The Saturday Night Special: “The Street of the Four Winds” by Robert W. Chambers (1895)

Robert W. Chambers reading (1902 or earlier)

“Ferme tes yeux à demi,
Croise tes bras sur ton sein,
Et de ton cœur endormi
Chasse à jamais tout dessein.”
“Je chante la nature,
Les étoiles du soir, les larmes du matin,
Les couchers de soleil à l’horizon lointain,
Le ciel qui parle au cœur d’existence future!”


The animal paused on the threshold, interrogative alert, ready for flight if necessary. Severn laid down his palette, and held out a hand of welcome. The cat remained motionless, her yellow eyes fastened upon Severn.

“Puss,” he said, in his low, pleasant voice, “come in.”

The tip of her thin tail twitched uncertainly.

“Come in,” he said again.

Apparently she found his voice reassuring, for she slowly settled upon all fours, her eyes still fastened upon him, her tail tucked under her gaunt flanks.

He rose from his easel smiling. She eyed him quietly, and when he walked toward her she watched him bend above her without a wince; her eyes followed his hand until it touched her head. Then she uttered a ragged mew.

It had long been Severn’s custom to converse with animals, probably because he lived so much alone; and now he said, “What’s the matter, puss?”

Her timid eyes sought his.

“I understand,” he said gently, “you shall have it at once.”

Then moving quietly about he busied himself with the duties of a host, rinsed a saucer, filled it with the rest of the milk from the bottle on the window-sill, and kneeling down, crumbled a roll into the hollow of his hand.

The creature rose and crept toward the saucer.

With the handle of a palette-knife he stirred the crumbs and milk together and stepped back as she thrust her nose into the mess. He watched her in silence. From time to time the saucer clinked upon the tiled floor as she reached for a morsel on the rim; and at last the bread was all gone, and her purple tongue travelled over every unlicked spot until the saucer shone like polished marble. Then she sat up, and coolly turning her back to him, began her ablutions.

“Keep it up,” said Severn, much interested, “you need it.”

She flattened one ear, but neither turned nor interrupted her toilet. As the grime was slowly removed Severn observed that nature had intended her for a white cat. Her fur had disappeared in patches, from disease or the chances of war, her tail was bony and her spine sharp. But what charms she had were becoming apparent under vigorous licking, and he waited until she had finished before re-opening the conversation. When at last she closed her eyes and folded her forepaws under her breast, he began again very gently: “Puss, tell me your troubles.”

At the sound of his voice she broke into a harsh rumbling which he recognized as an attempt to purr. He bent over to rub her cheek and she mewed again, an amiable inquiring little mew, to which he replied, “Certainly, you are greatly improved, and when you recover your plumage you will be a gorgeous bird.” Much flattered, she stood up and marched around and around his legs, pushing her head between them and making pleased remarks, to which he responded with grave politeness.

“Now, what sent you here,” he said—”here into the Street of the Four Winds, and up five flights to the very door where you would be welcome? What was it that prevented your meditated flight when I turned from my canvas to encounter your yellow eyes? Are you a Latin Quarter cat as I am a Latin Quarter man? And why do you wear a rose-coloured flowered garter buckled about your neck?” The cat had climbed into his lap, and now sat purring as he passed his hand over her thin coat.

“Excuse me,” he continued in lazy soothing tones, harmonizing with her purring, “if I seem indelicate, but I cannot help musing on this rose-coloured garter, flowered so quaintly and fastened with a silver clasp. For the clasp is silver; I can see the mint mark on the edge, as is prescribed by the law of the French Republic. Now, why is this garter woven of rose silk and delicately embroidered,—why is this silken garter with its silver clasp about your famished throat? Am I indiscreet when I inquire if its owner is your owner? Is she some aged dame living in memory of youthful vanities, fond, doting on you, decorating you with her intimate personal attire? The circumference of the garter would suggest this, for your neck is thin, and the garter fits you. But then again I notice—I notice most things—that the garter is capable of being much enlarged. These small silver-rimmed eyelets, of which I count five, are proof of that. And now I observe that the fifth eyelet is worn out, as though the tongue of the clasp were accustomed to lie there. That seems to argue a well-rounded form.”

The cat curled her toes in contentment. The street was very still outside.

He murmured on: “Why should your mistress decorate you with an article most necessary to her at all times? Anyway, at most times. How did she come to slip this bit of silk and silver about your neck? Was it the caprice of a moment,—when you, before you had lost your pristine plumpness, marched singing into her bedroom to bid her good-morning? Of course, and she sat up among the pillows, her coiled hair tumbling to her shoulders, as you sprang upon the bed purring: ‘Good-day, my lady.’ Oh, it is very easy to understand,” he yawned, resting his head on the back of the chair. The cat still purred, tightening and relaxing her padded claws over his knee.

“Shall I tell you all about her, cat? She is very beautiful—your mistress,” he murmured drowsily, “and her hair is heavy as burnished gold. I could paint her,—not on canvas—for I should need shades and tones and hues and dyes more splendid than the iris of a splendid rainbow. I could only paint her with closed eyes, for in dreams alone can such colours as I need be found. For her eyes, I must have azure from skies untroubled by a cloud—the skies of dreamland. For her lips, roses from the palaces of slumberland, and for her brow, snow-drifts from mountains which tower in fantastic pinnacles to the moons;—oh, much higher than our moon here,—the crystal moons of dreamland. She is—very—beautiful, your mistress.”

The words died on his lips and his eyelids drooped.

The cat, too, was asleep, her cheek turned up upon her wasted flank, her paws relaxed and limp.


“It is fortunate,” said Severn, sitting up and stretching, “that we have tided over the dinner hour, for I have nothing to offer you for supper but what may be purchased with one silver franc.”

The cat on his knee rose, arched her back, yawned, and looked up at him.

“What shall it be? A roast chicken with salad? No? Possibly you prefer beef? Of course,—and I shall try an egg and some white bread. Now for the wines. Milk for you? Good. I shall take a little water, fresh from the wood,” with a motion toward the bucket in the sink.

He put on his hat and left the room. The cat followed to the door, and after he had closed it behind him, she settled down, smelling at the cracks, and cocking one ear at every creak from the crazy old building.

The door below opened and shut. The cat looked serious, for a moment doubtful, and her ears flattened in nervous expectation. Presently she rose with a jerk of her tail and started on a noiseless tour of the studio. She sneezed at a pot of turpentine, hastily retreating to the table, which she presently mounted, and having satisfied her curiosity concerning a roll of red modelling wax, returned to the door and sat down with her eyes on the crack over the threshold. Then she lifted her voice in a thin plaint.

When Severn returned he looked grave, but the cat, joyous and demonstrative, marched around him, rubbing her gaunt body against his legs, driving her head enthusiastically into his hand, and purring until her voice mounted to a squeal.

He placed a bit of meat, wrapped in brown paper, upon the table, and with a penknife cut it into shreds. The milk he took from a bottle which had served for medicine, and poured it into the saucer on the hearth.

The cat crouched before it, purring and lapping at the same time.

He cooked his egg and ate it with a slice of bread, watching her busy with the shredded meat, and when he had finished, and had filled and emptied a cup of water from the bucket in the sink, he sat down, taking her into his lap, where she at once curled up and began her toilet. He began to speak again, touching her caressingly at times by way of emphasis.

“Cat, I have found out where your mistress lives. It is not very far away;—it is here, under this same leaky roof, but in the north wing which I had supposed was uninhabited. My janitor tells me this. By chance, he is almost sober this evening. The butcher on the rue de Seine, where I bought your meat, knows you, and old Cabane the baker identified you with needless sarcasm. They tell me hard tales of your mistress which I shall not believe. They say she is idle and vain and pleasure-loving; they say she is hare-brained and reckless. The little sculptor on the ground floor, who was buying rolls from old Cabane, spoke to me to-night for the first time, although we have always bowed to each other. He said she was very good and very beautiful. He has only seen her once, and does not know her name. I thanked him;—I don’t know why I thanked him so warmly. Cabane said, ‘Into this cursed Street of the Four Winds, the four winds blow all things evil.’ The sculptor looked confused, but when he went out with his rolls, he said to me, ‘I am sure, Monsieur, that she is as good as she is beautiful.'”

The cat had finished her toilet, and now, springing softly to the floor, went to the door and sniffed. He knelt beside her, and unclasping the garter held it for a moment in his hands. After a while he said: “There is a name engraved upon the silver clasp beneath the buckle. It is a pretty name, Sylvia Elven. Sylvia is a woman’s name, Elven is the name of a town. In Paris, in this quarter, above all, in this Street of the Four Winds, names are worn and put away as the fashions change with the seasons. I know the little town of Elven, for there I met Fate face to face and Fate was unkind. But do you know that in Elven Fate had another name, and that name was Sylvia?”

He replaced the garter and stood up looking down at the cat crouched before the closed door.

“The name of Elven has a charm for me. It tells me of meadows and clear rivers. The name of Sylvia troubles me like perfume from dead flowers.”

The cat mewed.

“Yes, yes,” he said soothingly, “I will take you back. Your Sylvia is not my Sylvia; the world is wide and Elven is not unknown. Yet in the darkness and filth of poorer Paris, in the sad shadows of this ancient house, these names are very pleasant to me.”

He lifted her in his arms and strode through the silent corridors to the stairs. Down five flights and into the moonlit court, past the little sculptor’s den, and then again in at the gate of the north wing and up the worm-eaten stairs he passed, until he came to a closed door. When he had stood knocking for a long time, something moved behind the door; it opened and he went in. The room was dark. As he crossed the threshold, the cat sprang from his arms into the shadows. He listened but heard nothing. The silence was oppressive and he struck a match. At his elbow stood a table and on the table a candle in a gilded candlestick. This he lighted, then looked around. The chamber was vast, the hangings heavy with embroidery. Over the fireplace towered a carved mantel, grey with the ashes of dead fires. In a recess by the deep-set windows stood a bed, from which the bedclothes, soft and fine as lace, trailed to the polished floor. He lifted the candle above his head. A handkerchief lay at his feet. It was faintly perfumed. He turned toward the windows. In front of them was a canapé and over it were flung, pell-mell, a gown of silk, a heap of lace-like garments, white and delicate as spiders’ meshes, long, crumpled gloves, and, on the floor beneath, the stockings, the little pointed shoes, and one garter of rosy silk, quaintly flowered and fitted with a silver clasp. Wondering, he stepped forward and drew the heavy curtains from the bed. For a moment the candle flared in his hand; then his eyes met two other eyes, wide open, smiling, and the candle-flame flashed over hair heavy as gold.

She was pale, but not as white as he; her eyes were untroubled as a child’s; but he stared, trembling from head to foot, while the candle flickered in his hand.

At last he whispered: “Sylvia, it is I.”

Again he said, “It is I.”

Then, knowing that she was dead, he kissed her on the mouth. And through the long watches of the night the cat purred on his knee, tightening and relaxing her padded claws, until the sky paled above the Street of the Four Winds.

Robert William Chambers (1865 – 1933) was an American artist and fiction writer. He started out writing in the “weird” and gothic horror genres and then attempted his hand with romantic fiction and adventure novels before returning back to this original style.

He is best known for his incredible short story collection The King In Yellow (1895), a volume that would influence H.P. Lovecraft and other writers. The stories contain elements of fantasy, the supernatural, science fiction and gothic horror tales.

Fans of the HBO Series True Detective will recall the terms “Carcosa” and “the yellow king” being used repeatedly throughout the first season. The King in Yellow and Bierce’s An Inhabitant Of Carcosa are the original sources of those terms.


The Saturday Night Special: “The Hand” by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant, 1850-1893

All were crowding around M. Bermutier, the judge, who was giving his opinion about the Saint-Cloud mystery. For a month this in explicable crime had been the talk of Paris. Nobody could make head or tail of it.

M. Bermutier, standing with his back to the fireplace, was talking, citing the evidence, discussing the various theories, but arriving at no conclusion.

Some women had risen, in order to get nearer to him, and were standing with their eyes fastened on the clean-shaven face of the judge, who was saying such weighty things. They, were shaking and trembling, moved by fear and curiosity, and by the eager and insatiable desire for the horrible, which haunts the soul of every woman. One of them, paler than the others, said during a pause:

“It’s terrible. It verges on the supernatural. The truth will never be known.”

The judge turned to her:

“True, madame, it is likely that the actual facts will never be discovered. As for the word ‘supernatural’ which you have just used, it has nothing to do with the matter. We are in the presence of a very cleverly conceived and executed crime, so well enshrouded in mystery that we cannot disentangle it from the involved circumstances which surround it. But once I had to take charge of an affair in which the uncanny seemed to play a part. In fact, the case became so confused that it had to be given up.”

Several women exclaimed at once:

“Oh! Tell us about it!”

M. Bermutier smiled in a dignified manner, as a judge should, and went on:

“Do not think, however, that I, for one minute, ascribed anything in the case to supernatural influences. I believe only in normal causes. But if, instead of using the word ‘supernatural’ to express what we do not understand, we were simply to make use of the word ‘inexplicable,’ it would be much better. At any rate, in the affair of which I am about to tell you, it is especially the surrounding, preliminary circumstances which impressed me. Here are the facts:

“I was, at that time, a judge at Ajaccio, a little white city on the edge of a bay which is surrounded by high mountains.

“The majority of the cases which came up before me concerned vendettas. There are some that are superb, dramatic, ferocious, heroic. We find there the most beautiful causes for revenge of which one could dream, enmities hundreds of years old, quieted for a time but never extinguished; abominable stratagems, murders becoming massacres and almost deeds of glory. For two years I heard of nothing but the price of blood, of this terrible Corsican prejudice which compels revenge for insults meted out to the offending person and all his descendants and relatives. I had seen old men, children, cousins murdered; my head was full of these stories.

“One day I learned that an Englishman had just hired a little villa at the end of the bay for several years. He had brought with him a French servant, whom he had engaged on the way at Marseilles.

“Soon this peculiar person, living alone, only going out to hunt and fish, aroused a widespread interest. He never spoke to any one, never went to the town, and every morning he would practice for an hour or so with his revolver and rifle.

“Legends were built up around him. It was said that he was some high personage, fleeing from his fatherland for political reasons; then it was affirmed that he was in hiding after having committed some abominable crime. Some particularly horrible circumstances were even mentioned.

“In my judicial position I thought it necessary to get some information about this man, but it was impossible to learn anything. He called himself Sir John Rowell.

“I therefore had to be satisfied with watching him as closely as I could, but I could see nothing suspicious about his actions.

“However, as rumors about him were growing and becoming more widespread, I decided to try to see this stranger myself, and I began to hunt regularly in the neighborhood of his grounds.

“For a long time I watched without finding an opportunity. At last it came to me in the shape of a partridge which I shot and killed right in front of the Englishman. My dog fetched it for me, but, taking the bird, I went at once to Sir John Rowell and, begging his pardon, asked him to accept it.

“He was a big man, with red hair and beard, very tall, very broad, a kind of calm and polite Hercules. He had nothing of the so-called British stiffness, and in a broad English accent he thanked me warmly for my attention. At the end of a month we had had five or six conversations.

“One night, at last, as I was passing before his door, I saw him in the garden, seated astride a chair, smoking his pipe. I bowed and he invited me to come in and have a glass of beer. I needed no urging.

“He received me with the most punctilious English courtesy, sang the praises of France and of Corsica, and declared that he was quite in love with this country.

“Then, with great caution and under the guise of a vivid interest, I asked him a few questions about his life and his plans. He answered without embarrassment, telling me that he had travelled a great deal in Africa, in the Indies, in America. He added, laughing:

“‘I have had many adventures.’

“Then I turned the conversation on hunting, and he gave me the most curious details on hunting the hippopotamus, the tiger, the elephant and even the gorilla.

“I said:

“‘Are all these animals dangerous?’

“He smiled:

“‘Oh, no! Man is the worst.’

“And he laughed a good broad laugh, the wholesome laugh of a contented Englishman.

“‘I have also frequently been man-hunting.’

“Then he began to talk about weapons, and he invited me to come in and see different makes of guns.

“His parlor was draped in black, black silk embroidered in gold. Big yellow flowers, as brilliant as fire, were worked on the dark material.

“He said:

“‘It is a Japanese material.’

“But in the middle of the widest panel a strange thing attracted my attention. A black object stood out against a square of red velvet. I went up to it; it was a hand, a human hand. Not the clean white hand of a skeleton, but a dried black hand, with yellow nails, the muscles exposed and traces of old blood on the bones, which were cut off as clean as though it had been chopped off with an axe, near the middle of the forearm.

“Around the wrist, an enormous iron chain, riveted and soldered to this unclean member, fastened it to the wall by a ring, strong enough to hold an elephant in leash.

“I asked:

“‘What is that?’

“The Englishman answered quietly:

“‘That is my best enemy. It comes from America, too. The bones were severed by a sword and the skin cut off with a sharp stone and dried in the sun for a week.’

“I touched these human remains, which must have belonged to a giant. The uncommonly long fingers were attached by enormous tendons which still had pieces of skin hanging to them in places. This hand was terrible to see; it made one think of some savage vengeance.

“I said:

“‘This man must have been very strong.’

“The Englishman answered quietly:

“‘Yes, but I was stronger than he. I put on this chain to hold him.’

“I thought that he was joking. I said:

“‘This chain is useless now, the hand won’t run away.’

“Sir John Rowell answered seriously:

“‘It always wants to go away. This chain is needed.’

“I glanced at him quickly, questioning his face, and I asked myself:

“‘Is he an insane man or a practical joker?’

“But his face remained inscrutable, calm and friendly. I turned to other subjects, and admired his rifles.

“However, I noticed that he kept three loaded revolvers in the room, as though constantly in fear of some attack.

“I paid him several calls. Then I did not go any more. People had become used to his presence; everybody had lost interest in him.

“A whole year rolled by. One morning, toward the end of November, my servant awoke me and announced that Sir John Rowell had been murdered during the night.

“Half an hour later I entered the Englishman’s house, together with the police commissioner and the captain of the gendarmes. The servant, bewildered and in despair, was crying before the door. At first I suspected this man, but he was innocent.

“The guilty party could never be found.

“On entering Sir John’s parlor, I noticed the body, stretched out on its back, in the middle of the room.

“His vest was torn, the sleeve of his jacket had been pulled off, everything pointed to, a violent struggle.

“The Englishman had been strangled! His face was black, swollen and frightful, and seemed to express a terrible fear. He held something between his teeth, and his neck, pierced by five or six holes which looked as though they had been made by some iron instrument, was covered with blood.

“A physician joined us. He examined the finger marks on the neck for a long time and then made this strange announcement:

“‘It looks as though he had been strangled by a skeleton.’

“A cold chill seemed to run down my back, and I looked over to where I had formerly seen the terrible hand. It was no longer there. The chain was hanging down, broken.

“I bent over the dead man and, in his contracted mouth, I found one of the fingers of this vanished hand, cut–or rather sawed off by the teeth down to the second knuckle.

“Then the investigation began. Nothing could be discovered. No door, window or piece of furniture had been forced. The two watch dogs had not been aroused from their sleep.

“Here, in a few words, is the testimony of the servant:

“For a month his master had seemed excited. He had received many letters, which he would immediately burn.

“Often, in a fit of passion which approached madness, he had taken a switch and struck wildly at this dried hand riveted to the wall, and which had disappeared, no one knows how, at the very hour of the crime.

“He would go to bed very late and carefully lock himself in. He always kept weapons within reach. Often at night he would talk loudly, as though he were quarrelling with some one.

“That night, somehow, he had made no noise, and it was only on going to open the windows that the servant had found Sir John murdered. He suspected no one.

“I communicated what I knew of the dead man to the judges and public officials. Throughout the whole island a minute investigation was carried on. Nothing could be found out.

“One night, about three months after the crime, I had a terrible nightmare. I seemed to see the horrible hand running over my curtains and walls like an immense scorpion or spider. Three times I awoke, three times I went to sleep again; three times I saw the hideous object galloping round my room and moving its fingers like legs.

“The following day the hand was brought me, found in the cemetery, on the grave of Sir John Rowell, who had been buried there because we had been unable to find his family. The first finger was missing.

“Ladies, there is my story. I know nothing more.”

The women, deeply stirred, were pale and trembling. One of them exclaimed:

“But that is neither a climax nor an explanation! We will be unable to sleep unless you give us your opinion of what had occurred.”

The judge smiled severely:

“Oh! Ladies, I shall certainly spoil your terrible dreams. I simply believe that the legitimate owner of the hand was not dead, that he came to get it with his remaining one. But I don’t know how. It was a kind of vendetta.”

One of the women murmured:

“No, it can’t be that.”

And the judge, still smiling, said:

“Didn’t I tell you that my explanation would not satisfy you?”

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant…5 August 1850 – 6 July 1893) was a 19th-century French author, remembered as a master of the short story form, as well as a representative of the Naturalist school, who depicted human lives, destinies, and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms.

Maupassant was a protégé of Gustave Flaubert and his stories are characterized by economy of style and efficient, seemingly effortless dénouements. Many are set during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s, describing the futility of war and the innocent civilians who, caught up in events beyond their control, are permanently changed by their experiences. He wrote 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse. His first published story, “Boule de Suif” (“The Dumpling”, 1880), is often considered his most famous work. [from the Guy de Maupassant biography in Wikipedia]

The Monday Night Miscellany: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”

Tonight, The Chamber starts an experiment into a new feature called “The Monday Night Miscellany”. I know this is an ugly title, but I am too sleepy to put any significant effort into finding something better at the moment. I will explore other options later this week–maybe.

This article will be somewhat regular, starting out on Monday nights, though this may change later. The focus of it will be the art of writing, particularly the writing of dark literature.  I will author probably most of it and a lot will be reprints of classic essays such as this one.

I hope to have a guest blogger now and then, so if you feel up to the task, please let me know.  Initially, I would like to have guest posts in the form of essays from roughly 1,000 to 5,000 words.  I do not have a preferred type of essay, the author is free to use whatever type/style/form he/she thinks is most suitable for the topic. As with stories and poems, there is no pay except a publication credit.

Tonight, we start with one of the most famous essays on writing by the master of dark literature himself: Edgar Allan Poe.

AI-generated image of Edgar Allan Poe as illustration for Thomas White's essay "The Otherness of Poetry"

Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says— “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration—the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast—but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem—some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects—or more properly points, in the theatrical sense—I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query—that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer—that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning—at the end where all works of art should begin—for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible—is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he—not a moment stopped or
   stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:—

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure
   no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness—this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only,

From this epoch the lover no longer jests—no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.

With the denouement proper—with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line—

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off
   my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore.

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The Saturday Night Special: “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori–The Project Gutenberg Text

John William Polidori (1795-1821) Date of portrait unknown.


A Tale.

By John William Polidori


[Entered at Stationers’ Hall, March 27, 1819]
Gillet, Printer, Crown Court, Fleet Street, London.



“I breathe freely in the neighbourhood of this lake; the ground upon which I tread has been subdued from the earliest ages; the principal objects which immediately strike my eye, bring to my recollection scenes, in which man acted the hero and was the chief object of interest. Not to look back to earlier times of battles and sieges, here is the bust of Rousseau—here is a house with an inscription denoting that the Genevan philosopher first drew breath under its roof. A little out of the town is Ferney, the residence of Voltaire; where that wonderful, though certainly in many respects contemptible, character, received, like the hermits of old, the visits of pilgrims, not only from his own nation, but from the farthest boundaries of Europe. Here too is Bonnet’s abode, and, a few steps beyond, the house of that astonishing woman Madame de Stael: perhaps the first of her sex, who has really proved its often claimed equality with, the nobler man. We have before had women who have written interesting novels and poems, in which their tact at observing drawing-room characters has availed them; but never since the days of Heloise have those faculties which are peculiar to man, been developed as the possible inheritance of woman. Though even here, as in the case of Heloise, our sex have not been backward in alledging the existence of an Abeilard in the person of M. Schlegel as the inspirer of her works. But to proceed: upon the same side of the lake, Gibbon, Bonnivard, Bradshaw, and others mark, as it were, the stages for our progress; whilst upon the other side there is one house, built by Diodati, the friend of Milton, which has contained within its walls, for several months, that poet whom we have so often read together, and who—if human passions remain the same, and human feelings, like chords, on being swept by nature’s impulses shall vibrate as before—will be placed by posterity in the first rank of our English Poets. You must have heard, or the Third Canto of Childe Harold will have informed you, that Lord Byron resided many months in this neighbourhood. I went with some friends a few days ago, after having seen Ferney, to view this mansion. I trod the floors with the same feelings of awe and respect as we did, together, those of Shakespeare’s dwelling at Stratford. I sat down in a chair of the saloon, and satisfied myself that I was resting on what he had made his constant seat. I found a servant there who had lived with him; she, however, gave me but little information. She pointed out his bed-chamber upon the same level as the saloon and dining-room, and informed me that he retired to rest at three, got up at two, and employed himself a long time over his toilette; that he never went to sleep without a pair of pistols and a dagger by his side, and that he never ate animal food. He apparently spent some part of every day upon the lake in an English boat. There is a balcony from the saloon which looks upon the lake and the mountain Jura; and I imagine, that it must have been hence, he contemplated the storm so magnificently described in the Third Canto; for you have from here a most extensive view of all the points he has therein depicted. I can fancy him like the scathed pine, whilst all around was sunk to repose, still waking to observe, what gave but a weak image of the storms which had desolated his own breast.

The sky is changed!—and such a change; Oh, night!
And storm and darkness, ye are wond’rous strong,
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman! Far along
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Leaps the lire thunder! Not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now hath found a tongue,
And Jura answers thro’ her misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps who call to her aloud!

And this is in the night:—Most glorious night!
Thou wer’t not sent for slumber! let me be
A sharer in thy far and fierce delight,—
A portion of the tempest and of me!
How the lit lake shines a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comet dancing to the earth!
And now again ’tis black,—and now the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth,
As if they did rejoice o’er a young; earthquake’s birth,

Now where the swift Rhine cleaves his way between
Heights which appear, as lovers who have parted
In haste, whose mining depths so intervene,
That they can meet no more, tho’ broken hearted;
Tho’ in their souls which thus each other thwarted,
Love was the very root of the fond rage
Which blighted their life’s bloom, and then departed—
Itself expired, but leaving; them an age
Of years all winter—war within themselves to wage.

I went down to the little port, if I may use the expression, wherein his vessel used to lay, and conversed with the cottager, who had the care of it. You may smile, but I have my pleasure in thus helping my personification of the individual I admire, by attaining to the knowledge of those circumstances which were daily around him. I have made numerous enquiries in the town concerning him, but can learn nothing. He only went into society there once, when M. Pictet took him to the house of a lady to spend the evening. They say he is a very singular man, and seem to think him very uncivil. Amongst other things they relate, that having invited M. Pictet and Bonstetten to dinner, he went on the lake to Chillon, leaving a gentleman who travelled with him to receive them and make his apologies. Another evening, being invited to the house of Lady D—— H——, he promised to attend, but upon approaching the windows of her ladyship’s villa, and perceiving the room to be full of company, he set down his friend, desiring him to plead his excuse, and immediately returned home. This will serve as a contradiction to the report which you tell me is current in England, of his having been avoided by his countrymen on the continent. The case happens to be directly the reverse, as he has been generally sought by them, though on most occasions, apparently without success. It is said, indeed, that upon paying his first visit at Coppet, following the servant who had announced his name, he was surprised to meet a lady carried out fainting; but before he had been seated many minutes, the same lady, who had been so affected at the sound of his name, returned and conversed with him a considerable time—such is female curiosity and affectation! He visited Coppet frequently, and of course associated there with several of his countrymen, who evinced no reluctance to meet him whom his enemies alone would represent as an outcast.

Though I have been so unsuccessful in this town, I have been more fortunate in my enquiries elsewhere. There is a society three or four miles from Geneva, the centre of which is the Countess of Breuss, a Russian lady, well acquainted with the agrémens de la Société, and who has collected them round herself at her mansion. It was chiefly here, I find, that the gentleman who travelled with Lord Byron, as physician, sought for society. He used almost every day to cross the lake by himself, in one of their flat-bottomed boats, and return after passing the evening with his friends, about eleven or twelve at night, often whilst the storms were raging in the circling summits of the mountains around. As he became intimate, from long acquaintance, with several of the families in this neighbourhood, I have gathered from their accounts some excellent traits of his lordship’s character, which I will relate to you at some future opportunity. I must, however, free him from one imputation attached to him—of having in his house two sisters as the partakers of his revels. This is, like many other charges which have been brought against his lordship, entirely destitute of truth. His only companion was the physician I have already mentioned. The report originated from the following circumstance: Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelly, a gentleman well known for extravagance of doctrine, and for his daring, in their profession, even to sign himself with the title of ATHeos in the Album at Chamouny, having taken a house below, in which he resided with Miss M. W. Godwin and Miss Clermont, (the daughters of the celebrated Mr. Godwin) they were frequently visitors at Diodati, and were often seen upon the lake with his Lordship, which gave rise to the report, the truth of which is here positively denied.

Among other things which the lady, from whom I procured these anecdotes, related to me, she mentioned the outline of a ghost story by Lord Byron. It appears that one evening Lord B., Mr. P. B. Shelly, the two ladies and the gentleman before alluded to, after having perused a German work, which was entitled Phantasmagoriana, began relating ghost stories; when his lordship having recited the beginning of Christabel, then unpublished, the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly’s mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighbourhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression. It was afterwards proposed, in the course of conversation, that each of the company present should write a tale depending upon some supernatural agency, which was undertaken by Lord B., the physician, and Miss M. W. Godwin.[1] My friend, the lady above referred to, had in her possession the outline of each of these stories; I obtained them as a great favour, and herewith forward them to you, as I was assured you would feel as much curiosity as myself, to peruse the ebauches of so great a genius, and those immediately under his influence.”

[1] Since published under the title of “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”



THE superstition upon which this tale is founded is very general in the East. Among the Arabians it appears to be common: it did not, however, extend itself to the Greeks until after the establishment of Christianity; and it has only assumed its present form since the division of the Latin and Greek churches; at which time, the idea becoming prevalent, that a Latin body could not corrupt if buried in their territory, it gradually increased, and formed the subject of many wonderful stories, still extant, of the dead rising from their graves, and feeding upon the blood of the young and beautiful. In the West it spread, with some slight variation, all over Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Lorraine, where the belief existed, that vampyres nightly imbibed a certain portion of the blood of their victims, who became emaciated, lost their strength, and speedily died of consumptions; whilst these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.

In the London Journal, of March, 1732, is a curious, and, of course, credible account of a particular case of vampyrism, which is stated to have occurred at Madreyga, in Hungary. It appears, that upon an examination of the commander-in-chief and magistrates of the place, they positively and unanimously affirmed, that, about five years before, a certain Heyduke, named Arnold Paul, had been heard to say, that, at Cassovia, on the frontiers of the Turkish Servia, he had been tormented by a vampyre, but had found a way to rid himself of the evil, by eating some of the earth out of the vampyre’s grave, and rubbing himself with his blood. This precaution, however, did not prevent him from becoming a vampyre[2] himself; for, about twenty or thirty days after his death and burial, many persons complained of having been tormented by him, and a deposition was made, that four persons had been deprived of life by his attacks. To prevent further mischief, the inhabitants having consulted their Hadagni,[3] took up the body, and found it (as is supposed to be usual in cases of vampyrism) fresh, and entirely free from corruption, and emitting at the mouth, nose, and ears, pure and florid blood. Proof having been thus obtained, they resorted to the accustomed remedy. A stake was driven entirely through the heart and body of Arnold Paul, at which he is reported to have cried out as dreadfully as if he had been alive. This done, they cut off his head, burned his body, and threw the ashes into his grave. The same measures were adopted with the corses of those persons who had previously died from vampyrism, lest they should, in their turn, become agents upon others who survived them.

[2] The universal belief is, that a person sucked by a vampyre becomes a vampyre himself, and sucks in his turn.

[3] Chief bailiff.

This monstrous rodomontade is here related, because it seems better adapted to illustrate the subject of the present observations than any other instance which could be adduced. In many parts of Greece it is considered as a sort of punishment after death, for some heinous crime committed whilst in existence, that the deceased is not only doomed to vampyrise, but compelled to confine his infernal visitations solely to those beings he loved most while upon earth—those to whom he was bound by ties of kindred and affection.—A supposition alluded to in the “Giaour.”

But first on earth, as Vampyre sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent;
Then ghastly haunt the native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse,
Thy victims, ere they yet expire,
Shall know the demon for their sire;
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, best beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father’s name—
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet thou must end thy task and mark
Her cheek’s last tinge—her eye’s last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o’er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shall tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which, in life a lock when shorn
Affection’s fondest pledge was worn—
But now is borne away by thee
Memorial of thine agony!
Yet with thine own best blood shall drip;
Thy gnashing tooth, and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go—and with Gouls and Afrits rave,
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they.

Mr. Southey has also introduced in his wild but beautiful poem of “Thalaba,” the vampyre corse of the Arabian maid Oneiza, who is represented as having returned from the grave for the purpose of tormenting him she best loved whilst in existence. But this cannot be supposed to have resulted from the sinfulness of her life, she being pourtrayed throughout the whole of the tale as a complete type of purity and innocence. The veracious Tournefort gives a long account in his travels of several astonishing cases of vampyrism, to which he pretends to have been an eyewitness; and Calmet, in his great work upon this subject, besides a variety of anecdotes, and traditionary narratives illustrative of its effects, has put forth some learned dissertations, tending to prove it to be a classical, as well as barbarian error.

Many curious and interesting notices on this singularly horrible superstition might be added; though the present may suffice for the limits of a note, necessarily devoted to explanation, and which may now be concluded by merely remarking, that though the term Vampyre is the one in most general acceptation, there are several others synonymous with it, made use of in various parts of the world: as Vroucolocha, Vardoulacha, Goul, Broucoloka, &c.


IT happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention. In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection: Lady Mercer, who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage, threw herself in his way, and did all but put on the dress of a mountebank, to attract his notice:—though in vain:—when she stood before him, though his eyes were apparently fixed upon her’s, still it seemed as if they were unperceived;—even her unappalled impudence was baffled, and she left the field. But though the common adultress could not influence even the guidance of his eyes, it was not that the female sex was indifferent to him: yet such was the apparent caution with which he spoke to the virtuous wife and innocent daughter, that few knew he ever addressed himself to females. He had, however, the reputation of a winning tongue; and whether it was that it even overcame the dread of his singular character, or that they were moved by his apparent hatred of vice, he was as often among those females who form the boast of their sex from their domestic virtues, as among those who sully it by their vices.

About the same time, there came to London a young gentleman of the name of Aubrey: he was an orphan left with an only sister in the possession of great wealth, by parents who died while he was yet in childhood. Left also to himself by guardians, who thought it their duty merely to take care of his fortune, while they relinquished the more important charge of his mind to the care of mercenary subalterns, he cultivated more his imagination than his judgment. He had, hence, that high romantic feeling of honour and candour, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices. He believed all to sympathise with virtue, and thought that vice was thrown in by Providence merely for the picturesque effect of the scene, as we see in romances: he thought that the misery of a cottage merely consisted in the vesting of clothes, which were as warm, but which were better adapted to the painter’s eye by their irregular folds and various coloured patches. He thought, in fine, that the dreams of poets were the realities of life. He was handsome, frank, and rich: for these reasons, upon his entering into the gay circles, many mothers surrounded him, striving which should describe with least truth their languishing or romping favourites: the daughters at the same time, by their brightening countenances when he approached, and by their sparkling eyes, when he opened his lips, soon led him into false notions of his talents and his merit. Attached as he was to the romance of his solitary hours, he was startled at finding, that, except in the tallow and wax candles that flickered, not from the presence of a ghost, but from want of snuffing, there was no foundation in real life for any of that congeries of pleasing pictures and descriptions contained in those volumes, from which he had formed his study. Finding, however, some compensation in his gratified vanity, he was about to relinquish his dreams, when the extraordinary being we have above described, crossed him in his career.

He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact: allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him. He became acquainted with him, paid him attentions, and so far advanced upon his notice, that his presence was always recognised. He gradually learnt that Lord Ruthven’s affairs were embarrassed, and soon found, from the notes of preparation in —— Street, that he was about to travel. Desirous of gaining some information respecting this singular character, who, till now, had only whetted his curiosity, he hinted to his guardians, that it was time for him to perform the tour, which for many generations has been thought necessary to enable the young to take some rapid steps in the career of vice towards putting themselves upon an equality with the aged, and not allowing them to appear as if fallen from the skies, whenever scandalous intrigues are mentioned as the subjects of pleasantry or of praise, according to the degree of skill shewn in carrying them on. They consented: and Aubrey immediately mentioning his intentions to Lord Ruthven, was surprised to receive from him a proposal to join him. Flattered by such a mark of esteem from him, who, apparently, had nothing in common with other men, he gladly accepted it, and in a few days they had passed the circling waters.

Hitherto, Aubrey had had no opportunity of studying Lord Ruthven’s character, and now he found, that, though many more of his actions were exposed to his view, the results offered different conclusions from the apparent motives to his conduct. His companion was profuse in his liberality;—the idle, the vagabond, and the beggar, received from his hand more than enough to relieve their immediate wants. But Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms;—these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity. This was, however, attributed by him to the greater importunity of the vicious, which generally prevails over the retiring bashfulness of the virtuous indigent. There was one circumstance about the charity of his Lordship, which was still more impressed upon his mind: all those upon whom it was bestowed, inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all either led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and the most abject misery. At Brussels and other towns through which they passed, Aubrey was surprized at the apparent eagerness with which his companion sought for the centres of all fashionable vice; there he entered into all the spirit of the faro table: he betted, and always gambled with success, except where the known sharper was his antagonist, and then he lost even more than he gained; but it was always with the same unchanging face, with which he generally watched the society around: it was not, however, so when he encountered the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of a numerous family; then his very wish seemed fortune’s law—this apparent abstractedness of mind was laid aside, and his eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse. In every town, he left the formerly affluent youth, torn from the circle he adorned, cursing, in the solitude of a dungeon, the fate that had drawn him within the reach of this fiend; whilst many a father sat frantic, amidst the speaking looks of mute hungry children, without a single farthing of his late immense wealth, wherewith to buy even sufficient to satisfy their present craving. Yet he took no money from the gambling table; but immediately lost, to the ruiner of many, the last gilder he had just snatched from the convulsive grasp of the innocent: this might but be the result of a certain degree of knowledge, which was not, however, capable of combating the cunning of the more experienced. Aubrey often wished to represent this to his friend, and beg him to resign that charity and pleasure which proved the ruin of all, and did not tend to his own profit;—but he delayed it—for each day he hoped his friend would give him some opportunity of speaking frankly and openly to him; however, this never occurred. Lord Ruthven in his carriage, and amidst the various wild and rich scenes of nature, was always the same: his eye spoke less than his lip; and though Aubrey was near the object of his curiosity, he obtained no greater gratification from it than the constant excitement of vainly wishing to break that mystery, which to his exalted imagination began to assume the appearance of something supernatural.

They soon arrived at Rome, and Aubrey for a time lost sight of his companion; he left him in daily attendance upon the morning circle of an Italian countess, whilst he went in search of the memorials of another almost deserted city. Whilst he was thus engaged, letters arrived from England, which he opened with eager impatience; the first was from his sister, breathing nothing but affection; the others were from his guardians, the latter astonished him; if it had before entered into his imagination that there was an evil power resident in his companion, these seemed to give him sufficient reason for the belief. His guardians insisted upon his immediately leaving his friend, and urged, that his character was dreadfully vicious, for that the possession of irresistible powers of seduction, rendered his licentious habits more dangerous to society. It had been discovered, that his contempt for the adultress had not originated in hatred of her character; but that he had required, to enhance his gratification, that his victim, the partner of his guilt, should be hurled from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue, down to the lowest abyss of infamy and degradation: in fine, that all those females whom he had sought, apparently on account of their virtue, had, since his departure, thrown even the mask aside, and had not scrupled to expose the whole deformity of their vices to the public gaze.

Aubrey determined upon leaving one, whose character had not yet shown a single bright point on which to rest the eye. He resolved to invent some plausible pretext for abandoning him altogether, purposing, in the mean while, to watch him more closely, and to let no slight circumstances pass by unnoticed. He entered into the same circle, and soon perceived, that his Lordship was endeavouring to work upon the inexperience of the daughter of the lady whose house he chiefly frequented. In Italy, it is seldom that an unmarried female is met with in society; he was therefore obliged to carry on his plans in secret; but Aubrey’s eye followed him in all his windings, and soon discovered that an assignation had been appointed, which would most likely end in the ruin of an innocent, though thoughtless girl. Losing no time, he entered the apartment of Lord Ruthven, and abruptly asked him his intentions with respect to the lady, informing him at the same time that he was aware of his being about to meet her that very night. Lord Ruthven answered, that his intentions were such as he supposed all would have upon such an occasion; and upon being pressed whether he intended to marry her, merely laughed. Aubrey retired; and, immediately writing a note, to say, that from that moment he must decline accompanying his Lordship in the remainder of their proposed tour, he ordered his servant to seek other apartments, and calling upon the mother of the lady, informed her of all he knew, not only with regard to her daughter, but also concerning the character of his Lordship. The assignation was prevented. Lord Ruthven next day merely sent his servant to notify his complete assent to a separation; but did not hint any suspicion of his plans having been foiled by Aubrey’s interposition.

