly in his lap, they were turning white.
“The cell phone reception in your waiting room is lousy, did you know that?” He looked at Steven accusingly. “It kept cutting in and out; it was very annoying.”
“I’m sorry that happened, but what was disturbing about your conversation with Carolyn?”
Adam’s face had become even more pinched, and the sides of his mouth were turned down sharply, something Steven had never seen before.
“I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about what’s going on in here. This isn’t working.”
Steven let it hang there for a moment. “You feel our therapy isn’t accomplishing what you’d like it to?”
“I feel like I’m wasting my time.”
Steven nodded. At some point, every patient said something like this. It usually meant they were on the verge of a breakthrough and were resisting. Steven had always felt quietly thrilled at such moments, but not this time.
“I want it to end,” Adam said. “And I’m going to end it one way or another.”
It felt like an icicle had formed in Steven’s gut.
“One way or another?”
Adam seemed to be fighting an inward battle. He started to speak, then checked himself. His eyes darted wildly about the room.
“I can’t explain it,” he muttered. Then he plunged his hand into the coat pocket.
Before he could think, Steven sprang out of his chair and was on him, grabbing Adam’s wrist and pulling at it, trying to yank his hand out of the pocket. It tore.
“What are you doing?” Adam gasped.
With one final tug, Steven pulled the hand free, tearing the pocket further.
Adam’s hand was empty.
Steven pulled the coat away, throwing Adam to the side. His head came up against the end of the couch as his flailing arm knocked the lamp off the end table.
It fell over as its bulb shattered with an explosive flash against the parquet floor.
Steven ignored it. He reached deep into the coat pocket, his fingers coming up against a folded sheet of paper. He took it out.
It was a list, under the heading: Why I’m Quitting Therapy.
“What’s the matter with you?” Adam cried out.
Steven quickly checked the other pockets, knowing how ridiculous it was. He felt a hot flush come over him, and his face burned with shame. He’d just assaulted his patient. Assaulted his patient!
“I’m so sorry, Adam, please forgive me. I thought you had a gun.”
“A gun?! How could you think…?”
“Are you okay?”
Steven went over to the couch and tried to sit down beside him, but Adam recoiled, moving away.
“I tore your coat pocket,” Steven said, holding out the flap. “I’ll pay for it; I’ll even buy you a new coat. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
Adam moved even further away. “Are you crazy?”
Steven took a deep breath.
“Just before the session, your wife called me. She said you’d just told her you were going to kill me, and then you were coming home to kill her.”
Adam’s mouth fell open.
“What?! Why would she say a thing like that?”
“Here, let me get you some water.”
Steven got up and poured a glass from the pitcher on the side table, struggling to keep his hands from shaking. He gave it to Adam, then sat down again in his chair.
“What did you say to her?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know. I was kind of annoyed, and maybe I sounded a little brusque, but I had a lot on my mind because of what I was going to tell you. I didn’t know if I could. That’s why I’d typed it all out. If I lost my nerve, I was just going to let you read it.” He shook his head again.
“She said she’d been feeling sick all day, and she thought she was coming down with the flu. I tried to make a little joke. I said I was going to waste some time with you; then I told her I’d be home to help her out, or something to that effect. That’s when I heard her gasp. She shouted, ‘You’re a monster!’ and hung up.”
Steven considered it.
“Were those your exact words? That you were going to waste some time with me?”
“Yes, I’m sure of it.” He shook his head yet again. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Steven’s eyes took in the broken lamp, the torn coat, and his disheveled, traumatized patient.
“I guess fear has its own logic.”
Carolyn Fiske trembled as she huddled under the blankets. She’d told Dr. Becker she was leaving, but she knew she could never do that. The world was a terrifying place, and the prospect of her out there in it, on the run from Adam, was impossible to conceive.
No, she’d done all she could. She’d warned him, and either he’d stop Adam or he wouldn’t. All she could do was wait here, either for the phone call from the police or the sound of the key in the lock, which would mean the end.
During the last few weeks, she’d finally divined Adam’s intentions. He hated her, and he wanted her dead. The phone connection had been poor, cutting in and out, and he had such a soft voice, but there was no doubt in her mind what he’d told her. She could recite it word for word, and she would, if the police asked her to.
“In a few minutes,” he’d said, “I’m going to waste Steven Becker. Then I’m coming home to take care of you.”
She huddled deep inside the blankets and waited for what fate would deliver.
Before turning to fiction writing, Lenny Levine enjoyed a successful 20-year career as a recording studio singer and composer of many jingles, such as McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. His stories have been widely published in literary magazines and journals, and he received a Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.
It was desperation, not faith, that brought me to this temple. I had nowhere else to turn when I decided to make the pilgrimage, and I knew that only the Hundred Idols could possibly save me—whether I believed in them or not.
I spent half a day walking up the mountain. It was early in the afternoon when I arrived at the gate. A kind old man received me there. He was my appointed watchman, and after we exchanged a few greetings, he showed me inside and led me to my room. There I took a bath and rested for a while, until the watchman knocked on the door and called my name. We left the building and walked together to the sacred garden that was the home of the Hundred Idols.
The garden covered an expansive area and was separated from the rest of the temple grounds by a stream with a short wooden bridge over it. The watchman was careful not to step on the bridge; he told me to take off my shoes and cross it alone. On the other side there was total stillness. I was the only thing that moved or made a sound in the garden. The idols were scattered everywhere under trees and among rocks. I had to go up to each and every one of them according to the prescribed order, prostrate myself on the ground, recite the official prayer that the watchman had taught me, and then add my personal request at the end.