Having left Rome, Aubrey directed his steps towards Greece, and crossing the Peninsula, soon found himself at Athens. He then fixed his residence in the house of a Greek; and soon occupied himself in tracing the faded records of ancient glory upon monuments that apparently, ashamed of chronicling the deeds of freemen only before slaves, had hidden themselves beneath the sheltering soil or many coloured lichen. Under the same roof as himself, existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter wishing to pourtray on canvass the promised hope of the faithful in Mahomet’s paradise, save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls. As she danced upon the plain, or tripped along the mountain’s side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties; for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to the taste of an epicure. The light step of Ianthe often accompanied Aubrey in his search after antiquities, and often would the unconscious girl, engaged in the pursuit of a Kashmere butterfly, show the whole beauty of her form, floating as it were upon the wind, to the eager gaze of him, who forgot the letters he had just decyphered upon an almost effaced tablet, in the contemplation of her sylph-like figure. Often would her tresses falling, as she flitted around, exhibit in the sun’s ray such delicately brilliant and swiftly fading hues, it might well excuse the forgetfulness of the antiquary, who let escape from his mind the very object he had before thought of vital importance to the proper interpretation of a passage in Pausanias. But why attempt to describe charms which all feel, but none can appreciate?—It was innocence, youth, and beauty, unaffected by crowded drawing-rooms and stifling balls. Whilst he drew those remains of which he wished to preserve a memorial for his future hours, she would stand by, and watch the magic effects of his pencil, in tracing the scenes of her native place; she would then describe to him the circling dance upon the open plain, would paint, to him in all the glowing colours of youthful memory, the marriage pomp she remembered viewing in her infancy; and then, turning to subjects that had evidently made a greater impression upon her mind, would tell him all the supernatural tales of her nurse. Her earnestness and apparent belief of what she narrated, excited the interest even of Aubrey; and often as she told him the tale of the living vampyre, who had passed years amidst his friends, and dearest ties, forced every year, by feeding upon the life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months, his blood would run cold, whilst he attempted to laugh her out of such idle and horrible fantasies; but Ianthe cited to him the names of old men, who had at last detected one living among themselves, after several of their near relatives and children had been found marked with the stamp of the fiend’s appetite; and when she found him so incredulous, she begged of him to believe her, for it had been, remarked, that those who had dared to question their existence, always had some proof given, which obliged them, with grief and heartbreaking, to confess it was true. She detailed to him the traditional appearance of these monsters, and his horror was increased, by hearing a pretty accurate description of Lord Ruthven; he, however, still persisted in persuading her, that there could be no truth in her fears, though at the same time he wondered at the many coincidences which had all tended to excite a belief in the supernatural power of Lord Ruthven.

Aubrey began to attach himself more and more to Ianthe; her innocence, so contrasted with all the affected virtues of the women among whom he had sought for his vision of romance, won his heart; and while he ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl, still he found himself more and more attached to the almost fairy form before him. He would tear himself at times from her, and, forming a plan for some antiquarian research, he would depart, determined not to return until his object was attained; but he always found it impossible to fix his attention upon the ruins around him, whilst in his mind he retained an image that seemed alone the rightful possessor of his thoughts. Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had first known. She always seemed to part from him with reluctance; but it was because she had no longer any one with whom she could visit her favourite haunts, whilst her guardian was occupied in sketching or uncovering some fragment which had yet escaped the destructive hand of time. She had appealed to her parents on the subject of Vampyres, and they both, with several present, affirmed their existence, pale with horror at the very name. Soon after, Aubrey determined to proceed upon one of his excursions, which was to detain him for a few hours; when they heard the name of the place, they all at once begged of him not to return at night, as he must necessarily pass through a wood, where no Greek would ever remain, after the day had closed, upon any consideration. They described it as the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies, and denounced the most heavy evils as impending upon him who dared to cross their path. Aubrey made light of their representations, and tried to laugh them out of the idea; but when he saw them shudder at his daring thus to mock a superior, infernal power, the very name of which apparently made their blood freeze, he was silent.

Next morning Aubrey set off upon his excursion unattended; he was surprised to observe the melancholy face of his host, and was concerned to find that his words, mocking the belief of those horrible fiends, had inspired them with such terror. When he was about to depart, Ianthe came to the side of his horse, and earnestly begged of him to return, ere night allowed the power of these beings to be put in action;—he promised. He was, however, so occupied in his research, that he did not perceive that day-light would soon end, and that in the horizon there was one of those specks which, in the warmer climates, so rapidly gather into a tremendous mass, and pour all their rage upon the devoted country.—He at last, however, mounted his horse, determined to make up by speed for his delay: but it was too late. Twilight, in these southern climates, is almost unknown; immediately the sun sets, night begins: and ere he had advanced far, the power of the storm was above—its echoing thunders had scarcely an interval of rest—its thick heavy rain forced its way through the canopying foliage, whilst the blue forked lightning seemed to fall and radiate at his very feet. Suddenly his horse took fright, and he was carried with dreadful rapidity through the entangled forest. The animal at last, through fatigue, stopped, and he found, by the glare of lightning, that he was in the neighbourhood of a hovel that hardly lifted itself up from the masses of dead leaves and brushwood which surrounded it. Dismounting, he approached, hoping to find some one to guide him to the town, or at least trusting to obtain shelter from the pelting of the storm. As he approached, the thunders, for a moment silent, allowed him to hear the dreadful shrieks of a woman mingling with the stifled, exultant mockery of a laugh, continued in one almost unbroken sound;—he was startled: but, roused by the thunder which again rolled over his head, he, with a sudden effort, forced open the door of the hut. He found himself in utter darkness: the sound, however, guided him. He was apparently unperceived; for, though he called, still the sounds continued, and no notice was taken of him. He found himself in contact with some one, whom he immediately seized; when a voice cried, “Again baffled!” to which a loud laugh succeeded; and he felt himself grappled by one whose strength seemed superhuman: determined to sell his life as dearly as he could, he struggled; but it was in vain: he was lifted from his feet and hurled with enormous force against the ground:—his enemy threw himself upon him, and kneeling upon his breast, had placed his hands upon his throat—when the glare of many torches penetrating through the hole that gave light in the day, disturbed him;—he instantly rose, and, leaving his prey, rushed through the door, and in a moment the crashing of the branches, as he broke through the wood, was no longer heard. The storm was now still; and Aubrey, incapable of moving, was soon heard by those without. They entered; the light of their torches fell upon the mud walls, and the thatch loaded on every individual straw with heavy flakes of soot. At the desire of Aubrey they searched for her who had attracted him by her cries; he was again left in darkness; but what was his horror, when the light of the torches once more burst upon him, to perceive the airy form of his fair conductress brought in a lifeless corse. He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form, when he unclosed them, stretched by his side. There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!” A litter was quickly formed, and Aubrey was laid by the side of her who had lately been to him the object of so many bright and fairy visions, now fallen with the flower of life that had died within her. He knew not what his thoughts were—his mind was benumbed and seemed to shun reflection, and take refuge in vacancy—he held almost unconsciously in his hand a naked dagger of a particular construction, which had been found in the hut. They were soon met by different parties who had been engaged in the search of her whom a mother had missed. Their lamentable cries, as they approached the city, forewarned the parents of some dreadful catastrophe. —To describe their grief would be impossible; but when they ascertained the cause of their child’s death, they looked at Aubrey, and pointed to the corse. They were inconsolable; both died broken-hearted.

Aubrey being put to bed was seized with a most violent fever, and was often delirious; in these intervals he would call upon Lord Ruthven and upon Ianthe—by some unaccountable combination he seemed to beg of his former companion to spare the being he loved. At other times he would imprecate maledictions upon his head, and curse him as her destroyer. Lord Ruthven, chanced at this time to arrive at Athens, and, from whatever motive, upon hearing of the state of Aubrey, immediately placed himself in the same house, and became his constant attendant. When the latter recovered from his delirium, he was horrified and startled at the sight of him whose image he had now combined with that of a Vampyre; but Lord Ruthven, by his kind words, implying almost repentance for the fault that had caused their separation, and still more by the attention, anxiety, and care which he showed, soon reconciled him to his presence. His lordship seemed quite changed; he no longer appeared that apathetic being who had so astonished Aubrey; but as soon as his convalescence began to be rapid, he again gradually retired into the same state of mind, and Aubrey perceived no difference from the former man, except that at times he was surprised to meet his gaze fixed intently upon him, with a smile of malicious exultation playing upon his lips: he knew not why, but this smile haunted him. During the last stage of the invalid’s recovery, Lord Ruthven was apparently engaged in watching the tideless waves raised by the cooling breeze, or in marking the progress of those orbs, circling, like our world, the moveless sun;—indeed, he appeared to wish to avoid the eyes of all.

Aubrey’s mind, by this shock, was much weakened, and that elasticity of spirit which had once so distinguished him now seemed to have fled for ever. He was now as much a lover of solitude and silence as Lord Ruthven; but much as he wished for solitude, his mind could not find it in the neighbourhood of Athens; if he sought it amidst the ruins he had formerly frequented, Ianthe’s form stood by his side—if he sought it in the woods, her light step would appear wandering amidst the underwood, in quest of the modest violet; then suddenly turning round, would show, to his wild imagination, her pale face and wounded throat, with a meek smile upon her lips. He determined to fly scenes, every feature of which created such bitter associations in his mind. He proposed to Lord Ruthven, to whom he held himself bound by the tender care he had taken of him during his illness, that they should visit those parts of Greece neither had yet seen. They travelled in every direction, and sought every spot to which a recollection could be attached: but though they thus hastened from place to place, yet they seemed not to heed what they gazed upon. They heard much of robbers, but they gradually began to slight these reports, which they imagined were only the invention of individuals, whose interest it was to excite the generosity of those whom they defended from pretended dangers. In consequence of thus neglecting the advice of the inhabitants, on one occasion they travelled with only a few guards, more to serve as guides than as a defence. Upon entering, however, a narrow defile, at the bottom of which was the bed of a torrent, with large masses of rock brought down from the neighbouring precipices, they had reason to repent their negligence; for scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of the rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him—his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.

By promises of great reward, Aubrey soon induced them to convey his wounded friend to a neighbouring cabin; and having agreed upon a ransom, he was no more disturbed by their presence—they being content merely to guard the entrance till their comrade should return with the promised sum, for which he had an order. Lord Ruthven’s strength rapidly decreased; in two days mortification ensued, and death seemed advancing with hasty steps. His conduct and appearance had not changed; he seemed as unconscious of pain as he had been of the objects about him: but towards the close of the last evening, his mind became apparently uneasy, and his eye often fixed upon Aubrey, who was induced to offer his assistance with more than usual earnestness—”Assist me! you may save me—you may do more than that—I mean not my life, I heed the death of my existence as little as that of the passing day; but you may save my honour, your friend’s honour.”—”How? tell me how? I would do any thing,” replied Aubrey.—”I need but little—my life ebbs apace—I cannot explain the whole—but if you would conceal all you know of me, my honour were free from stain in the world’s mouth—and if my death were unknown for some time in England—I—I—but life.”—”It shall not be known.”—”Swear!” cried the dying man, raising himself with exultant violence, “Swear by all your soul reveres, by all your nature fears, swear that, for a year and a day you will not impart your knowledge of my crimes or death to any living being in any way, whatever may happen, or whatever you may see. “—His eyes seemed bursting from their sockets: “I swear!” said Aubrey; he sunk laughing upon his pillow, and breathed no more.

Aubrey retired to rest, but did not sleep; the many circumstances attending his acquaintance with this man rose upon his mind, and he knew not why; when he remembered his oath a cold shivering came over him, as if from the presentiment of something horrible awaiting him. Rising early in the morning, he was about to enter the hovel in which he had left the corpse, when a robber met him, and informed him that it was no longer there, having been conveyed by himself and comrades, upon his retiring, to the pinnacle of a neighbouring mount, according to a promise they had given his lordship, that it should be exposed to the first cold ray of the moon that rose after his death. Aubrey astonished, and taking several of the men, determined to go and bury it upon the spot where it lay. But, when he had mounted to the summit he found no trace of either the corpse or the clothes, though the robbers swore they pointed out the identical rock on which they had laid the body. For a time his mind was bewildered in conjectures, but he at last returned, convinced that they had buried the corpse for the sake of the clothes.

Weary of a country in which he had met with such terrible misfortunes, and in which all apparently conspired to heighten that superstitious melancholy that had seized upon his mind, he resolved to leave it, and soon arrived at Smyrna. While waiting for a vessel to convey him to Otranto, or to Naples, he occupied himself in arranging those effects he had with him belonging to Lord Ruthven. Amongst other things there was a case containing several weapons of offence, more or less adapted to ensure the death of the victim. There were several daggers and ataghans. Whilst turning them over, and examining their curious forms, what was his surprise at finding a sheath apparently ornamented in the same style as the dagger discovered in the fatal hut—he shuddered—hastening to gain further proof, he found the weapon, and his horror may be imagined when he discovered that it fitted, though peculiarly shaped, the sheath he held in his hand. His eyes seemed to need no further certainty—they seemed gazing to be bound to the dagger; yet still he wished to disbelieve; but the particular form, the same varying tints upon the haft and sheath were alike in splendour on both, and left no room for doubt; there were also drops of blood on each.

He left Smyrna, and on his way home, at Rome, his first inquiries were concerning the lady he had attempted to snatch from Lord Ruthven’s seductive arts. Her parents were in distress, their fortune ruined, and she had not been heard of since the departure of his lordship. Aubrey’s mind became almost broken under so many repeated horrors; he was afraid that this lady had fallen a victim to the destroyer of Ianthe. He became morose and silent; and his only occupation consisted in urging the speed of the postilions, as if he were going to save the life of some one he held dear. He arrived at Calais; a breeze, which seemed obedient to his will, soon wafted him to the English shores; and he hastened to the mansion of his fathers, and there, for a moment, appeared to lose, in the embraces and caresses of his sister, all memory of the past. If she before, by her infantine caresses, had gained his affection, now that the woman began to appear, she was still more attaching as a companion.

Miss Aubrey had not that winning grace which gains the gaze and applause of the drawing-room assemblies. There was none of that light brilliancy which only exists in the heated atmosphere of a crowded apartment. Her blue eye was never lit up by the levity of the mind beneath. There was a melancholy charm about it which did not seem to arise from misfortune, but from some feeling within, that appeared to indicate a soul conscious of a brighter realm. Her step was not that light footing, which strays where’er a butterfly or a colour may attract—it was sedate and pensive. When alone, her face was never brightened by the smile of joy; but when her brother breathed to her his affection, and would in her presence forget those griefs she knew destroyed his rest, who would have exchanged her smile for that of the voluptuary? It seemed as if those eyes,—that face were then playing in the light of their own native sphere. She was yet only eighteen, and had not been presented to the world, it having been thought by her guardians more fit that her presentation should be delayed until her brother’s return from the continent, when he might be her protector. It was now, therefore, resolved that the next drawing-room, which was fast approaching, should be the epoch of her entry into the “busy scene.” Aubrey would rather have remained in the mansion of his fathers, and fed upon the melancholy which overpowered him. He could not feel interest about the frivolities of fashionable strangers, when his mind had been so torn by the events he had witnessed; but he determined to sacrifice his own comfort to the protection of his sister. They soon arrived in town, and prepared for the next day, which had been announced as a drawing-room.

The crowd was excessive—a drawing-room had not been held for a long time, and all who were anxious to bask in the smile of royalty, hastened thither. Aubrey was there with his sister. While he was standing in a corner by himself, heedless of all around him, engaged in the remembrance that the first time he had seen Lord Ruthven was in that very place—he felt himself suddenly seized by the arm, and a voice he recognized too well, sounded in his ear—”Remember your oath.” He had hardly courage to turn, fearful of seeing a spectre that would blast him, when he perceived, at a little distance, the same figure which had attracted his notice on this spot upon his first entry into society. He gazed till his limbs almost refusing to bear their weight, he was obliged to take the arm of a friend, and forcing a passage through the crowd, he threw himself into his carriage, and was driven home. He paced the room with hurried steps, and fixed his hands upon his head, as if he were afraid his thoughts were bursting from his brain. Lord Ruthven again before him—circumstances started up in dreadful array—the dagger—his oath.—He roused himself, he could not believe it possible—the dead rise again!—He thought his imagination had conjured up the image his mind was resting upon. It was impossible that it could be real—he determined, therefore, to go again into society; for though he attempted to ask concerning Lord Ruthven, the name hung upon his lips, and he could not succeed in gaining information. He went a few nights after with his sister to the assembly of a near relation. Leaving her under the protection of a matron, he retired into a recess, and there gave himself up to his own devouring thoughts. Perceiving, at last, that many were leaving, he roused himself, and entering another room, found his sister surrounded by several, apparently in earnest conversation; he attempted to pass and get near her, when one, whom he requested to move, turned round, and revealed to him those features he most abhorred. He sprang forward, seized his sister’s arm, and, with hurried step, forced her towards the street: at the door he found himself impeded by the crowd of servants who were waiting for their lords; and while he was engaged in passing them, he again heard that voice whisper close to him—”Remember your oath!”—He did not dare to turn, but, hurrying his sister, soon reached home.

Aubrey became almost distracted. If before his mind had been absorbed by one subject, how much more completely was it engrossed, now that the certainty of the monster’s living again pressed upon his thoughts. His sister’s attentions were now unheeded, and it was in vain that she intreated him to explain to her what had caused his abrupt conduct. He only uttered a few words, and those terrified her. The more he thought, the more he was bewildered. His oath startled him;—was he then to allow this monster to roam, bearing ruin upon his breath, amidst all he held dear, and not avert its progress? His very sister might have been touched by him. But even if he were to break his oath, and disclose his suspicions, who would believe him? He thought of employing his own hand to free the world from such a wretch; but death, he remembered, had been already mocked. For days he remained in this state; shut up in his room, he saw no one, and ate only when his sister came, who, with eyes streaming with tears, besought him, for her sake, to support nature. At last, no longer capable of bearing stillness and solitude, he left his house, roamed from street to street, anxious to fly that image which haunted him. His dress became neglected, and he wandered, as often exposed to the noon-day sun as to the midnight damps. He was no longer to be recognized; at first he returned with the evening to the house; but at last he laid him down to rest wherever fatigue overtook him. His sister, anxious for his safety, employed people to follow him; but they were soon distanced by him who fled from a pursuer swifter than any—from thought. His conduct, however, suddenly changed. Struck with the idea that he left by his absence the whole of his friends, with a fiend amongst them, of whose presence they were unconscious, he determined to enter again into society, and watch him closely, anxious to forewarn, in spite of his oath, all whom Lord Ruthven approached with intimacy. But when he entered into a room, his haggard and suspicious looks were so striking, his inward shudderings so visible, that his sister was at last obliged to beg of him to abstain from seeking, for her sake, a society which affected him so strongly. When, however, remonstrance proved unavailing, the guardians thought proper to interpose, and, fearing that his mind was becoming alienated, they thought it high time to resume again that trust which had been before imposed upon them by Aubrey’s parents.

Desirous of saving him from the injuries and sufferings he had daily encountered in his wanderings, and of preventing him from exposing to the general eye those marks of what they considered folly, they engaged a physician to reside in the house, and take constant care of him. He hardly appeared to notice it, so completely was his mind absorbed by one terrible subject. His incoherence became at last so great, that he was confined to his chamber. There he would often lie for days, incapable of being roused. He had become emaciated, his eyes had attained a glassy lustre;—the only sign of affection and recollection remaining displayed itself upon the entry of his sister; then he would sometimes start, and, seizing her hands, with looks that severely afflicted her, he would desire her not to touch him. “Oh, do not touch him—if your love for me is aught, do not go near him!” When, however, she inquired to whom he referred, his only answer was, “True! true!” and again he sank into a state, whence not even she could rouse him. This lasted many months: gradually, however, as the year was passing, his incoherences became less frequent, and his mind threw off a portion of its gloom, whilst his guardians observed, that several times in the day he would count upon his fingers a definite number, and then smile.

The time had nearly elapsed, when, upon the last day of the year, one of his guardians entering his room, began to converse with his physician upon the melancholy circumstance of Aubrey’s being in so awful a situation, when his sister was going next day to be married. Instantly Aubrey’s attention was attracted; he asked anxiously to whom. Glad of this mark of returning intellect, of which they feared he had been deprived, they mentioned the name of the Earl of Marsden. Thinking this was a young Earl whom he had met with in society, Aubrey seemed pleased, and astonished them still more by his expressing his intention to be present at the nuptials, and desiring to see his sister. They answered not, but in a few minutes his sister was with him. He was apparently again capable of being affected by the influence of her lovely smile; for he pressed her to his breast, and kissed her cheek, wet with tears, flowing at the thought of her brother’s being once more alive to the feelings of affection. He began to speak with all his wonted warmth, and to congratulate her upon her marriage with a person so distinguished for rank and every accomplishment; when he suddenly perceived a locket upon her breast; opening it, what was his surprise at beholding the features of the monster who had so long influenced his life. He seized the portrait in a paroxysm of rage, and trampled it under foot. Upon her asking him why he thus destroyed the resemblance of her future husband, he looked as if he did not understand her—then seizing her hands, and gazing on her with a frantic expression of countenance, he bade her swear that she would never wed this monster, for he—— But he could not advance—it seemed as if that voice again bade him remember his oath—he turned suddenly round, thinking Lord Ruthven was near him but saw no one. In the meantime the guardians and physician, who had heard the whole, and thought this was but a return of his disorder, entered, and forcing him from Miss Aubrey, desired her to leave him. He fell upon his knees to them, he implored, he begged of them to delay but for one day. They, attributing this to the insanity they imagined had taken possession of his mind, endeavoured to pacify him, and retired.

Lord Ruthven had called the morning after the drawing-room, and had been refused with every one else. When he heard of Aubrey’s ill health, he readily understood himself to be the cause of it; but when he learned that he was deemed insane, his exultation and pleasure could hardly be concealed from those among whom he had gained this information. He hastened to the house of his former companion, and, by constant attendance, and the pretence of great affection for the brother and interest in his fate, he gradually won the ear of Miss Aubrey. Who could resist his power? His tongue had dangers and toils to recount—could speak of himself as of an individual having no sympathy with any being on the crowded earth, save with her to whom he addressed himself;—could tell how, since he knew her, his existence, had begun to seem worthy of preservation, if it were merely that he might listen to her soothing accents;—in fine, he knew so well how to use the serpent’s art, or such was the will of fate, that he gained her affections. The title of the elder branch falling at length to him, he obtained an important embassy, which served as an excuse for hastening the marriage, (in spite of her brother’s deranged state,) which was to take place the very day before his departure for the continent.

Aubrey, when he was left by the physician and his guardians, attempted to bribe the servants, but in vain. He asked for pen and paper; it was given him; he wrote a letter to his sister, conjuring her, as she valued her own happiness, her own honour, and the honour of those now in the grave, who once held her in their arms as their hope and the hope of their house, to delay but for a few hours that marriage, on which he denounced the most heavy curses. The servants promised they would deliver it; but giving it to the physician, he thought it better not to harass any more the mind of Miss Aubrey by, what he considered, the ravings of a maniac. Night passed on without rest to the busy inmates of the house; and Aubrey heard, with a horror that may more easily be conceived than described, the notes of busy preparation. Morning came, and the sound of carriages broke upon his ear. Aubrey grew almost frantic. The curiosity of the servants at last overcame their vigilance, they gradually stole away, leaving him in the custody of an helpless old woman. He seized the opportunity, with one bound was out of the room, and in a moment found himself in the apartment where all were nearly assembled. Lord Ruthven was the first to perceive him: he immediately approached, and, taking his arm by force, hurried him from the room, speechless with rage. When on the staircase, Lord Ruthven whispered in his ear—”Remember your oath, and know, if not my bride to day, your sister is dishonoured. Women are frail!” So saying, he pushed him towards his attendants, who, roused by the old woman, had come in search of him. Aubrey could no longer support himself; his rage not finding vent, had broken a blood-vessel, and he was conveyed to bed. This was not mentioned to his sister, who was not present when he entered, as the physician was afraid of agitating her. The marriage was solemnized, and the bride and bridegroom left London.

Aubrey’s weakness increased; the effusion of blood produced symptoms of the near approach of death. He desired his sister’s guardians might be called, and when the midnight hour had struck, he related composedly what the reader has perused—he died immediately after.

The guardians hastened to protect Miss Aubrey; but when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!

From Wikipedia: “John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer and physician. He is known for his associations with the Romantic movement and credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the short story “The Vampyre” (1819), the first published modern vampire story. Although the story was at first erroneously credited to Lord Byron, both Byron and Polidori affirmed that the author was Polidori…”

The Saturday Night Special: “The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce (1898, The Project Gutenberg Text)

Ambrose Bierce October 7, 1892
Ambrose Bierce
October 7, 1892

By THE light of a tallow candle, which had been placed on one end of a rough table, a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light upon it. The shadow of the book would then throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent and motionless, and, the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.

The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness—the long, nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged faces—obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity—farmers and woodmen.

The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco: his footgear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found among the dead man’s effects—in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.

When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.

The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.

“We have waited for you,” said the coroner. “It is necessary to have done with this business to-night.”

The young man smiled. “I am sorry to have kept you,” he said. “I went away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of what I suppose I am called back to relate.”

The coroner smiled.

“The account that you posted to your newspaper,” he said, “differs probably from that which you will give here under oath.”

“That,” replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, “is as you choose. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as a part of my testimony under oath.”

“But you say it is incredible.”

“That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true.”

The coroner was apparently not greatly affected by the young man’s manifest resentment. He was silent for some moments, his eyes upon the floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his eyes and said: “We will resume the inquest.”

The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.

“What is your name?” the coroner asked.

“William Harker.”



“You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?”


“You were with him when he died?”

“Near him.”

“How did that happen—your presence, I mean?”

“I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him, and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories.”

“I sometimes read them.”

“Thank you.”

“Stories in general—not yours.”

Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humor shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.

“Relate the circumstances of this man’s death,” said the coroner. “You may use any notes or memoranda that you please.”

The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held it near the candle, and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he wanted, began to read.


“…The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged from the chaparral, Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly, we heard, at a little distance to our right, and partly in front, a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.

“‘We’ve started a deer,’ said. ‘I wish we had brought a rifle.’

“Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and imminent peril.

“‘O, come!’ I said. ‘You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot, are you?’

“Still he did not reply; but, catching a sight of his face as he turned it slightly toward me, I was struck by the pallor of it. Then I understood that we had serious business on hand, and my first conjecture was that we had ‘jumped’ a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan’s side, cocking my piece as I moved.

“The bushes were now quiet, and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.

“‘What is it? What the devil is it?’ I asked.

“‘That Damned Thing!’ he replied, without turning his head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.

“I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.

“Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember—and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then—that once, in looking carelessly out of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage, and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulders and fire both barrels at the agitated grass! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud savage cry—a scream like that of a wild animal—and, flinging his gun upon the ground, Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke—some soft, heavy substance that seemed thrown against me with great force.

“Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan’s retreat; and may heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.

“All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly. During the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard from the throat of man or brute!

“For a moment only I stood irresolute, then, throwing down my gun, I ran forward to my friend’s assistance. I had a vague belief that he was suffering from a fit or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but, with a feeling of such terror as even these awful events had not inspired, I now saw the same mysterious movement of the wild oats prolonging itself from the trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and look at my companion. He was dead.”


The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether naked and showing in the candle light a clay-like yellow. It had, however, broad maculations of bluish-black, obviously caused by extravasated blood from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in strips and shreds.

The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their curiosity, and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the handkerchief upon the dead man’s neck, the coroner stepped to an angle of the room, and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another, each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only thing that was new to them being Harker’s testimony.

“Gentlemen,” the coroner said, “we have no more evidence, I think. Your duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to ask you may go outside and consider your verdict.”

The foreman rose—a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.

“I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner,” he said. “What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?”

“Mr. Harker,” said the coroner, gravely and tranquilly, “from what asylum did you last escape?”

Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose and solemnly filed out of the cabin.

“If you have done insulting me, sir,” said Harker, as soon as he and the officer were left alone with the dead man, “I suppose I am at liberty to go?”


Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The habit of his profession was strong in him—stronger than his sense of personal dignity. He turned about and said:

“The book that you have there—I recognize it as Morgan’s diary. You seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying. May I see it? The public would like—”

“The book will cut no figure in this matter,” replied the official, slipping it into his coat pocket; “all the entries in it were made before the writer’s death.”

As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered and stood about the table on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper, and wrote rather laboriously the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:

“We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”


In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries mentioned can not be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away; the part of the entry remaining is as follows:

“… would run in a half circle, keeping his head turned always toward the centre and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.

“Can a dog see with his nose? Do odors impress some olfactory centre with images of the thing emitting them? . . .

“Sept 2.—Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively disappear—from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all that were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it, and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! I don’t like this. . . .”

Several weeks’ entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.

“Sept. 27.—It has been about here again—I find evidences of its presence every day. I watched again all of last night in the same cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not sleep—indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable! If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.

“Oct. 3.—I shall not go—it shall not drive me away. No, this is my house, my land. God hates a coward….

“Oct. 5.—I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a few weeks with me—he has a level head. I can judge from his manner if he thinks me mad.

“Oct. 7.—I have the solution of the problem; it came to me last night—suddenly, as by revelation. How simple—how terribly simple!

“There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail, for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a hill.

“It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.

“As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale’ I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see.

“And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!”

From Wikipedia:

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842– circa 1914) was an American short story writer, journalist, poet, and American Civil War veteran. His book The Devil’s Dictionary was named as one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature” by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. His story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has been described as “one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature”, and his book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (also published as In the Midst of Life) was named by the Grolier Club as one of the 100 most influential American books printed before 1900…”

“Window” Dark Science-Fiction by M.P. Strayer

“Okay, Mom. Last one.”

Donna Cheever leaned—immured where she sat in a colorful mound of crumpled paper—and plucked the green envelope from its perch among the bottom branches of the family’s seven foot artificial pine tree. Behind her the twins capered madly about the den clad in new AR headsets, interacting with a host of genial digital beings only they perceived. Richard was looking at her with an eager smile that seemed to transform him briefly into the little boy Donna hoped so futilely he would remain forever, and which she thought now endearing and mysterious. Twelve years old, Richard was just beginning his voyage into broody pubescence, and that smile, bright and unassuming, was increasingly rare. Donna arched a brow at her husband, as if to ask: What have you done? Tony, seated next to Richard midst a great piling of balled paper, smiled back and nodded, as if to respond: You’ll see.

“Go on, hon. Open it.”

She popped her thumb beneath the seal.

Inside was a slip of white stationary on which was printed a single couplet. Donna read: “I came from the machine that writes our documents and such… You’ll find my brother… at the one that makes our lunch?” She laughed. “Tony what is this?”

“Not sure,” the colonel answered as Richard sprang to his feet and bounded away, shreds of wrapping whispering in his wake like dry leaves. “But if I had to guess I’d say it’s a clue.”

“A clue?”

“Mom in here!” called Richard from the kitchen. “C’mon!”

Tony put his chin in his hand. “Wonder what that’s all about.”

Donna stood, an avalanche of paper tumbling across the floor.


They found Richard at the Fabricator. The first thing Donna noticed was that several of the machine’s element canisters were reading low. I’ll have to order some more calcium, she thought. Carbon too… And then, scanning past the holiday greeting cards affixed by magnets to the Fabricator’s sleek black façade (from other military families, each presenting in miniature a portrait of striking similarity to the one currently hanging above the Cheevers’ fireplace: N.U. officers in dress blues, posed with spouses and children on wide lawns in front of sprawling homes, beneath rolling flags: the stars and stripes of the former United States, and the swinging sword and sunburst of the New Union), she saw another green envelope, taped over the dispensation bay.

The second note read:

Well that was easy, but Dickey showed the way… Find my sister on your own this time, in a cottage where the girls like to play.

Too easy, Donna thought, feeling herself swept up in the game. She uncovered the next clue in the twins’ playhouse in the backyard (at a hundred square feet, complete with functioning bathroom, kitchenette, and state-of-the-art nanny surveillance system, the designation was something of a misnomer), taped to the entertainment center’s wireless projector. She took down the now familiar green fold.

“Look at you go! That one was obvious, I know… Seek my mate where it’s dry, hiding beneath a cup of snow…

“How did you do this?” she said to Tony, brandishing the slip.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” His grin faded and he looked up as, overhead, a fleet of airships went tearing west across the pale December sky, causing the playhouse’s walls to rattle. He was the only one to react to the sound of their passing. In the other world Tony occupied, on the opposite end of their torn country, jets were a vital component of everyday life; for Donna and the kids, for whom the logistics of war were more an abstraction than anything, the drone of distant turbines was so regular it scarcely registered.

The next one took a bit longer, but she got it eventually: tucked under the high-definition, holographic snowglobe on the mantel back in the living room. The envelope hadn’t been there that morning, Donna was sure of it. So Tony had enlisted the help of the twins in this escapade, who joined them now in their flashing goggles looking very proud for having accomplished the mission Daddy had set for them while their momma was being distracted outside.

So it went. Clue after clue the green envelopes conducted her through the house—out, into the garage, to the kennel of the home security drone (courtesy of the New Union, for the colonel had many enemies); inside again—Richard and the twins racing ahead in their excitement, Tony on point. Lastly she was led into her bedroom where, as another set of jets shook the sky above, Donna beheld hanging on the wall a black rectangular pane, perhaps three feet wide by six feet tall, with a red bow stuck to its upper corner.

“Merry Christmas Mom!” the children trilled in unison.

“What is it?” She stepped closer and could see her reflection—featureless smudge of skintone—appear across its surface. The device looked like a television screen or computer monitor and it was thin as tapestry.

“Window on,” said Tony.

The pane lit up, becoming a sheet of lambent silver like the backing on a mirror.

“Tony,” Donna said. “What—”

“Juniper,” he said. “You there? Come out and meet the family.”

For a beat nothing happened. Then color flooded the screen, and Donna was staring at an amused and pretty face not her own, so clear and textured it seemed the only thing that separated them was a layer of glass.

She jumped. It was a woman’s face, taut and tan, green eyes twinkling. The sides of her head were shaven. Her short pink hair arose in a wispy spume from the crown of her scalp and her cheeks were high and pointed. A metal stud glinted in the left nostril of her bladelike nose. She had on a sleeveless neoprene shirt and matching compression shorts (Spin clothes, Donna thought of them) and her arms and legs were slim, muscular, sinewy in the way of old tree roots, and her bust was small and flat. She peered at Donna out of a radiant silver void, as if suspended in a prism. She was smiling.

“You must be Mrs. Cheever,” she said. “I’m Juniper. I’d offer to shake, but…” She shrugged and held up her hands: What’re ya gonna do?

“Hi Juniper!” said the twins in tandem, coming up to the screen.

“And you’re the girls I’ve heard so much about,” she said. “Who’s Ally?”

“That’s me,” Ally said.

“Then you must be Erin.” Juniper smiled at them, one to the next. “Nice to meet you.” She put her hands on her thighs, leaned forward at the waist. “Those are some sweet headsets. Did Santa bring them for you?”

“There’s no such thing as Santa,” said Ally.

“Wow,” said Erin, craning her neck, pushing her goggles up onto her forehead like the world’s tiniest bombardier. “It knows our names…”

She,” Tony said. “She’s a real person, hon. Be respectful.”

“That leaves Richard,” Juniper said. She gave him a lingering, appraising look. “Handsome boy. Nice jammies.”

Richard flushed and looked at the floor. 

Juniper giggled.

“Tony,” Donna said, turning. “What is this?” She glanced back at the girl in the screen. “Who is that?”

“That is a Window,” he said. “It’s an interactive smart display. Juniper is one of its apps.”

“She’s… an app?”

“Technically she’s a personal trainer. Your personal trainer.”

“I’m a real-time, on-demand fitness instructor,” Juniper said. “And yes, as Colonel Cheever just explained, I’m a person, not a bot—here to fulfill all your family’s health and wellness needs. You’re signed up for premium membership. That includes training, nutritional advice, round-the-clock consultations, blood analysis. The works.”

“You got me a trainer?” Donna’s hand went unconsciously to the budding paunch harbored beneath her sweater. Why would he get me this? she thought.

“A Window,” Tony said. “It also has a video messaging system, so we can chat while I’m away and it’ll be like I’m right here in the room with you.” He looked at her. “You seem… underwhelmed.”

“Huh?” she said. “No Tony. It’s great.”


“Really,” she said. “I like it.” She watched the girls, exploring the boundaries of the device; the trainer above, looking on and laughing. Richard stood off to the side, observing furtively, shoulders slumped, hands in his pockets.

“Are you sure?” Tony asked. “Because if not we can return it. I just thought it was something cool. Rodrigs got one for Eloise and said the family loves it. Said the chat feature really helps during deployments.”

“No Tony, honest,” Donna said. “I like it. It’s unexpected, is all. I look forward to using it. Thank you.”

She raised up on her toes and kissed him on the lips.

“Excellent.” He put his arm around her shoulder and faced the screen. Juniper and the girls were giving dap, bumping knuckles to their respective panes as if all that existed between them was a veil of glass. It was uncanny; she seemed so present. So tangible. Donna wondered where the feed originated, how much space actually divided them. She couldn’t say yet how she felt about the device (there was no denying the spell of insecurity the wiry trainer provoked)—but she had to concede the technology piqued her interest. And the chat feature would be nice. No substitute for the real thing, but still…

“Thank you,” she said again, meaning it. She leaned and kissed him on the cord of his stubbled neck.

“Merry Christmas love,” he said.


He left the following morning. To a battlefield in California, faraway. He couldn’t predict when he would return. “Might be a while,” he told Donna, before walking down the drive to the automated town car idling at the curb. “These rebels… They’re just kids. They have the conviction of kids who don’t know better.” He shook his head. “Have Juniper walk you through the Window set-up, will you? We’ll talk when I can.”

She watched as the town car drove away and disappeared and, like a kind of sendoff, a brace of bomber jets roared westward out of the base nearby. Off to rain fire on the heads of the secessionists, Donna supposed. Where her husband was headed. Her husband the hero.

Gone again.


“No need to be shy, Mrs. Cheever. This is part of the process. Think of it like a check-up.”

“Please Juniper. Call me Donna. Or Don. And you must understand this makes me uncomfortable.”

“Of course, Don. I get it. But since we can’t meet in person, this is the only way I can get a sense of where we’re at and where we’ll go from here.” She smirked. “What? Think you got something I haven’t seen before? Now strip, girl. Let’s see them moneymakers.”

Donna laughed. Her blouse was halfway off her shoulders when a thought occurred to her and she dropped her hands.

“How do I know you’re the only one who can see me?”

“There are strict privacy parameters governing the operation of the Window,” Juniper said. “Tell the truth, tech is not my wheelhouse, but there are a buncha firewalls that make our stream pretty much unhackable. And as far as other people being here with me now, I would have to disclose that information to you. If I didn’t I would lose my job and probably face some jail time, too.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Still she hesitated.

“I’ll prove it to you,” Juniper said. And before Donna could say anything more, the trainer pulled her shirt up and over her head and cast it aside, facing into Donna’s bedroom with her lean chest bare to the world.

“Juniper!” Donna gasped, looking away.

“Told ya,” the trainer said. “Just us in here. See? Nothing to worry about.”

She didn’t have a single tan line. No scars or stretch marks. Her breasts were straps of muscle from which jutted two tiny pink nipples and her waspish waist was sharply defined. Toned wasn’t the word for it, Donna thought, the woman was ripped—and for an instant she was lost in a startling vision of dainty hands, perhaps her own, tip-toeing down the warm ingots of the trainer’s naked abs, so vivid the ends of her fingers tingled and a pleasant heat, not so much confusing as surprising, bloomed in the pit of her stomach—then she realized she was staring and looked away again. Her heart was thudding.

“Okay Don. The ice has been broken. Shall we continue?”

After a moment, Donna did.

When she was finished she stood before the Window in bra and panties, her ears and cheeks burning, neck flushed. She waited.

“Jeeze,” Juniper said. “You’re gorgeous!”

Donna’s blush deepened. “Thanks.”

“I’m serious. And I want you to remember it. You don’t need me. You’re already a healthy, beautiful human being. But our bodies are works-in-progress, and there’s always room for improvement. Right?”

“If you say so.”

“Let’s get started.”


They began with three sessions a week, each lasting about forty-five minutes during which they would enact together a series of exercises ranging from bodyweight calisthenics and plyometrics to yoga and recuperative stretching, as well as twice-monthly meetings in which they went over Donna’s progress. Though her initial reaction to the gift had been lackluster (in fact, with its implications of a certain inadequacy, the device had hurt her feelings), she came to enjoy her work with Juniper, and by February the twins were joining in the weekly yoga classes and Richard was on a weightlifting program. By summer, as the insurgency in the west raged on, the pace was upped to five sessions a week, Donna felt better than ever, and everybody in the house had come to regard the girl in the Window as a trusted friend.


One day Donna came home to find Richard in her bedroom.

He was standing at the Window, gazing into it, the fingers of his right hand at rest lightly on the screen. As soon as Donna entered the hand fell and he turned to her with stricken eyes that set her internal alarms to ringing. “What’s going on?” she said, striding forward.

Richard spun as if to block her view and stove his hands into his pockets. “Nothin,” he said.

She looked at the screen. Juniper was there, smiling.

“Afternoon Don,” she said.

“Juniper.” Donna looked at Richard. “What are you doing in here?”


He made as if to leave but Donna caught his arm.

“What have I said about using the Window when I’m not home?”


His eyes were flat, distant; his aspect surly. He would not look at her. 

Donna sighed.

“Close the door behind you,” she said, letting him go.

He left.

“Sorry about that,” said Juniper. “Kid just wanted to talk. I didn’t know you had rules against it.”

“What did he want to talk about?”

“Oh, usual teenaged boy stuff. Apparently some maid has spurned our Richard’s advances.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. I think he just wanted a woman’s take on the situation. And, you know… It’s not exactly the sort of thing a guy feels he can talk to his mom about.”

“He can talk to me about anything.”

“Sure. But I’m a foreigner here, and thus my opinion is unclouded by bias. Besides,” she said. “You know how kids are. Teenagers can be secretive We still on for tonight?”

“No,” said Donna, shaking her head. “No I don’t think so. I’m feeling tired right now, and I still have to get dinner ready, and later I have a chat scheduled with Tony. I just want to rest.”

“You’re not coming down with something are you?” The trainer’s eyes sparkled with concern. “Summer bug or something like that? Because you’ve been sleeping well, according to my charts…”

“No, nothing like that. It’s just these chats with Tony… They take a toll. You know?”

“Of course. The distance has gotta suck. You should know I’m also here for you if you need me. Day or night. Total health is about more than just physical wellbeing.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Donna said.

“Please do. And listen to your body.”

She logged off.

Donna remained as before, looking at the blank screen.


“When you coming home, baby?”

Tony’s grin faltered. 

“I told you I can’t say. The guerillas are pushing back hard. I’m responsible for an entire battalion. We can only do so much with drones in a fight like this; this war requires boots on the ground, and those boots need directing. We have to stop them here. If we don’t…”

He didn’t finish. Donna wagged her head. “Okay,” she said.

She said no more. Tony watched her. He was in a field tent somewhere in the Sierra Nevada and in that longitude it was early evening and he was alone. On his end the chat was being streamed through a laptop and his wife’s face appeared small and sad and for a moment he was panged by his inability to palliate her loneliness. From Donna’s perspective it was as if his upper body studied her from a lamplit alcove cut in the very wall. As if she could but reach out a hand and stroke his cheek.

“Hey,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“How about how great you look. The work with Juniper is really paying off.”


A pause. The colonel’s grin returned. Tentative. Devious.

“The kids asleep?”

Donna knew what he was getting at and she smiled then a bleak and melancholy smile despite her worry and frustration. Sex through the Window amounted to no more than mutual masturbation with a convincing projection—but it was better than nothing. Besides, Donna thought, it was sort of kinky. Sort of fun. Hot, even. Especially with the figure she’d acquired since Tony’s deployment, which made her feel sexy and powerful and which, having earned it with her sweat, she was learning she enjoyed showing off. Perhaps a bit of distraction wasn’t what she needed right now—no, what she needed was her partner back—but it couldn’t hurt, either.

She stood, turned and went into her bathroom, Tony calling after her: “Don? I wasn’t trying to upset you, I just thought—”

When she came back she was naked and her husband’s protests were cut short, as if he’d forgotten how to breathe. She liked that.

She sat in the floor in front of the Window, propping herself on her elbows. Arched her back. She flashed him a coquettish smile. The colonel’s face lit with a combination of surprise and excitement that Donna loved. She brought her knees together slowly, and then, slowly, parted them again. “What?” she said. “You just thought what?” Her hand lifted from the carpet. Touched her breast. She traced the skin of her areola with the tip of her index finger and the nipple stood erect as if fanned by an icy whisper. She saw Tony rise stripping off his shirt and fumbling with his belt and her hand circled lower, lower, skating like a breath across the smooth flat span of her stomach.

“Well?” she said.

She was almost there when she saw something in the Window that made her stop.

“What is it?” Tony said. “What’s wrong?”

Donna was on her feet, arms covering her breasts and groin.

The colonel glanced hastily over his shoulder as if he thought someone might be sneaking up on him and reached for his sidearm, never far. He was still alone. Donna came up to the screen and stood scrutinizing it intently. Had she really seen that just now? she wondered.

But there was only the murk of Tony’s field tent, three thousand miles away. Only Tony, topless and bewildered. Donna stepped back and frowned.

“Don? What is it? Is it the kids?”

“It’s nothing,” she said. She did not sound certain.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I thought maybe the machine was glitching out.” She smiled wanly. “I’m sorry. I’m such a spaz. I’ve gone and spoiled the mood, haven’t I?”

He looked round again, his eyes mischievous, hopeful.

“Have you?”

Yes, Tony,” she said, and at the expression of boyish despair that went tumbling down his face Donna laughed, notwithstanding the misgiving in her pounding heart.  


Later she stood at the Window again, dressed in a bathrobe and studying the silver home screen.

She was thinking: What was that?


Is it even possible?

What she’d seen was a pair of translucent green eyes hovering disembodied in the upper corner of the Window’s pane, observing Donna as she pleasured herself and alight with an unmistakable glee she recognized at once. After all: she saw it many times a week, often as she struggled through the final set of whatever tortuous routine Juniper had devised for the day. Donna believed that look evidenced a mild sadistic streak and thought probably all good personal trainers had a cruel vein running through them. But Juniper was not supposed to be able to make herself appear on her own. The policy was one of numerous security measures in place to protect the Cheevers’ privacy and Donna didn’t understand how it could be breached. She wasn’t even sure it had been, and the longer she stood staring at the changeless argent rectangle the more she became convinced the fleeting vision was just her imagination. Although why she would imagine Juniper’s eyes on her as she was achieving climax with Tony was something she didn’t want to think about. Discomfited by this track of thought, telling herself she was acting paranoid, Donna turned from the screen. She went to her bureau against the far wall and began hunting through its drawers for a set of nightwear: cotton pajama shorts and one of her husband’s old holey infantry shirts.

She did not turn around as she dressed, but if she had she would have seen that the Window’s screen was no longer blank. A figure had materialized in the pane: pellucid, partial, a faint silhouette like a person manifesting in a bank of fog. Spectral. Watching.

The figure receded. And when delicate prickles like wraiths’ fingers fluttering at the nape of her neck did prompt Donna to face about and regard the device, she was confronted only by an empty screen.


Beyond the shut door to Donna’s bedroom the house was quiet. Down the hall the twins snoozed soundly in their bunks. Across from their room Richard’s door was closed and locked. A blue light shone through the gaps surrounding this door, emanating from the room within.


In a dream Donna was thrashing in the undergrowth of a torrid jungle and it was dense and verdant and she was fighting it as the boiling green closed in and threatened to engulf her like a crashing wave… She woke panting to the realization she couldn’t breathe. Coughing fire, she sat up in bed and clawed the air; then her body heaved and she flopped to her side and puked on the floor.

That’s when she saw Juniper in the Window. The trainer was naked, lying on her stomach with her chin in her hands, toes kicking behind her. She tilted her head and gave a little wave:

“Hi Don.”

What—” was all she could manage. She coughed; her body was wrenched by a paroxysm of pain; she fell from the mattress. Now her eyes and nose were burning, her vision hazed, and the room seemed to be spinning around her. She inhaled and whooped breathlessly; it was as if she was drowning in air.

Juniper laughed.

“Did you know crude mustard gas can be made from just four elements? I bet you didn’t—weapons of mass destruction are your husband’s forte—but it’s true. Carbon, sulfur, chlorine, hydrogen. All of which can be purchased through any common household Fabricator. Easy enough to make if you know the proportions, although not so easy to control once it’s vaporized. Isn’t that interesting?”

Donna pressed her mouth and nostrils into the nap of the carpet and discovered she was able to breathe a little easier. With her first draught of semi-clear air a single imperative leapt into her mind like a shout:

The children!

Juniper, as if reading her thoughts, went on:

“The gas is fatal to adults if they’re exposed to it for too long—but I wouldn’t worry if I were you. A strong woman like yourself… It could take hours before the effects became lethal. But with kids…” The trainer shrugged. “Who can say? Their constitutions are just so underdeveloped…

Donna pushed to her feet. Now was not the time for questions. Impelled by a fierce instinct she had never before experienced, she tore the coverlet from her bed, bunched it against her face and rushed into the hall. Juniper watched her go, smiling.

The trainer was waiting for her on the flat screen in the twins’ room when Donna burst through the door.

“Gee,” she said. “That’s too bad… It appears you’ve come too late.”

The girls were in the floor in their matching pajamas, entangled in one another’s arms, foreheads together, as if frozen in an act of shared comfort. It would have been a sentimental image if not for the vomit that coated them and the utter motionlessness of their mirrored forms. Their stillness was lapidary in that moonlit gloom and it struck Donna with the force of awful irrevocable certainty. She went to them and dropped to her knees, moaning through the blanket. When she touched them their bodies jostled bonelessly. Ally’s mouth fell open.

“Ouch,” Juniper said. “Don’t I know that hurts. I found my parents just like that in the rubble of our apartment after an NU airstrike leveled my hometown. It was one of those central-nowhere California burgs along the interstate, and it was wiped from the map that day. My parents, my brother, my friends. All gone. The New Union believed our town sheltered a rebel stronghold. That was two years ago, at the start of the Revolution. The man who’d ordered the strike was a captain by name of Anthony Cheever.”

Donna stood.

“Course, the cap’n goes by colonel now. I imagine he scored a nice commendation for what he did that day…”

Donna looked down at her girls for the last time. There was nothing she could do for them now. And she did not grieve them, not yet; rather, she was bolstered by the knowledge that while they were gone her son might still be saved. She went out the door, Juniper calling after her:

“Better hurry!”

The boy’s door was locked. Donna kicked it in without thinking. She found him splayed in the floor, prone on his stomach. As she turned him over Richard’s television winked on, and there was Juniper, looking down.

“Here’s our little man! You know, if it weren’t for him none of this woulda been possible. Dickey here was my skeleton key.”

Donna ignored her. She held the back of her hand beneath Richard’s nose. C’mon, she thought. Please…

“Wasn’t hard neither,” Juniper cajoled. “Boys. They’re so easy to manipulate. All I had to do was show him a lil bit of skin with the promise of more if he gave me what I needed to access the home network.”

Yes, Donna thought. It was there: breath, flowing. She could feel it coming and going, so faintly on her skin. Richard was alive.

“Told him if he did that we could have all the fun we wanted in the privacy of his bedroom. Course that’s the problem with these smart homes: one network controls everything. Your appliances, for example. The ventilation system, for another.”

No time for relief. Donna scooped Richard into her arms and took off running down the hall, the stairs and out the front door, Juniper’s mad laughter ringing in her ears…

The black night air was cold and clean. Donna let the coverlet down from her mouth and breathed. The air was more delicious than anything she’d ever tasted. She was weeping but didn’t know it. In her arms Richard’s brow knotted and he began to cough. Donna looked back at the house they’d flown, rearing against the starry sky, its windows dark.

She’d forgotten about the Hound.

The security drone came barreling into the yard, steel limbs flashing in the starlight. Donna saw the headlamps of its eyes first, streaking towards them. She had time to discern its open maw, its terrible talons, and then—still driven by a ferocious survival instinct she hadn’t known she possessed—she understood in a flare of insight that the machine was under Juniper’s control, and it was coming for them. She also knew the Hound was a weapon designed to subdue and kill dangerous people (Threats, Tony called them) and if it got its claws on her there would be nothing she could do.

She hugged her son to her chest and ran, bare toes digging in the grass.

The Hound was closing in when she came in sight of the playhouse. She achieved the door, hoping against hope it was unlocked, knowing if it wasn’t they were finished. The knob twisted in her hand; the door swung. She stepped inside and slammed it shut behind her, threw the latch and sank to her heels. A moment later there was a tremendous crash at her back—the entire structure shuddered for the impact—and Donna rose, turned, and backed away into the tiny cell, staring at the door as it shivered in its frame. There came another crash. A rift appeared in the wood, wide enough Donna could see the moving glint of steel on the other side as the drone tried to fight its way in.

She looked round as if to seek an exit but there was none.

With a click and whir the wireless projector snapped to life. Juniper’s slim nude likeness luminesced across the far wall.

“Hi Don! Boy you’ve got yourself in quite a pickle haven’t you?”

Another vicious crash. Another splinter lanced across the door.

Donna spun.

“Why are you doing this? Whatever was done to you it wasn’t us. Let us go! Please!”

Juniper sneered. 

“I wonder: how many times has your husband been rewarded for blasting some innocent town out of existence? How much collateral damage has he dealt in the name of his fascist union? No one I knew was part of the Revolution when the bombs began to fall. I joined the cause the very next day.”

“Please,” Donna sobbed. “Please. He was just following orders…”

Juniper scoffed.

“Well. He had his and I have mine. I must say the infiltration went more smoothly than anticipated. You service families are so predictable… One of em gets a new toy and all the rest just have to have one too.”

Rodrigs, Donna thought. The playhouse shook as the drone attacked again. She could hear the door beginning to give. Richard stirred. Opened his eyes.

“Mom? I don’t feel so good…”

He retched. Donna looked over her shoulder to see the Hound’s red eyes flickering through the cracks in the door.

When she looked back Juniper had changed positions and her legs were spread and she was watching the door as it came down, piece by piece. At the sight of what the trainer’s hands were doing a surreal swoon descended over Donna and she sat in the floor.

“No one will know what happened here,” said the trainer, gyring her hips. “No one. Your husband will come home to find his house in ruin, his family murdered by the technology he thought would keep them safe…”

“Mom,” said Richard. “Momma…”

“…And I’ll be here, watching. Every moment.” Her voice rose: “Such privilege. Such…”

There was a snap like a bone breaking and the door shattered.

Juniper cried: “Yes! Yes, yes, yes!”

“Momma,” said Richard.

She heard a noise behind her like the points of many knives skittering in the floor. The urgency of Juniper’s cries increased. Donna pressed her face into the crown of Richard’s head, tasting the reek of the gas trapped in his hair, and closed her eyes.

M.P. Strayer resides in Corvallis, Oregon. Most recently, his work has appeared in Alien Dimensions, Loch Raven Review, and Carmina Magazine. 

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“Finding a Home for a Rescue Man” Dark Fiction by Mike Neis

The man reached for my chest. I could not move or scream. “What’s wrong?” he said. “You agreed to this, remember?” His fingers were knives. They pierced my skin. Blood ran down his arm as his hand plunged deeper and deeper…

That was the part when I woke, clutching my chest. I got up and opened the curtain. 

It was already noon. The hotel walls were a pale, scratched green, like the color of hibiscus leaves beset with white flies. At one time, those walls were a hue that would have been soothing, but decay had made them splotchy, unsightly, rather like the metropolis in which I lived. 

A tent card, old and limp, advertised a nearby brothel. A muted TV showed a nautilus consuming a crab, its legs disappearing through rippling tentacles.

Like a barnacle on a ship, I had attached myself to Coraldeth, a company. I was constantly pushing out tendrils in the hope of catching something, and I had just caught a juicy one. I sat down at my computer and communicated my plans for this new project.

Years ago, I worked with animals in a small office, I think. Dogs and cats, I think. One day a man approached me and offered a different career. I cannot remember his name or his face, but I must have agreed.

I started work with Coraldeth. The preparation for my new job involved darkness, needles, and blood, but at the end of it I became a resourceful talent manager.

The Metro was a huge city, sucking life out of the districts that surrounded it. If I had ever been to those places, I could not remember them. The city was a giant hive, but unlike bees, no one worked for the collective good. I knew I did not.

Many girls arrived at The Metro from the districts, transfixed with the sound of the buzzing hive, the movement, the opportunity. Those girls would do anything to escape the rural poverty and oppressive local government. I did not blame them. 

In desperation for something resembling the family they had just left, they clung to their old religion, like a hermit crab to its shell. The Metro had churches for them, of course. The girls did not understand that the churches were rotten like all the other institutions of this foul city.

I had sourced all my girls from the churches. I felt comfortable there. The talent was just the right kind for me to use. I was the only manager who recruited this way.

Leilani was my juicy one. She had a high forehead, large dark eyes, pouty lips, and pale skin smoothed out over an expressive face. She was soloing at St. Konan’s, a church in a vast industrial area where I had discovered many girls. They sang well but could never become stars until I had them processed. 

I started with Leilani the same way I did with all the other girls. After Mass was over, I would ask to have a word. It was important to get them alone. I would tell them I was a talent scout and that I could make them a star. Their eyes would always light up. 

I took Leilani to a diner where she ordered a beans and rice meal typical of her district. As she straightened her blouse, I noticed its collar had tiny kittens embroidered into it. She worked at the boot mill, a foul facility that made its workers silly with the chemicals they used. Back where she came from, her mother limped on her left foot when she was tired, and her father always asked the same question about dinner when he arrived home to a household with six daughters and three sons. 

Besides singing at her church, she also taught religion to the children and visited the old folks’ home. I chewed on my BLT sandwich and kept her talking. I would need to get her far away from this parish.

I told Leilani about being a star, and that a large entertainment organization with the right connections was necessary. I told her that Coraldeth could make her famous and that everyone would want to see her. I also told her that every star needs to have cosmetic work done.

She was nodding her head. She took the “cosmetic work” without reacting, so I moved in to close the deal. I told her that all my stars underwent a special procedure which turned ordinary people into spectacular singers. I gave her examples of celebrities that Coraldeth had already transformed. Leilani hung on every word.

I pulled out a contract for her to sign while I casually lied about other prospects I was about to choose from that day. I pointed out the pay, the benefits, and the support. I neglected to mention how the procedure causes lost memory, and other long-term health problems. The money always helped. As soon as I gave them money, they would give me their trust. They would quit their jobs and be ready to do anything.

She signed immediately. She did not even ask about the side effects of the procedure.

Once they signed, I took my projects to “Doctor Ernie,” a fat old sea slug of a man. In the middle of his loose jowls sat a small mouth with jutting lips, usually hanging open. His rapacious smile displayed rows of chipped teeth. He would laugh when I called him “Doctor Ernest” in front of the girls. They often got nervous at this point, and I had to work hard to keep them calm. Leilani asked to bring a friend. I told her there was no time, and that I would look after her.

The procedure took a couple of hours. I waited in a nearby park that had a half-dried lake and occasional patches of grass. A homeless man approached me and held out his hand. 

“Little help?” 

I told him I had something for him. Putting some gloves on, I walked around to an alley adjoining the park. The surprised look on his face when I caught him on my backhanded fist was amusing. So was his ragdoll appearance on the ground when I walked away. 

My projects usually needed a few days to recover. After some rehearsing, I would take them to The Docks, a lawless part of The Metro with foreigners, money, and contraband.

Kids thronged to “Squawkers,” a night club where aspiring musicians could get a start. The chain link fence had trash wedged into its openings. Puddles of luminescent waste filled the potholes, and the night hid the faded paint on the outside walls. Inside, the tired smell of cigarettes and addictive drugs filled the air. It was there that Leilani gave her first performance.

I had recruited the band from lists that Coraldeth provided me. The musicians came to gigs with their tattoos, colored hair, filed teeth and surgically altered appendages. I ignored their appearances and paid them, making everyone happy. 

The chaotic slam of drums destroyed the pre-performance quiet. A guitar screech was so loud you did not need ears to hear it. Leilani started jumping across the front of the stage, screaming, and thrashing with such energy that her body parts barely seemed connected. The band banged out song after song with wrenching intensity and the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy. 

At the end of the evening the band milked its final note, while Leilani ran from one side of the stage to the other, screaming and crashing into the musicians. They laughed. When the curtain fell, she stood rooted just behind it while the musicians put away their gear. 

“Leilani, why are you standing there like that?” I asked. She turned to me. Emotion twisted her face as she realized she had finished her first successful concert. She sprinted in my direction and slammed into my chest, nearly throwing me to the floor. Her tiny body convulsed with sobs as she clung to me.

She was so different from my other girls. Usually, they would strut off stage with the cold arrogance of an established star, waiting for everyone to bow down and worship. Ernie’s procedure was supposed to take the emotion out of my projects, but it did not work this time. I did not report this to my bosses. Leilani had made a lot of money for everyone that night.

Just as strange, Leilani continued going to church every Sunday. Again, I did nothing. She was far away from St. Konan’s, and the schedules of churches and night clubs rarely conflict. Protective of my investment, I accompanied her, and even got to know the pastor. But she no longer sang as cantor. She belonged to me. 

After church we would sit outside for donuts and coffee. She would gaze at me with those surgically enhanced eyes and ask me questions. I could not remember much about my past, so I described my job. I told her a few stories of how I handled club owners who did not pay. She looked at me like a small child, infatuated with a grandpa. She made fun of the gray on my temples, laughed at my jokes, and called me “Papi.” 

She would break off pieces of her donut and feed them to the pigeons as they surrounded her. I would laugh, and she would hide her face.

And what a voice. No disappointments with the procedure this time. Leilani’s voice grew from two and a half octaves to five. Once, just for fun, I measured her singing with a studio oscilloscope. She nailed every pitch, exactly. With a little coaching, she mastered the use of breath, dynamics, and microphones. She could growl, yodel, and scream precisely on key, and it all came so easily to her.

Her favorite music was a kind of techno chick pop. She sang it with a gritty voice, broadening its appeal. She packed night clubs with girls who dressed like her. Then the boys came. As her celebrity grew, I could hire some of the best writers in the industry for new material. 

Her emotional fits after concerts did not subside.

“Leilani, are you okay?” I asked when she was, once again, in tears.

She slapped herself in the face and grunted like a pig. “I wish I wasn’t losing it all the time. What’s my fucking problem?”


We were trapped in a spider’s web. I was hanging limp. As she shook the web with quaking emotion, blood began to flow in my veins. I also began to struggle, thinking, “maybe it is not so hopeless.”

A knock on my hotel door woke me. I opened my eyes and rolled over. I ignored the aches of my aging body as I hobbled to the door.

It was Leilani. She was looking down at the floor. 

“Can we go to the zoo?” 

“What time is it?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

“About ten in the morning. Can we go to the zoo? I know it’s stupid, but can we go?” Then she looked up at me with those big, merciless eyes.

It had been so long since I had been there. Would I even be able to find it?

Her eyes lit up. “Thank you. I’ll be in the lobby.”

The zoo smelled like manure and the day was hot. The enclosures, although large, had been denuded of all vegetation. Fascinated with the monkeys, she jumped around, saying “Hey monkey! Hey monkey!” Then she looked back at me, searching for any sign of disapproval. A laughing snort escaped my chest. She went back to jumping around, hooting, and calling, “Aaaack! Aaaack!” 

After she figured out that I was just laughing, she leapt up and grabbed a hook under the eaves of the monkey house and swung. She kept playing the monkey, leaping around on all fours. 

I was laughing all afternoon, and my chest felt a vigor it had not experienced in years. Then we got to the wolves. The enclosure had one wolf only. It was old, graying at the muzzle. Its canine gait and the way it scratched at its ears made something tighten deep in my stomach. I felt like I had a word on the tip of my tongue. Then the wolf stopped pacing and looked directly at me. Its eyes had a ravenous, longing hunger, like it had lost something long ago.

Leilani stopped jumping around and looked at me. “Papi. Are you okay?”

I shook my head as if waking. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”

We stopped in front of the pigeons in lofts. The sign described how they could always find their way home, no matter where they were. A nest holding tiny eggs was inside one of the cubbies. Leilani put her head on my shoulder. Her touch felt electric. No one had touched me in a long time.


We visited the zoo every week. I did not report any of this.

One rainy night after a concert, the limousine failed to show up and take Leilani, so I drove her myself. “Papi. Please take me up to my room,” she said as I pulled in front of the hotel. It was nice to be staying at shiny places with huge lobbies for a change. I shut off the motor and accompanied her. She needed a couple of attempts with the hotel key, but finally her door opened, revealing a pigeon walking about on the floor.

“Leilani,” I said. “Why is there a pigeon in your room?”

She covered her face and sighed. 

“He crashed into my balcony window, and I couldn’t just leave him there. But he seems better now.”

She approached the bird. It was tame in her hands. “Could you open the sliding door for me please?”

I opened the door, and she walked out on the balcony. She whispered a few words to the bird, and then cast it out to the sky. Its silhouette flapped against the lights below.

“Thank you for helping me, Papi,” she said, looking up at me like a small child. That girl was such an idiot. She did not understand how I was using her.

I went out to a convenience store for some marijuana. I got the good stuff this time. I went back to my car and smoked a bowl. Then I fell asleep.

Small hands freed me from the lofts. I was overjoyed to feel the air of the sky. I knew the ground, the trees, the houses below me. My wings had awakened and knew where to go.

When my eyes opened, I was still high. I did not notice or care whether it was dark or light. I turned on the ignition, pulled out onto the street, and drove. I passed through traffic lights and rotaries. Left, left, straight, right, left, straight. I drove on and on through empty streets.

It was still dark when I pulled in front of a small set of worn identical houses by a dirt road with no sidewalk. I got out of my car and approached the third door.

The lock, like many locks in The Metro, was fingerprint activated. I pressed my hand to the device, and it turned green. I pushed. The door gave me some resistance and then it creaked open. 

The walls had paintings of animals, especially dogs and cats. The air smelled of stillness, nothingness. The furniture of the sitting room was coated with dust and cobwebs. The refrigerator in the kitchen had food that was brown and rotted. Then I went into one of the bedrooms. My room. 

A guitar leaned against a corner by the closet. I picked it up and sat down on the bed to tune it. I played. My fingers knew exactly what to do. The melody was in a minor key, haunting me, calling me. I thought of incense and the colors of stained-glass windows.

The song ended. I got up, put the guitar back and straightened the covers on the bed. Why did I do that? My bed. It was meticulously made. 

I felt tired. The long night and the marijuana were catching up with me. I crawled back onto my bed and collapsed.

I was banging against a door. It would not open. The bones in my hands were breaking. My blood was spattering the floor. The door was beginning to crack.

I woke, went to a desk, and started digging through the drawers.

I found a small, green book in the first drawer. I paged through it and a number caught my eye. The number was in large script, and it had been crossed out in a single stroke that cut through the page. I could still read the number, however. 

I picked up an old phone on the desk and heard a tone. I dialed and listened to the ringing. A woman answered. 


Her voice was gentle and tired. It had a singing cadence, a lilt typical of the northern districts. I knew this voice. My eyes squinted. A response broke out from deep in my chest.


“Benjamin? Benjamin? Is that you?” 

She called out away from the phone, desperation screeching through her voice. “Richard! Richard! It’s Benjamin! He’s on the phone now!”

A man’s voice took over. “Benjamin? We’re sorry. We didn’t mean any of those things we said. Where have you been? What happened to you?”

“Dad. I’m okay. I know it’s been a while.” 

I felt confused. My insides felt like paper tearing into pieces.

“Wait. I don’t think I should have done this. I’m sorry. I have to go now. I’m sorry.”

“Benjamin…Wait! Don’t go! Where are you?”

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Goodbye.”



I put the phone back on the desk. My fingers, shaking, sifted through the drawers. I found a photograph of a man holding a dog, with a wall of cages behind him. His head was tilted back laughing and his eyes were closed. In another photo, that same man was holding a guitar alongside a few other people. A woman held a tambourine. They were standing in front of a church. I felt sick. This man was a churchgoing, guitar-playing animal-loving pussy!

I closed the desk drawer and walked out back to my car. I got away, but the feeling that I had torn something would not go away.


Leilani had become a master of working an audience. She had a smirk that never left her face as she gestured with her microphone. Her emotion-driven performances gave her a stage presence I had never seen before. In hit after hit, her voice dominated radios and bars across the Metro.

I began staying at my old house, despite the long trips involved. I cleaned it up, painted the walls and bought new furniture. Then, Leilani started staying in the bedroom opposite mine. She tried to hide it, but she was giving food to stray animals. Whenever I found a bowl of food on the porch, she hid her face in her hands. 

“I’m sorry, but he looked so hungry.”

I did not really care, but she seemed to want to hide these activities from me and even from herself.

The trajectories of my projects ran their course, like everything else of this brutal world. The fans were fickle and few of my girls had the talent necessary to continue for long.

But the fans were not the worst thing. The procedure did not take long to catch up with my projects. After a couple of years, they could not hit the high notes anymore and their pitch would deteriorate. Even worse, they would become paranoid and argumentative.

Leilani’s crying was getting worse, but at least she was still making money. Otherwise, I would have had to develop another girl quickly. I wondered how difficult moving on would be or if it was even possible. I was squeezing in concerts, and taking her to the movies, the zoo, and other outings every day.

The end came faster than I anticipated. I was coming back home with milk and burritos, and I found her seated at my computer, hanging up the phone. I felt my stomach crinkle up. Did I close out those password-protected files before I left?

Her eyes were creased, and her face was frozen. “Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“What you’ve done to all those other girls? Is that going to happen to me too?”

“Leilani. None of those girls were like you.”

“I suppose that means they never trusted you like I did.”

“No. It’s not like that.”

“How long before you get rid of me too? It seems like I don’t have much time left, do I?”

“Leilani. That was different. You’re different.”

“You’re lying! I’ll bet that’s what you tell all of them!” She got up and started gathering her things.

“Where are you going?”

“Away from you!” Her movements were quick and clumsy. 

I was walking behind her. “Leilani! No! You’re different. I have taken you into my house. I don’t want you to go. I don’t care how many fans you have. I don’t care about the money. You don’t understand what’s really going on. Please. You have to believe me!”

She was not even looking at me. I reached out as she approached the door, and she batted my hand away like it was a snake.

A cab had arrived and was waiting to pick her up. She walked out and slammed the door. Then she was gone.

I plopped down in front of my desk and opened a tracking program on my computer. The procedure had placed a transmitter in her head. I watched a little brown dot on the computer, superimposed on a map of the city. When I figured out where she was going, I got into my car, bracing myself for what I had to do. I could have done it all remotely, but I wanted to see her.

She was going to a church nearby. I drove as creatively as possible, through alleys and across yards. When I arrived, Leilani was getting out of the cab, grim and determined. 

With my previous projects, the last step was simply separating the girl and moving on. But not this time. My hands shook as I pulled out my phone and accessed the Leilani file. I wanted to throw up. I looked at Leilani and pressed “END PROJECT.”

The effect was immediate. Leilani put a hand on her right temple, stumbled, and then collapsed in front of the doors of the parish office. The procedure had given me the option of initiating what would appear to be a memory-wiping stroke, usually lethal.

A man in black emerged. He looked at her, and then at me. His eyes narrowed. He called for help and crouched down beside Leilani. I got back into my car and drove away.

I knew the pastor would not expose what he saw. He was in a government church, and Coraldeth had lots of ties with the government. 

Because of Coraldeth’s connections, the public records of Leilani’s celebrity would be deleted. The star would disappear. 

I sat, stuck in traffic, in places I had never seen. The sun set and traffic eased. I refueled two times as the night wore on. The sun rose again. That man in the photograph with the guitar would not go away. The words “traitor” and “murderer” kept slipping out of my mouth.

I went back home. For the next few days, I played guitar in my room. The following Sunday I drove to the church where I had last seen Leilani. My heart was pounding. What could I have been hoping to find?

I sat in the same pew where she and I sat. Mass began. Leilani had always been so emotional and so compassionate towards animals, and she hated it, considering it her worst weakness. But it was, in fact, her greatest strength.

After Mass I climbed into my car and left. I sent a text to my boss, saying I needed to talk to him. 

As I pulled up to my house my vision was getting awful, like looking out through a tunnel. I had to watch the ground with every step. As I opened the door, my right temple felt like it was splitting open. Spots of brilliant colors were flying though my eyes. I pushed through the door and felt relieved that I was in my own place, instead of a hotel.

As I struggled with spiraling pain, I turned on the TV and saw a nature show. I collapsed into the bed and tried to focus on the screen as the spots and colors got bigger and bigger in my eyes.

The show featured a frog that could remain dormant in the desert ground for months, or even years, and then wake again with the next big rainstorm. 

The agony in my right temple spread throughout my whole body. My room, the nature show, and the bed were slipping away. 

The pain gave way to a sleepiness, and I felt like I had been sleepy for such a long time. Existing in a sort of half-life. Not my life. Somebody else’s life.

Then the strangest thing happened. The spots in my eyes became dogs and cats, of all breeds, and of every color. Hundreds of them were barking and meowing in a glorious cacophony, and they were all coming to me. Gentle guitar music played.

The animals crowded out everything else. They shielded me from the nightmare that had become my dreadful world and enveloped me in their paws, their muzzles, and their fur. I reached out to them and laughed.

Mike Neis lives in Orange County, CA and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in The Stray Branch, Rind Literary Magazine and elsewhere. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language. His blog:

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“The Royal National Deadboat Institution” Dark Fiction by P.J. Brown

“There’s going to be a party tonight,” said the voice at the end of the line. It pauses. 

I wait patiently for it to continue. In my line of business, you don’t get party invitations. You get instructions for the clean-up. 

“The boat’s name is ARTEMIS. The man in question will drop off the side at exactly nine-fifteen-pee-em. Have you written that down?”  

I glance at the blank notebook page in front of me. I don’t even have a pen. “Yup,” I say to the caller. “All here. Let’s talk coordinates. And money, of course.”

“Money?” The tone rises to accommodate the caller’s incredulity. ”I thought you people were a charity?” 

“No,” I say, stretching the syllable to make it clear I think I’m speaking to a Grade A Moron. “Those are the other guys. They do the good stuff for free; I do the bad stuff for a fee. It keeps the balance.” 

“How much?” 

“A hundred and fifty.” 



Have you ever heard someone go puce with rage? I have, and increasingly on the regs. Once you get an ear for it, you can hear the whoosh of red blood cells scrambling up arteries and having a freak-out session in a caller’s cheeks. It’s a nice sound, one of my favourites.  

I prepare myself for the less welcome – but usual – negotiations, shouting, and threats. To my surprise, however, they don’t come. The caller must be in a hurry. Probably wants to check on his vol-au-vents

Whoosh. “…Fine.” 

We swap details about the “boat” (undoubtedly a yacht), the coordinates, and my NatWest bank account details. Then I hang up. 

“A hundred and fifty?” Jonas looks as disapproving as he can behind his luxuriously conditioned, combed, and waxed beard. “That’s just greed.” 

“Hmm,” I reply, not disagreeing. “But if you get there first, you get half the deposit. That’s almost £38k, Jonas.” 

“I know what half is.” 

Jonas and I have an agreement. He’s Teignmouth’s branch manager for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, also known as the RNLIMy little business is the RNDI

That’s the Royal National Deadboat Institution. 

There’s nothing national or royal about it. But my enterprise is too niche to be noticed by anyone who’d haul me up for copyright violations. Besides, I thought it was funny.  

My name is none of your business, but I’m Teignmouth’s first freelance water-specialising hitman. That’s killing and disposing of bodies in water, not killing with water. The latter’s similar and we share a union, but it’s a different line of the profession. 

There’s a call for what I’m doing. Nine calls in the last ten months, actually. 

As for Jonas, I’d met him six months ago during what should’ve been a simple job. It was a total balls-up on my end as I’d been running about twelve minutes late. 

My then-target had been dumped out of his yacht at eleven-thirty-five-pee-em, and the sky that night was a gorgeous navy sprinkled with stars. I had the target’s photo, my crappy boat, the coordinates, and a fat five grand already deposited in my account. My instructions were the usual: make sure the guy never makes it back to land and the body can’t be found, blah-blah-blah. 

This client sounded sure of what he was doing, which was a new one. I’d had a few medium-fry drug smugglers who were all hard-man bluster over the phone but obviously trying to hide the fact they were thick as shit. More recently, I’d had a wife who was bored with waiting for her husband to die. She admitted to wanting his goodies before getting too old to ensnare another rich schmuck. That had been it so far. 

However, as he delivered the job’s details, this new client sounded laid back, almost sanguine. I got no whoosh noises from him when I said my price – which, to be fair, was lower back then. He even volunteered some information I’d been too wary of asking for.  

“That’s what I heard about you. Gets it done, but does it cheap.” 

Only one client had called me “cheap” before – and I’d guess the only cocaine smuggling they’d done was sneak a baggy into brunch with the girls. 

Anyway, this was all interesting, but I was feeling cautious. My client sounded like an overly-oiled machine, which told me this wasn’t the first time he’d dipped his toes into the world of freelance water-specialising hitmen. And, though he sounded cheery, something in his tone told me I’d be curling into a permanent ball of agony if I mucked this up.  

Thankfully, he didn’t leave me guessing. He confirmed it thirty seconds before I cut the call. 

“I shouldn’t have to say this, but some people try to take advantage of my natural leniency and good spirit. If the gentleman ends up ‘reanimating’ himself and making it to shore, I’ll make sure you never get to perform the same miracle.” 

I was careful to make my gulp inaudible. 

“The same goes if the gentleman’s remains – God Rest His Soul – spark the curiosity of the police in whatever country they end up in. Are we on the same page?” 


“Repeat it back to me.” 

“What, all of it?” 


“Um…” I was panicking. “I might be paraphrasing here, but –” 

“Fuck it.” The client cut me short. ”Half now, half when it’s done. You’ll find five thousand pounds in your account within the next three minutes.” 

And that was it. 

In two minutes, I checked my bank account on my phone. £735. I refreshed the page and was greeted with the same amount. I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and refreshed. £735. 

The guy was a great big liar. A bullshitter. The scum that covered park ponds and suffocated the fish. I threw my phone at the bed and heard the screen crack as it ricocheted off the metal frame.  

It bleeped and refreshed before it hit the carpet. £5735. 

Well, I figured the first digit was a five. The smashed screen made it hard to tell. 

He’d made the transfer in precisely three minutes. I’ll admit it, I was impressed. This client was the nectar and ambrosia we freelance water-specialising hitmen deserved. He was a fine-postured god that towered over the slumped shoulders of men. 

The first thing I did was buy a new phone. A mid-range one with a decent internet data bundle and enough memory for five or six game apps. Then I purchased a couple of new shirts and a pair of black jeans that made my legs look lean and sexy. At four-twenty-pee-em, I treated myself to a full fry-up for sustenance. 

By six-thirty-pee-em, I felt like rodents were trying to force their way into my arsehole. 

That meant I was nervous. Some people have ants in their pants when they get skittish. I get “bum-rats,” as my mother used to call them before dragging me to see a doctor. I’d been diagnosed with nothing, but she’d been handed the damning judgement of “a disturbing turn of phrase.” 

By seven-pee-em, my bum-rats had stopped trying to force their way into my rectum and were content with nibbling the delicate rim of my anus. Perverted mind-rodents aside, I hoped I wasn’t due another bout of haemorrhoids. I chugged a litre of water, made a pot of peppermint and fennel tea, and called my girlfriend on my new phone. 

When my girlfriend eventually made it to my mother’s house (I had money now, but the tail end of COVID-19 meant the housing market reeked), I was sound asleep in my bedroom with one hand buried halfway up my backside. She left again without saying a word, and I woke up at eleven-oh-six-pee-em.  

By the time I’d grabbed a torch, got to the beach, started the boat, and found the right place, I was almost fifteen minutes late. The yacht was now just a speck on the horizon, and the target had probably swept fifty metres in any direction.

I had no choice but to scour the murky surroundings with my shitty wind-up torch and the power of a desperate prayer. 

Ten minutes on – which felt like a panicked lifetime – I’d lowered myself to bobbing around and yelling the guy’s name when I heard the roar of a fast-approaching speedboat. In it sat Jonas, though I didn’t know his name then, looking dashing and noble in his fluorescent Sou’wester and matching waterproof poncho. 

His eyes gleamed with utmost concentration and the courage of his convictions. His glorious beard hadn’t fizzled into a matted mass of pubic-looking hair and sea salt. It was as luxurious and well cared for as I’ve ever seen it since, with beads of seawater clinging to the curls and glittering like opals. 

He looked how I imagined Poseidon to look. I wanted nothing more than for him to hold me tight, pull me down into the depths, and turn me into his merman-in-waiting.  

I haven’t felt the same way since, but sometimes I dream about it and wake up all flustered and embarrassed.  

I was gawping at Jonas like a moron when I noticed he’d killed the speedboat engine and was talking at my dopey, unresponsive face. A split second after I’d realised this, he started snapping his meaty fingers near my eyes and ears.  

“Hey,” he said over and over, “can you hear me?” 

My tongue felt as dry as an old carpet in a hot country somewhere, like Spain, maybe, or Burkina Faso, but I managed to snatch at his hand and sweep it from under my nose. His warm palm felt knobbly with callouses. I held on for a smidge longer than I should have.  

“Yeah,” I croaked, stepping back and feeling the boat lurch beneath my trainers. “I’m fine.” 

Jonas didn’t look all that impressed. “Are you the one who called us?” 


His eyes darkened with annoyance. “I need you to stay with me,” he said and started clicking at me again. “Your friend could drown.

I couldn’t let that happen. Drowned bodies are dead bodies, but unweighted corpses have a nasty habit of washing up with the tide. If I didn’t find this guy, my business and bollocks would be toast. 

“Yeah, I called you,” I began – but quickly changed my mind. “I mean… no, I didn’t.” 

If we weren’t standing in wibbly-wobbly boats, I think Jonas would have taken a swing at me. He’s not a patient man.  

“I’m also looking for the dude,” I said truthfully. “I got a call about nine hours ago.” 


“You’re wasting my time.” Jonas started his engine, his eyes sunken with rage under his stupid yellow hat. “I have a good mind to report you to the police.” 

“No, don’t do that!” I said, startled. My voice got lost under the roar of churning water as Jonas sped off. 

“Shit,” I thought again, aloud this time. This was going to be my first failure. I knew the combination of semi-skill, cunning, and wicked good luck couldn’t keep me going forever, but I wasn’t ready to hit my “First Fuck-up” milestone yet. I’d been in business for less than a year and had done fewer than ten jobs. I had bills to pay and a mouth to feed, even if it was only my own. 