The idols were humanlike statues made of smoothly finished stone, all in various seated positions. With their agonized faces and gaping mouths they looked like the victims of an epidemic in death throes. It felt ridiculous to expect these grotesque sufferers to have the power to save anyone. But I was not in a position to entertain such doubts. I started walking from one idol to the next, praying, begging for a sea change in my life, while keeping careful count to ensure I didn’t miss any of them. But after the ninety-ninth idol I was suddenly at the bridge again and the watchman congratulated me on my return. I was embarrassed at his enthusiasm, and immediately told him about the missing idol. I apologized and said I must have skipped one on the way, or perhaps miscounted how many I had faced. But he just laughed it away, saying that such a mistake would have been very unlikely.
The following day was devoted to a nauseating repetition of the same process every two hours. After crisscrossing the garden several times, I was certain that there were indeed only ninety-nine idols. At some point I mentioned this to the watchman and asked him where the hundredth idol was. His reply was: You should not ask anything about the idols; asking is a sign that your self-reliance is still fighting for its survival, and the idols don’t help those who try to help themselves; you must persevere until the actual number no longer matters to you.
It took me two more days of the same routine to reach that indifferent state of mind in which there was no counting, only walking and praying. Much of the praying, however, was for the whole ordeal to end. I felt my confidence slipping away and was sure I was about to fail. But then, on the fourth evening of my stay, the watchman took me to see his superior, the watchmaster, in his private quarters.
As soon as I entered the room the watchmaster greeted me with the news that I was in fact on the cusp of salvation. He invited me to have dinner with him. It was a sort of feast, with me as the guest of honor. I sat at the table and the watchmaster served me a curiously flavored drink in a silver goblet. When I had emptied it we proceeded to the meal itself. We spent about an hour eating and chatting. He wanted to know everything about the circumstances that had pushed me into the arms of the Hundred Idols, and I described the darkness of my life as if I were already looking at it from outside, from the safety of daylight. Then it was time to leave, and the watchman was summoned to take me downstairs. I thought I was going to bed, but he was taking me outside again.
The garden was lit with burning torches that were planted in the ground at even intervals, forming a route that connected all the idols in the familiar order. Now the idols were covered in black sheets, and following the watchman’s instructions, I faced each of them in silence and without any action. When I had moved past the ninety-ninth idol the route curved back into the garden instead of leading to the bridge as usual. I followed it into a thicket where it ended abruptly with one last torch.
I began to feel exhausted. At first, I thought it was because of the long day, or because I had had too much to eat. But it was rapidly getting worse, and I had to lean on a tree to keep myself steady. As I tried to catch my breath, I heard a soft voice asking me if I wanted to sit down. I turned around and saw the watchman emerging barefoot from the shadows. Yes, I said, I am too tired to stand. He held my hand and supported me while I sat on the ground. Then, when I no longer had the strength to resist, much less to escape, he finally told me the truth.
Now we are simply waiting for the inevitable. The smooth stone surface is relentlessly creeping upward, liberating more and more territory from my unhappy control. Soon enough the missing idol will make its appearance, but only the watchman will still be here to see it.
Dan Bornstein is a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of speculative fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction, Star*Line, and the anthology book Lay Buddhism and Spirituality. His personal website is danbornstein.com.
celebrate the poetry of darkness
in voices of those taken
by the uniformed knees
on dirty main streets
their last words igniting
the fires of denied justice
each flame a torch to
spotlight the prejudice
a fuse to explode the myth
of freedom until the screams
liberate up from darkened alleyways
become one breath in
the common tongue
speak loudly to truth and power
the "immortal declaration",
it was a river that restored
it was a river of destruction
it took those without hope
it refreshed those who thirsted
from its shores rose messiahs
gathering strays to its flow
feeding their hunger
in its swells and waves
sounding like the voices of angels
promising paradise in its depths
when she walked into the room
the air became electric with her scent
a temptress marked by every eye
turning men into rabid barbrawl dogs
as she smiled her worked at attitude
those few unaffected new her look
but do not touch reality
a gin joint siren leaving in her wake
whisky sweating blue balled lotharios
drowning in their beer soaked dreams
of lust, in heat and losing control
give me a Sunday highway
when mom's and pops are
in some church praying
or busy in suburban backyards bbqs
when the wolves are cruising
beach parking lots or downtown streets
when favourite sons are posing
at tennis courts and highend malls
it's then that I let the beast run free
no one on that road to stop me
no cherry top or black and white
no camouflaged radar trap
just the highway straight away
waiting for my restored Chevy ss 454
to embrace it's shimmering blacktop skin
in a burning vulcanized rubber kiss
as the velocity in heat takes hold
my foot on the accelerator a hand on the wheel
a hand on the shifter the gears meshing smoothly
in their ecstatic burst of speed and freedom
the tell tale marks of my muscle machine's
love bite upon it,the only evidence
of their Sunday tryst.
Joseph A Farina is a retired lawyer in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. drawing from his profession and his Sicilian Canadian background, he is an internationally award winning and published poet. Several of his poems have been published in Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine, The Wild Word, The Chamber Magazine, Lothlorian Poetry Journal, Subterranean Blue and in The Tower Poetry Magazine, Inscribed, The Windsor Review, and appears in many anthologies including Sweet Lemons: Writings with a Sicilian Accent, Canadian Italians at Table, Witness from Serengeti Press and Tamaracks: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century. He has had poems published in the U.S. magazines Mobius, Pyramid Arts, Arabesques, Fiele-Festa, and Philadelphia Poets. He has several books of poetry published— The Cancer Chronicles, The Ghosts of Water Street, an e-book, Sunsets in Black and White, and his latest, The Beach, The Street and Everything in between.