After the third job, I’d also decided to “splash out” (ha, freelance water-specialising hitman humour) and ordered a set of wall-installed lasers that pulse out light shows in response to soundwaves. I’d gone for the “pay in instalments” option, and it was past the 30-day returns policy. If this guy didn’t die properly at sea, I’m the one who’d be drowned. 

In debt, but still. 

I could see Jonas, who’d stopped about a hundred metres away. His boat was better than mine, as was his torch, which looked like it had the power of a trillion candles. He was shouting into a megaphone, repeating the guy’s name and sounding more urgent by the second. I was about to trail after him when something caught my eye near the side of the boat. 

The beam of my shitty wind-up torch had finally proved more than worthless. I could see crimson silk, the sodden object shaped like two fishtails smushed together. 

A bow-tie. 

The target must be close. 

Without turning on my engine, I started jabbing my torch beam around the same patch of sea. If Jonas happened to look over, I’d look like I was losing the plot. But he thought that anyway, and I shouldn’t even care. 

He could’ve pulled it off when swimming to shore, I thought, growing more doubtful as nothing revealed itself. But the water was calm, and the tie remained in sight. 

I threw the torch beam out a stretch further and saw something. It was a hand, lily-white and surfing the gentle waves. If my luck came in, an arm – and hopefully the rest of the body – would still be attached. 

I didn’t have the patience to be subtle. Revving up my boat engine, I chucked a light, strong net in the hand’s direction and zoomed forward, holding on to the net’s edge. My boat seemed surprised by the sudden surge, and the bow dipped violently. I lost my balance as I pitched forward, my arm muscles effing and blinding as I dragged whatever I’d caught on board. 

The dude was as dead as a drowned whatever, but I recognised his puffy face from the client’s photograph. His already considerable stomach was bloated with party nibbles and seawater. His dress shirt had come untucked, and I could see a roll of pale, hair-speckled belly underneath. The guy clearly never waxed. 

By the looks of it, he’d also never taken swimming lessons. My calculations (i.e., I glanced at my watch) told me he’d hit the water about fifty minutes ago. If he’d struck his head or broken a limb, then drowning was on the probable end of the possible scale. But there wasn’t a bruise or bloodied gash on him. Likewise, both legs would’ve been in total working order if the guy’s lungs had bothered to keep up. 

“It’s like you didn’t try,” I said, smacking his stomach with the boat’s emergency oar. His blubber roiled like a blancmange on a high-speed vibration plate. Revolted and delighted in equal measure, I hit him again. 

“Ten grand!” I squealed, whapping and whupping at this guy with the paddle. “I get paid ten grand for this!” 

My pounding began to get rhythmic, which was the first sign of me getting bored. Hitting this dude had become a chore, and I still needed to make sure his corpse was untraceable. 

Meanwhile, the inside of my speedboat was mottled with blood. I’d whacked the guy a couple of times with the oar’s tapered side, and one blow had ripped into his torso. In the moonlight, I saw the glisten of pulsing organs. The stench was foul. 

The dude coughed. 

Before I could react, I was caught off-guard by a bellowed “OI!” and the rough buzz of another speedboat eating up waves. 

“Jeepers,” I said, lurching over the body to get to the stern. “I forgot about the other one.” 

The guy tried to grab my ankle, but I kicked his hand hard enough for me to almost slip. The blood slicked everywhere meant he couldn’t get a good grasp anyway. I slammed the start button to “ON” and yanked at the ripcord, which promptly snapped. More annoyingly, the engine sputtered like a nursing home resident choking on rice pudding and clapped out. 

I told you I had a crappy boat. 

The guy hacking up blood and seawater on the deck screamed, clutching his blubbery belly. He looked like Carrie from that old Stephen King book seconds after she’d been voted Prom Queen. His hands were trying to push his intestines back in, so he was probably in pain.  

“Not now,” I snapped as he tried to scream again. I grabbed the emergency oar. I wasn’t thick enough to think I could out-paddle a working speedboat, but if I smacked the RNLI fella before he’d pulled up, I could take his head clean off. 

That would make two bodies for me to hide. Still, I’d only have to buy a tin of paint rather than a whole new boat. 

I braced myself as Jonas came closer (though I hadn’t learned his name yet). I stood like I was trying to trap a sheep between my legs and practised swooshing the oar upwards to make perfect, direct contact with Jonas’ chin. My arm muscles were twanging like crazy, fizzling like conga eels dumped in a salt pit.  

I felt very, very tired. 

It didn’t help the guy had started rolling around, squealing like a stuck pig. The boat was going to capsize if he kept it up. 

My overworked mind was threatening to blow a fuse. I stared at the guy who was supposed to be dead, holding the oar aloft as if I’d single-handedly won the Oxford v. Cambridge Boat Race. All I could think about was the paramedic who’d visited my school over twenty years ago. 

“If you ever come across a multiple car pile-up,” he’d said, “ignore the ones that are screaming and focus on the ones that aren’t. They’re the ones who’re really fucked. The people, not the cars. Cars don’t scream, stupid.” 

That probably wasn’t the exact quote, but the sentiment is the same. 

This dude had drowned, been violently assaulted with a paddle, and disembowelled within the last hour. Why was he less dead NOW than he was twenty minutes ago? Rasputin had nothing on him, and that was making me mad.  

I could hear Jonas shouting into his megaphone, but knocking the head from his shoulders had lost its appeal. I was hyperfocusing like crazy on this prick on my deck. 

He was weakly kicking his in-perfect-working-order legs and blowing his globby cheeks in and out like a pufferfish. His eyes were spongey and waterlogged, like overcooked poached eggs. I knew I’d vomit like no tomorrow when I got home. 

Being a creature of bad habit, I decided my best option was to start whacking this bloke again, but in the head this time rather than the stomach. 


I brought the oar down full force, feeling the vibrations through the wood as I shattered his nose. His face looked weirdly gooey when I brought the paddle back up for a second smackeroo. Then I noticed that half of it had stuck to the oar. 

I hit him again, and it sounded like slapping cold custard. I’d never seen a skull crumple before, and I can’t say I enjoyed it. 

But when I was about to deliver my third strike (dude was dead, but in for a penny, in for ten grand), something yanked at me so hard I fell backwards into the water. 

I could – and can – swim just fine, but the sea was cold. I was also covered in this guy’s pulped-up face, really freaking shattered, and starting to feel like ten grand wasn’t worth it. I’d get an office job. I’d pull pints. I’d start an underground fight club for Wine Mums if I still felt sadistic the day after. 

Unfortunately, the party was just getting started. 

When Jonas saw Half-Face on the deck of my clapped-out boat, he started bellowing like a wounded hippo. I wondered if he’d known the guy, which would account for all the distress, but then I realised that the RNLI bloke was one of those Really Good People who cared about stuff and other human beings. The kind of person who washes and separates his recycling and walks instead of taking his car. He probably took the “Get Off One Stop Early!” bus campaign seriously. 

Part of me wanted to swim away. It was all over; I’d dispatched the target, but there was no way I’d get out of this without a ruined business and a hefty prison sentence. Or, I thought, remembering the client, something even worse. 

If I started swimming now, I would be back on the beach within an hour and maybe have thirty minutes or so before the police turned up. That would be enough time to apologise to my mother and explain that she needed to pay off the credit card debt for the lasers. I’d go with the pigs, admit to everything, and the client wouldn’t be able to get me as easily in prison. I’d do my twenty years and then become a better man. Give to the community. Teach kids how to read and cheat at Texas Hold ‘Em. I could open my own casino if giving back to the community ended up being profitable. 

Then something felt slimy against my ankle, and I started kicking and shouting in panic. It got tighter the more I thrashed, and I was plagued by horrible images of octopuses sticking themselves all over my body and sucking at my peach-like skin until I turned into a bloodless sponge. 

I’d hated octopuses since seeing one through the curvilinear lens window at Plymouth aquarium. It looked mean and had eyes like a goat’s. I cried for the rest of the day, and Nan-Nan got shitty with me after the first few hours. Days like that stay with you. 

A hard, calloused hand gripped my arm and pulled. I screamed louder and kicked out at the millions of cubic litres of seawater pressing against me. 

“Stop struggling.” He was deathly cold in his calm, and I stopped jerking about at once. “You’ll have the boat over.” 

He yanked again, and I thought my arm would dislocate from my shoulder. So I reached up my other arm the way toddlers do when they want Daddy to pick them up for a cuddle. Jonas obliged, but I swear I saw his eyes roll as he did it. I’d ask now whether I was wrong, but the guy frightens me. 

As he hauled me over the gunwale, I took the opportunity to lightly squeeze his biceps. Nothing creepy – just a few butterfly-light flutters with the tips of my fingers and thumbs. Jonas probably mistook my curiosity for shivering or a twitch. 

Once I could tell what was under his sou’wester and (at least) two knitted jumpers, I figured Jonas was ripped. Like, not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ripped, that would be alarming, but Brad Pitt from Fight Club ripped. Which was weird because his blue-green eyes looked haunted by a grim, salt-speckled weariness, and his eyelids were more wrinkled than the old Oggy Oggy Pasty uniform balled up underneath my bed. 

I couldn’t see the rest of his face because it was hidden by his yellow hat and a bathroom rug-sized beard. I guessed he was about fifty, maybe fifty-one. 

“How old are you?” I asked once he’d dumped me unceremoniously back into my boat. 

“What?” he snapped. 

As my heartbeat slowed to a more even pace and the floaters cleared from my vision, I noticed my left calf was tightly bound with seaweed. So, not a malevolent, leg-sucking family of octopuses. Phew. 

But as the feeling oozed back into my frozen extremities, I noted that my right hand was dipped in refrigerated beef mince. I looked down and saw I’d been stroking the gaping wound in Half-Face’s half-face. Practically rubbing my fingers against his newly-exposed back teeth. Ew. 

“How old are you?” I repeated, more to stop myself from screaming and soiling my pants than anything. 

Especially when the three-time corpse opened his remaining eye. 


“Actually, forget it,” I said, my voice high enough to attract any dogfish hanging around. “Age is just a number… shall we go back to your boat?” 

“Nope,” said Jonas, hooking what was probably a hook to my ring bolt. “I’m going back to my boat and towing you in. I radioed for the police while you took a dip.” 

“Are they coming out here?” I asked, despite seeing Half-Face start to prop himself up on a flabby elbow. The boat rocked with the shift of dead weight. 

“No. I said I’d be fine. I said it’s a small guy. Not that bright. Easily incapacitated. But I am going to tie you up.” 

A thrill ran through my entire body, though I genuinely couldn’t tell if it was down to the corpse trying to sit up or Jonas turning to me with an arm full of rope.   

Sadly, Jonas didn’t appear to have any confusing thoughts about binding my limbs together. Still, he sure was perplexed when Half-Face shambled to his feet. I tried to make the situation better by shrinking down out of harm’s way – and got flicked in the eye by Half-Face’s dangling small intestine for my trouble. I wondered if that was something likely to cause an infection. 

“Not dead?” said Jonas, sounding puzzled. His eyes travelled down Half-Face’s soaked dress shirt (water and blood) and saw he’d been split open like a piñata at a psychopath’s birthday party. “Oh.” 

For a dead guy, Half-Face could move fast. One second, he and Jonas were gawping at each other; a second later, he’d lifted Jonas off his feet and was trying to chew off his chin. Luckily, the RNLI guy had a lot of beard to get through first. 

I’m not going to sound very heroic here, but I had no idea what to do. Jonas’ feet were going crazy, like he was auditioning for Singing in the Rain on Air. When I tried to stand up, I got a noseful of yellow welly boot. When I ducked a second flailing kick, I nearly caught my head in Half-Face’s gaping torso cavity. Crawling around would cause the boat to capsize, and I didn’t know if Half-Face would let go of Jonas without some more serious bodily harm thrown his way. I was stuck. 


Half-Face was obviously a zombie. I didn’t know how or why it had happened but knowing the basic facts gave me something to work with. I also knew that a zombie would keep going without eyes, limbs, or even a few vital organs until someone destroyed its brain. 

Just one snag; I’d already done that ages ago. I had the chunks littering my boat to prove it. Even now, globs of brain matter were coming loose and hitting the deck like fat, ripe raspberries shaken from their bush. 

But I had to do something. I didn’t like Jonas, the way he’d insulted me, or the fact he was a GIANT GRASS, but leaving him to get his face ripped off by a zombie seemed a tad harsh. 

My knife had got lost in the seaweed/bloodsucking octopus struggle, and the oar was on the other side of the boat. I peered over the side into the water for either inspiration or the resurgence of my Suddenly Magical, Floating Knife. 

That’s when I saw her. 

It was Nan-Nan, looking like she did when she was fresh from her divorce, with a face like a pickled walnut and her mouth pursed tighter than a cat’s anus. “The problem with your grandfather,” she said, as she lifted the cigarette to her lips, “is that he keeps his brains in his trousers.” 

I knew it wasn’t actually Nan-Nan, who was hopefully still alive since dinner at Mum’s last night. It was a memory-based mirage born from a man’s desperation to live. 

“Do you forgive me for ruining the day at the aquarium?” I asked Mirage Nan-Nan.

“Of course, honey. I’ve definitely not clung on and treated it as the defining facet of your personality for almost a quarter of a century.” 

Definitely not Nan-Nan. Last night she refused to walk with me to the shop. But I had the answer I needed. 

“Thanks, Nan-Nan,” I said to the water and flexed my fingers. Then my arm shot out, cobra-like, as my hand burrowed itself between the zombie’s legs. 

I didn’t just squeeze. I squeezed, twisted, and yanked downwards as hard as I could.

Even Jonas, with the tip of his nose in the zombie’s mouth, looked disapproving as he heard the wet rip of saggy flesh. Thankfully, Half-Face had trousers on, so I didn’t come away with a handful of scrotum or anything. 

He also dropped Jonas. 

And, inevitably, turned to lunge at the dick-wad with his dick still wadded in his hand.  

As I gazed into the milk-white jelly of his remaining eye, his flayed jaw opening wide like a snake preparing to swallow an egg, I felt the bum-rats go absolutely fucking insane. 

Thankfully, Jonas turned out to be 1) far less distractible than me and 2) an ex-hockey champ or something. With a mighty swing that would’ve left me spinning with the momentum, he oared the zombie without as much as a teeter. 

The body crashed backwards into the water as the head sailed twenty metres away on the other side. 

“Dead now?” Jonas asked. 

We watched as the headless corpse flipped itself over and started a brisk front crawl towards Teignmouth beach. He could swim, the lying bastard! 


“We’d better catch him,” said Jonas, not looking at me but pulling his boat closer so he could step on. “Get in.” 

“Get the head first,” I said, seeing that it was also floating towards the shore, albeit at a much slower pace. For the first time, my client’s words echoed in my memory. 

“If the gentleman ends up ‘reanimating’ himself and making it to shore, I’ll make sure you never get to perform the same miracle.” 


“Get the head! Get the head! Get the head!” I screamed like an enthusiastic onlooker at an orgy. I expected Jonas to argue, but he unhooked the rope connecting his boat to mine, revved the engine, and surged forward. 

Catching a wet, slippery head in churned-up water is no easy feat, but I managed it. Then Jonas and I took turns stomping on it until it turned to a gushy pulp. It screamed a bit, but we didn’t care. Jonas looked annoyed as heck about his beard, which was half the length it was before. I even saw a few beard hairs stuck between the zombie’s teeth. 

Then Jonas started racing towards the shore. A good job, too, as Half-Face was obviously an Olympic swimmer in his afterlife. 

“You a monster hunter?” Jonas asked as sea spray slammed its way into my eyeballs.

“Uh, not really, no.” 

Jonas stared straight ahead. 

“Hold onto something,” he said when Half-Face came in sight. I went for his hand, but he removed mine the same way you’d pull a tiny jellyfish out of your belly button. I settled for holding on as tightly to the boat side as possible. 

As we ran over Half-Face, I felt the propellers slice into his dead back. 

“Keep holding on.” 

Obviously, Jonas was bitter about something because he ran over Half-Face twelve times. It felt like sitting in a Smart car and going 50mph over a dozen speed bumps with the roof torn off.  

Then we hauled in the remains, and Jonas tossed me a knife that looked like one you’d use for skinning elk. “Cut him small.” 

As I started with an arm, chipping away like I was whittling wood, I felt like I owed the RNLI guy the whole story. 

“I’m a freelance water-specialising –”   

“I don’t care.”

“My company’s called the RNDI.” 

“You’re disgusting.” 

Finally, in desperation, I blurted: 

“What’s your name, then?” 




We managed to eventually work it out as we cut the body into steak-cut chip-sized pieces, chucked them overboard, went back to sink my boat, had a swim to wash off as much blood and gore from ourselves as possible, and then started the journey back to shore. 

We both agreed that Jonas would now be in as much trouble as I’d be if the police decided to have a forensics team investigate his boat. He also made no bones about obviously hating me and thinking I was a waste of space. He wrestled with turning me in and accepting his punishment as a necessary sacrifice or letting “scum” back onto the streets of Teignmouth and getting off scot-free. 

So, I struck a deal in exchange for his silence: 

I tell him about all my jobs. Every detail. If Jonas gets there first, half the deposit goes to his charity, and the “victim” gets to see another day.  

If I get there first, the money and the life are mine. 

Whether I’m successful or not, I get paid some, but fouling up too many jobs is bad for business. Before Jonas, I had five stars on YELP. Only three months post-Jonas, it went down to four-point-five. 

I’ve not had another zombie (?) since, but if I do, I need to flash the red torch, and Jonas and I will momentarily join forces. 

He’s unhappy about this agreement, but I’m looking forward to it. 

Oh, and the client apologised when Jonas ripped him a new one. I called to let him know the deed was done (using the landline back at the RNLI cabin – my new phone was fucked), and Jonas grabbed the receiver and started ranting. 

I got a shame-voiced “sorry” and an extra ten grand, which Jonas took for his charity.

I wasn’t stupid enough to argue. He’d earned it.

P. J. Brown has recently delved into fiction writing, with a particular interest in horror, the absurd, and comedy mash-ups of both. She’s a content manager and (occasional) stand-up comedian from Devon, United Kingdom. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Kids” Dark Mythology-Based Flash Fiction by Sophie G.

Jehi killing Gavaevodata as illustration for Sophie G's dark fantasy "Kids"
Jehi killing Gavaevodata

“Don’t kill him!”

The shrill voice of a materializing tall figure stunned the man. His sacrificial dagger fell on the stony floor of the temple with a reverberating clang in the darkness.

She repeated. “Why in my name, are you doing this again?”

The gawking man did not bend to retrieve his blade. “You… you’re…”

The black woman-shaped figure moved an impatient hand in the air, jingling her many golden bracelets. “Yes, yes, I am your reverence, your she-devil, Jahi.” Bending to pick up the forgotten blade she continued, “Again, what’s all this? Why do you keep sending me these… these small humans?”

The man adjusted his red robes with shaking hands. “Because…uh… well, you are, I mean we worship you.”

“I know that. But what’s with this?” She pointed vaguely to the black satin-covered altar and the unconscious child on it.

The man bowed low. “Your Most Viciousness, Your Highest in Deception…” 

“Enough with the formalities.” Jahi interrupted him. “What’s your name?” she asked while moving the child’s leg with two fingers to sit on the platform, making a face. 

“I’m Dahak, the High Priest of your demonic cult,” the man replied. “My… My Lady?” he added consciously.

“Fine, Dahak, my High Priest, why do you keep ‘sacrificing’ these small people?”

Dahak glanced at the child furtively. “We… uh, present you with our own offspring to earn your delectation?”

Rolling her yellow eyes she asked, “And why do you need my delectation so badly?”

Dahak gulped, his eyes darting between her and the child. “Because we need more power to conquer the neighboring nation.” 

Crossing her bleaching pale legs, she leaned back on her palms and asked, “What’s your beef with them? Did they steal something of yours?”

“N- No, My lady.”

“Killing someone from your nation?”

“They’re actually against killing, My Lady.”

“Ugh!” She scowled. “I’d despise them for that alone. So what have they done to you?”

“Eh…” His bald head was glistening with sweat against the chill.

Jahi snapped, “Eh, eh, what is it, you miserable creature?” Leaning forward to take the trembling Dahak under her scrutiny she suddenly purred. “Are they worshipping a wrong god?”

Dahak stammered, “Not to my knowledge.”

“What then?” She shrieked, getting up and towering over Dahak who blurted, “They have the wrong outfit.”

“What in hell’s name are you babbling about?” Her long nails were digging deep into Dahak’s shoulders.

“Their men, they wear long robes,” he said.


“My Lady!” Dahak wailed. “That’s for women to wear. They disagree, claiming that men need to move freely and women are at total ease with pantaloons.”

Jahi let go of him abruptly. “That’s it? All you want is they stop wearing skirts?”

“That is fundamental in the values of a well-orga…”

Jahi cut across him, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just stop sending these offerings.”

“But My Lady, you are the darkest, the most cunning, and the most powerful she-devil of all time. Surely you find the children useful to form your future army and thus grant us…”

Jahi sniggered. “My army? I don’t need an army to rule and I don’t want your –what did you call them? Children? If I wanted them, I’d have stayed with that pathetic excuse of a creature, your ancestor, Adam.”

Turning with a jingle of her round earrings she looked coldly over her shoulder. “They’re pretty useless to me anyway.” she said. “Stop sending them over.”

“But then the war, My Lady!”

“Ugh, you men and your wars! I’ll make them wear pants. Happy? No more children? Good. Gotta go meet Darius.”

The temple fell into silence except for the steady breath of the sleeping child.

So. Ganji currently lives in Persia where she works as a professional teacher/ translator of fiction. Her main genre to work with is Fantasy and Myths and that has been her field of study with a BA of English Literature and an MA of Art Research. “Kids” is her first published work in English.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Memorex” Dark Literary Fiction by Leah Erickson

"Memorex" Dark Literary Fiction by Leah Erickson


The word came out in a wondering gasp as Trish reached into the box  and lifted the object out.

                            MEMOREX HQ 120 VIDEO CASSETTE LIFETIME WARRANTY 

The paper sleeve was faded black with a flat, eighties-style graphic in fuchsia, lime green and yellow. Some of the edges were bent and torn. But when she slid the cassette out, it felt solid and substantial in her hand. Written on the label in her own careful girlhood cursive, in Sharpie:

                                    STAR BRITE AND THE DREAM STEALERS

The large cardboard box that had been delivered to the front door had been addressed to her, at her new home, the house that they had just bought on a quiet cul de sac in the Stoney Acres development. But the name had been her maiden name, not her new married one: the sight of the unknown, unexpected package made her go still inside. She could feel the beginnings  of cold panic starting to flood her veins. She had to fight it back, stay present, because she could feel herself start to disappear, to fade around the edges like fuzzy static….

…of course she had known something bad was going to happen. Of course! Many times that week she had thought she had seen  a shadowy figure at the edge of her vision. It was the shape of a large man. It seemed very real, but would flicker and disappear if she looked at it directly. It didn’t matter, though, because she could still feel its menacing presence. Watching her. Waiting.

Rob was still at work, but would be back soon. She flicked a furtive glance down the street, then grabbed the box and darted inside, kicking the front door shut with a bang behind her.

Though the box was large and bulky, she held it as far from her body as she could, as though it were a bomb that could detonate at any moment. Set it on the kitchen table, keeping her eyes locked on it as she grabbed blindly for a knife from the wooden knife block which had been a wedding present. Her hands were slick with sweat and she fumbled and  nearly cut herself as she sliced roughly through the tape along the box’s seams. She opened the outer, then inner flaps…

On top was an envelope on which was written in shaky script, I lost you long ago, Patricia. Inside was a photograph of herself that she had never seen before. It was obviously taken with an old point-and-shoot, non-digital camera. It was a photo of her as a young girl running across her front yard, and  it was nighttime. She was wearing shorts. It looked like a firefly summer night. Was she playing tag with the neighbor kids, or was she running away from something? The scene was illuminated by what seemed to be car headlights, bleaching out the lawn, throwing weird shadows from the dark hedges…

She slammed the photo face down onto the table and scrunched her eyes tightly shut, pressing a thumb into the center of her forehead, willing herself to stay present in her body and not fade away. Because there was no time to waste.

The box was full of things  that she recognized as hers, but she had not seen in so many years that they seemed like a stranger’s. A few sad looking Beanie Babies, a small plastic trophy for winning  a relay race at Field Day, a couple of high school textbooks. A baggie of cheap, mismatched earrings. A large pallet of eyeshadows, smokey, glittery hues dug through straight to the pan. Random items, as though someone had blindly swept their arm across a messy bureau top in haste, dumping the clutter, without care, into the box.

It wasn’t until she got to the bottom that she saw the video tape. Star Brite and the Dream Stealers? She hadn’t thought of that movie in years. It had been an obscure children’s fantasy movie that someone had taped from television when she was a kid. She had watched it over and over again, most likely because no one had bought her any other videos. As she held the cassette in her hand, a song, the ghost of a melody began to play in her head. Scraps of half-remembered lyrics. Watch me soar through open doors, no denying, feels like flying…

She couldn’t remember much else from her childhood, which was like a vague lunar landscape in her mind. But she remembered the feeling of watching that video. The way it had made her feel safe and happy.

She slid the cassette back into the paper sleeve and she jogged to her bedroom, shoved the tape into one of her drawers under some t-shirts.

This, maybe just this, she could keep.

Then she rushed back to the kitchen, threw the rest of the junk back into the box, and carried  it out the back door. Opened the lid to the trash bin. She had to turn it on its end, angle it diagonally to get it to fit, pushing it down, down, DOWN.

She sensed a presence, someone watching, and her head jerked up into alertness. Scanning the yard, she saw nobody. Then she saw where a flicker of movement had come from: her next door neighbor, a pug-faced older woman with clipped gray hair, had lifted the curtain of her kitchen window and was frowning at Trish  in concern. That’s when she all at once realized that she was breathing fast, sweat dripping down her back, mouth gone dry. She stopped what she was doing. A small, frightened smile twisted her lips as though the corners were hooked with fishing wire. Don’t look at me, please!

When the woman dropped her curtain down again, Trish unfroze and gave the cardboard box one more hard shove down into the bin, slammed and reslammed the lid, and hurried back into the house.

She had forgotten the photograph. “He can never find out,” Trish whispered in a hiss  as she lit the gas stove top on high, then held the photo over the flames until it started to burn at its edges, a bright glowing rim of chemical blue, chemical green.


Rob came home and they ate dinner just like they always did, on the thick plates of stipled pottery that had been on their wedding registry. 

It had only been four months ago, their wedding. That day seemed so long ago now.  The stiff  outfits and the posing for photos, the pressing of bodies and well-wishes, and then after, the all-inclusive in Cancun, where…they had mostly slept, rousing themselves to visit the flickering , disorienting light of the casino, or to spend a few hours on the small, littered hotel beach, where at Trish had resisted, but then felt obligated, to gather up the single lost foam flip flops and drink bottles and deflated foil balloons that washed in on the waves…

It had all happened so fast it was like being abducted on a dazzling space ship and then abruptly deposited here, in this house, in this life. And ever since, the two of them felt shy together. Like two commuters, strangers, pressed together in a shared train compartment.

That evening as she loaded the dishwasher and tried to act casual, Trish’s heart  flailed in her chest like a trapped bird, and she felt a bit dizzy. But she couldn’t faint, she had to concentrate. She told herself she was thirty-one, an adult. That she had chosen this life, she had a new name, was building an excellent credit score, belonged to the right neighborhood association…and there were no shadow creatures following her. The idea was delusional. But her self soothing thoughts sounded like lies, only made her more certain that she might scream or pass out.  Compulsively, without realizing what she did, she began mouthing words. First silently, only moving her lips. Then out loud, singing the words in a thin quavering voice:

“When the night terrors have begun, I will shine straight to the sun…when the clouds form above, I shoot out my beams of love…”

Rob looked up at her quizzically from where he sat at the table, answering email on his laptop. “What are you singing?”

At first Trish didn’t answer. There were flashes in her brain of bright animated cartoon stars glimmering in a friendly cartoon sky. And a sense memory of the smell of dust and ozone. Whatever it was, it made her feel calm enough to sing a little louder:

“No denying, feels like flying, as I soar through open doors, no more tears, hey hey hey….”

Her young husband smiled hesitantly. “I’ve never actually heard you sing before.” He was also thirty-one, slightly built. Boyish, yet balding prematurely.  He had graduated from seminary school, which made him always seem  young-old to her. All that education, but without the life experience to bolster up his knowledge. It seemed a bad combination, and it made him seem adrift, lost. She often caught him giving her long, wondering looks, studying her, and she felt he was looking for more than was actually there.

“It’s just this silly song from a movie. From when I was a kid.”

“Oh.” He said, nodding gravely. He knew nothing about her childhood, and had learned not to press her. All he knew was that in the ten years they had dated, she had never invited him to visit her family, and had no family at the wedding. Well, you know, they’re busy. And they don’t like to travel. His own close knit, large family had felt sorry for her, rushed to fill in the void, to make Trish one of their own. And she was happy to let them, and to let any talk of her own past fade away.

His parents had paid for the wedding, all of it. Helped them get the house. A starter home in a nice neighborhood, and the brothers had helped them do the kitchen. Real granite countertops, recessed lighting, nickel hardware. Standing in it now, it was glossy and beautiful. A place where nothing bad could happen.  

But then, for a quick panicked  moment, she was convinced she had caught a whiff of the acrid chemical smell of the burning photograph, that hot acid-green flame. Her heart raced as her mind lurched back to the cardboard box, which now seemed like a living, pulsing thing that could escape. Surely she had crammed it in deep enough, into the bin. Tomorrow was garbage day, and it would be gone…

“Trish, are you okay? You went away for just a minute.” Her young-old new husband smiled uncertainly  as he tried to catch her eye. Tried to connect.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. It’s just been a long day..” 


The next day Trish went to her job as usual, to teach her class of kindergartners. She loved her kids, truly only felt at ease with five and six year olds. She loved to bring home their art, their self portraits that often featured giant heads with tendrils of limbs coming straight out of them, no bodies, smiling and floating unmoored in empty space, their names printed across the tops in large jagged irregular letters.

But even here in the classroom, as she guided the children through letter-of -the -day activities, then an art project of tissue paper collage, and on through music time, she didn’t feel truly present. Her mind was elsewhere. Always distracted. Looking around for the shadow creature. She could feel its presence, even if she couldn’t see it. Its black gravitational pull, cold as deep space. Shaped like a man, but she knew it was a monster. It could be in the hallway looking in. It could be lurking in the coat closet. Only her constant vigilance could keep it away, keep the kids safe.

Finally, it was nap time. As the children settled down on their mats, she could hear their soft inhales, exhales, snuffling and snoring. She was all at once exhausted. She closed her eyes, and let herself drift. Her body was so tense that she could hear creaking if she turned her neck.  She breathed deeply, pressed on her temples to ward off a tension headache. Breathe in, breathe out.

After some moments, there was a flickering sensation  on the insides of her eyelids. Then the flickering arranged itself into shapes, dream-like images. There again was the friendly cartoon sky. But now, Star Brite’s glittery rainbow chariot pulled by two pink-maned stallions flew across with a soft whoosh. Then the  song started to  play again in her head, and the urge to move her lips, to lip synch, was overpowering:

When the night terrors have begun, I will shine straight to the sun

Not only did she see the images and hear the music, but now there were other sense-memories. A sensation of watching the video on the huge blocky cathode ray television. She remembered the static field emitted by the TV screen. The way she could run her hand across the dusty screen, and hear the staticky pop of electrodes. That smelled like ozone! If she pressed her nose against the screen, she could feel the static fuzz tickling her eyelashes, her tongue—

—Her reverie stopped when she was startled by a noise: a whispering, hissing noise that made her gasp aloud. But it was only one of the children’s puffer coats that had slid off the knob to the floor.

Stupid, to be so scared of nothing! A bit desperately, she tried to return to the safety of the memory. Once her heart slowed down, she was able to ease back in. Lovely details rose to the surface of her dream consciousness. She remembered pressing her face right onto the TV screen as her mother had told her not to do, so close that Star Brite was nothing but a field of glimmering pixels. And Trish herself was dissolving into it, into an analog wave of electrons, into Star Brite. Soft static buzzing on her face, fuzzing her eyelashes. It all felt so soothing, so easy. Like a benediction. Sometimes she would rewind parts of the video again and again, in a sort of blissful bounce. No one was there to tell her not to. Forward, back, forward, back. Until she attained a kind of ecstasy.

But the bliss of memory was jolted by an intrusive voice that seemed to whisper Into her ear : “Remember how you were always scared to get to the end of a video?” 

It was true, she was, but sometimes she dared herself to do it anyway, when she was watching at night all alone. To see what came after the credits were over. Because it seemed that there must be some great secret at the end, something bigger and scarier than she could ever imagine. It would spook her badly, when a video came to its end. The credits finished, the music fading out. And then the startling  FBI warning came on, before the screen would turn white, and there was a high pitched droning noise, before the screen turned to a final, terrifying black: this is what always made her whimper in terror and run from the room, hands clenched over her ears…

The sound of children giggling from their mats on the floor brought her suddenly back to the present, the classroom, her eyes dry and blinking. Uncomprehending.

“What are you laughing for?” She asked, her throat tightening so that her voice was high and tense.

Little Jack Bove, newly six, with his bristly dark hair, narrow stalk of neck, and large green eyes that never missed a thing. Out of habit he raised his hand before answering,  “Because you were singing, Mrs Moore! You were singing in your sleep that you were flying through the sky!” The children started up laughing again, now louder.

“No more talking,” she said more sharply than she had intended, looking away so no one could look into her eyes.


When she got home, she rushed to check the trash bin at the side of the road. Empty! The cardboard box was gone, as though it had never existed. Rolling the bin back to its place outside the back door, she felt shaky with relief when she entered the kitchen, collapsing into a chair. She was safe now. If the box was gone, those shadowy figures that lurked at the corners of her vision were surely gone, too. And to be honest with herself, it was probably all in her head, anyway, and she should never speak of it to anyone.

Maybe there had been, in fact, no box. And maybe the video cassette was something she had kept close, all this time. It had always been hers. She had just forgotten about it.

Rob got Chinese takeout on the way home, that they ate at the table, on their wedding pottery, like they always did on Fridays. A ritual that they had cultivated in their new marriage, something to anchor them together.

Their new/old marriage. Rob was a  corporate pastor, at a tech company. His first job out of seminary. He counseled everyone from the CEOs to the IT team. There had been layoffs recently, it had been rough. She knew this wasn’t how he thought things would be, and tonight he looked glassy eyed and distracted.

“Hey,” she said brightly, as she broke open a fortune cookie. “Did you want to watch an old video I found? It was my favorite movie when I was a kid, I was just talking about it.”

“What movie?”

“Star Brite and the Dream Stealers.” 

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s kind of weird, no one has. I mean,it’s no big deal….” She glanced at her fortune: DON’T LET YESTERDAY TAKE TOO MUCH OF TODAY. She rolled it up into a tiny ball in her fingers.

“Trish, of course I want to see it! I don’t know anything about when you were a kid.”

“I mean, it’s no big deal, whatever…”

“Trish…” Now he looked  grave, and was looking at her too closely. It occurred to her at that moment that she had always been his project, since he’d rescued her, a sad scholarship kid who lived in his dorm and never went home for holidays.  Maybe he loved her too much. It would break his heart, to know she didn’t believe in god. Maybe this was all a mistake.

But she had to, at least, try. Try to get closer to him. Try to share at least this one thing, because it wasn’t fair to keep everything a secret. She fetched the cassette from its hiding place. All at once it felt important for him to watch it with her, together. 

“I’ve had it all this time and forgot.”

Rob was pouring himself a small bourbon as he did more and more recently. “How was school?” he asked.

“Okay,” she said as she fumbled with the wires that connected the VCR to the television. They had never tried hooking it up before. Rob had boxes of vintage video tapes that he brought from his childhood home, but they hadn’t gotten around to watching them yet. “Am I doing this right?”

“Yeah, you got it…I think. Make sure you got the yellow cord plugged in. Just click through it til you see the blue screen. No…yeah. There you go.”

She slid the cassette in and waited.  It whirred, hiccuped, and then simply…stopped.

“Oh, I guess it was at the end, maybe. I’ll rewind it.”

“So what IS Star Brite and the Dream Stealers? Is it a cartoon?”

“Yeah. Seems like they showed it on TV once and apparently I was the only one who saw it.” She squinted to find the rewind button, pressed it.

“Was it a toy? A franchise?” Rob knew his franchises. He had a whole bookshelf devoted to Star Wars, Marvel  and He Man paraphernalia.

“I don’t know, I never saw a toy. It was sort of a fantasy story? It’s like a knock-off of a franchise I guess. Or an amalgam of knock-offs.  Star Brite is like, the guardian of dreams? She protects the night sky, and she protects people from, like, bad dreams. She flies around in a sparkly rainbow colored chariot. But then there was the Duchess of Darkness, who has a bunch of these little googly eyed furball creatures that are The Dream Stealers. They steal people’s dreams and trap them in a giant crystal. Then they,  like, insert nightmares in their place, if I’m remembering right…”

She trailed off, because the tape had stopped rewinding and was now making a deep grinding noise.

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

“Well that tape must be twenty, twenty-five years old at least, right? These things degrade. Or the tape heads might just be dirty. It’s not your fault…”

“I know that!” She hadn’t meant to shout. But somehow the task was beginning to feel dire: she had to make it work. If she could just see the video again, just rewind to the beginning, then time itself would go backward. To when the bad things hadn’t happened yet, and never would. 

“Trish? I mean, speaking of bad dreams,well, are you, um, still taking the lorazepam the doctor gave you? I know you weren’t sleeping much at all this week. I see you looking at the ceiling sometimes at three AM and you look…you know….”

“I don’t need the pills, I’m fine.” She ejected the tape, inspected it, and put it back in. Held her breath and pressed play.

First a heavy beat of  silence. Then something lurched forward and the sound came blaring on, so loud it made her jump. The tape was near the end, because it was the scene  where Star Brite was zooming around the night sky in her chariot, zapping the crystals of stolen dreams with her ray gun, setting them free. Star Brite with her flowing blond tresses, her star headdress, and overly large blue eyes. Something about the screen image looked strange, as though the colors were out of alignment. Vibrating at the edges.

No denying, feels like flying, as I soar, I say NO MORE!

And even the song was different than  she remembered. Shriller, more hollow and sped-up.

“Can’t you rewind it? Trish?”

“No. It won’t go back any further. I guess we’ll just have to watch from here…”

Now it was really at the end, it had reached the crescendo where all the characters  were singing together, even the Dream Stealers, holding hands in a big spinning circle, before the image exploded into a shower of glittery stars, and the ending credits began to scroll.

“It looks like an anime, sort of. Gotta be Japanese. So this was your favorite, huh?”

“I don’t know. It’s…not quite like I remembered it. It’s just kind of…different.”

“Well, I guess sometimes things aren’t as great as we remember them.” Her young-old husband was looking at her with his lips slightly parted, thinking for a long moment. “Trish, you know you can tell me anything, right?”

“I…” Her eyelids began to flutter, “of course I know that. We’re married, aren’t we?”

“Aren’t we?” He laughed to make it a joke, to make it okay. She could feel him looking at her with deep concentration. As though she were an ancient screed or a palimpsest, from a seminary class.

She had her hand held up, ready to spring forward  to press STOP. But then she held herself back. Because all at once, she was tired  of being afraid all the time. She wasn’t a child, after all: she would no longer let herself be afraid of what was at the end of the video.

She had forgotten that it was recorded from TV. Before the credits were even over, a voice over was talking about the shows coming on next. Then it switched to a commercial for some kind of oven cleaner, showing a woman in rubber gloves wiping down a counter, clearing a path of dazzling white through grimy black, then tossing back her glossy hair, about to say something to the camera.

But her words were cut off when the picture began to dissolve into blurred bars of static, and something else was coming into view. It must have been taped over a home movie, because now she was astounded to see a fuzzy, staticky image of the kitchen of her childhood home. The camera panned the room haphazardly. It was full of people, faces she knew, her grandparents, her aunt…then suddenly, abruptly, the camera  zoomed onto her own face. She was just a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a stricken expression as the lights dimmed and the room began to sing “Happy Birthday.” Someone slid a lit birthday cake in front of her, and the reflection of the candles made her large brown eyes look even  more deep-set into her narrow young face.

“Look at that!” Her husband exclaimed. “It’s you! How old are you here?”

Trish quietly, flatly, read aloud the digital date stamp in the corner of the video. The person filming zoomed out again, and began to swing around  the room. Zoomed and focused on the doorway in back of young Trish, where there stood leaning a large man, a tall man, who was wearing a raggedy flannel shirt rolled up over his meaty forearms. Baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He wasn’t singing along, had his arms folded and was smirking down at the girl…

Trish felt sick to her stomach. Somehow she thought she’d never see his face again. Like something from a nightmare, it felt like something had just pulled her down suddenly into brackish dirty water and she was drowning.

Then the scene began to fade out, slowly, like a flickering ghost, and another home movie was bleeding in. Someone was in the back of a car and filming the road speeding by beneath them. The car radio was faintly playing something that sounded like country music, bluegrass, it was twangy and  yearning and lonesome. The yellow dashed lines on the road seemed to pulsate like a migraine. Flash of the sky, a dark jagged line of trees, telephone poles flashing by going faster…

Trish suddenly became aware that she had stopped breathing, and had become faint. She stabbed at the stop button. But it would not stop.

Her husband was frowning at the screen, leaning forward. “What is this? And who was that man in the other frame? I saw your face, Trish. Who was that…”

It wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t rewind, now a new scene blipped abruptly onto the screen. They were  outside of her old house, it was twilight, the streetlights were on, it was too dark and shadowy to make out any details but she could hear the sound of hard breathing, the sound of someone running, fast. Someone in the distance calling out in a singsong , Patricia, where are you?

She tried to shut it off again but her vision was flickering like a strobe, she couldn’t see what she was doing. She grabbed for the connecting wires at the wires but her sweaty hands were shaking, she couldn’t move fast enough, STOP STOP STOP!

Someone suddenly came up behind her, a man had his arms around her, she screamed. But it was  her own husband, who reached around her and somehow made the tape stop, made it eject. 

“Oh my god, Rob, how did you do it, it…it wouldn’t stop…” 

Her husband yanked the cassette from the machine with a violence she had never seen in him.


He was looking at the cassette with a fierce expression. An expression of…anger. He who spoke so beautifully of the light of the covenant, Augustine’s theology of love, now wore the face of  someone she did not recognize.

He did not answer when she called, “Rob, where are you taking it?” She could hear him stride resolutely out the back door, to the shed. She went to the back door and opened it; from the shed she heard the sounds of a hammer hitting and shattering plastic, again and again and again. When he came out he held a mass of broken plastic panels and unspooled tape in his hands. He threw them into the trash bin without a second look.

When he came back into the house he sat back on the couch, drank down the remainder of the bourbon, fast, and she could hear how hard he was breathing. Could see the way his hand shook ever so slightly.


He met her eye for a moment, and there was a fierce, flinty rawness there. Just for a moment, like a glance into the too-hot sun. Then the moment passed. He looked down, gathered himself.

When he tried to speak, it came out first as a small croak. He cleared his throat, but said nothing more. Again, he caught her eye, and this time she didn’t look away, because she couldn’t. And she realized they were sharing a conspiratorial smile. And, strangely and painfully, laughing.

Leah Erickson is the award winning author of the novels “The Brambles,” (2017) “Blythe of the Gates,”(2018) “The Gilded Lynx,” (2019) and “The Vesper Bell.” (2022) Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines including The Fabulist, Pantheon, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Coachella Review, and the KGB Bar Literary Journal. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at

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“Children of Sin” Dark Fiction by Nick Guthry

Granville Street in Vancouver, "Children of Sin" Dark Fiction by Nick Guthry

It is a Friday night during summer in the not-to-be-out-poshed neighbourhood of Point Grey, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Former Colony of the British Empire. Ancestral lands of the Coast Salish group of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Earth (for readers of the far future). The temperature outside is sixteen degrees Celsius, and if you’re not a smoker and you practice mindfulness, you can almost smell the Pacific Ocean of nearby English Bay. It is also the year 2012, which necessarily arouses all kinds of idiosyncratic associations in your silly human mind.

Now we are there, and we see John Foreskin, twenty-something-year-old, white cis hetero male walking briskly down West 14th Avenue, a distinct hitch in his giddy-up. His hands are buried deep in his pockets. His shoulders are doing the work of the popped collar he is not wearing. And at first glance, we correctly infer a combination of nicotine, diuretic fluids, and refined sugars. The continent among us feel an almost organic contempt.

Some twenty paces back, at the house where John rooms, his millennial associates are busy debasing themselves under the false pretence of immortality. All are still young enough to mistake their looks and vigour for signs of inner virtue. John Foreskin finds parties to be exhausting, sullying affairs where one mixes what one is with too much of what others are. And John Foreskin knows that too much mixing leaves a person as nobody, least of all themselves. At the tender age of twenty-something, he has already begun cultivating the sternness that he will eventually come to associate with adult-male-juvenile hairlines, especially on solitary walks like this. But tonight, he just needed to get out.

He arrived in Vancouver over a year ago following a stint of tree planting up north. Then after couch surfing for a couple of months, he finally found a room in this student house near UBC. It’s an expensive part of town, Point Grey, but the number of people in the house, as many as eight at a time, keeps the rent low. Plus the house itself is in shambles, one of the last student houses of its kind in the neighbourhood. Most of the others have been torn down and replaced with family homes, families that stare at John and his housemates and wonder what’s wrong, where the parents are, and why caucasian youth seem to age so rapidly. John’s not a student anymore, but he can pass for one and is even younger than some of his housemates, so there are no connotations of predation, at least within the house. But the neighbourhood parents don’t seem to want him anywhere near their children.

At the start of John’s walk, he encounters some of them, well-to-do thirty- and forty-somethings, smugly toeing the line, fulfilling nature’s prerogative, then signing up said prerogatives for extracurriculars. Their small children are, by all appearances, in heaven, totally aloof to the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition.

I alone am at fault, John tries to convey with a meek smile, as the mass of baseless pride lodged in his forehead embarrasses even the smallest of the children. They gawk while the parents can only usher them to the opposite edge of the sidewalk, can only wonder what ungodly chance of nature could spawn such a creature. John digs his hands even deeper into his pockets, trying to take up as little of the sidewalk as possible, determined not to light a cigarette till he’s at least off his own street. 

If there is a track, their lives are on it, John thinks.

And yet, there is no envy this time, if only because…John senses nothing magical about them. And John, being a twenty-something millennial prone to mood swings, is all about magic. Whether magic is anything other than the caffeinated whimsy of youth is a question for another time, another phase of one’s life.

John plods on, his pace brisk, and finally reaches a busy strip. West 10th. Lighting his first cigarette of the walk, he employs a steady, vacant gaze to accumulate several small victories over passersby who make the mistake of underestimating him. As he passes a yoga studio, it occurs to him that he will probably never preside over the docile harem that his pedigree would have surely justified in bygone times. That his greatness is not immediately apparent to others seems to accord with the discomfort he feels around men of greater height, strength, ability, and overall life force. These encounters, by no means rare, interrupt, but do not extinguish, John’s distinct sense of being somehow special, somehow great.

He next passes a string of establishments boasting both bars and grills, establishments where skirts are weaponized in the name of shaking what one’s mother has given one, flaunting it if one has it, and, more concretely, paying one’s rent and tuition. But the Skirts never regard John in the same way they regard the other cis hetero male patrons, and John tells himself this is because he isn’t “daddy material.” 

On the outdoor patios, wheat-bellied daddies hush their wives to better hear themselves agree about sports and oil prices. In their satiated eyes, John discerns first the inherited will to dominate, and then, hidden beyond that, the withering, still-born form of the utterly dominated. Beside each pear-shaped patriarch sits the tragic tendency of the dominated to imitate their masters: at the sunburnt age of fifty-something, each wife has become trapped in an uncanny impersonation of her husband.

The sun finally sets.

John Foreskin plods on, passing various hipster cafés where he knows he’d encounter more of his own kind: men hopelessly caffeinated and drowning in entertained possibility as they vent gasses barely visible to the human eye. These café men are a different breed, more wiry and high-strung, far more susceptible to dysentery and yellow fever (and every other ethnophilic fever for that matter), but otherwise brighter and better preserved than their inert patio cousins. Barely able to contain themselves at either end, they, too, set a strong example of what John needs to fear becoming, for with age their skittish momentum becomes more weakness than virtue. They have no business imbibing that much caffeine, let alone with milk and sugar. But they carry on as their bone density decreases, and their inner cheeks become more discoloured from the daily friction of violent wiping. John knows swamp ass to be an epidemic in Vancouver, not just in his own house. But nobody ever speaks of the things that go on in the café bathrooms. They walk into them urgently then walk out, however many minutes later, head held high, without even once confessing the shame that has transpired within, the shame that follows them back to their seats, that lingers in the bathroom, waiting to accost the next visitor. The music and the quaint furniture of these cafés encourage the delusion that this is Paris circa 1929, that one of the loose-bowled Xanders, or Julians, by virtue of his name and his tortoiseshell frames will be the next Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, the delusion that this is capital-c culture. Warmed-up croissants and for-here espresso cups help make it so. But it is all a lie. The sugar content of the cookies betrays the time and place as Post-Colonial Privilege, population: Children of Sin.

Lurking in the darkness, John feels the call of the lighting and the plush leather. He braves isolation though, as he passes one café after another. He knows the ruggedness he strives for can never be achieved by protracted sitting in air-conditioned environments. Nor will sugar (crystalline levity) help lower his hairline.

When he finally veers off the main strip, back towards his own neighbourhood, the female baristas of Vancouver West breathe a collective sigh of relief.  For now, they are safe from John’s prickly, craven glare. John is still twenty-something. He still thinks that women find his mix of eccentricity and inner torment attractive. He has not yet become self-conscious of his particular brand of courtship—his latching on—and so has not yet become ashamed of it. In the coming years, certain interactions with down-to-earth females, invariably of lower blood sugar, will give John the inkling that his schtick is passed expiry, and that serious adult partnerships will require that he bring something other than self-pity and mommy issues to the table.

Closer to home now, down the back lane of West 44th, John Foreskin walks to exhaust himself. He lights another cigarette and begins raking his fingernails across his too-hairy forearms. He is a creature of the night., his audience is at once nowhere and everywhere. If no omen presents itself in the next few seconds, he’ll have to pass by the house like a loser, past the music and boozy chatter, and keep walking until he gets that unmistakable feeling that the night has run its course. 

Suddenly, he sees it. Abandoned. Left out for the taking. An old exercise bike. A relic from the days when men’s socks were longer than their shorts.

From when those patio fucks could still run a mile.

It is John’s now. He can lift it. And it’s only twenty or so meters to the house. 

This is it.

It will be my outlet for when leaving the house feels impossible. 

John will sweat on his own terms now, long before he’s ever left his room, long before the sun can have her way with him, and then again long after his final encounters of the day. He will have his own secret exercises, and the other men in the house will wonder where all of his new vigour has come from. And the women of the house will be the first to notice and the longest to look as his thighs transform into twin promises of stamina and virility. 

As he lugs the bike into the yard, then through the kitchen, John Foreskin thanks God and the Universe that nobody is around to witness the indignity of his labours. He hears them out on the front porch and in the living room, jabbering at high speed, but he ducks down to the basement before any of them notice.

John has completed his quest. He’s sweating and more alive than he’s ever been in his entire life. Removing his shirt, he stands in front of his full-length mirror to confirm his self-image.

Screenwriter, repped by The Tobias Agency.  Editor to novelists and academics. Deeply interested in how we, as individuals and societies, inhabit and shift paradigms. Debut Novel “Good Boy Alchemy” to be published Summer 2023. Twitter @Nick Guthry

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

“To the Ground” Dark Fiction by Patricia Mariel

Georgia paced around the room, shoe in hand. She was looking for her vape in her boyfriend’s car when she stumbled across a sparkly, blue, size 11 platform heel. She had left for spring break to go visit her grandmother in Puerto Rico and when she came back, she finds one heel. Who even leaves behind one shoe? Did she walk out with a limp? What a wannabee Cinderella move. She knocked over a vase accidentally. Dead wet flowers spread across the checkered floor and that sparked something inside of her. She pushed over Frizz’s desk, making a hole in that cheap gypsum board wall. She called Frizz ready to cuss him out, but it was going straight to voicemail. 

“What’s your freaking problem dude? I leave town for one week and you’re already messing around with other women? Whose heel was that, Frizz? Call me back before I burn down your house!” she said. 

She went back inside her soon to be ex-boyfriends house and didn’t wait for a call back. Georgia gathered all of Frizz’s clothes from the closet and put them in a pile in the living room. She pulled out the lighter she always carried around in case her friends forgot theirs and lit his clothes on fire. As she thought about what she would tell the police, a sense of Déjà vu hit. When she was just nine years old, she had witnessed her mother burn her fathers clothes, just like her. I guess arsonists run in the family.  She didn’t let that bother her too much, good people do crazy shit all the time. Plus, he deserved it, right? 

The fire had expanded, the curtains and the rug were basically ashes. A faint voice was heard screaming in the distance, but she ignored it, she was used to hearing things that weren’t there. She walked outside and lit a cigarette. Her phone rang and she quickly answered it. 

 “Babe, I just heard your voicemail. What are you talking about?” he said.

“I’m talking about the fact that I found a heel in the backseat of your car,” she replied.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Georgia. What heel?” 

“Don’t play stupid, Frizz,” 

“I literally have no idea what you’re going on about.”

“Okay cool, well your house is on fire,” she added. 

“What? Georgia you better be kidding.” 

“Or what?” 

“Georgia, please tell me you didn’t burn my house down,” he asked hopefully. 

“Bad news—” she said. 

“Jesus, Georgia!” he yelled. “Is my mom, okay? What is wrong with you?”

She hung up the phone and the fire was already massive. His mom? There’s no way she was in there, she would’ve come out. She brushed it off and finished her cigarette, putting it out on the moist ground. As she was about to grab her keys, police lights filled her vision, followed by a fire truck and Frizz’s car. The cops ran and tackled Georgia holding her head down against the ground, while the fire fighters hosed the house down before entering. 

“Why would you do this? This makes no sense!” Frizz shouted, crying. 

Georgia couldn’t answer. The police officer was hand cuffing her while she laid there. Instead, she was asking herself how she ended up in that situation again. They pulled her up and Frizz got closer.

“What is your problem, Georgia?” 

“Whose heel was in your car, Frizz?” she asked.

“What heel?” he responded. 

“The sparkly blue one,” she answered. His face turned bright red; his eyes popped out of his head from shock. Right then, the fire fighters began bringing someone out in a stretcher, a white cloth covered their body, but they knew who that body belonged to.

Frizz shouted at Georgia, trying to get closer to her but failed when the police officers separated them. They grabbed on to Georgia, walking her to the car before Frizz could try to hurt her.

As they were about to close her door, Frizz yelled, “They were my heels.”

Is that a sex thing?

Patricia Caro is a latina writer from Puerto Rico. When she’s not writing she spends her time designing clothes and accessories. Follow @pmcarocruz on twitter.

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

“Ro-Langs” Horror by Val Votrin

"Ro-Langs" Horror by Val Votrin

On a bleak day in early December 1947, a small party of three crossed into the Kham region of Tibet from Tachienlu. The party was led by Peter Goullart, a representative of the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives based in Likiang. 

Goullart was born and raised in Russia and fled to China after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. A short, balding, bespectacled man with a disarming smile and the talent of making friends among people of all cultures, he spoke fluent Chinese and, through his twenty eight years in China, acquired a deep understanding of the country and the areas he lived in – the city of Shanghai and the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. A person of much ambition and skills, Goullart was eager to explore uncharted areas in north China and was not afraid of anything.

This was his first visit to Kham. His companion, a young man called Wuhsien, Goullart’s trusted assistant, had never visited these parts either. This is why Goullart hired a local man – a humble Tibetan merchant – to guide him through the Tibetan highlands. They were heading to Garthar, a village about a hundred miles away from Tachienlu, where there was a trading post and a cattle farm. Their goal was to find the locals out there who would be willing to engage themselves with a new modern creamery or another co-operative – for spinning and weaving, or knitting, or soap making, or leather tanning, or metal working, or any other small business Goullart, and the wider Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, were so keen about. Of course this was Goullart’s official goal as the “Depot Master of Likiang”, as his formal title went. His journey was reluctantly authorised by his superiors who had never entirely supported his plans to visit this ‘Outer Darkness”, a no-man’s land, strange and remote. Was there any sense to discuss the setting up a proper craft with the barbarous tribes who inhabited that place and who could not even speak Chinese? So Goullart’s journey, hesitantly approved and hastily planned, looked more like an exile than an appointment.  

Nothing else was mentioned during conversations with his superiors and all paperwork for the journey arrived on time, but Goullart also discerned some understatements, some subtle hints in the speeches of his colleagues and superiors. They seemed to be fearing something – something, they thought, he would surely encounter in the Tibetan mountains. But they had never been to Tibet themselves, and he concluded that this was the usual Chinese superstitions – a fear of strangers and those strangers’ demons hiding in the unknown. Had he himself not been one of those crazy strangers who, quite conveniently for his Chinese peers, agreed to be sent to the outer darkness? After the Bolshevik horrors he had seen, after watching his mother die in exile in Shanghai, raving in her agony, blurting horrible curses – was he supposed to start fearing the strange Tibetan demons? 

Certainly not.

They made a start on an early morning and, having passed through a few dark, picturesque gorges, plodded along until evening. His companions spoke little so Goullart was left to observe the beautiful landscapes around him. The sun was shining brightly and there was no snow. Goullart looked back – and there behind him, at the end of a long gorge, was a vision of Tachienlu, with its pagodas and temples, framed by the flanks of the gorge as if a stage set with a fabulous castle. A turn of the road – and this heavenly view disappeared, making Goullart’s heart sink in a strange foreboding. 

They stayed in a tiny hamlet overnight. Next morning they started a gradual ascent. It began to snow around noon but, despite the poor visibility and the fatigue of the climb, they managed to reach the top of a 15,000-foot-high pass. Overcome by the altitude, Goullart almost fainted near the top, and it was only his inborn tenacity and pride that kept him going.

At last, breathless and panting, they reached a perfectly flat, windswept top, with several fateful mani stone piles and a few battered prayer flags swaying in the wind on their poles. It was noon and Goullart recalled his companions’ words that the road would become impassable in the afternoon due to the wild winds. They made it to the top of the pass just in time.

The sun was shining again. The sight of majestic glittering peaks and emerald-green forests of rhododendrons around him made Goullart forget about his fears and frailties. They began descending towards a divine-looking blue lake gleaming beneath. A few hours later, they passed a pebbly beach and turned into a narrow valley on the side of the lake. A roaring stream foamed along its bottom, and they started following it down, stepping from one mossy stone to another. It was a very slow progress, but at last the dark, narrow valley turned into a broad and flat one – and Goullart realised that they reached the Roof of the World, the famous Tibetan plateau, a vast, undulating land framed in snowy ranges. Everything was visible, clear and sharp, with objects appearing nearer than they actually were. The yaks on the slopes of distant mountains looked like black beetles. It was about two o’clock, the sun started setting behind the high mountains and the icy winds sprang up – the winds so cruel that it was hard to breathe. So the three people were hurrying up to reach a shelter. The road was empty, their progress became much quicker and it took them just an hour or so to arrive at Garthar. 

The village of Garthar was a row of dingy houses made of rough stones, with tiny windows and flat roofs. It was mostly populated by the Chinese along with their Tibetan wives. It struck Goullart how unusually quiet the place was. There were no lights anywhere, the street looked desolate, and the only sound was the howling of dogs. Amidst the absolute stillness, this mournful sound was frightening. 

The humble Tibetan guide came up to Goullart, shaking with fear.

‘This is a bad village, sir. Something has happened here. We must run from here’.

‘Bollocks!’ said Goullart, aflame with curiosity, wanting to know what had actually happened in this isolated place. Was that a natural disaster the locals had fled from? Or an outbreak of plague?

‘No, sir, very bad,’ the guide insisted. 

It was getting darker very quickly, and suddenly they saw that someone had emerged from around the corner and started walking up to them. The man moved in an unsteady gait, swaying and dragging along his legs as if he could not bend his joints. The Tibetan guide was gaping in horror at the dark figure approaching them.

Ro-langs!’ he shrieked and darted away with almost unnatural speed.

The man came closer, its face a black hole under a traditional felt hat. Clearly he was walking towards them. As he was some ten yards away, he stretched out his hands and broke into a faltering run. That is when Goullart realised the meaning of the word the guide had uttered before running away. He screamed and strode away towards one of the houses, leaving Wuhsien gawking at the dark figure that was already near him.  

Goullart burst into the house, ducking under a low doorway. The house was empty, the hearth cold. Goullart quickly shut the door, locked it and stood still, listening hard. He was all covered in cold sweat and was trembling. But the only sound he could hear was the roar of the wind. Even the dogs stopped howling. 

As he stood there listening to the roaring wind, Goullart clearly recalled the stories he had heard about the ro-langs so often when Tibetan merchants visited him in Likiang. It seemed that all of them, or their family member, or a friend had encountered a ro-langs once or even oftentimes, and Goullart would invariably listen to those spine-chilling stories with attention, nodding his head and tut-tutting compassionately. The ro-langs was a horrible creature of Tibetan folklore, a walking corpse risen from the dead by a malicious spirit or a ‘ba’ po, an evil sorcerer. One ro-langs could depopulate a whole village and turn its residents into other walking dead by simply touching them. Although Goullart happened to have listened to dozens and dozens of those stories, some of them told by actual witnesses of the ro-langs’s devilments, he had never taken them seriously and had always thought those were just the wives’ tales. Even now, after he has met the ghoulish creature, he could not quite believe that the man who he had briefly seen was a ro-langs

 Standing in the middle of an empty hut and listening to the howling wind outside, Goullart tried to start thinking rationally. Indeed, what did he flee from? What did he fear? That man was probably a local resident, who perhaps was quite ill. Goullart has seen too many locals suffering from various diseases. In fact, in his first days as a Depot Master at Likiang he set up a clinic for the local residents and started treating some very simple illnesses – conjunctivitis, trachoma, scabies, small wounds and sores. He also treated other, more serious diseases like dysentery. So why he, with his experience of helping people, fled from a needy patient when he could stay and help? 

Goullart shook his head in frustration. He has now regained his composure completely.

And then came a sound. Amidst the roaring wind, he heard a monotonous banging against the entrance door. It was almost as if someone was trying to kick the door in with a frozen wood log. The door made of wooden planks was trembling and creaking. 

Goullart looked around. His new abode was a rambling log house covered with a wooden-plank roof. As in most Tibetan houses, the ground floor was entirely intended for keeping cattle and storing forage and dried cow dung. There was also a large and dark kitchen which served as a dining room. On the first floor Goullart found several rooms, most of them filled with stores of barley, wheat, corn, yak butter, brown sugar, rock salt, cooking oil, potatoes and some salted pork hanging in big chunks under the roof. One room was a bedroom, very small, with a tiny window covered with a translucent yak bladder. There was a crude bedstead heaped with barley straw, a small table and a chair. A low partition separated it from the other rooms.   

The window was just above the entrance door and Goullart was keen to find out where the weird sound was coming from. After some thought, he tore away the yak bladder and, not without difficulty, thrust his head out of the window. 

The pallid moon sat high in the sky surrounded by unknown, hairy stars, its ghastly light shining upon the whole valley. Everything in sight – the village, each abandoned house, the road and every single rock on it – looked white and breathless as if bleached out of life by this acid light.

There was a lonely figure, charcoal-black in the deathly moonlight, standing motionlessly on the road. This was Wuhsien – Goullart could clearly see his hat and his bag lying beside him. Their Tibetan guide was not seen anywhere.

‘Wuhsien!’ Goullart called out loudly. ‘What are you doing there? What is going on?’

The black figure on the road stirred and drew closer to the house. This was indeed Wuhsien, his face clearly visible in the moonlight. But this face was now still and livid, his glance unmoved and fixed at something in front of him. He moved with the similarly rigid gait as the first man did, rocking from side to side and dragging his feet, and Goullart’s first thought was that Wuhsien had suddenly caught the same illness as the one all local residents seemed to be suffering from.

Then he realised that, while he was trying to draw Wuhsien’s attention, the monotonous sound he heard before still continued. He looked down and what he saw made his blood freeze.

There was the first man at the door and he was trying to enter the house. Yet he seemed to be unable to bend down to get under the low doorway, so he was just throwing himself against the door in equal intervals, as if he was a kind of a mechanical puppet. At some point, his hat fell off his head and Goullart saw the top of his head, a bare skull with skin slipping off in long shreds along with black hair. Next second, he felt a horrible rotting smell coming out of the figure that was trying to break through the doors.

Gasping from terror, Goullart pulled himself back into the house and stepped back from the window. As he was feverishly thinking what to do now, the monotonous sound from the downstairs continued. Even if he kicks the door out, he will not be able to come in, Goullart thought. This rational thought calmed him down a bit. After all, he was on the first floor and was hence relatively safe as the stairs leading to the first floor were narrow and steep. Even if those two walking corpses could break through the door, bend down and get into the house, they would not be able to go up the stairs with their stiff legs. 

But how long will he last here under this siege? Yes, there is enough food in the house to get going for months; but there is no water or a slightest hope that someone will soon find out and rush here to save him. 

The roaring wind outside became quieter but only to give way to another sound – a mournful wailing of the dogs who started howling with a new force, as if sensing a new threat. Goullart came up to the window and looked out.

The road was not empty anymore. It was full of silent figures – men, women, small children – and all of them were walking to his shelter. All of the local residents seemed to be here, and all of them walked with the same rocking gait that was already so familiar to him. His heart sank as he watched this horrible procession in disbelief. Soon all of them stood in front of the house, and, while there were no windows looking out to the backyard, he was sure that the house was now completely surrounded by the ro-langs.

Suddenly the monotonous banging downstairs was interrupted with a loud creaking. The door, he thought and rushed to the top of the stairs. 

It was dark on the ground floor but he could still discern that the frail entrance door was beaten in and was now laying by the doorway. Someone was stepping into the house. Goullart stood above the stairs, peering into the dark space below. There was a movement there and a series of sounds as if a stack of frozen firewood walked in by itself. The source of this sound was covered with a thick black blanket of the darkness.

Whatever has just entered the house, it seemed it was not able to go up the stairs. Goullart rushed to one of the storage rooms where he had earlier spotted the matches. With the box of matches, he returned to the stairs, went down a few steps cautiously and lit a match.

The light revealed dreadful, swollen faces peering at him with white eyes. Dead children. The room was full of the child ro-langs, standing there motionlessly side by side.

Goullart flinched with a stifled cry. Seeing the light, the crowd of the ro-langs swayed forward and one of them, pushed by others, managed to creep onto the lowest step. He stood there, waiving his straight little hands, trying to clutch to something that could help him get onto the next step. Goullart was looking wide-eyed at the thing. The child must have been around six when he was turned into a ro-langs. A nice round face, now blackish, pale-eyed, with evil expression. He was staring up at Goullart, and suddenly a long black tongue sprang out of his mouth with a little hiss. The crowd of other ro-langs was surging behind him, trying to push him up the stairs. 

Goullart darted again to the storage room and returned with a long pole. Whether this was a mop pole or something else did not matter at the moment. As if playing a sort of billiards, Goullart punched the horrible creature to the chest with the tip of the pole. The little ro-langs reeled back and fell on the heads of others who quickly came apart and let him fall on the floor with a thump. 

There was silence as no one downstairs was not moving. Goullart stood waiting, a pole in his hand like a medieval spear. Then suddenly a stir downstairs, and another child ro-langs appeared on the stairs, pushed hard by others from behind. 

This time it was a girl aged around ten or eleven. She did not look dead, only her eyes were white and blind, giving her face a wicked expression. She hissed showing the same terrible black tongue. Goullart hit her right in the face with a pole, and she silently dissolved in the crowd of the walking corpses.

Waiting for another ro-langs to emerge for their hopeless ascent, Goullart realised that he began feeling tired. He did not eat anything for the last five or six hours and was thirsty. It was very cold, with frosty draughts chilling through every inch of the room. He rushed to the nearest storage room and tore a chunk of salted pork off the rope it was hanging on. There was no knife seen anywhere so he simply sank his teeth into the meat. It was very hard and incredibly salty but at least it was edible. During his life in China, he had seen worse food. The trouble was that there was no water. 

As he desperately looked around figuring out which storage room was best to search for water, he suddenly sensed a look directly towards him. Hu turned around and saw that a ro-langs’s head just appeared above the top of the stairs. The corpse’s wild, white eyes stared at him with such malignity that Goullart shuddered. The head bobbed up and down as the corpse was being pushed by others from beneath. 

A pole in his hand, Goullart quickly stepped towards the thing and punched it with a pole, as he has already done. This time, however, the pole cracked and broke into two pieces, and the dead child – it was a husky boy of around fifteen, as Goullart could spot – managed to hold his position. Another ferocious push from beneath and the corpse fell on the floor at the top of the stairs and started crawling, hissing and writhing like a snake, towards Goullart. And there was already another terrible head emerging above the stairs, peering at Goullart with abhorrent eyes.

Goullart cried in despair and quickly retreated to the nearest storage room, slamming the door in the face of the first ro-langs. It was a shaky door without a latch inside and Goullart had to barricade it hastily with heavy wooden boxes with provisions stacking them one on another. Almost immediately, the door wavered under a blow but the boxes were quite heavy and stood the attack.

The room was small and dark. The light came in only through the top of the doorway where the door fell short of the upper doorframe. Goullart heard the banging, thumping and hissing and knew that the room outside was filling with the ro-langs. How long will he be able to withstand the siege? He examined the room almost by touch and soon concluded that the provisions stored here consisted almost entirely of barley, wheat and salt. No water; indeed, no single drop of any liquid.

Utterly exhausted, he perched on a wooden box. The door was now creaking under the same monotonous banging he had already heard outside. 

He must have fallen asleep because a carefully forgotten memory came to him – a room in a cheap hotel in Shanghai and his mother, gravely ill, on her deathbed, her face luminous and peaceful. Suddenly, without the least warning, she sits bolt upright on her bed, her arms extended in front of her, her hands twitching like claws. Her throat issues a sort of animal growl and she croaks, ‘Where are you, wretch? Where are you?’ Her unseeing eyes are bulging, her mouth becomes square like a mask of Greek tragedy. Terrified out of his wits, Goullart tries to make her lie down again, but her strength is enormous and the hands like steel. She gashes him deeply in the arm, croaking again, ‘Just let me find you! I will tear you apart limb from limb!’ Goullart, her only son, sinks by her bed in horror, unable to move. Then, just as suddenly, she falls back on her pillows and soon opens her eyes, smiling gently. She is his poor, dear mother again. ‘Where was I?’ she whispers. ‘I do not seem to remember what happened to me.’ Then, ‘I feel very, very drowsy, Peter, my boy.’ She closes her eyes and, in a few minutes, it is all over.

Goullart opened his eyes with a start. The door was creaking from the monotonous bangs from the outside. 

They will never stop, he thought. They are dead. They will be ramming this door until it breaks apart. These heavy boxes will not stop them either – they will eventually break through them.

His whole body trembling as if he had a fever, Goullart got up and stood there, completely at a loss as to what to do. An hour passed by or perhaps just a few minutes.

At some point of time, he felt a faint draught touching his face. He stretched out his hand and felt a little hole, a slit between the logs, sharp icy wind blowing through it. He stuck his fingers into it and tried to pull. Soon he realised that the back of the house was not made of wooden logs but of planks similar to those the entrance door was made of. They might have been thinner than logs but still very hard to pull off with bare hands. 

He descended on the box, his heart racing, his mouth dry like sandpaper. His foot stumbled across something lying on the floor. This was a fragment of the pole – Goullart must have unknowingly brought it with him while fleeing from the ro-langs

Acting very carefully, Goullart put it into the slit between the planks and pressed with all the weight of his body. The planks creaked. He pulled again. Behind him, the monotonous banging against the door was going on.

He was pulling on the pole, gently but strongly, and the planks started giving way. He knew this because he could feel a widening stream of cold, fresh air blowing out of the hole. 

Finally, one of the planks came off. He threw away the pole and, in one powerful thrust, tore off the other plank. There was now a hole big enough for him to squeeze through, letting the chilly wind and the pale dawn light into the dark storage room. He looked out this improvised window and saw an uneven, wet, ledged surface a bare handbreadth away from him. 

The back of the hut was adjacent to the cliff wall. 

Without hesitation, Goullart put his legs out of the hole and, setting his feet against the wall, climbed out of the hole. He started slowly crawling down, sometimes pressing his back against the wall and clawing at bumps and wrinkles on the house wall. Soon he reached the bottom of the dark, stinky space between the hut and the cliff and started walking to the side which seemed wider and where the morning light looked brighter. Closer to where the back of the house ended, there was a tiny stream flowing down the surface of the rough rock, and Goullart pressed his lips against the water smelling of the yak and mountain herbs and drank for several long minutes. 

The water enlivened him. Cautiously he peered out from the shady space behind the hut. The village seemed as desolate and abandoned as when he was looking at it out of the window above. The sun was already high, the crimson dawn coming over snowy mountains.

Goullart sneaked along the side wall and looked from around the corner. Not a single ro-langs near the house. Flattening himself against the wall, Goullart started feverishly weighing up his options. He could run up to the nearest house and lock himself up. But will he find any food and water there? He could also take a flight down the road in an attempt to meet someone and ask for help. But on their way here, they did not meet anyone, and now it was clear why – the folks from neighbouring villages must have heard about the calamity befalling Garthar and would not venture to approach the cursed village. 

He was about to give up in despair and run up to the closest house but then recalled the stories of those who had happened to meet a ro-langs. They mentioned that the walking corpse is afraid of water and would never venture to cross a stream or a river.

As far as Goullart could remember the map, there was a small river to the west of Garthar, a source of water for the villagers. On the map, it seemed to be located quite close to Garthar, a short 200 yards away. 

While he was frantically calculating the distance to the river, he heard a strange sound. He looked from around the corner and almost knocked up against a ro-langs, the abominable black tongue nearly touching Goullart’s face. The ro-langs stretched out his hand but Goullart was already at a safe distance, running to the river. 

However, having run a few yards, Goullart stopped, breathing heavily. In these high altitudes, running was a difficult sport. He looked round. A crowd of the ro-langs emerged from nowhere and was after him. The morning sun seemed to have galvanised them as they shuffled along the road quickly and in unison. At another point of time, Goullart would have had a good laugh looking at their distorted faces and clumsy movements. But just at the moment he had absolutely no desire to laugh. He was gasping for breath, his breast nearly bursting, his legs feeling as if he wore shackles.

Pulling himself up, he started to run, sometimes slowing to a walk. But even this way, he moved quite slowly, much slower that those chasing him that had no need to breathe. The whole of his short, chunky frame seemed to resist this unnatural physical effort. Looking back huntedly, he could see that his dreadful chasers were catching up with him.

Yet he was the first who reached the river. The ro-langs were just some few yards from him, and he could smell horrible stench emanating from their mass. 

Contrary to what was shown on the map, the river was not small at all. Goullart could actually hear a loud sound of the mighty stream before he reached its banks. It was a tumultuous mountain river swirling down the rugged cliffs, white with foam. There was a small pebbly bar near the place he reached where the locals took in water for their use, and from here began a river crossing made of large boulders. They were wet and looked slippery but this was the only bridge visible. 

Goullart stepped onto the nearest stone and started picking his way across the river. Looking back, he saw in terror that the ro-langs did not stop before the water obstacle but began crossing the river as well, one by one, mainly children who appeared to be more dexterous. Several ro-langs fell to the river and were carried away by the swift running waters, and most undead remained on the river bank. But few remaining child ro-langs were stepping from stone to stone deftly, coming to Goullart nearer and nearer. He could clearly see their horrible black faces and wild white eyes staring at him blindly.

He has already reached the middle of the river where the bridge stones stood almost completely submerged. His clothes were completely wet from the thick water spray; his feet were numb from the cold. Overcome with panic, turning back frequently, he stepped onto a stone, his foot slipped and Goullart tumbled into the seething water. 

He opened his eyes under the water and saw outspread five fingers of a little black palm passing just an inch from his face before the wild river seized his body and hit it against a stone.

When Goullart regained consciousness, he found himself lying under the stone vaults painted with colourful murals. He was in a large square cave all painted with the parinirvana scenes and the images of the Gongpo, Tibetan evil spirits. There was a fire burning in a hearth in the middle of the cave, and an old man sat near it watching the boiling pot closely. He was dressed in a traditional Tibetan robe with long, wide sleeves and wore a tall fox fur hat. When he saw that Goullart had regained senses, he got up with a wide, friendly smile on his face and stood above him, looking down at Goullart. 

‘One rib,’ he said in Chinese. ‘And a couple of bruises. You are lucky to have only one rib broken and a couple of bruises after you have swum in that river.’

‘Where am I?’ said Goullart, wincing from pain in his chest bound up tightly.

‘You are not Chinese,’ said the old man. ‘Where do you come from?’

Goullart chose not to answer. There was something strange about the old man. His wizened, brown face radiated with anticipation as if he knew something about Goullart that Goullart was completely unaware of. He turned away, went to the hearth and starting stirring in the pot.

He was not answering any of Goullart’s questions over the next few days. Goullart would fall asleep and then wake up and the old man would give him a cup of noodle soup. He regularly supplied Goullart with meat and butter tea and examined his rib from time to time. The pain, quite excruciating at first, has gradually remitted and Goullart was finally able to breathe and walk freely. 

One evening, bringing another cup of soup to Goullart, the old man suddenly broke silence.

‘If you were Chinese,’ he said with the same gentle smile, ‘I would kill you.’

Goullart only looked at him in astonishment.

‘My children,’ said the old man. He spoke good Chinese but sometimes slipped into muttering. ‘Good boys, chased you all over the place but you were quicker.’ 

There was a pause and then Goullart asked, ‘You call them your children?’ 

The old man replied in his usual evasive manner, ‘You’ll be fine soon, very soon’. 

Another day passed, and the old man said sipping butter tea, ‘There are too many Chinese in Kham. But no Chinese in Garthar. I have stopped them from coming to Tibet. My children are good, very good.’

 Goullart gave him a long glance.

‘Your things kill not only Chinese,’ he said. ‘They kill everybody. You have committed a horrible atrocity, breached a divine law. You must put them back to sleep.’

The sorcerer put his cup of tea on the floor carefully. He did not smile anymore.

‘What is done cannot be undone,’ he said in a low voice, rather to himself. 

There was a day-long pause before he spoke again. Goullart sat near the hearth looking at the dancing fire. 

‘I pulled you out of the river,’ said the sorcerer behind him. 

‘Why?’ said Goullart not turning back. 

‘I did not know why. You looked so peaceful floating in the water. A good man, I thought, still alive. I saved you from the water so that you could tell me good, harsh things. The truth.’

‘Thank you,’ said Goullart.

The sorcerer laughed. 

‘Thank you, eh? How long have you lived among the Chinese? Five years? Ten?’

‘You cannot turn all Chinese into the ro-langs,’ said Goullart and heard a long sigh. He thought that there would be another day-long pause in their conversation but the sorcerer said, ‘I know. But I have to be trying.’

Goullart turned to him.

‘Will you let me go?’ he said.

The sorcerer sat motionlessly resembling a statue of one of those ancient, fierce deities he worshipped.

‘I can see your future,’ he said, ‘You will never see the snow of your homeland again. You will leave China soon and will never return to Tibet, despite your desire to see it once again. You will die among the Chinese but with Tibetan words on your tongue. There is a path from here to the road to Tachienlu. Somebody will pick you up at the crossroads. Take the bag, there is some food and water in there. And don’t say thank you for there is nothing for you to thank me for.’

Peter Goullart came back to Likiang safely. In 1949, he left China on a plane to Hong Kong, fleeing the advancing communists. He had never returned to Tibet. He died in Singapore in 1978. His last words that he uttered lying unconscious were the only ones in Tibetan he knew, ‘Konan ndro? – Gartha la’ (Where are you going? – To Garthar). 

Val Votrin is a published speculative fiction writer based in Haarlem, The Netherlands. His English language prose has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, The Eunoia Review, Trafika Europe and The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Vol. 2 (Valancourt Press, December 2021). His novel “The Oracle Seller” is forthcoming in Vraeyda Literary this spring.

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

“Bedguard” Horror by Josiah Furcinitti

Man falling into darkness from "Bedguard" by Josiah Furcinitti

Maybe he’s cheating.

The emptiness which has grown between them each night, inch by inch, is a dark gray storm cloud on a beach day, pregnant with the possibility not of rain but of something far worse than a ruined vacation, a sign that a storm is on the horizon; that trouble is indeed here. Each night waking with her legs and feet cold due to the deprivation of his constantly warm body against hers, something to which she had grown accustomed in their marriage, is a thunderclap booming in the hollow places of her mind, a crashing boom saying that her husband of fifteen years no longer loves her, no longer finds comfort in her arms, can no longer be satisfied with her love for him.

She lays on her bed on this January evening, having woken up an hour ago with her usual 2 AM full bladder (it’s like the thing is on a schedule, she thinks every time she wakes and sees the clock), body and heart feeling tense and heavy, bogged down by her anxiety. Though she has been trying for the past hour, she is unable to get back to sleep.

As she struggles against the intrusion of this horrid explanation of her husband’s distance, the voice of her therapist echoes in her brain, assuring her that, “such thoughts are manifestations of your anxiety,” telling her that, “such imaginings, especially based on such scant “evidence” (Anna could picture her clear as day doing the air quotes with her fingers), while they ought not be merely pushed away (and here, doing a pushing gesture; therapy with Dr. Matthews was no mere auditory event), they also ought not be given right to run amuck in your mind to such an extent that they are keeping you up and hurting your relationship with your husband.”

But of course, it wasn’t just the distance in the bed, though that alone would’ve been enough to freak her out. It was also the far-off, almost haunted look in his eyes when he was “zoning” as he put it; it was the way his answers seemed shorter and more terse; it was the way he wasn’t nearly as playful with her as he always had been up to this point.

“Oh, but those could be symptoms of so many different things!” Mind-Matthews countered, “Stress at work, trouble entering REM sleep, a strained family relationship,” she went on, the possibilities pouring out of her mouth smooth as a lake on a windless day, hands working and moving with each option as though kneading them like invisible dough into something far more palatable than infidelity.

But, she thinks, answering her therapist, the space between us is the worst. From the first night of our marriage until these past five days, he has always slept snuggled right up against me, as close as he possibly could be. It was like he couldn’t sleep unless he was touching me in some way. And now…

She turns to him now, looks at him, watches his back –

(why his back, he always used to sleep on his back, not on his side with his back facing me, why all of a sudden – )

expand and contract with his deep breaths, each intake announcing itself with a light snore, something she has always found endearing rather than annoying. She takes her own deep breath and reaches out and shakes him lightly.

“David. Hey, David.”

He draws a sharp breath and turns toward her, his sudden waking producing a snore of the sort that, done more regularly throughout the night, probably sent many a man to the couch.

“Huh – “

He turns around towards her and she can tell his sleep has not been deep or restful. He has bags under his eyes the size of suitcases and his face is a sickly yellow-pale.

“What’s up, baby?”

“Well… I – I’m sorry to wake you, love.” She smiles at him, laughs nervously. “You know what, it’s not even that big a deal, we can talk about it in the – “

He turns and flips on the lamp on his side of the bed and then props himself up on his elbow as he turns to face her again. He smiles back and puts his right hand on the left side of her face, brushes gently at her cheek with his thumb, a gesture that never fails to calm her.

“We can talk about it now. Better to face whatever it is while it’s still fresh on your mind. Did you have another nightmare?”

“No, I haven’t had one tonight. Not yet anyway.”

She had indeed been plagued with nightmares for the past week or so: another possible cause, Mind-Matthews pointed out, to the current flare-up of her anxiety; lack of sleep was a famous perpetrator of all kinds of breakdowns of the mind and emotions. These nightmares were incredibly reminiscent of the nightmares that she used to have as a child: indeed, she had forgotten that she had even had such horrid nightmares until, with a sick familiarity like a past trauma being triggered by some sense, these ones arrived. Then and now, she could never remember exactly what happened upon waking, but she always woke with the sense that she had narrowly avoided something; something evil and sentient, something meticulous and insidious, something not content with merely attacking, but something that enjoyed the hunt as much as, if not more than, the kill. And she always felt upon waking that the slimy residue of whatever beast haunted her dreams was still in the room, that it wanted her to know that she had only just missed it, but that she ought not worry – that it would be back.

She takes a deep breath.

“Babe…” She pauses for a moment before letting it out. “Are you – are we good? Like, we’re happy, right? And our marriage is good? And – ”

The more she stumbles on, the bigger his smile grows.

“Honey,” he cuts her off, gently; “you are amazing and we are amazing. I love you more every day that I get to know you and be with you. There is certainly nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with us.”

The smile falters a bit.

“Where is all this coming from? Did something happen?”

“Well, no, not exactly. I mean, like, it’s just – it sounds so silly.”

He brushes her cheek again with his thumb and she takes a deep breath and goes on.

“Well, it’s just that for the past week or so it seems like each night you’re moving farther and farther away from me throughout the night. And, you know, we both sleep like rocks normally; I remember your brother telling me that when you guys were younger and shared a room he used to check to see if you were still breathing sometimes because of how still you were.”

She laughs a little.

“And, I don’t know, it just seems like you’ve been more – “ she pauses, thinking for a moment, hands moving in unconscious imitation of Dr. Matthews, “ – more stressed. Or distracted. Or something, I don’t know.”

He nods slowly, thoughtfully, taking it in.

“Honestly, honey…” he pauses, thinking, and Anna’s blood pressure spikes. She loves nearly everything about this man, even after six years of marriage, but this is the one thing that drives her up a wall, especially with her anxiety being what it is. When she is upset about something and he is trying to talk her through it, he will think about it, start to say something, and then pause to think some more, as though he were being asked to give a speech on the spot that will change the course of history rather than merely trying to comfort his anxious wife. She knows he is just a thoughtful man and is trying to be careful with his words, but it drives her nuts all the same.

“Yes?” She says, goading him on, a hint of annoyance creeping into her voice. Most times she lets him do his thing in his time, but her patience in the midst of anxiety at a normal hour, let alone at three AM, is about as plentiful as breathable air in a middle school gymnasium.

“Well, honestly, I haven’t been sleeping well the past week. I’ve been super exhausted. And I’ve actually been having some pretty awful dreams as well.”

His smile is totally gone now, replaced by a look she hasn’t seen before: fear bordering on terror.

“It’s pretty weird – I usually don’t remember my dreams, if I even have them at all. But these ones are super vivid. And they’re pretty much all the same too. We’re laying in bed together and you’re asleep and I’m awake and at first, it’s like the atmosphere of the room changes somehow; everything seems darker and there’s this weird smell in the room like rotting meat or something. Then out of nowhere my heart starts racing and I get this feeling of absolute terror and fear; it almost feels like I’ve developed some kind of supernatural sixth sense and I can tell something is coming for me.”

His breathing picks up and she can see beads of sweat forming on his upper lip and his brow.

“And then I hear a slithering, slimy noise from under the bed like the world’s biggest snake escaped from the zoo and came to our house and I want to scream and jump out of bed and tell you that we have to get out of there, but I’m paralyzed, I’m frozen, I can’t move or speak – “

His words are running together, each phrase running out of his mouth on rapid gusts of breath.

“And then the slithering starts to happen on the bed frame and I can feel the mattress moving as though something is trying to climb on it and then – “

He is shaking now and Anna sits up all the way, the sheets pooling around her waist, and she grabs him and pulls him into an embrace. She can each hot breath against her breasts, can feel the sweat coming off him and dripping between them.

“It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a dream. I know it’s scary, but it’s only a nightmare. Trust me, if anyone knows nightmares, its me.”

She rubs his shoulder and he lets out a little nervous laugh.

She pulls back for a moment and put the back of her hand against his forehead.

“You know what, you do feel a little warm. Maybe you’re coming down with something. A fever can cause some pretty strange nightmares, you know. I remember once my sister had a temp of 103 and she had a waking nightmare that there were spiders crawling all over the ceiling, poor kid.”

His breathing is slowing down now and he reaches up to wipe the sweat off his brow. As he does, she sees light scratches all up and down the inside of his arms and on his ribs, some fresh, some beginning to heal already. Her heart skips a beat. She thinks about asking him, even opens her mouth and feels the words starting to form, but just before they are out, she stops them. He is just beginning to calm down and she doesn’t want to upset him again.

“Do you think you could go back to sleep?”

He thinks for a moment.

“Yeah, I think so.”

He looks up at her, his eyes pleading.

“Do you think you could hold me for a little while I fall asleep.”

She smiles at him and pulls him back into herself.

“Of course.”

She holds him and after a while feels his breathing finally slow and before she knows it, she is asleep too.


She doesn’t know whether it is the thump or the scream that wakes her, but before she can even begin to register what she is hearing, she rolls to the now empty side of her bed that her husband usually occupies and looks over the side. He is there on the floor, on his back, chest heaving with huge, hitching, hyperventilating sobs. His breathing is way too fast and he is shaking and he is going to pass out if he doesn’t calm down soon.

Well then, why don’t you get the hell out of bed and try to stop that from happening, idiot? Her own internal voice screams at her and she rolls the rest of the way out of bed and kneels down beside him, rubbing his arms and chest, whispering “shh” and “it’s okay” and other little comfortisms that bypass her rational mind entirely and flow out naturally as she tries to calm him.

After a minute or two, he calms to the point that she no longer fears him hyperventilating himself into unconsciousness and she reaches up and grabs one of his many open water bottles from his nightstand. She unscrews the cap and, after helping him to sit up against the nightstand, raises the bottle to his lips, telling him, “Drink.”

He takes two long gulps and then pulls back. He moans.

“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

He moans again and she forces him to look her in the eyes.

“Babe. Did you hit your head?”

“No,” he moans, “I fell on my butt.”

“Do you think you can get up?”

He straightens against the nightstand and pushes himself off the floor. Anna helps to steady him and helps him climb back into bed.

“It almost got me this time, Anna. I could feel it and smell it.”

His eyes are half-lidded and he speaks in mumbles and she is sure that he must be half-asleep, despite the fall; that his mind was still clinging to whatever nightmare had pushed him over the edge of their bed, like milk holding the scent of whatever it’s next to in the fridge.

“You’re okay baby, you’re okay. Just go back to sleep. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

He mumbles something else and turns over. She rubs his back for a little while, until his breathing deepens once again, and then she turns over and attempts to call sleep back to her own mind.

But every time she closes her eyes, she sees him writhing on the floor; she hears him weeping, hears his voice telling her that he could “feel it and could smell it,” and now she could swear that she, too could feel something, could smell something in the room with them.

When, after about half an hour of restless tossing and turning, she finally accepts that sleep, like a cat, cannot be controlled but can only be lured if it wants to be lured, she sighs and grabs her phone from under her pillow.

She does her usual fruitless scrolling through the usual social media platforms, seeing all the colors and words and lies, but not really taking any of it in. Halfway through her Facebook News scroll, an idea comes to her. She opens Amazon. She searches Bed guard.

As she scrolls through the results, her first thought is a flood of memories. Her mom and dad were very strict on Anna sleeping in her own bed once she turned two – not only because they were ready for their privacy once again, but also because, as a young child, she tossed and turned like a student the night before a test. In fact, on more than one occasion, they had come into her room in the morning to find her sprawled on the floor next to her mattress, having rolled off at some point in the middle of the night.

But when her dad died only two years after, she spent nearly every night in her mother’s bed, leading her mother to buy a bed guard of the very same sort of those which she was seeing. The padded railing with a cloth mesh netting across brought back memories long since forgotten: looking at it as she pretended to sleep as her mother wept softly into the pillow, waking up with her face in the netting and seeing the red tattoo it left on her cheek as she brushed her teeth.

Her second thought: damn, these are expensive. The first page had 15 different options, with prices ranging from $25 to $99, this one claiming that, “Twin, Queen, King: no matter the size, we’ve got you covered!” the other assuring her that, “even a baby elephant couldn’t fall off the bed with this guard in place!” She snorts at this, checks the price, snorts again. $99. For that, she could just buy a nice air mattress to put next to the bed. At least it would continue to have use once this – whatever this was – passed.

She finds a middle-of-the-road one for $50, sees it has same day shipping and will arrive before 10 PM, and adds it to her cart. She checks out and then turns to her husband. He is still sleeping, his breathing still deep and regular, and then checks the time. 5:19 AM. If she can fall asleep before 6 or so, she can get at least two more hours of sleep, which might be enough to stave off extreme grumpiness, so she turns over and soon thereafter falls asleep.


“Babe, I really don’t think this is necessary. I mean, last night was the first time I’ve fallen off a bed, maybe ever.”

He speaks to her from across the room as he strips off the robe he wears after showers and before bed and folds it carefully, putting it over the back of his desk chair.

She thought that perhaps he would protest, at least a little, and this feeling was confirmed the moment she saw his face as he walked into the room and saw the bed guard already installed on his side of the bed. Though he is a man far sweeter and less macho than most men she has met, he is still a man and thus still had his pride. But she was ready for this.

“And hopefully it will be the last. But until we’re sure that these nightmares have worked themselves out of your system, perhaps it would be better for your body and for both of our sleep just to have this as a safety net – no pun intended.”

She walks over to him, hugs him from behind, rubbing his chest.

“If anything, do it for me. It’ll make me feel a whole lot better to know I won’t wake up to find you in a pool of blood on the floor because you hit your head on the corner of the night table after rolling out of bed.”

He laughs and spins in her arms so that they are face to face.

“I guess it’s better than those little corner guards you put on everything when you babysit for my sister’s kid.”

She makes her eyes go comically wide and her voice jumps up into Mickey Mouse range as they always do when they are joke-lying.

“No yeah, definitely didn’t buy any of those.”

They both laugh and kiss each other, lightly at first. Then the kiss deepens and he lifts her and she wraps her legs around him and he carries her to the bed.


She can hear him cursing under his breath as she climbs out of sleep the next morning. She blinks and turns around. Her eyes are still blurry with sleep, but she can see that his side of the bed is empty; he is next to the bed kneeling down and looking at the bed guard. She blinks again and her eyes clear and she draws in a sharp breath, then utters her own curse.

“What the hell happened?” she asks once she has caught her breath.

“I have no idea.” He doesn’t look up at her as he answers, he just continues to study the bed guard. A fist-sized hole has been ripped in the center of it and there are tiny brownish-red droplets hanging off the ragged ends of the mesh around the hole. She can see the graying speckles of three-day growth on his face through the center of the hole and she realizes that she has never seen more than the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow on him. “I must have punched it or ripped through it somehow. I think I had another nightmare last night. I don’t remember it, but I feel exhausted, like I didn’t sleep at all last night. And – “

He stops himself; she prods him.


“And I’m scared, Anna.” He finally looks her in the eye. “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I know something is going on.” He stands and begins to pace next to the bed. “Maybe if I sleep on the couch tonight. Or if I get a hotel room or something, I don’t know.”

She gets out of bed and walks around to him.


It’s as though he doesn’t hear her. He continues to pace and goes on.

“I mean, maybe just changing the scenery. I don’t know, maybe I can take some NyQuil or something and – “

David.” She speaks with force, not quite yelling, but close. He finally stops and faces her. “I know you’re scared, honey.” She walks to him and hugs him. He cringes a little at first – it breaks her heart into a million pieces, but she goes on anyway. “And I don’t know what’s going on either. Maybe you saw something last week that brought up some childhood trauma –“

“No, I’ve been thinking about it and – “

Or,” she cuts him off, “maybe it was something you ate,” she lifts a finger before he can interrupt again, “or maybe something else totally that we don’t understand. We both struggle with anxiety and depression and we both know full well that these kind of things are sometimes cyclical and seasonal. Maybe this is just a new season and a new thing to deal with.”

She lifts her hand up to his face and rubs her thumb against his cheek, imitating the way he comforts her.

“Whatever it may be, I am here with you and for you and we will figure this out and everything will be okay.” She looks deep into his eyes, gauging whether he is really listening. “Everything will be okay,” she repeats, holding his face in both hands.

He takes a deep breath and smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.

“You’re right, of course. Everything will be okay. Listen, I’m gonna shower and head off to work, okay? Johnson will kill me if I’m late again.”

She looks at him for a moment, debating whether to argue the point with him. She sees in his eyes that further arguments or pleadings will do nothing and forces a smile.

“Okay babe. Wash your butt good, you stink.”

He crinkles his nose at her and gives her a gentle push away, but she can tell his heart is not in it. He walks off to the bathroom and she looks down at the torn bed guard, wondering how in the world he could’ve done this, especially without waking her.


“Just let me do it, okay?” He raises his voice at her for only the second time in their marriage.

He was quiet when he got home that day, quiet during dinner, quiet while washing the dishes after, quiet in the shower. She tried to start conversations several times, but after the third failed attempt while they washed dishes together, she joined him in his silence. The silence ended when, after watching their show together, David gathered his blanket and pillow into his arms and climbed out of bed.

“Babe? Where are you going?”

“I’m sleeping on the couch tonight.”

He put up a hand before she could even begin to respond.

“Babe, it’s not up for debate. Look at this.”

He gestures with his full hands at the bed guard.

“What if I do that to you in the middle of the night instead of to that thing? How’s that gonna feel?”

“David, you’re not gonna do that to me. You’ve never been remotely violent to me, sleeping or awake and – “

“But we really don’t know what could happen, do we? As you yourself pointed out, this is unprecedented. We will figure this out together and if, after a couple nights on the couch, I’m not punching or ripping holes in anything, I’ll come back to the bed. But for now – “

“Babe, come on! This is – “

“Just let me do it, okay?”

They are both silent for a moment, both breathing heavy in the heat of the argument. He crumbles first. He comes around to her side of the bed and kneels down in front of her.

“Listen, babe. I would never forgive myself if I accidentally hurt you because of some stupid nightmares, okay? It’s just a couple nights and I’m just down the hall. It’s for the best, Anna. You see that, right?”

She still doesn’t agree, would still rather be able to keep an eye on him, but once again that male sense of pride and stubbornness is more than she has the energy to deal with. So, she takes a deep breath and responds, “Yes, David, I see. Just a couple nights though.”

“Yes,” he says, smiling, “just a couple nights.”

He kisses her on her forehead, then each cheek, then on the lips and lingers there for a moment.

“I love you, Anna.”

“I love you too.”

He kisses her once more and then stands again and walks around the bed and, after giving her one more look, down the hall to the living room, closing the door gently behind him as he goes.


The creaking of the bedroom door wakes her.


No response. For a moment, there is no sound at all. Then the door opens all the way and he shuffles in.

“Hey baby. Can’t sleep down there? That couch is absolutely awful on the back.”

Still no response. He comes to his side of the bed, dragging his feet as he goes. He stands before it for a moment, then grabs the bed guard and tries to rip it off.

“Wow, wow, wow, what are you doing?” Anna says, shifting over and grabbing his forearms. She feels the muscle rippling under her hands and he is still not saying anything.

“Babe.” Her voice has a little more alarm in it now, but he still acts as if he doesn’t hear her.

She gets out of bed and pulls his arms to his side, leads him to the bottom of the bed so that he can climb in around the bed guard. He doesn’t put up a fight, and for that Anna is grateful.

“Come on. Should’ve listened to me in the first place.”

She finally gets him into bed and tucks him in.

“Goodnight, baby.”

Still nothing. He has never sleepwalked like this before; but he has also never had nightmares like this before.

Time to pick up the therapy conversation again, Anna thinks as she drifts off.


This time, she is sure that it is neither the thump nor the scream that wakes her; it is the rustling of the bedsheets. First, the slimy progress over the bedsheets of what sounds like a den of snakes slithering onto her husband’s side of the bed and then the louder rustling of him being dragged off of it with them in their descent. Her eyes flick open and the first thing she sees is her husband being dragged through the bed guard, which has been mangled even further, the padded railing ripped in two, one arm reaching straight up into the sky and the other at a slight downward angle. His eyes flutter open and look directly into hers just as he is about to fall and he opens his mouth to scream and as he does a slimy red tentacle tipped in long white claws slides up his chest and into his mouth. Instead of a scream, he emits a strangled choking sound and then he is gone and she hears the thump and him being dragged under the bed.

She breaks her paralysis and goes to the edge of his side, looks over. He is already gone, but she sees the trailing end of one tentacle. It scratches at the floor as it retreats under the bed. Just before it disappears, it stops for a moment and she stares in horror as it turns over, nail side down, and hundreds of tiny eyes look at her and wink all together.

She screams as the thing disappears and she screams as the darkness encroaches and she screams as she passes out.

8 (Epilogue)

She wakes sometime later, her heart already racing, her breath already hot and fast in her throat. She looks at the clock on the nightstand and sees that it is 2:17 am.

Just a nightmare, she tells herself, just another nightmare.

She tells herself this over and over as she rubs the new scratches on her arms and as she settles back into her side of the bed, where she awoke.

Even though, she thinks, even though I know I fell asleep on his side of the bed but it’s okay, I didn’t really because it was only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare.

She tells herself this over and over and over even as she starts to fall asleep, even as she hears –

But it’s not real, its only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only –

– a slimy rustling movement under her side of the bed.

Josiah Furcinitti lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts with his wife. While he has
always enjoyed reading and been interested in writing, he began studying and delving into the
craft in the past year. He is currently working on his first novel as well as other short fiction.

“The Steel Tomb” Horror by Ricardo D. Rebelo

"The Steel Tomb" Horror by Ricardo D. Rebelo

The morning sun burst through the clouds creating golden Roman columns of light as far as the eye could see.No highways out here or skyscrapers, no city lights to contaminate the sky at night allowing for the galaxy’s canopy to blanket you. 

Beneath all of this was the Robert Baker a former Norwegian whaling vessel that was currently commissioned to do the very opposite of what it was intended. The Baker all 200 tons and 200 feet of it had been purchased with a generous donation from a millionaire by the Sea Angels, a group formed to stop whaling all over the world but for the most part in the Antarctic Sea. Here the Baker hunted the last of the world’s whaling fleet which came almost exclusively from Japan.

This day as the sun began to burn off the morning mists Carlos Santos stood watch on the forward sponson. Even with the sun coming up the chill in the air cut through his parka and bones as if they had no substance at all. He may have well been wearing a robe made of tissue for all the good it did. The Baker was close to finding its prey so Santos would stay on watch until hypothermia set in if that was what it took to see the Japanese whaler.

Santos had graduated from Miskatonic University with a doctorate in biochemistry. He could have easily taken job-creating food additives that would have made him very rich. Instead, Carlos chose to work for slave wages on a ship that hunted whalers. The Baker did not defend the cetaceans with guns and bullets, The Sea Angels was a peaceful organization that abhorred violence. Their mission was to remind the whalers of the evils of taking from the earth more than what was needed. The Barker had spotted Chikuzen Maru, a giant whaling ship out of Shimonoseki Harbor in Tokyo, Japan. 

 A small boat was dropped from the Baker to try to close the distance between the Maru and the whale. Santos stood on the deck holding a handful of butyric acid in an attempt to try to lob it far enough to the other ship. Butyric acid is essentially rotten butter. The plan was to contaminate the deck of the ship so that they are unable to process the whale. The Japanese had learned to become completely indifferent to the Baker and the Sea Angels as a whole. The crew would turn water cannons on the small craft until it could no longer pursue while the other sailors caught and processed the whales. 

At that moment a spearman on the forecastle of the whaling ship locked a harpoon into place and began to aim at the massive whale. He shot the harpoon at the back of the behemoth. A gout of black bile erupted from the wound. The gunner looked behind him and gave a thumbs up to the captain on the bridge of the Maru. The creature stopped moving. The black Icor spewed like an exploded oil derrick. The whale began to sink.  Santos was frozen in terror. He had seen many whales fall to Japanese ships but this was different. Something seemed wrong.

The sailors on the Maru made their way up to the bow of the ship preparing to retrieve their prize. At this time the Baker’s small scout ship had reached the port side of the ship and was attempting to lob bottles of the butyric acid onto the deck. Santos could see that the cable which was connected to the harpoon was becoming taught. “My God,” he said to himself, “The cable beginning to pull the ship down on its port side.”

No whale, no creature born of the sea has the power to drag down a Japanese whaling ship of that size. Something was coming out of the water. It began to wrap itself around the cable. Carlos’ eyes began to ache as he strained to see what could be possibly crawling up the line. And then it dawned on him, it was a tentacle. Not like any he had ever seen before. It had an iridescent color that betrayed any single shade in the spectrum. It looked magical coming out of the steel blue and seafoam of the ocean. 

The tentacle had reached the massive speargun. The Gunner was frozen in terror. He had always been on the dominant side of the violence but today his luck would breathe its last gasp as the tentacle writhed in front of him and then penetrated the gunner through his groin and up out of his mouth. The creature impaled him and began to writhe even more shaking the body back and forth until it paused and flexed, engorging itself and causing the gunner’s body to erupt in a spasm of gore. Once the monster was relieved of the crew member the tentacle wrapped itself around the harpoon gun and ripped it off the deck.

The crew of the Maru was scrambling to deal with the massive hole left on the port side of the ship that was created by the unceremonious removal of the harpoon. 

Santos ran into the wheelhouse of Robert Baker. Captain Oliveira was looking out the windows with his mouth agape. His hands were so tight on the wheel that the half-moons of his knuckles were bleached white. “Captain,!” Carlos shouted and the entire bridge crew turned to him. “Call back the small boats!” Carlos insisted, “Captain!” but he was frozen with shock. 

Just at that moment, a sound erupted in the air. A sound deep, sonorous, and deafening rumbled and shook everything. The windows on the bridge of the Robert Baker cracked. Santos put his hands against his ears to try to muffle the noise but to no avail. He was leaning up against a hole where the port side window had been when Santos saw the whaling ship being wrapped in tentacles that were as long as city blocks and four decks tall. Once it had been completely wrapped the tentacles dragged the ship into the abyss. At some point, it cracked in half and the bow and stern came rushing to meet each other. The pressure of all of this created a massive wake coming directly at the Robert Baker. 

Carlos’ mind kicked into gear and he ran to the aft of the bridge and down the ladder onto the next deck and into a large empty cargo area. He could feel the ship listing heavily to one side, knocking him into the bulkhead. Carlos found the energy to dog the watertight door and then collapsed onto the floor which was once the ceiling.

For an undeterminable amount of time, Santos swam into the abyss of unconsciousness. Slowly the black veil began to part and he could feel the world around him freefalling slowly. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He was on the Baker. His mind looked for more answers like what happened? The monster ate the Maru and the wake ate the Baker so he was somewhere in the hold of a dying ship in the grips of the frozen Arctic ocean. But how can he be alive? Was he alive? The pain in his bleeding ears from the pressure of the fathoms trying to crush the Baker was the answer. He was very much alive. The bulkheads around him were screaming. They too were in a fight for their lives one that inevitably they would lose. Carlos could feel the ship continue to freefall. The pressure continued to build and then almost mercifully the Baker hit bottom. The momentum caused Santos to hop in the air for a moment and all around him sounds of steel being crushed and rendered loose from the hull created a symphony of destruction. He took a few deep breaths to try to steady himself. Closing his eyes Santos tried to imagine himself lying on a beach with the sun warming him. While he was trying to mediate his way back to lucidity he heard a noise that could not possibly be genuine. Across the room was the hatch that he used to lock himself into the bulkhead. By dogging it he inadvertently created the air-tight compartment that kept him alive as the Barker itself entombed itself at the bottom of the sea. But the sound, the sound was that of someone or something attempting to open the hatch. Could it be one of his shipmates that against all odds survived the freefall? The hatch creaked a bit more and he could see the wheel begin to turn. Who on earth could it be? Santos felt his sanity slowly swim away on a wave of horror, Who the hell could be out there? The steel continued to screech and moan as the wheel continued its turn. It was death he reconciled, death was on the other side of that door. It had come down through the fathoms to offer him the last kiss that would steal his breath for eternity. The wheel was about to lock into its final position. Santos braced himself for what he was sure would be a tidal wave of water that would be the soil of his tomb. Then with one last creak, the door flew open. Santos closed his eyes and covered his ears awaiting the inevitable and then…nothing. The only thing Santos could hear was the beating of his tortured heart. No water, no steel collapsing around him, no screams from the abyss, just…nothing. He waited and waited with his eyes clamped shut hoping to hold out the horror and yet still nothing. Santos decided that it was time to look and see what hell had wrought for him so slowly he began to open his eyes. At first, everything was a blur then things began to focus. Before him was the bulkhead and set in that bulkhead was the door. A door that was now opened revealed nothing but darkness. Within that darkness, a stench came to meet him. A stench of thousands of years of rot and decay marinated in the salts of the deepest sea. Santos took a few steps toward the ebon mouth of the hatch door. He was out of his mind now in a place where he could only react out of instinct as everything he had understood his whole life had become meaningless and inapplicable to whatever or wherever he was. Reaching out he tried to touch the abyss but nothing met his touch. Darkness opened upon darkness. He stepped through the portal and his feet rested on what could only be described as the beach. Soft, wet sand combined with algae and vegetation crushed under his feet. But how could this be? Santos returned to the cabin and took the emergency 12-volt lantern off of the wall which had illuminated the compartment and headed back out of the hatch. 

Now with the dim light illuminating the world outside the door, he could see that he was not on a beach but on the floor of the ocean itself. Fish were flapping and suffocating all around him. They must have been displaced when the air bubble formed around the Barker. “What air bubble?” wondered Santos, and how? He walked slowly trying not to lose his footing with all of the vegetation and rocks around him. After a hundred yards or so a light began to form in front of him. The light began as an emerald dot and bloomed out into a large orb and then outlined the bubble of the dome that surrounded Santos and the Barker. Santos was frozen watching this unfold. His mind had no context for what was happening. He was mollified by it. 

He then saw what looked like a squid, a squid the size of a ten-story building. It stood on the outside of the bubble still in the deep ocean. Santos felt like a fish in a bowl. Slowly a massive tentacle not unlike the one he saw impaling that Japanese gunner pushed itself through the bubble and began to come for him. Santos turned and ran as fast as he could back toward the compartment. Just as he reached the hatch the tentacle wrapped itself around his waist. All of the air in his chest was pushed out from the pressure and he gasped to refill his lungs. Slowly Santos was dragged back into the bubble. He prepared himself for the inevitability of being dragged into the ocean itself and drowned. The tentacle twisted so that Santos was now facing it head-on. He looked directly into the eye. Santos was mesmerized staring into the emerald orb. The iris looked as if it were the home of green galaxies swimming in the vastness of space. Intoxicated with fear and wonder Santos’ mind finally collapsed.

Ricardo Rebelo is the writer and director of the award-winning PBS Documentary Lizbeth a Victorian Nightmare. He is a professor of Media Studies at Bristol Community College and screenwriting at the University of Rhode Island. Ric was the Director of the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival and the Rock and Shock Film Festival for a decade. 

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The Saturday Night Special: “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White (1907, the Project Gutenberg Australia text)

A few years ago, when I had only my personal website, I ran a dark story from classic (usually nineteenth-century) literature on Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m. I called these “The Saturday Night Special” and I ran these for about a year or so. To go back into the literary roots of The Chamber, I have decided to rerun many of those stories in The Chamber. Leave a comment below to let me know what you think of them.

I am going to start off the resurrected Saturday Night Special with one of my favorite horror stories of all time: “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White.

Edward Lucas White 1866-1934
Edward Lucas White

“It stands to reason,” said Twombly, “that a man must accept of his own eyes, and when eyes and ears agree, there can be no doubt. He has to believe what he has both seen and heard.”

“Not always,” put in Singleton, softly.

Every man turned toward Singleton. Twombly was standing on hearthrug, his back to the grate, his legs spread out, with his habitual air of dominating the room. Singleton, as usual, was as much as possible effaced in a corner. But when Singleton spoke he said something. We faced him in that flattering spontaneity of expectant silence which invites utterance.

“I was thinking,” he said, after an interval, “of something I both saw and heard in Africa.”

Now, if there was one thing we had found impossible, it had been to elicit from Singleton anything definite about his African experiences. As with the Alpinist in the story, who could tell only that he went up and came down, the sum of Singleton’s revelations had been that he went there and came away. His words now riveted our attention at once. Twombly faded from the hearthrug, but not one of us could ever recall having seen him go. The room readjusted itself, focused on Singleton, and there was some hasty and furtive lighting of fresh cigars. Singleton lit one also, but it went out immediately, and he never relit it.

Chapter I

We were in the Great Forest, exploring for pigmies. Van Rieten had a theory that the dwarfs found by Stanley and others were a mere cross-breed between ordinary negroes and the real pigmies. He hoped to discover a race of men three feet tall at most, or shorter. We had found no trace of any such beings.

Natives were few, game scarce; food, except game, there was none; and the deepest, dankest, drippingest forest all about. We were the only novelty in the country, no native we met had ever seen a white man before, most had never heard of white men. All of a sudden, late one afternoon, there came into our camp an Englishman, and pretty well used up he was, too. We had heard no rumor of him; he had not only heard of us but had made an amazing five-day march to reach us. His guide and two bearers were nearly as done up as he. Even though he was in tatters and had five days’ beard on, you could see he was naturally dapper and neat and the sort of man to shave daily. He was small, but wiry. His face was the sort of British face from which emotion has been so carefully banished that a foreigner is apt to think the wearer of the face incapable of any sort of feeling; the kind of face which, if it has any expression at all, expresses principally the resolution to go through the world decorously, without intruding upon or annoying anyone.

His name was Etcham. He introduced himself modestly, and ate with us so deliberately that we should never have suspected, if our bearers had not had it from his bearers, that he had had but three meals in the five days, and those small. After we had lit up he told us why he had come.

“My chief is ve’y seedy,” he said between puffs. “He is bound to go out if he keeps this way. I thought perhaps…”

He spoke quietly in a soft, even tone, but I could see little beads of sweat oozing out on his upper lip under his stubby mustache, and there was a tingle of repressed emotion in his tone, a veiled eagerness in his eye, a palpitating inward solicitude in his demeanor that moved me at once. Van Rieten had no sentiment in him; if he was moved he did not show it. But he listened. I was surprised at that. He was just the man to refuse at once. But he listened to Etcham’s halting, difficult hints. He even asked questions.

“Who is your chief?”

“Stone,” Etcham lisped.

That electrified both of us.

“Ralph Stone?” we ejaculated together.

Etcham nodded.

For some minutes Van Rieten and I were silent. Van Rieten had never seen him, but I had been a classmate of Stone’s, and Van Rieten and I had discussed him over many a campfire. We had heard of him two years before, south of Luebo in the Balunda country, which had been ringing with his theatrical strife against a Balunda witch-doctor, ending in the sorcerer’s complete discomfiture and the abasement of his tribe before Stone. They had even broken the fetish-man’s whistle and given Stone the pieces. It had been like the triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal, only more real to the Balunda.

We had thought of Stone as far off, if still in Africa at all, and here he turned up ahead of us and probably forestalling our quest.

Chapter II

Etcham’s naming of Stone brought back to us all his tantalizing story, his fascinating parents, their tragic death; the brilliance of his college days; the dazzle of his millions; the promise of his young manhood; his wide notoriety, so nearly real fame; his romantic elopement with the meteoric authoress whose sudden cascade of fiction had made her so great a name so young, whose beauty and charm were so much heralded; the frightful scandal of the breach-of-promise suit that followed; his bride’s devotion through it all; their sudden quarrel after it was all over; their divorce; the too much advertised announcement of his approaching marriage to the plaintiff in the breach-of-promise suit; his precipitate remarriage to his divorced bride; their second quarrel and second divorce; his departure from his native land; his advent in the dark continent. The sense of all this rushed over me and I believe Van Rieten felt it, too, as he sat silent.

Then he asked:

“Where is Werner?”

“Dead,” said Etcham. “He died before I joined Stone.”

“You were not with Stone above Luebo?”

“No,” said Etcham, “I joined him at Stanley Falls.”

“Who is with him?” Van Rieten asked.

“Only his Zanzibar servants and the bearers,” Etcham replied.

“What sort of bearers?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Mang-Battu men,” Etcham responded simply.

Now that impressed both Van Rieten and myself greatly. It bore out Stone’s reputation as a notable leader of men. For up to that time no one had been able to use Mang-Battu as bearers outside of their own country, or to hold them for long or difficult expeditions.

“Were you long among the Mang-Battu?” was Van Rieten’s next question.

“Some weeks,” said Etcham. “Stone was interested in them and made up a fair-sized vocabulary of their words and phrases. He had a theory that they are an offshoot of the Balunda and he found much confirmation in their customs.”

“What do you live on?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Game, mostly,” Etcham lisped.

“How long has Stone been laid up?” Van Rieten next asked.

“More than a month,” Etcham answered.

“And you have been hunting for the camp?” Van Rieten exclaimed.

Etcham’s face, burnt and flayed as it was, showed a flush.

“I missed some easy shots,” he admitted ruefully. “I’ve not felt ve’y fit myself.”

“What’s the matter with your chief?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Something like carbuncles,” Etcham replied.

“He ought to get over a carbuncle or two,” Van Rieten declared.

“They are not carbuncles,” Etcham explained. “Nor one or two. He has had dozens, sometimes five at once. If they had been carbuncles he would have been dead long ago. But in some ways they are not so bad, though in others they are worse.”

“How do you mean?” Van Rieten queried.

“Well,” Etcham hesitated, “they do not seem to inflame so deep nor so wide as carbuncles, nor to be so painful, nor to cause so much fever. But then they seem to be part of a disease that affects his mind. He let me help him dress the first, but the others he has hidden most carefully, from me and from the men. He keeps his tent when they puff up, and will not let me change the dressings or be with him at all.”

“Have you plenty of dressings?” Van Rieten asked.

“We have some,” said Etcham doubtfully. “But he won’t use them; he washes out the dressings and uses them over and over.”

“How is he treating the swellings?” Van Rieten enquired.

“He slices them off clean down to flesh level, with his razor.”

“What?” Van Rieten shouted.

Etcham made no answer but looked him steadily in the eyes.

“I beg pardon,” Van Rieten hastened to say. “You startled me. They can’t be carbuncles. He’d have been dead long ago.”

“I thought I had said they are not carbuncles,” Etcham lisped.

“But the man must be crazy!” Van Rieten exclaimed.

“Just so,” said Etcham. “He is beyond my advice or control.”

“How many has he treated that way?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Two, to my knowledge,” Etcham said.

“Two?” Van Rieten queried.

Etcham flushed again.

“I saw him,” he confessed, “through a crack in the hut. I felt impelled to keep a watch on him, as if he was not responsible.”

“I should think not,” Van Rieten agreed. “And you saw him do that twice?”

“I conjecture,” said Etcham, “that he did the like with all the rest.”

“How many has he had?” Van Rieten asked.

“Dozens,” Etcham lisped.

“Does he eat?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Like a wolf,” said Etcham. “More than any two bearers.”

“Can he walk?” Van Rieten asked.

“He crawls a bit, groaning,” said Etcham simply.

“Little fever, you say,” Van Rieten ruminated.

“Enough and too much,” Etcham declared.

“Has he been delirious?” Van Rieten asked.

“Only twice,” Etcham replied; “once when the first swelling broke, and once later. He would not let anyone come near him then. But we could hear him talking, talking steadily, and it scared the natives.

“Was he talking their patter in delirium?” Van Rieten demanded.

“No,” said Etcham, “but he was talking some similar lingo. Hamed Burghash said he was talking Balunda. I know too little Balunda. I do not learn languages readily. Stone learned more Mang-Battu in a week than I could have learned in a year. But I seemed to hear words like Mang-Battu words. Anyhow, the Mang-Battu bearers were scared.”

“Scared?” Van Rieten repeated, questioningly.

“So were the Zanzibar men, even Hamed Burghash, and so was I,” said Etcham, “only for a different reason. He talked in two voices.”

“In two voices,” Van Rieten reflected.

“Yes,” said Etcham, more excitedly than he had yet spoken. “In two voices, like a conversation. One was his own, one a small, thin, bleaty voice like nothing I ever heard. I seemed to make out, among the sounds the deep voice made, something like Mang-Battu words I knew, as nedru, metababa, and nedo, their terms for ‘head,’ ‘shoulder,’ ‘thigh,’ and perhaps kudra and nekere (‘speak’ and ‘whistle’); and among the noises of the shrill voice matomipa, angunzi, and kamomami (‘kill,’ ‘death,’ and ‘hate’). Hamed Burghash said he also heard those words. He knew Mang-Battu far better than I.”

“What did the bearers say?” Van Rieten asked.

“They said, ‘, Lukundoo!'” Etcham replied. “I did not know the word; Hamed Burghash said it was Mang-Battu for ‘leopard.'”

“It’s Mang-Battu for ‘witchcraft,'” said Van Rieten.

“I don’t wonder they thought so,” said Etcham. “It was enough to make one believe in sorcery to listen to those two voices.”

“One voice answering the other?” Van Rieten asked perfunctorily.

Etcham’s face went gray under his tan.

“Sometimes both at once,” he answered huskily.

“Both at once!” Van Rieten ejaculated.

“It sounded that way to the men, too,” said Etcham. “And that was not all.”

He stopped and looked helplessly at us for a moment.

“Could a man talk and whistle at the same time?” he asked.

“How do you mean?” Van Rieten queried.

“We could hear Stone talking away, his big, deep-cheated baritone rumbling along, and through it all we could hear a high, shrill whistle, the oddest, wheezy sound. You know, no matter how shrilly a grown man may whistle, the note has a different quality from the whistle of a boy or a woman or a little girl. They sound more treble, somehow. Well, if you can imagine the smallest girl who could whistle keeping it up tunelessly right along, that whistle was like that, only even more piercing, and it sounded right through Stone’s bass tones.”

“And you didn’t go to him?” Van Rieten cried.

“He is not given to threats,” Etcham disclaimed. “But he had threatened, not volubly, nor like a sick man, but quietly and firmly, that if any man of us (he lumped me in with the men) came near him while he was in his trouble, that man should die. And it was not so much his words as his manner. It was like a monarch commanding respected privacy for a deathbed. One simply could not transgress.”

“I see,” said Van Rieten shortly.

“He’s ve’y seedy,” Etcham repeated helplessly. “I thought perhaps….”

His absorbing affection for Stone, his real love for him, shone out through his envelope of conventional training. Worship of Stone was plainly his master passion.

Like many competent men, Van Rieten had a streak of hard selfishness in him. It came to the surface then. He said we carried our lives in our hands from day to day just as genuinely as Stone; that he did not forget the ties of blood and calling between any two explorers, but that there was no sense in imperiling one party for a very problematical benefit to a man probably beyond any help; that it was enough of a task to hunt for one party; that if two were united, providing food would be more than doubly difficult; that the risk of starvation was too great. Deflecting our march seven full days’ journey (he complimented Etcham on his marching powers) might ruin our expedition entirely.

Chapter III

Van Rieten had logic on his side and he had a way with him. Etcham sat there apologetic and deferential, like a fourth-form schoolboy before a head master. Van Rieten wound up.

“I am after pigmies, at the risk of my life. After pigmies I go.”

“Perhaps, then, these will interest you,” said Etcham, very quietly.

He took two objects out of the sidepocket of his blouse, and handed them to Van Rieten. They were round, bigger than big plums, and smaller than small peaches, about the right size to enclose in an average hand. They were black, and at first I did not see what they were.

“Pigmies!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Pigmies, indeed! Why, they wouldn’t be two feet high! Do you mean to claim that these are adult heads?”

“I claim nothing,” Etcham answered evenly. “You can see for yourself.”

Van Rieten passed one of the heads to me. The sun was just setting and I examined it closely. A dried head it was, perfectly preserved, and the flesh as hard as Argentine jerked beef. A bit of a vertebra stuck out where the muscles of the vanished neck had shriveled into folds. The puny chin was sharp on a projecting jaw, the minute teeth white and even between the retracted lips, the tiny nose was flat, the little forehead retreating, there were inconsiderable clumps of stunted wool on the Lilliputian cranium. There was nothing babyish, childish or youthful about the head; rather it was mature to senility.

“Where did these come from?” Van Rieten enquired.

“I do not know,” Etcham replied precisely. “I found them among Stone’s effects while rummaging for medicines or drugs or anything that could help me to help him. I do not know where he got them. But I’ll swear he did not have them when we entered this district.”

“Are you sure?” Van Rieten queried, his eyes big and fixed on Etcham’s.

“Ve’y sure,” lisped Etcham.

“But how could he have come by them without your knowledge?” Van Rieten demurred.

“Sometimes we were apart ten days at a time hunting,” said Etcham. “Stone is not a talking man. He gave me no account of his doings, and Hamed Burghash keeps a still tongue and a tight hold on the men.”

“You have examined these heads?” Van Rieten asked.

“Minutely,” said Etcham.

Van Rieten took out his notebook. He was a methodical chap. He tore out a leaf, folded it and divided it equally into three pieces. He gave one to me and one to Etcham.

“Just for a test of my impressions,” he said, “I want each of us to write separately just what he is most reminded of by these heads. Then I want to compare the writings.”

I handed Etcham a pencil and he wrote. Then he handed the pencil back to me and I wrote.

“Read the three,” said Van Rieten, handing me his piece.

Van Rieten had written:

“An old Balunda witch-doctor.”

Etcham had written:

“An old Mang-Battu fetish-man.”

I had written:

“An old Katongo magician.”

“There!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Look at that! There is nothing Wagabi or Batwa or Wambuttu or Wabotu about these heads. Nor anything pigmy either.”

“I thought as much,” said Etcham.

“And you say he did not have them before?”

“To a certainty he did not,” Etcham asserted.

“It is worth following up,” said Van Rieten. “I’ll go with you. And first of all, I’ll do my best to save Stone.”

He put out his hand and Etcham clasped it silently. He was grateful all over.

Chapter IV

Nothing but Etcham’s fever of solicitude could have taken him in five days over the track. It took him eight days to retrace with full knowledge of it and our party to help. We could not have done it in seven, and Etcham urged us on, in a repressed fury of anxiety, no mere fever of duty to his chief, but a real ardor of devotion, a glow of personal adoration for Stone which blazed under his dry conventional exterior and showed in spite of him.

We found Stone well cared for. Etcham had seen to a good, high thorn zareeba round the camp, the huts were well built, and thatched and Stone’s was as good as their resources would permit. Hamed Burghash was not named after two Seyyids for nothing. He had in him the making of a sultan. He had kept the Mang-Battu together, not a man had slipped off, and he had kept them in order. Also he was a deft nurse and a faithful servant.

The two other Zanzibaris had done some creditable hunting. Though all were hungry, the camp was far from starvation.

Stone was on a canvas cot and there was a sort of collapsible camp-stool-table, like a Turkish tabouret, by the cot. It had a water-bottle and some vials on it and Stone’s watch, also his razor in its case.

Stone was clean and not emaciated, but he was far gone; not unconscious, but in a daze; past commanding or resisting anyone. He did not seem to see us enter or to know we were there. I should have recognized him anywhere. His boyish dash and grace had vanished utterly, of course. But his head was even more leonine; his hair was still abundant, yellow and wavy; the close, crisped blond beard he had grown during his illness did not alter him. He was big and big-cheated yet. His eyes were dull and he mumbled and babbled mere meaningless syllables, not words.

Etcham helped Van Rieten to uncover him and look him over. He was in good muscle for a man so long bedridden. There were no scars on him except about his knees, shoulders and chest. On each knee and above it he had a full score of roundish cicatrices, and a dozen or more on each shoulder, all in front. Two or three were open wounds and four or five barely healed. He had no fresh swellings, except two, one on each side, on his pectoral muscles, the one on the left being higher up and farther out than the other. They did not look like boils or carbuncles, but as if something blunt and hard were being pushed up through the fairly healthy flesh and skin, not much inflamed.

“I should not lance those,” said Van Rieten, and Etcham assented.

They made Stone as comfortable as they could, and just before sunset we looked in at him again. He was lying on his back, and his chest showed big and massive yet, but he lay as if in a stupor. We left Etcham with him and went into the next hut, which Etcham had resigned to us. The jungle noises were no different than anywhere else for months past, and I was soon fast asleep.

Chapter V

Sometime in the pitch dark I found myself awake and listening. I could hear two voices, one Stone’s, the other sibilant and wheezy. I knew Stone’s voice after all the years that had passed since I heard it last. The other was like nothing I remembered. It had less volume than the wail of a new-born baby, yet there was an insistent carrying power to it, like the shrilling of an insect. As I listened I heard Van Rieten breathing near me in the dark; then he heard me and realized that I was listening, too. Like Etcham I knew little Balunda, but I could make out a word or two. The voices alternated, with intervals of silence between.

Then suddenly both sounded at once and fast. Stone’s baritone basso, full as if he were in perfect health, and that incredibly stridulous falsetto, both jabbering at once like the voices of two people quarreling and trying to talk each other down.

“I can’t stand this,” said Van Rieten. “Let’s have a look at him.”

He had one of those cylindrical electric night-candles. He fumbled about for it, touched the button and beckoned me to come with him. Outside the hut he motioned me to stand still, and instinctively turned off the light, as if seeing made listening difficult.

Except for a faint glow from the embers of the bearers’ fire we were in complete darkness, little starlight struggled through the trees, the river made but a faint murmur. We could hear the two voices together and then suddenly the creaking voice changed into a razor-edged, slicing whistle, indescribably cutting, continuing right through Stone’s grumbling torrent of croaking words.

“Good God!” exclaimed Van Rieten.

Abruptly he turned on the light.

We found Etcham utterly asleep, exhausted by his long anxiety and the exertions of his phenomenal march, and relaxed completely now that the load was in a sense shifted from his shoulders to Van Rieten’s. Even the light on his face did not wake him.

The whistle had ceased and the two voices now sounded together. Both came from Stone’s cot, where the concentrated white ray showed him lying just as we had left him, except that he had tossed his arms above his head and had torn the coverings and bandages from his chest.

The swelling on his right breast had broken. Van Rieten aimed the center line of the light at it and we saw it plainly. From his flesh, grown out of it, there protruded a head, such a head as the dried specimens Etcham had shown us, as if it were a miniature of the head of a Balunda fetish-man. It was black, shining black as the blackest African skin; it rolled the whites of its wicked, wee eyes and showed its microscopic teeth between lips repulsively negroid in their red fullness, even in so diminutive a face. It had crisp, fuzzy wool on its minikin skull, it turned malignantly from side to side and chittered incessantly in that inconceivable falsetto. Stone babbled brokenly against its patter.

Van Rieten turned from Stone and waked Etcham, with some difficulty. When he was awake and saw it all, Etcham stared and said not one word.

“You saw him slice off two swellings?” Van Rieten asked.

Etcham nodded, chokingly.

“Did he bleed much?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Ve’y little,” Etcham replied.

“You hold his arms,” said Van Rieten to Etcham.

He took up Stone’s razor and handed me the light. Stone showed no sign of seeing the light or of knowing we were there. But the little head mewled and screeched at us.

Van Rieten’s hand was steady, and the sweep of the razor even and true. Stone bled amazingly little and Van Rieten dressed the wound as if it had been a bruise or scrape.

Stone had stopped talking the instant the excrescent head was severed. Van Rieten did all that could be done for Stone and then fairly grabbed the light from me. Snatching up a gun he scanned the ground by the cot and brought the butt down once and twice, viciously.

We went back to our hut, but I doubt if I slept.

Chapter VI

Next day, near noon, in broad daylight, we heard the two voices from Stone’s hut. We found Etcham dropped asleep by his charge. The swelling on the left had broken, and just such another head was there miauling and spluttering. Etcham woke up and the three of us stood there and glared. Stone interjected hoarse vocables into the tinkling gurgle of the portent’s utterance.

Van Rieten stepped forward, took up Stone’s razor and knelt down by the cot. The atomy of a head squealed a wheezy snarl at him.

Then suddenly Stone spoke English.

“Who are you with my razor?”

Van Rieten started back and stood up.

Stone’s eyes were clear now and bright, they roved about the hut.

“The end,” he said; “I recognize the end. I seem to see Etcham, as if in life. But Singleton! Ah, Singleton! Ghosts of my boyhood come to watch me pass! And you, strange specter with the black beard and my razor! Aroint ye all!”

“I’m no ghost, Stone,” I managed to say. “I’m alive. So are Etcham and Van Rieten. We are here to help you.”

“Van Rieten!” he exclaimed. “My work passes on to a better man. Luck go with you, Van Rieten.”

Van Rieten went nearer to him.

“Just hold still a moment, old man,” he said soothingly. “It will be only one twinge.”

“I’ve held still for many such twinges,” Stone answered quite distinctly. “Let me be. Let me die in my own way. The hydra was nothing to this. You can cut off ten, a hundred, a thousand heads, but the curse you can not cut off, or take off. What’s soaked into the bone won’t come out of the flesh, any more than what’s bred there. Don’t hack me any more. Promise!”

His voice had all the old commanding tone of his boyhood and it swayed Van Rieten as it always had swayed everybody.

“I promise,” said Van Rieten.

Almost as he said the word Stone’s eyes filmed again.

Then we three sat about Stone and watched that hideous, gibbering prodigy grow up out of Stone’s flesh, till two horrid, spindling little black arms disengaged themselves. The infinitesimal nails were perfect to the barely perceptible moon at the quick, the pink spot on the palm was horridly natural. These arms gesticulated and the right plucked toward Stone’s blond beard.

“I can’t stand this,” Van Rieten exclaimed and took up the razor again.

Instantly Stone’s eyes opened, hard and glittering.

“Van Rieten break his word?” he enunciated slowly. “Never!”

“But we must help you,” Van Rieten gasped.

“I am past all help and all hurting,” said Stone. “This is my hour. This curse is not put on me; it grew out of me, like this horror here. Even now I go.”

His eyes closed and we stood helpless, the adherent figure spouting shrill sentences.

In a moment Stone spoke again.

“You speak all tongues?” he asked quickly.

And the mergent minikin replied in sudden English:

“Yea, verily, all that you speak,” putting out its microscopic tongue, writhing its lips and wagging its head from side to side. We could see the thready ribs on its exiguous flanks heave as if the thing breathed.

“Has she forgiven me?” Stone asked in a muffled strangle.

“Not while the moss hangs from the cypresses,” the head squeaked. “Not while the stars shine on Lake Pontchartrain will she forgive.”

And then Stone, all with one motion, wrenched himself over on his side. The next instant he was dead.

When Singleton’s voice ceased the room was hushed for a space. We could hear each other breathing. Twombly, the tactless, broke the silence.

“I presume,” he said, “you cut off the little minikin and brought it home in alcohol.”

Singleton turned on him a stern countenance.

“We buried Stone,” he said, “unmutilated as he died.”

“But,” said the unconscionable Twombly, “the whole thing is incredible.”

Singleton stiffened.

“I did not expect you to believe it,” he said; “I began by saying that although I heard and saw it, when I look back on it I cannot credit it myself.”

From Wikipedia: Edward Lucas White (May 11, 1866 – March 30, 1934) was an American author and poet. Born in the USA in BergenNew Jersey, the son of Thomas Hurley White (1838-1902) and Kate Butler (Lucas) White, he attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he lived for the rest of his life. From 1915 until his retirement in 1930 he was a teacher at the University School for Boys in Baltimore.

“He published a number of historical novels, including El Supremo: A Romance of the Great Dictator of Paraguay (1916),The Unwilling Vestal (1918), Andivius Hedulio (1921) and Helen (1926), but he is best remembered for fantasy horror stories such as “The House of the Nightmare” and “Lukundoo” that were based on his own nightmares. Two collections of his short fiction were published in his lifetime, The Song of the Sirens (1919) and Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927)…”

The Saturday Night Special: “The Minister’s Black Veil” Horror by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1836)

Detail from a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood in 1840
Detail from a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood in 1840

The sexton stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house pulling lustily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children with bright faces tripped merrily beside their parents or mimicked a graver gait in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week-days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton, in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper pacing slowly his meditative way toward the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute of Westbury, but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person of about thirty, though still a bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday’s garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him good Mr. Hooper walked onward at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meeting-house steps. But so wonder-struck were they that his greeting hardly met with a return.

“I can’t really feel as if good Mr. Hooper’s face was behind that piece of crape,” said the sexton.

“I don’t like it,” muttered an old woman as she hobbled into the meeting-house. “He has changed himself into something awful only by hiding his face.”

“Our parson has gone mad!” cried Goodman Gray, following him across the threshold.

A rumor of some unaccountable phenomenon had preceded Mr. Hooper into the meeting-house and set all the congregation astir. Few could refrain from twisting their heads toward the door; many stood upright and turned directly about; while several little boys clambered upon the seats, and came down again with a terrible racket. There was a general bustle, a rustling of the women’s gowns and shuffling of the men’s feet, greatly at variance with that hushed repose which should attend the entrance of the minister. But Mr. Hooper appeared not to notice the perturbation of his people. He entered with an almost noiseless step, bent his head mildly to the pews on each side and bowed as he passed his oldest parishioner, a white-haired great-grandsire, who occupied an arm-chair in the centre of the aisle. It was strange to observe how slowly this venerable man became conscious of something singular in the appearance of his pastor. He seemed not fully to partake of the prevailing wonder till Mr. Hooper had ascended the stairs and showed himself in the pulpit, face to face with his congregation except for the black veil. That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with his measured breath as he gave out the psalm, it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page as he read the Scriptures, and while he prayed the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?

Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister as his black veil to them.

Mr. Hooper had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the word. The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory, but there was something either in the sentiment of the discourse itself or in the imagination of the auditors which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor’s lips. It was tinged rather more darkly than usual with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament. The subject had reference to secret sin and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them behind his awful veil and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said—at least, no violence; and yet with every tremor of his melancholy voice the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe. So sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger’s visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture and voice were those of Mr. Hooper.

At the close of the services the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the centre; some went homeward alone, wrapped in silent meditation; some talked loudly and profaned the Sabbath-day with ostentatious laughter. A few shook their sagacious heads, intimating that they could penetrate the mystery, while one or two affirmed that there was no mystery at all, but only that Mr. Hooper’s eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp as to require a shade.

After a brief interval forth came good Mr. Hooper also, in the rear of his flock. Turning his veiled face from one group to another, he paid due reverence to the hoary heads, saluted the middle-aged with kind dignity as their friend and spiritual guide, greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his hands on the little children’s heads to bless them. Such was always his custom on the Sabbath-day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him for his courtesy. None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor’s side. Old Squire Saunders—doubtless by an accidental lapse of memory—neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food almost every Sunday since his settlement. He returned, therefore, to the parsonage, and at the moment of closing the door was observed to look back upon the people, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the minister. A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil and flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared.

“How strange,” said a lady, “that a simple black veil, such as any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper’s face!”

“Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper’s intellects,” observed her husband, the physician of the village. “But the strangest part of the affair is the effect of this vagary even on a sober-minded man like myself. The black veil, though it covers only our pastor’s face, throws its influence over his whole person and makes him ghost-like from head to foot. Do you not feel it so?”

“Truly do I,” replied the lady; “and I would not be alone with him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself.”

“Men sometimes are so,” said her husband.

The afternoon service was attended with similar circumstances. At its conclusion the bell tolled for the funeral of a young lady. The relatives and friends were assembled in the house and the more distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Hooper, still covered with his black veil. It was now an appropriate emblem. The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eye-lids had not been closed for ever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and living scrupled not to affirm that at the instant when the clergyman’s features were disclosed the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death. A superstitious old woman was the only witness of this prodigy.

From the coffin Mr. Hooper passed into the chamber of the mourners, and thence to the head of the staircase, to make the funeral prayer. It was a tender and heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet so imbued with celestial hopes that the music of a heavenly harp swept by the fingers of the dead seemed faintly to be heard among the saddest accents of the minister. The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him, when he prayed that they and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces. The bearers went heavily forth and the mourners followed, saddening all the street, with the dead before them and Mr. Hooper in his black veil behind.

“Why do you look back?” said one in the procession to his partner.

“I had a fancy,” replied she, “that the minister and the maiden’s spirit were walking hand in hand.”

“And so had I at the same moment,” said the other.

That night the handsomest couple in Milford village were to be joined in wedlock. Though reckoned a melancholy man, Mr. Hooper had a placid cheerfulness for such occasions which often excited a sympathetic smile where livelier merriment would have been thrown away. There was no quality of his disposition which made him more beloved than this. The company at the wedding awaited his arrival with impatience, trusting that the strange awe which had gathered over him throughout the day would now be dispelled. But such was not the result. When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil which had added deeper gloom to the funeral and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape and dimmed the light of the candles. The bridal pair stood up before the minister, but the bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridegroom, and her death-like paleness caused a whisper that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be married. If ever another wedding were so dismal, it was that famous one where they tolled the wedding-knell.

After performing the ceremony Mr. Hooper raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing happiness to the new-married couple in a strain of mild pleasantry that ought to have brightened the features of the guests like a cheerful gleam from the hearth. At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet and rushed forth into the darkness, for the Earth too had on her black veil.

The next day the whole village of Milford talked of little else than Parson Hooper’s black veil. That, and the mystery concealed behind it, supplied a topic for discussion between acquaintances meeting in the street and good women gossipping at their open windows. It was the first item of news that the tavernkeeper told to his guests. The children babbled of it on their way to school. One imitative little imp covered his face with an old black handkerchief, thereby so affrighting his playmates that the panic seized himself and he wellnigh lost his wits by his own waggery.

It was remarkable that, of all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper wherefore he did this thing. Hitherto, whenever there appeared the slightest call for such interference, he had never lacked advisers nor shown himself averse to be guided by their judgment. If he erred at all, it was by so painful a degree of self-distrust that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an indifferent action as a crime. Yet, though so well acquainted with this amiable weakness, no individual among his parishioners chose to make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance. There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another, till at length it was found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery before it should grow into a scandal. Never did an embassy so ill discharge its duties. The minister received them with friendly courtesy, but became silent after they were seated, leaving to his visitors the whole burden of introducing their important business. The topic, it might be supposed, was obvious enough. There was the black veil swathed round Mr. Hooper’s forehead and concealing every feature above his placid mouth, on which, at times, they could perceive the glimmering of a melancholy smile. But that piece of crape, to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them. Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then. Thus they sat a considerable time, speechless, confused and shrinking uneasily from Mr. Hooper’s eye, which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance. Finally, the deputies returned abashed to their constituents, pronouncing the matter too weighty to be handled except by a council of the churches, if, indeed, it might not require a General Synod.

But there was one person in the village unappalled by the awe with which the black veil had impressed all besides herself. When the deputies returned without an explanation, or even venturing to demand one, she with the calm energy of her character determined to chase away the strange cloud that appeared to be settling round Mr. Hooper every moment more darkly than before. As his plighted wife it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed. At the minister’s first visit, therefore, she entered upon the subject with a direct simplicity which made the task easier both for him and her. After he had seated himself she fixed her eyes steadfastly upon the veil, but could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude; it was but a double fold of crape hanging down from his forehead to his mouth and slightly stirring with his breath.

“No,” said she, aloud, and smiling, “there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape, except that it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon. Come, good sir; let the sun shine from behind the cloud. First lay aside your black veil, then tell me why you put it on.”

Mr. Hooper’s smile glimmered faintly.

“There is an hour to come,” said he, “when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then.”

“Your words are a mystery too,” returned the young lady. “Take away the veil from them, at least.”

“Elizabeth, I will,” said he, “so far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world; even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it.”

“What grievous affliction hath befallen you,” she earnestly inquired, “that you should thus darken your eyes for ever?”

“If it be a sign of mourning,” replied Mr. Hooper, “I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil.”

“But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?” urged Elizabeth. “Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal.”

The color rose into her cheeks as she intimated the nature of the rumors that were already abroad in the village. But Mr. Hooper’s mildness did not forsake him. He even smiled again—that same sad smile which always appeared like a faint glimmering of light proceeding from the obscurity beneath the veil.

“If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough,” he merely replied; “and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” And with this gentle but unconquerable obstinacy did he resist all her entreaties.

At length Elizabeth sat silent. For a few moments she appeared lost in thought, considering, probably, what new methods might be tried to withdraw her lover from so dark a fantasy, which, if it had no other meaning, was perhaps a symptom of mental disease. Though of a firmer character than his own, the tears rolled down her cheeks. But in an instant, as it were, a new feeling took the place of sorrow: her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when like a sudden twilight in the air its terrors fell around her. She arose and stood trembling before him.

“And do you feel it, then, at last?” said he, mournfully.

She made no reply, but covered her eyes with her hand and turned to leave the room. He rushed forward and caught her arm.

“Have patience with me, Elizabeth!” cried he, passionately. “Do not desert me though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls. It is but a mortal veil; it is not for eternity. Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil! Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity for ever.”

“Lift the veil but once and look me in the face,” said she.

“Never! It cannot be!” replied Mr. Hooper.

“Then farewell!” said Elizabeth.

She withdrew her arm from his grasp and slowly departed, pausing at the door to give one long, shuddering gaze that seemed almost to penetrate the mystery of the black veil. But even amid his grief Mr. Hooper smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors which it shadowed forth must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.

From that time no attempts were made to remove Mr. Hooper’s black veil or by a direct appeal to discover the secret which it was supposed to hide. By persons who claimed a superiority to popular prejudice it was reckoned merely an eccentric whim, such as often mingles with the sober actions of men otherwise rational and tinges them all with its own semblance of insanity. But with the multitude good Mr. Hooper was irreparably a bugbear. He could not walk the street with any peace of mind, so conscious was he that the gentle and timid would turn aside to avoid him, and that others would make it a point of hardihood to throw themselves in his way. The impertinence of the latter class compelled him to give up his customary walk at sunset to the burial-ground; for when he leaned pensively over the gate, there would always be faces behind the gravestones peeping at his black veil. A fable went the rounds that the stare of the dead people drove him thence. It grieved him to the very depth of his kind heart to observe how the children fled from his approach, breaking up their merriest sports while his melancholy figure was yet afar off. Their instinctive dread caused him to feel more strongly than aught else that a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape. In truth, his own antipathy to the veil was known to be so great that he never willingly passed before a mirror nor stooped to drink at a still fountain lest in its peaceful bosom he should be affrighted by himself. This was what gave plausibility to the whispers that Mr. Hooper’s conscience tortured him for some great crime too horrible to be entirely concealed or otherwise than so obscurely intimated. Thus from beneath the black veil there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him. It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there. With self-shudderings and outward terrors he walked continually in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul or gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world. Even the lawless wind, it was believed, respected his dreadful secret and never blew aside the veil. But still good Mr. Hooper sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by.

Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that before he brought them to celestial light they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections. Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper and would not yield their breath till he appeared, though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil even when Death had bared his visage. Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure because it was forbidden them to behold his face. But many were made to quake ere they departed. Once, during Governor Belcher’s administration, Mr. Hooper was appointed to preach the election sermon. Covered with his black veil, he stood before the chief magistrate, the council and the representatives, and wrought so deep an impression that the legislative measures of that year were characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.

In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish. As years wore on, shedding their snows above his sable veil, he acquired a name throughout the New England churches, and they called him Father Hooper. Nearly all his parishioners who were of mature age when he was settled had been borne away by many a funeral: he had one congregation in the church and a more crowded one in the churchyard; and, having wrought so late into the evening and done his work so well, it was now good Father Hooper’s turn to rest.

Several persons were visible by the shaded candlelight in the death-chamber of the old clergyman. Natural connections he had none. But there was the decorously grave though unmoved physician, seeking only to mitigate the last pangs of the patient whom he could not save. There were the deacons and other eminently pious members of his church. There, also, was the Reverend Mr. Clark of Westbury, a young and zealous divine who had ridden in haste to pray by the bedside of the expiring minister. There was the nurse—no hired handmaiden of Death, but one whose calm affection had endured thus long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would not perish even at the dying-hour. Who but Elizabeth! And there lay the hoary head of good Father Hooper upon the death-pillow with the black veil still swathed about his brow and reaching down over his face, so that each more difficult gasp of his faint breath caused it to stir. All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world; it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love and kept him in that saddest of all prisons his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.

For some time previous his mind had been confused, wavering doubtfully between the past and the present, and hovering forward, as it were, at intervals, into the indistinctness of the world to come. There had been feverish turns which tossed him from side to side and wore away what little strength he had. But in his most convulsive struggles and in the wildest vagaries of his intellect, when no other thought retained its sober influence, he still showed an awful solicitude lest the black veil should slip aside. Even if his bewildered soul could have forgotten, there was a faithful woman at his pillow who with averted eyes would have covered that aged face which she had last beheld in the comeliness of manhood.

At length the death-stricken old man lay quietly in the torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion, with an imperceptible pulse and breath that grew fainter and fainter except when a long, deep and irregular inspiration seemed to prelude the flight of his spirit.

The minister of Westbury approached the bedside.

“Venerable Father Hooper,” said he, “the moment of your release is at hand. Are you ready for the lifting of the veil that shuts in time from eternity?”

Father Hooper at first replied merely by a feeble motion of his head; then—apprehensive, perhaps, that his meaning might be doubtful—he exerted himself to speak.

“Yea,” said he, in faint accents; “my soul hath a patient weariness until that veil be lifted.”

“And is it fitting,” resumed the Reverend Mr. Clark, “that a man so given to prayer, of such a blameless example, holy in deed and thought, so far as mortal judgment may pronounce,—is it fitting that a father in the Church should leave a shadow on his memory that may seem to blacken a life so pure? I pray you, my venerable brother, let not this thing be! Suffer us to be gladdened by your triumphant aspect as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity be lifted let me cast aside this black veil from your face;” and, thus speaking, the Reverend Mr. Clark bent forward to reveal the mystery of so many years.

But, exerting a sudden energy that made all the beholders stand aghast, Father Hooper snatched both his hands from beneath the bedclothes and pressed them strongly on the black veil, resolute to struggle if the minister of Westbury would contend with a dying man.

“Never!” cried the veiled clergyman. “On earth, never!”

“Dark old man,” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?”

Father Hooper’s breath heaved: it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed, and there he sat shivering with the arms of Death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful at that last moment in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile so often there now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women shown no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin,—then deem me a monster for the symbol beneath which I have lived and die. I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil!” While his auditors shrank from one another in mutual affright, Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse with a faint smile lingering on the lips. Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore him to the grave. The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial-stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper’s face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the black veil.

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

“Foot of Thy Womb” Surreal Fiction by Gretchen Gormley

"Foot of Thy Womb" Surreal Fiction by Gretchen Gormley; Photo showing underside of right foot.

Shuffling socks down to the kitchen. Mindlessly pour coffee, stir in cream until it’s a burnt golden brown, like that will soften the fact that I don’t like coffee and have never been able to acquire the taste. Wince at the bitterness.

The world is quiet outside the house. Beyond the kitchen window, the neighborhood stretches out endlessly, squat and sunbaked in the Georgia summer. Alphabet houses. Neat hedges. It’s the same house, the same neighborhood I grew up in, but it feels different to live here alone. Gillsville is a small enough town that it can shrink down all around you. 

A bicyclist drifts down the road. Lazy. Slow, like the motion of a great cloud.

Breakfast. Two eggs rolling on the countertop. Place a spoon crosswise—stop them from falling to the floor. Turn the burner up. 

I should wait for it to sizzle hot, should wait for it to heat more than the lukewarm sun as it pours through the window, but I don’t have the patience. The omelette will be damp and floppy, but it will be fast. 

Crack one egg against the side, thumb against heating metal to keep yolk from dripping down into burner. Watch the egg pool and congeal, yellow like a child’s drawing of a sun in the center of the pan. Sunday school coloring books. Crack the second. 

A strange noise, one that doesn’t belong to eggs or kitchens. It could possibly belong to a hospital’s birthing ward, raw and wet and vital.

I look down. It looks up.

An eye, swimming in the egg whites that surround it. Yolk clumps thick and yellow at one edge. A bit of blood is seeping out into my breakfast. 

Vomit tastes acidic and rotten on my tongue as I bend over the trashcan, sweating palms pressed against fuzzy pajama pants. A glass of water filled by the sink tap. Swish it and spit. 

The longer I don’t look at the pan, the longer I can pretend there’s only poorly cooking eggs in it. But something is hissing like bacon on the stove, and the smell of cooking flesh hits my nostrils. 

I turn the burner off and look back at the thing in the pan.

A slow blink—no eyelid, but a slimy film, not unlike the egg whites surrounding it. It bobs, rotating and rolling in the pan.

I think it’s looking at me.

Not looking at me like someone might look at me across the street. Looking. The way the priest looks at you after you say something awful in confession. When you don’t even need to see a face to feel the eyes.

Breathe in, push nausea down. Tell myself it’s some poorly formed mutant chicken, a tragedy of factory farming. Blinking because the heat of the pan is creating some expansion or burning that simulates motion. Grab the pan and tip it over the trash can.

I take the spoon, scrape metal against metal. Watch eggs slump down into garbage on top of sick, the eye lost. Folded in with the mess.

It’s been years since I prayed, but I consider it now. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Eye In My Trashcan. I wonder if the words would still come on reflex, summoned up from eighteen years of godliness.

My mouth still tastes like vomit.

Slippers are soft under my feet as I slide them on. Trash bag crinkles as I haul it up and sling it with me out the door. Not quite full yet; plastic sags. Why take out the trash when it’s not full yet?

Because the sun is nice on my shoulders as I step outside. Because I was already going out to grab the mail. Because the garbage truck comes tomorrow and what if I forget to do it later? Because I don’t want it in my kitchen. Not when it could be staring back, every time my eyes dart that way.

Take it out to the big trash bin, swing it over the edge and scrunch my nose at the smell as I close the lid down. Grab the mail and go back inside. Slow paces. Not running.

Not running. Not running when I press my back against the coolness of the fridge and slide down to the kitchen floor. Blood into egg yolks slammed in front of my eyes. Hug my knees to my chest. Not running.

It’s on the television when I get home from work the next day.

I’m curled up on the sofa, hands warmed by the plate of my microwave burrito. Fingers sore from hauling around the big canned soup crates at the grocery store. I’m thumbing through channels when I see it, and my burrito goes sour.

The story is this: A local woman was taking communion, and a piece of bread was a fat lump of flesh in her mouth. Everyone is talking about miracles.

They say it’s a sign of God in the modern times.

Father, Son, Eye In The Trash, Flesh In The Mouth. Holy Spirit. 

A week later, they’re having a big party at the church down the road. The church I went to every Sunday as a child. To celebrate. I put on a dress that feels foreign and scratchy against my skin, eggshell blue like I used to wear when I stood between my parents and my sister Mary during mass. Mother, Father, Mary. Judith. Picture perfect, every week.

I haven’t been to this place in two years. I think I could probably walk the way with my eyes closed. It looks the same as it always has, from the simple white chapel to the wide green lawn to the smiling faces. 

The only differences: the fervor living on everyone’s tongue, and the fact that the lawn is decorated like it would be for a birthday party. Picnic tables all laid out with paper plates and pot luck Tupperware, balloons tethered in bunches. The smell of hot dogs cooking somewhere. 

I see my sister and her husband hand in hand as she speaks to some of the other women of the congregation. I want to gravitate her way out of sheer awkwardness, but she’s deep in conversation. Father Lowe is shaking hands near the front stoop of the chapel, and I avoid his eyes as I navigate my way through the crowd. I take a plate and sit between two women who used to pinch my cheeks when I was little. 

“It’s been so long since we’ve seen you, Judith,” one is saying, and the other is saying “I’m so glad you’ve returned to the flock,” and I wonder why I came. The small talk is like cardboard and the food is the same. 

There’s a little girl pouring lemonade on rice crispy treats a few seats away from me, fingers and face sticky. Any appetite I had is long gone.

I would say I only came because my sister invited me, but then, she’s invited me to a thousand community cookouts and block parties on this lawn, and I’ve never come before. Maybe I showed up because the trash collector missed my house this week. The bin is still standing at the end of my driveway.

“Judy?” My sister calls when she finally spots me. Her voice is warm and excited, and I feel my grimace turn into an actual smile. “I didn’t think you would come! I haven’t seen you in ages, you should really come around more often.”

I disentangle myself from the picnic table, and Mary is hustling over the lawn to me—I say hustling, but she’s not actually moving that fast with her eight and a half months pregnant belly weighing her down. She’s smiling wide, though, and she pats my back fondly when she wraps her arms around me.

“We had lunch together last week,” I remind her. 

“Still!” She insists. “I’m glad you came. I mean I suppose you’d have to be crazy not to come back for this. Even out-of-towners have been driving by to have mass with us. Though, I think most of them probably just want to see the Bishop when he comes. A Bishop! Here in Gillsville! I wish Mom was here to see it, you know?”

She’s right that our mom would probably cry if she heard about something so big happening in our little town. Gillsville has one newspaper, and the biggest story we’ve ever gotten here was a particularly big cabbage. Now, we’re showing up on national news networks. 

She would probably throw a whole party of her own at me going back to church, whether or not I was going to mass or just eating the stale hot dogs. 

“We should have lunch again,” I say to change the topic. “I could make—”

A retching noise, and conversations pause. Heads swivel. 

The little girl with the sticky face is doubled over, mother fussing and holding her hair back as she throws up onto the fresh mowed grass. Her mom pets her face and swings her up onto her hip, expression turning exasperated when she glances to the table and sees the awful junk her daughter was combining on her plate. 

The crowd moves away from the vomit, and some of the regular volunteers are getting cleaning gloves and trash bags to handle the mess. 

I’ve turned back to my sister, and they begin to cry out.

A wordless shout. 

Then: “Lord, Lord! Oh my Lord!”

Look back. People are on their knees.

“It’s—It’s—Holy God”

They’re crossing themselves. 

Words are falling reverent from Father Lowe’s mouth. “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end—”

I look down at the grass. At the vomit they’re kneeling for. 

A strip of meat. Pink. Alive, twitching. 

A tongue. 

Around it, pearly teeth gleam in the sick. 

I turn around and I walk home. Down the street and past the trashcan still sitting at the end of my driveway. I guess I was right that I could do it with my eyes closed, because I don’t remember a single step of the way. 

The party was meant to go from noon ’til six on Friday, but it doesn’t even slow down until Saturday night. I can hear the noise even from my kitchen, can see the fervor growing as the news coverage lasts all day. 

Everyone is talking about miracles, but I’m thinking about that eye floating in my eggs. My mom always said that when angels appeared, they said ‘Be Not Afraid.’ Because sometimes what’s wonderful terrifies us. 

But when I think about that little bit of blood mixing with yolk, I can’t help it. My gut feels queasy and my hands sweat like mad. I’m afraid.

Plastic gloves. An hour shifting through the bin. A plastic bag inside a paper bag inside an empty snack box. Bury it and mark it with a stone. 

They canonize the First Miracle of Gillseville on the same day that my sister calls crying. She was supposed to have her baby. Only, instead of a baby it was just a man’s left foot.

At first I think she’s sobbing, but when the phone static dies down I realize she’s saying grace, again and again she’s saying grace. 

My nephew was going to be named Joey, after his dad. He was going to wear little pajamas I knitted for him. He was going to have a nursery painted green. Not blue, because my sister hates all that ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ crap. Not pink, because that’s for girls. 

But grief isn’t mine to have here, and my sister doesn’t seem to want any. I go to see her in the hospital and she’s still smiling and weeping and saying grace. 

They’ve wrapped a baby blanket around the foot. I almost ask her if it’s still going to be called Joey, but instead I just pat her hand and smooth her hair from her face. 

I’ve never heard of the Consulta Medica before, but apparently they’re a big deal. They swarm around my sister’s bedside running tests and asking questions. They’re here to see if it’s a miracle. They handle the foot so carefully you would think it was the second coming. 

I don’t know why they go through all the tests. They could’ve just gone home after seeing that the foot had a pulse. But it takes three days before my sister is on the news talking to a Bishop and holding up the swaddled appendage like a proud mother. 

I guess they had to check to see if it was the real deal. 

It turns out it is, because the next one that comes to town is the pope. 

News vans swarm when the pope comes to Gillsville. Streets are crowded. Everyone’s renting out their spare rooms for all the tourists. They all wish the place was bigger, or that we could move it a town over. But it’s not happening a town over, it’s happening here. 

I go to mass with my sister and her husband. The chapel is so crowded that they set three extra rows of folding chairs behind the pews. Any other time, and I would have to endure all the smug satisfaction from the community at my return, but everything is hectic and there are so many new faces that no one looks my way as I take a seat to Mary’s right. 

When people hear I stopped going to church, they normally think I stopped going because I stopped believing in God. They’re wrong. I stopped going to church for two reasons. The first is that just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I believe he’s good. The second is that there is something wrong with me. 

The altar boys walk between the pews, hands laden with incense and censer, bread and wine. Father Lowe follows after, head bowed. Then the visiting Bishop.

Guess the big man’s too big for our little church. I’m not surprised, though some people look disappointed. The pope has bigger fish to fry than our small town mass. He may be here, but he’ll be some fifteen miles out in a hotel and surrounded by his own secret service.

The congregation settles back down as it begins.

Stand. Hands raised. Sit. The Liturgy of The Word. 

Everyone is talking about miracles. That includes Father Lowe. Proof of God on earth. Father, Son, Foot of The Womb. Hail Mary, first and second. 

I knew about my sister, and I knew about the teeth and tongue. What I didn’t know about was the hands they found inside a butchered lamb, the growth that turned from a tumor into a man’s arm, the right foot that doctors found in the place of some poor girl’s appendix. 

Then the Bishop. Word from the pope, he says. 

We’re supposed to put Him together. 

Stand. Sit. Hands clasped together, raised to the ceiling. Watch as Mary takes communion and stay in my seat. I don’t want any bit of holiness in my mouth. If I did, I would’ve eaten my omelet. 

Hug my sister goodbye after pleasantries. Walk home. Pick up the stone, move the earth. Look into the eye, gunky and caked in blood. Still looking right at me. Same way Father Lowe looked at me when I left confession wishing I could jam words back into my mouth. When I told him about a girl I met at summer camp, and the fact that there is something wrong with me.

Tuck it back into the paper bag. Place it between my heel and the earth and crush down. Back into the box, back into the ground. 

Who He is, I don’t know. What I do know is, He’ll be missing an eye.

A Pope, a bishop, and a disembodied hand walk into a church service. It sounds like the start of a bad joke. Maybe it will be, one day, and I just haven’t come up with the punchline yet. Only the hand doesn’t walk so much as twitches while they carry it. A little white box and it’s lain out like in a bed.

A sharp inhale to my right, and my sister is clutching me. I don’t look her way. I watch as they bring the hand to the altar, as they remove it from the box and place it at the wrist. It’s not the last piece, not by far, but—

But there He is. The shape of Him. 

Set out like for an open casket, a funeral in reverse. The torso is there, the legs set carefully beneath. There’s little Joey at the ankle, alongside his twin. There’s a head, still strange and misshapen. Hairless, a mouth but no lips. 

Father, Son. Foot of The Womb, Flesh of The Mouth. Holy Spirit. They said Jesus would come back to us, but I guess they never said he wouldn’t come in pieces.

Gretchen Gormley (they/them) is a writer based in British Columbia where they are studying creative writing and literature. They were a semi-finalist for the 2020 North Street Book Prize under the pen name Celia King, and they were the winner of UBC’s 2023 ESA short story competition.

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

“Roots” Horror by Alan Caldwell

Doran found the little cemetery by accident. He had missed the switchback loop of the Pinhoti trail and had turned West well past where he had intended. He soon found himself on a small flat saddle between two unfamiliar ridges. He stopped and surveyed his surroundings so as to gain his bearings. In doing so, he realized his mistake. He mentally cursed himself for missing such a familiar path. He also cursed the agency workers who should have marked the trail more clearly. He wasn’t worried. He could see the stream bed in the valley below and hear its waters rushing over the stones. He knew it was the only flowing water for miles. He knew he could follow it back North to where the trail was clearer. Doran wasn’t shaken in the least, just slightly perturbed that he had wasted so much time. He had so little time these days. 

Just as he started to descend the hillside, Doran noticed a large flat-surfaced stone about five feet tall and eighteen inches wide protruding from the earth. The top was rounded, not as if by geological forces, but by intent. It looked like a rustic tombstone. Doran knelt before it, brushed the surface with his hand, and realized there were shallow and worn letters chiseled into its surface. It looked like a rustic tombstone because it was. 

Doran wet the surface with water from his hydration bladder and rubbed it in earnest with his red bandana so as to discern the letters. The letters were so worn and shallow he could only identify one or two with any certainty, not nearly enough to identify a name or even a date. He brushed away the leaves in front of the stone and realized there was a clear indention in the soil’s surface, as if a large section of ground had collapsed. Doran had seen this phenomenon before when a casket deteriorates and the weight of the soil sags into the opening. His ancestral Appalachian highlanders could scarcely afford a vault that would have permanently precluded such a collapse.

Doran walked in expanding concentric circles around the large stone, searching for other graves. He soon identified five more burials by locating similar but smaller stones barely protruding from beneath the decaying leaf litter. None of the smaller stones showed markings of any kind and none of the other graves shared a collapse or sagging of the soil. 

Doran returned to the original grave and, using his fingers as a rake, began removing every bit of decaying material until he reached the black loam beneath. When he had finished, he could discern the entire plot and even the rectangular arrangement of smaller stones which formed the plot’s border. Doran was pleased with his work but wasn’t quite sure why he had gone to the trouble.

As he made his way back North toward the trailhead, Doran couldn’t stop imagining what life might have been like for the man in the grave, and make no mistake, only a man, and probably only a partiach, could have warranted such a large marked stone.

 Doran fancied and envied what must have been a simple and peaceful existence.  As he drove back to his apartment in town, he imagined himself walking those ridges, shotgun in hand, searching for a wild game supper. He reasoned that the entombed man might have farmed some small valley plot of corn to make clear liquor to sell for his family. He thought of a stone fireplace as he watched the orange glow of his electric space heater. He could almost smell cornbread and hardwood smoke as he drifted off to sleep.

All of the next week, as he wrote emails and tallied sums on digital spreadsheets, Doran found he could think of little else but the mountain patriarch. 

On Saturday morning, just before daybreak, Doran prepared his pack and drove to the trailhead. He laughed aloud when he hiked past the switchback he had missed last Saturday. It seemed well marked, and he couldn’t understand how he missed it. He was glad now that he had. Maybe, he thought, it was destiny that he should find the grave.

Doran ascended the hill and found the saddle and the stone quickly. He sat down in the center of the now-exposed grave. Doran decided he had never seen a more beautiful and peaceful spot. Doran then reclined on the grave and surveyed the canopy just beginning to sprout its early green and the wispy cirrus clouds that sailed through the early April sky.

Doran soon drifted off to sleep and began dreaming of cabins, and cornbread, and cool summer swimming holes. When he awoke, he felt an odd impulse. Capitulating to that impulse, he began digging deeper into the soil of the grave. He dug till his forearms ached and blood seeped from his fingertips. Soon, Doran unearthed what looked like decaying and sagging slats of wood held together by a web of fine rhizomes. Doran removed one of the nearby border stones and began hammering at the boards till they gave way. 

At this point, Doran rested. His hands ached and bled, and lactic acid filled his arm and shoulder muscles. Dora looked into the now-open casket and could identify a human form, not one constituted of flesh and blood but of roots, large and small, woven so tightly and perfectly that all but the finest features were discernible. Doran removed the wooden cadaver from its resting place and lay it on the adjacent leaves. Doran then looked again at the stone. The letters were now clear and formed a familiar name and he knew what he must do.

Doran slid through the broken opening and into his final resting place. He soon began to feel the root tendrils growing around his legs and feet. He then detected the scent of woodsmoke and cornbread and could hear the clear stream rushing over the stones in the valley below.

Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in Southern Gothic Creations, Level: Deepsouth, oc87 Recovery Diaries, Black Poppy Review, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Biostories, Heartwood Literary Journal, American Diversity Report, and Rural Fiction Magazine.

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

“The Mask” Dark Fiction by Jim Tritten

Aztec warriors brandishing macauhuitl (from the 16th-century Florentine Codex)
Aztec warriors brandishing macauhuitl (from the 16th-century Florentine Codex)

The eyes…the eyes…the eyes. He tried to turn away, but his muscles wouldn’t obey. His head spun back to stare at…the eyes. Light Robin’s egg blue irises not even found in most Scandinavians. A dilated pupil in the center of wide-open eyes strongly suggested visceral pleasure. The smudged whites were ravaged by age. The eyes. They bulged noticeably from the face. Large black lashes ringed the lids, abnormally spaced apart — frozen open in astonishment. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes.

“The eyes are extraordinary, aren’t they?” 

He turned to face the voice of a young Hispanic male dressed in a dark suit and sporting a red tie. 

“Yes, I can hardly see anything else.”

“Pardon me for interrupting, but I thought I might be able to help you. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Diego Montoya. The clerk here in the gift shop called me. I have some expertise in these indigenous Mexican masks. Perhaps I might assist?”

They shook hands.

Diego continued, “I’m the assistant curator here at the Museo Nacional de Antropología y de Arte Indígenas.”

“Nice to meet you, Diego. I’m Renato Pérez, from New Mexico.”

“Small world, I’m originally from Albuquerque, and I received graduate and undergraduate degrees from the University of New Mexico.”

Renato smiled. “Go, Lobos.” 

“What are you doing here in old Mexico, Renato?”

“I thought I’d come and do a bit of genealogical research. Family folklore says we’re descendants of a conquistador who accompanied Oñate. I confess I’m totally captivated by these masks. My father has a collection of historic indigenous Mexican masks. We’ve exhibited them throughout the southwest. I’ve been thinking about starting my own collection.” 

Diego turned to view the wall. “Yes, these old masks can certainly captivate. Take, for example, this one. Once you can break free of the eyes….” Diego pointed at the mask. “Consider the overall shape of the face. It’s Caucasian — larger than life-sized by about half, but proportionally accurate. Notice the skin, more of a pinkish hue than found in most Hispanics.”

“Why would they exaggerate the skin tone?”

“Many of these theatrical masks were supposed to be a parody of the Spanish. They have purposely exaggerated features. The eyes are obviously larger than life, and so is the nose.” Diego explained, “Yes, the nose is hooked, extending the overall mass further. Bulbous. Look at the flared nostrils — like the nostrils when a bull is about to charge.

“The red paint on the inside of the nostrils makes you wonder whether the idea was to emphasize the internal blood of the character.”

“Did the indigenous peoples have such hooked noses?”

“Not normally, but this is not a mask depicting a native. The mask represents a European.”

“The nose is bigger, and the ears are fuller than those on any person I’ve ever seen.”

“Yes, artistic license. Exaggerations, perhaps to indicate the character had excellent hearing. The ears are normally shaped. Perhaps larger than on most people. A surprisingly small lobe extension at the bottom.”

Renato leaned to the left and the right to view the ears from a different perspective. “Do you know where this mask originated?”

“We do. This is an original from the Tlaxcaltec people.”

Renato interrupted. “Say that again?”

“Of course, it is pronounced ‘lash caltec.’ They originated in what is now a state east of Mexico City. The ancient Tlaxcaltecs allied with Hernán Cortés and helped overthrow the Aztec Empire. They had a major role in taking the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Their language was Nahuatl. Can you say ‘nah watl?’” Diego reached up, lifted the mask from its peg on the wall, and handed it to Renato.

Renato mumbled, “nah watl,” then added, “Surprisingly light.”

“Yes, carved from zompantle, a soft white wood native to eastern Mexico. Easy to work by hand with basic tools.”

Renato rotated the mask and ran his hand over the cheeks. “The finish is smooth.” 

“Burned to remove splinters. Then sanded and polished before being painted. Look at these eyebrows.” Diego pointed to the face. “Painted on.”

Renato fingered strands of long black hair hanging over the ears. “The entire mask is not wood.” He ran his hand across the top and across smaller locks dangling over the forehead.

“No, the creator used horsehair most often on a mask like this. I’m not sure about this one, though. Might be actual human hair.”

Renato’s stomach tightened as he took a rapid, light breath. “Human hair?”

“Yes, sometimes the masks were made to represent a specific individual, and the use of original hair or teeth was considered appropriate.”


Diego laughed, “Yes, my friend, but not in a mask like this. Look!” He took the mask from Renato and turned it face up with the mouth clearly displayed. “The mandible on this character juts forward, so the elongated, massive lower teeth clear the upper lip and appear outside the mouth.”

“These two are extra long.”

“Yes, the lower canines are extremely exaggerated and connected to only three lower incisors.”

“What are they made from?”

“This is some carved wood added to the main portion of the mask. Real teeth were probably too difficult or simply not available.”

Renato touched the large dirty white teeth and peered inside. “I can’t see anything inside the mouth.”

“No, the artist wanted you to focus on the power of these teeth, perhaps indicating the model had powerful jaws and could tear you apart.”

Renato shuddered and felt his mouth lower into a grimace. “The lips are a bright blood red. Matches the inside of the nostrils. Also, this reddish tinge around the mouth, on the cheeks. Even on the top of the hook on the nose.”

Diego chuckled. “Yes, perhaps he ate something and didn’t have a napkin.”

“The character appears to be old. These painted lines represent wrinkles, right?”

Diego rotated the mask to expose the multiple lines streaking the cheeks, nose, and brow. “Wrinkles, for sure. Sometimes the mask is made more horrible than the original character, especially if the mask was used in a pageant. For example, those used in the Baile de los Viejitos depict wrinkled old men. When you analyze the performance, the dance and masks simply mock old men for their lecherous behavior. So perhaps this character also is supposed to be mocked.”

“Or feared. Why does it have these slits under the eyes? I can look right through the mask.”

“Of course, how else would the wearer see?” Diego handed the mask to Renato. “Put it over your face and look in the mirror.”

Renato stepped to his left and lifted the mask in front of his face. He could smell paint, varnish, and a hint of burned wood. He shook his head and fit it to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. The wood was rough on his skin. The black hair hung over his scalp and tickled the back of his neck. After a minor adjustment, he could see through the slits. Renato’s body tensed and breathing ceased. His skin tingled as the tickling from the back of his neck spread down his chest and up into his face. He turned and gazed into the mirror. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

Diego clasped his right shoulder. “The mask, my friend, is called temiktiloni, in Nahuatl.”

Renato spoke through the mask, “What does that mean, Diego?”

“El asesino, my friend…”

“…The Killer.”

“What’s this?” The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport customs agent stood back, eyes wide open, gaping at the shiny wooden piece of wood with dark stone chips along the edges. 

Renato finished the unwrapping to reveal a three-foot-long weapon. “It’s called a macuahuitl.”

The agent squinted her eyes and nose.

Renato explained, “maque awitl.” Renato turned the blade to reveal the other side. “The word comes from an Indigenous Mexican language known as Nahuatl.”

“Is this a sword?” The agent’s face screwed up as she shook it from side to side.

“No, more like a long flat ax, but look here, it’s shaped like a cricket bat. You pick it up by this grip — with this one, you can only fit one hand around it.”

Renato grasped the light green handle shaped like a snake but decided he wouldn’t use it to illustrate his next point. “You’d swing it through the air.” He laid the weapon back down and swung his empty hand above his head in a broad circular motion. He made a “swooshing” sound with his mouth.

“What are those teeth along the sides? Aren’t they sharp?” The agent ran her forefinger along the outer edge of the dark stones. “Ouch!” Blood oozed from a long, thin wound.

“Those are obsidian shards. Notice how they are fit to both sides of this polished flat piece of wood. They’re extremely sharp, as you just found out.”

The agent placed her finger in her mouth and nodded. “Yes.”

“It’s one continuous piece of wood. A strong warrior would use this weapon to decapitate a horse. Well, the taller two-handed version could. This one might easily take off a human head.”

The agent’s mouth turned down, and her nostrils flared. “Is the…manchuka…real?”

Macuahuitl. Try it — maque awitl.”

“Forget it.”

“No, this is only a replica. The last known original burned in Madrid over a hundred years ago.” Renato sensed he was not going to have a problem with the agent. He re-wrapped the macuahuitl, careful not to touch the razor-sharp dark pieces of stone. Renato saw the agent shift her attention to the bubble wrap still in his luggage.

“What’s in there?”

“A mask.”

“Let’s see.”

Renato lifted the mask from the bubble wrap package and set it on the examination table. He peeled back the tape holding the package together. When he removed the last layer of covering, he stepped aside to allow the agent a direct view.

The agent recoiled, eyes wide open. “Good God, those eyes are…well, the whole thing. I mean, it’s disgusting. Why in the hell would you want to bring anything like that out of Mexico? Should’ve left it behind for the cartels. What you gonna do with it?” She shook her head as she held a tight grimace.

“Put it on the wall of my house, along with the macuahuitl.”

“You crazy? I hope you don’t have a wife or girlfriend. No way I’d let anyone put up those things in my house. Why don’t you give it to someone you really, I mean really, hate? You got an ex who’s sucking you dry?”

Renato turned his back to the agent and re-wrapped the mask. His hands trembled as they made contact with the hair.

“Reminds me of folklore tales told by my granny. You better watch out having those things around. Might be more to the story than you know. Take that ugly mask and the manchuka thing…or whatever the hell you called it…and get outta here.”

Joycelyn smiled at Renato, withdrew her key from the lock to his house, and stepped through the door. “Welcome home, my dear.”

Renato rushed forward to give the blonde a warm hug and a kiss. “Welcome back, yourself. How was Washington?”

“Exciting as always. Can’t wait for the day I actually get a job at headquarters. This back-and-forth is killing me. How was the flight back from Mexico?”

“Not too bad. I wish you could’ve come visit me, for part of the time anyway.”

“I would’ve if I could’ve swung the time off. Always another crisis. Never ends.” She dropped her purse on the table near the door and her luggage on the mat. “So, what’s got you so excited? You wanted to show me something right away?”

“First, a glass of wine.” They moved to the sofa, and Renato poured from the bottle he had been decanting. “Salud.” They clinked glasses and sat a while as they got caught up.

“So, you verified your family came with Oñate from Santa Bárbara, that’s south of Chihuahua, right?”

“Yes, although the origins of the expedition are in the silver mining area around Zacatecas. What I found most interesting is that our family roots go back to the original conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés. The first Pérez must have come over on the initial expedition from Cuba.”

“Not too many people I know can trace their lineage back to Cortés.”

“I really want to show you some of the artifacts I brought back with me.” Renato refilled their glasses and led Joycelyn into his study.

Joycelyn’s left hand flew up to her mouth as she inhaled sharply as she entered the room. “My God, what’s that?”

“Striking, isn’t it?” Renato beamed.

“The eyes, they’re horrible.” She lowered her hand and inched closer to the mask hanging on the wall.

“It’s a theatrical prop.”

Joycelyn backed away from the wall. “What possessed you to bring such a grotesque object back here?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I had this overwhelming need to take it.” Renato walked over to the mask and touched the left cheek. “Fortunately, this beauty was for sale in a museum gift shop.”

“Beauty? Really? Sure, they didn’t pay you to take it?” She finished her wine and extended her glass for a refill.

Renato chuckled and filled both glasses. “No, but the price was quite reasonable. On the other hand, the macuahuitl was a bit expensive.” He lifted the weapon off its mounting and held it out to her.

“Do they go together?” Joycelyn backed away from the macuahuitl and sat on the corner of the desk.

“No, the macuahuitl is a replica of what the ancient indigenous peoples used to fight my ancestors. The mask was used in some village pageants. Absolutely nothing to do with each other.” He put the weapon back on its wall mounting underneath the mask. “I find them absolutely captivating.”

“Well, I might think of a few other words to describe both of these things. Why would you want to put them where you can see them while working at your computer?”

“I only want to admire them for a while. Perhaps I will find another place for them at some point.”

“Would you like a suggestion? Why not put them in the garage?”

Renato frowned. “You’re an educated woman. Why would you let some inanimate historical items get to you?”

“Because I am getting some very bad vibes just being near them.”

“Really? They’re lifeless — made from dead wood.”

“Why would you want to have that ugly face staring at you? Why would you want a weapon like this in your house? I mean, if I looked at those two things every day, I’d have nightmares. Don’t even think about putting them in the bedroom.”

“Well, I don’t plan to do anything other than to admire them when I’m at my computer.”

“Renato, you need to think seriously about the effect having such negative artifacts in your home will have on you. Or us!”

“What are you talking about? These are hunks of wood. They can’t affect anything.”

“Renato, they have terrible vibrations. There’s something odd about them, especially the mask.” Joycelyn rose and stood before Renato, arms crossed, eyes squinting as she looked directly at him. “I’m not going to spend any more time here as long as these…things…are hanging in public. You put them away somewhere, and I’ll be back. Thank God I kept my apartment.” Joycelyn turned and marched out of the room.

Renato heard the front door slam, and he refilled his glass. Women can be so…. He walked up to the wall and pondered his two new acquisitions. Two hunks of wood. He reached up and lifted the mask off its peg, brushing back the hair. Can’t hurt anything.

He turned towards the mirror and held up the mask in front of his face. Renato shook his head and fit it to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. He could smell paint, varnish, and a hint of burned wood. The wood was rough on his skin. The black hair hung over his scalp and tickled the back of his neck. After a minor adjustment, he could see through the slits. Renato’s body tensed, and his breathing ceased. His skin tingled as the tickling from the back of his neck spread down his chest and up into his face. He turned and gazed into the mirror. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

Renato sat in front of his computer. He read the text.

“The purpose of the masks is to convert participants into other beings or characters.”

This site usually has good information.

“Jaguar and eagle warriors dressed themselves like these animals in order to gain their strengths.”

Renato rose from his chair and walked over to the mask. He reached up, took the mask from its peg, and put it over his face — not too close. He turned to review his image in the mirror and moved the mask to the side so he could see himself. Nothing special happened. Must have had too much to drink last night. 

Renato shifted his view to the macuahuitl. He put the mask back on its peg and picked up the weapon, careful not to nick himself. Heavier than the mask. He hunkered down and raised the weapon over his head. Renato admired himself in the mirror and smiled.

After returning the weapon to its wall mounting, Renato glanced at the clock. Time to call Diego. He sat and dialed on his Skype phone +52 55….


“Diego, hola, it’s Renato from New Mexico.”

Hola mi amigo.” They exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before getting down to business.

Diego continued. “The Tlaxcaltecs who made the mask were taken from their native area and used by the Spanish to set an example for other indigenous peoples. They modeled good behavior and were used to work in the mines. The museum obtained this mask from a collector in Zacatecas.”

Zacatecas, the area where my family originated. They came north with Oñate.”

Tlaxcaltecs were involved with a series of rebellions by the native population. The Tlaxcaltecs fought on the side of the Spanish. They defeated the Zacatecos in an uprising that started after Coronado left the province to explore the north.”

“So, what does all this ancient history have to do with the mask?”

“The mask dates from the mid-16th Century. From what we can tell, the Zacatecos used it for about fifty years. By that time, some of the native groups had changed sides and were now allied with the Spanish. This specific mask was used in a type of theatrical performance teaching taboos. Might explain why the figure is a Caucasian parody.”

“You told me at the museum the mask was of Tlaxcaltec origin. Any idea why the mask was made by one group and used by another? Why does it deliberately have grotesque European features if used to teach law and order? I would think a teaching mask would be stern and powerful.”

“No, but maybe I can contact the collector. Wonder if he’s still alive. All we know is that the Zacatecos stopped using the mask around the same time as they were wiped out. It was a combination of combat and smallpox that did them in. About the time Oñate left Zacatecas for Santa Bárbara.”

“That’s strange.” 

“Surviving remnants of all of these groups intermarried with the Spanish and lost their own separate cultural identities. Most of the cultural possessions from groups like these were sold off to feed the survivors. The mask probably traded hands dozens of times before ending up with the collector who sold it to the museum.”

“Thanks for the info, Diego. Shoot me an email if you find out anything more, and we’ll talk again.”

Renato clicked the keys and commanded his computer to find Zacatecas. In an instant, on his screen were images of Spanish conquistadores with their allied Tlaxcaltec warriors holding macuahuitls, doing battle with the rebellious Zacatecos.

Renato turned toward the mirror and held the mask in front of his face. Leaning his head forward, he loosely put it into the hollowed-out back of the mask. He could smell paint, varnish, and a hint of burned wood. He shook his head and fit it to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. The wood was rough on his skin. The black hair hung over his scalp and tickled the back of his neck. After a minor adjustment, he could see through the slits. Renato’s body tensed and breathing ceased. His skin tingled as the tickling from the back of his neck spread down his chest and up into his face. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

“Hello, anybody home?”

Renato ripped the mask off and hustled it inside the armoire. “In here, honey.” He closed the door to the cabinet.

“I smell steaks. So what’cha doin’ in here?” Joycelyn walked into the study, twirling her key ring.

“Just putting away some stuff. Let’s go into the dining room.”

“What’s wrong with your face?”

He looked in the hall mirror. “What?”

“There’s something different about your face. Your eyes are bulging out. Your nose seems larger.” Joycelyn took Renato’s head in her arms and frowned as she looked at him.

Renato pulled his head free and shook it as he moved closer to the mirror. “You’re dreaming. There’s nothing wrong.” He moved his hands along his skin like he was getting ready for a shave.

“I think I know your face by now.”

He continued his inspection. “Yeah, maybe, but I’ve known it longer.” Renato shook his head and walked into the dining room. “Come on in here and let me get you some wine.”

The two made up, got caught up, and sat at the dining room table to a meal Renato had prepared.

“When did you start eating your steak rare?” She leaned forward with her fork to turn the cut bloody red side of the meat towards her.  “Is that even cooked on the inside?”

“I don’t know, today, I guess. Tastes better. More wine?”

“You get rid of the mask?”

Renato’s stomach tightened. “I put the damn thing in storage.” He raised his right hand. “I promise you’ll never see it again.” He searched her face for a favorable response. 

Joycelyn stared at him long and hard, seemingly probing for an answer. “OK.” She smiled.

Renato took a shallow breath and smiled like a load had been taken off his shoulders. “It’s been too long. Let’s hit the sack.”

After their energies were spent and their muscles slackened, Joycelyn rolled on her side. “Where did you come up with all these new tricks? Have you been experimenting with someone else?”

Renato’s head pounded as he panted, lying on his back. “What do you mean?”

“Weren’t you a bit like a wild beast? You should have seen your face when you, well, you know. I know it’s been a few weeks, but really. I would swear you were someone else.”

“I didn’t realize. Got caught up in the moment.” He continued to pant. Images of the mask swirled through his consciousness.

“It was a bit savage. I’m not complaining. Just be careful when you give me those little love bites. I think you drew blood on my neck.”


Renato picked up the telephone.

“Renato, I’ve learned a great deal about the mask. You got some time to discuss this now?”

Diego’s call surprised him, but he really didn’t have any reason not to talk to him at the moment. “Thanks, Diego, go ahead. I’ll put you on speakerphone.” Renato pushed a button, leaned back to listen…and appreciate the mask and the macuahuitl on his wall.

“Renato, the mask was fashioned to represent a specific individual of mixed Tlaxcaltec and Spanish blood. I learned the mask you have is related to a son, one of several children, a Tlaxcaltec woman who bore one of the Spanish soldiers.”

“Yes, that wasn’t particularly unusual. The conquistadores often took native women as they pleased.”

“One of the children was unusual. Cruel to animals as he grew up. About the time he was a young man, the family moved into a Zacatecos village where a number of unmarried women died under unusual circumstances. They were all hacked to death, and parts of their bodies were missing.” 

“Really? A serial killer in the 16th Century?”

Diego challenged. “Why would you think crime has just been invented?” 

“Well, you’re right.”

“Anyway, the villagers eventually figured out this young man was guilty and executed him immediately.”

“Sounds like he deserved it.”

“He did, but remember; this was the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Methods of killing the guilty individuals were quite barbaric.”

Renato remembered reading about the methods of torture employed by civilized Spain. And the explicit drawings he found on the Internet.

“Renato, this young man was hacked to death, his head placed on a pike, and the body burned.”

“About par for the course in those times.”

“Before the young man was executed, he told his victims’ fathers and mothers he raped their daughters. He told them he eviscerated their hearts while they were still alive — then ate them. A priest wrote to the Inquisition. He told the families that their daughters deserved to die. Women were the source of original sin, and they all needed to be punished. If that were not enough, he cursed the village and their descendants and vowed to come back and demonize their survivors.”

Renato’s stomach tightened. “Wow, a bit excessive.”

“Well, apparently, the villagers thought so too. So, before they hacked him to death, they cut out his heart, his tongue, broke his teeth, and scalped him alive. And, of course, they cursed him, his family, and any descendants of the family.”

Renato swallowed hard and held his breath. Exhaling, he sputtered, “I thought scalping was only in the American West?”

“Not when the Mexican indigenous tribes wanted to use the scalp to create a mask.”

Renato sat up straight and looked at the mask on his wall, eyes widening. “You mean….”

“Wait, it gets worse. The Zacatecos villagers forced the man’s Tlaxcaltec family to fashion a mask out of an unburned section of zompantle wood used in the fire. And yes, they used the hair. The young men of his family were forced to wear the mask in a pageant. The object was to warn young women about the dangers of associating with the Spanish. They would threaten the young women with a macuahuitl. By the end of the play, the villagers would ridicule the Tlaxcaltec family member wearing the mask.”

Renato sat in total silence. Bass drumbeats pounded in his ears. Sweat soaked his brow, torso, and shirt. His body started to tremble and shake.

“You still there?”

“I suppose they hacked him to death with a macuahuitl.” His neck hurt. He rolled his shoulders forward and gritted his teeth. Mouth dry — like it’s been used as a dustbin. His body flushed with warmth, starting at his feet, and rising up his torso.

“Naturally. The macuahuitl was their weapon of choice. The villagers held theater for many years until the young Tlaxcaltec re-enactors began to meet mysterious endings. Many committed suicide, some went mad, and others disappeared. Some escaped joining the Oñate expedition in New Mexico. Of course, the Zacatecos people all disappeared as a distinct tribe.”

Again, Renato was speechless. His eyes were swelling. They feel like they’re going to pop out of my head. Bright flashes of light exploded in his brain. As he looked at the mask and the macuahuitl, he realized his vision was altered. The top of his view was normal, but the view blurred about one-third the way down the vertical picture in his brain. Like cheese melting in the hot sun. The entire image in his head abruptly swirled right ninety degrees. It extended across a third of his horizontal plane. The photo in his brain then dropped directly down to the bottom of the picture. Like Salvador Dali’s painting with melting watches drooping from boxes, trees, and figures. Renato could not grasp which way was up or which way was down. He had no sense of balance and grasped the edge of the desk. His whole body quivered. His chest heaved in great spasms.

“Renato, you understand you now have this exact same mask. You might also be a descendant of the same Spanish conquistador who fathered that killer. You need to get rid of that mask!”

Renato’s stomach wrenched. He clenched his jaw and fought back the tightness in his chest and throat — and the overwhelming nausea and taste of bile. He forced open his teeth and started panting with shallow gasps of warm air. 

Renato sensed the metallic taste of blood. He smiled as his nostrils flared, and he took large, deep lungsful of warm air.

The young man turned to face the mirror. He held up the mask in front of his face. He had to lean his head forward to get his face to fit into the hollowed-out back of the mask. He could smell the fresh paint. The mask still had the odor of the flames from when they put the mask into the fire to burn off the rough edges. The young man shook his head, then his entire body, as he molded his face to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. The wood was still too rough — it rubbed his skin. Why do they make me wear this? As he became more comfortable with the mask, the black hair hanging over his scalp tickled the back of his neck. He adjusted the mask. Now I can see through the slits. His body tensed. His breath ceased. He realized his skin was now tingling. He sensed a tickling sensation from the back of his neck down into his bare chest and back up into his face. He looked directly ahead and realized he could see himself in a clear mirror unlike any they had in the village. Then he saw them. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

The young man ripped the mask from his face and stared at the mirror. His skin hurt, and his eyes felt like they would pop from his head. He put the mask back on and repeated this same process a half dozen times. Each time more frantic. Each time the smell of paint and the fire increased. The young man’s throat tightened with each repetition until he let the mask dangle in his left hand. He was transfixed by the image in the mirror.

“Honey, you home?” 

The young man heard a woman make some noises in the distance and walk towards him. Her feet made a strange sharp sound on the floor.

“Honey, you in here?”

He watched her enter the room. 

“Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!” she screamed and collapsed.

The young man observed himself in the mirror. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes. He tried to turn away, but his muscles wouldn’t obey. His head spun back to stare at…the eyes. The center of the eyes had the color of a bird’s egg. The very center was dark black. He felt a surge of strength and pleasure — just like when…. The whites were dirty and looked older than his age. The eyes. They bulged noticeably from his face. Large black lashes ringed his lids. The eyes were wide open and dominated the face. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes.

He saw his face in the mirror. 

He saw the mask dangling from his left hand.

Again, he saw his face. 

Again, he saw the mask in his left hand. 

The mask was his face. 

His blood surged. As he took in a deep breath, heat rose into his cheeks.

He put the mask back on the peg on the wall. 

The young man stared in the mirror at the image of the mask that was now his face.

The young man turned towards the wall where he hung the mask.

He took down the macuahuitl from its mounting.

He walked towards the woman.

All these women deserve to be punished. 

El asesino swung the macuahuitl through the air. It swooshed with the same “shlock” sound made when a guillotine falls.The young man smiled and raised the macuahuitl over his head….

“The Mask“ previously appeared in: Currents: Corrales Writing Group 2015 Anthology, Patricia
Walkow ed., North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, November 2015, pp. 181-199; Writers
Anarchy IV: Horror (Volume 4), Alex Hurst, ed., Fiction Writers Group, North Charleston, SC:
CreateSpace, October 2015, pp. 64-77; The Red Fez, no. 91, July 17, 2016; Haunted Horror, A
Rainfall Publication – Rain 292, Steve Lines & John B. Ford, eds., pp.1-18; and Until Dawn: A
Supernatural Anthology (The Red Penguin Collection), JK Larkin, ed., Red Penguin Books
(September 3, 2021), pp. 129-145. “The Mask” was awarded First Place, Single Short Story in
the New Mexico Press Women 2016 Communications Contest.

If you would like to read more of Jim’s work, his novel Panama’s Gold (co-authored with Sandy Hoover and published by Red Penguin Books in 2022) is available on his Amazon author’s page.

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

“The Crone of Cader Idris” Supernatural Thriller by Victoria Male

She sensed him the instant he’d scurried over the fence bisecting her terrain from that of the hounds. Matilda was impressed, he’d survived. His friend was not as fortunate. The hounds’ snarls and snapping jaws gradually faded, no doubt to haul the corpse back to their den and pick the bones clean. She could hear the man’s – Morgan’s – blood pounding through his veins. -He was young and he was strong. He would make a feast. 

Matilda sensed his guilt immediately too. It was potent. Intoxicating. She had to practice caution, or else she could get as muddled by his remorse as he was. Taking small sips from his shame, fear, and rage, the crone encased herself in a glamor he would not be able to resist. Her hands were no longer gnarled and haggard, but smooth and dainty. A shadow of a laugh escaped Matilda’s non-existent lips. She had been beautiful once too. 

She summoned a thick veil of fog for her approach, wearing the billowing and swirling air like a cloak. If it wasn’t for creatures like her, the hounds, the giant, the scenery would be breathtaking rather than ominous. 

A change of the wind revealed Matilda to her prey. Morgan stopped in his tracks. After the hounds, he knew better than to approach her blindly. Morgan squinted to get a better look at the shrouded figure.

She, however, saw him perfectly. The cut of his jaw, the broadness of his shoulders, the boyish charm that refused to leave his features, even when wrought with turmoil as they were now. Before, he would have reduced her to a blushing fool.

Katie?” Morgan took the smallest of steps toward her.

The less she said the better. “Morgan?”

She sounded like Katie. It paralyzed Morgan in place. 

“This can’t be happening.” Morgan scuttled back when she advanced toward him, “NO! Hey! Don’t!”

But the closer she got, the harder she was to deny. All Morgan wanted was to see Katie again.


Morgan strode up to her building with a bouquet of lilies. Katie’s favorite. While he waited for her to answer his knock, Morgan tried to convince himself that this would work as much as he was about to try to convince Katie. The seconds felt longer than hours. Another knock, still no answer.

“So either you’re not home and I look like a twat, or you’re still refusing to speak with me. And if that’s the case, I want—“

Morgan was startled into silence when a latch opened. One of Katie’s neighbors. He bristled, it was difficult enough for Morgan to say this without a stranger overhearing.

“Christ, do I really have to do this through the door?” He glanced toward his car. Perhaps it wasn’t–  

“Yes. You do. Because you’re supposed to be giving me space.”

Morgan’s heart leapt. “I know…but I’m going to fight for you, Katie. So if that means camping out on your doorstep until you’re ready, or camping on haunted, bloody Cader Idris with you, so be it. Car’s all packed by the way for the latter. ” 

At last, she opened the door. “I have plans this weekend.”


“I’m not packed.”

“I understand.”

“You’re not forgiven.”


“We’ve been here before, Morgan.”

“I want to be better this time. Please. I love you. Come this weekend and then if you don’t want to try again, I won’t bother you anymore. Promise.” 

Katie scrutinized him for another hour-long moment, then reached for the lilies. 



The ersatz Katie smiled.

“How did you find me?”

That was information Matilda didn’t have. “Why are you here?” 

“Because you wanted to come, remember?”

Matilda turned away from him. He followed.

“I…I don’t know where to begin. Other than sorry. But it’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. And now Gareth…”

The name gave Morgan pause, but Matilda kept walking. 

“You’re still angry,” Morgan slipped on a loose rock as he hustled to keep up with her, one of the innumerable scree blanketing the mountain. He pressed on, “You have every right to be.”

Matilda’s gaze remained straight ahead. Not much farther now. 

“Please.” Her lack of acknowledgement was maddening. “I said I was sorry, alright?”

Matilda didn’t give him so much as a nod. 


She turned. Where the hounds were immaculately white, Matilda’s entire form was different shades of gray. A long mop of matted locks covered her eyes. A hooked nose protruded from her face. The seam of her mouth spanned the width of her jaw. Once an alluring noblewoman and formidable huntress, time and the curse had reduced her to a decrepit hag.

Morgan was none the wiser, however. He still saw Katie, the woman he loved, and the more he stared directly at Matilda, the more he fell under her spell. She extended a mangled hand to Morgan. He took it, heedlessly following her further down the mountain.

“Where are we going?”

Not so heedlessly then. Matilda put a bony finger to her mouth while steering him into the brush. The toe of Morgan’s boot knocked against a decayed human bone. This area was strewn with them – the corroded evidence of Matilda’s past victims. But Morgan was too lost in his memories to notice. 


London was long in the rearview mirror of Morgan’s posh and ill-equipped SUV that he navigated around the winding, narrow Welsh country road. He chanced a look where Katie sat in the passenger seat, her head propped up against the window. He opened his mouth to speak, but promptly closed it a moment later.

Instead, Morgan clicked on the radio, with the hope that the music could crowd out the lingering awkwardness and animosity between them. 

The song playing was a catchy one. Katie sang along softly, though she stopped as soon as she spotted Morgan grinning.

So he turned up the volume and began singing himself. Loudly. Badly. It coaxed Katie to join back in, belting out the melody even more unabashedly than he was.

“Watch out!”

Morgan’s SUV had drifted from its lane and a sedan was headed straight toward them.


He righted his car before they sideswiped the other one, horn blaring as it passed. 

Morgan refocused on the road and silence reigned once more. Katie figured it was her turn to break it. Her gaze found the camping gear loaded into the car’s boot. “You really going to brave the mountain with me?”

“I kept the B&B reservation just in case,” Morgan chuckled. 

Katie’s tone turned reproachful. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s expensive.”

“It’s a B&B in Dolgellau, not the Savoy.”

“But you said that your shifts at the pub—“

“I know how to manage my money, Katie. I used to work at a hedge fund for Christ’s sake. I wanted to do this for you.”

“I appreciate that but –“

“But what?” Morgan glared at her, inadvertently pressing his foot down harder on the gas pedal. “There’s no winning with you.”

“Don’t try to win, try to have one conversation with me that doesn’t become a row!” Katie scoffed, “This is why I didn’t want to come.”

“And yet here you are!”

“Well, I shouldn’t be! Take me back to London please.”

Morgan pivoted in his seat to face her full-on, so gobsmacked by the demand that he missed the lorry barreling around a bend up ahead.  

“Oh sure, I’ll take you right back! How am I supposed to–” 

The lorry’s driver had taken the turn too fast, and Morgan didn’t see him until it was too late. 


Matilda had no qualms with Morgan’s retreating into a reverie, it made her hunt easier.  Yet, an errant thought slithered into Matilda’s head. Before – how long must it have been now, centuries? centuries ago her desire to devour him would have been of a wholly different sort. Matilda suppressed the pang of yearning as swiftly as it had come. She was no longer a pretty forwyn and he was no knight in search of a bride. Nevertheless, she drank in the heady, undeniably masculine musk of his flesh as she lured Morgan to his death. 

“I was going to take you back. I was. You know that, right?” His emotions were bubbling to the surface, but Morgan opted to burrow his face into his arms in an effort to shove them back down rather than to feel them. He fell to the ground. 


His head snapped up, still enthralled by Matilda’s glamor. Morgan crawled to her, his voice small when he asked, “Can you ever forgive me?” 

Matilda didn’t answer him. They had reached the altar. 


“She’s going to be okay, right?” A bandaged Morgan limped alongside the team of first responders and the doctor as they wheeled Katie’s stretcher into the ER. 

“Sir, you need to step back.”

“Say she’ll be okay and I will.”

“She has a collapsed lung.”

Morgan’s heart clenched in his chest. “You can fix that,right? You have to fix it.”

“I’ll know once we get her into surgery. You’re slowing us down.”

“But I–” he stopped himself. This wasn’t about him. Morgan stepped back to allow them to wheel Katie into the operating room without restriction. 

Morgan had never felt more helpless than when he watched her disappear beyond those metallic, sterile doors.  


Curled up against the altar, Morgan rocked back and forth. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven…I don’t deserve to be forgiven…”

Matilda crossed to him, and under the belief that she was Katie, her proximity was a comfort to Morgan. She knelt over him and pulled him to her bosom. Morgan nuzzled into her touch when she stroked his temple.  


He’d been smoking on his patio when he missed Katie’s call. He’d hesitated before playing the message – she blamed him, didn’t she? He did. 

His phone rang with another incoming call before he could listen to her voicemail: University College Hospital.

Morgan couldn’t remember what the woman on the other line said to him exactly, but somehow he’d understood her. The phrases jumbled together in his memory, “terribly sorry” , “did all they could”, “family will make arrangements”. 

It was miraculous that he’d managed to stay so composed on the phone. The second the line went dead however, he chucked the offensive device across his flat, then shoved the contents of his breakfast bar to the floor. 


Morgan returned to the present gasping for breath. His hand flew to his throat, only to discover Matilda’s ashen one already there. She tightened her grip. He could see her now, the monster that Arawn had made her into. Her eyes glowed red from behind her matted tresses.

Morgan would’ve screamed, heaved, and cursed if he’d the lung capacity. He tried to pry her hand off of his neck, yet Matilda’s strength outmatched his. She may have appeared to be a frail old crone, but looks were deceiving. Morgan thrashed and flailed, anything to get out of her hold and breathe. 

Matilda slammed the crown of his head back onto the stone altar and unhinged her jaw. The time for games had passed. As her sour breath washed over him, Morgan blindly groped for something to defend himself with. All he could see was the black void beyond her gaping maw.

Or maybe that was his vision going.

Just before she could taste him, Morgan’s fingers hooked into a rotted skull that he used to smash against Matilda’s. She recoiled with a hiss. Men never changed. 

His blow was nowhere near enough to defeat her, but it was enough to distract her. Morgan summoned every fiber of his strength to throw Matilda off of him. He slid off of the altar, swaying as he stood, then bolted from the scene.

Matilda was not one to give up easily. Jaw still distended, she let out a piercing shriek and chased after Morgan with the dexterity and determination of a black widow.

If Morgan thought he was hauling ass from the hounds earlier, this was something else. He couldn’t get off this godforsaken mountain soon enough. 


Now he knew that she was using Katie’s voice to manipulate him, but it didn’t make it any easier to resist.


His legs burned. Eyes wild, he searched for a route back to the main trail, but the darkness, his terror, and the unfamiliarity of the terrain slowed Morgan. Matilda caught up to him, so close that she clutched onto the sleeve of his coat. 

Morgan rounded on her, his fingers closed into a fist. Before he could land the punch, Matilda shapeshifted into Katie. Morgan dropped his hand. Real or not, he wouldn’t harm her. 

She’d banked on that, and in the blink of an eye, Matilda switched back and lunged at him. 

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” He broke into a sprint once more. 

The trail appeared on the horizon, but Morgan didn’t get very far before Matilda clawed at him again, her talon-like nails grazing the bottom hem of his jacket. She seized him, but this time, Morgan didn’t think twice about twisting to deliver a swift kick to her midsection. The surprise knocked her back more than the impact. 

Splayed on the ground, Matilda morphed back into Katie. She sniveled, feigning agony and feebleness to halt Morgan again. She succeeded for a split-second. Then, “Don’t do that!”

Morgan continued his beeline for the path, undaunted by the piercing cry she unleashed when he absconded. He’d almost made it to the trail when another dense curtain of fog dropped over him. It made maintaining his breakneck pace across the uneven topography more of a struggle. 

“No,” he raced through the fog with abandon. He’d nearly made it when Matilda closed in. “Stop it…”

Her talons were posed to rip into his flesh, mere millimeters away. Finally. 


Morgan hurled himself down the mountain. Gravity and rapidly gaining momentum propelled Morgan across the rugged earth and out of Matilda’s reach in the knick of time. His limbs akimbo, he desperately sought purchase on anything that could anchor him. Scree scraped his skin. Morgan managed to grasp onto a small rock, teeth gritting against the pain as he labored to pull himself out of the scrum.

An ear-splitting screech tore from Matilda’s throat as she flew after the man. They were nearing the boundary of her realm on Cader Idris: a boulder carved with runes that she could not pass. More frenzied than ever, Matilda rolled a hefty stone with devastatingly precise aim to trample over Morgan’s fingers. It worked beautifully, the weight of the rock across Morgan’s bloodied knuckles forced him to loosen his grip involuntarily. He was thrust back into the fray, but Morgan tucked himself into a ball to channel the velocity rather than fight it, which gave him the speed he needed to tumble past the boundary out of the crone’s domain.  

Morgan didn’t dare lift his head, not even during Matilda’s blood-curdling lament that he’d escaped. He might not get off the mountain alive, but he wouldn’t let himself die at her hand. 

His manufactured landslide deposited Morgan at the edge of Llyn Cau, the bottomless lake that lay at the mountain’s base. Matilda skittered to the blasted boulder that kept her trapped to her few acres of this purgatory, curious if he’d perished in the fall. It took him several minutes, but Morgan dragged himself to the water’s edge. He dipped his hand in the water to scrub the dirt from his skin, then cupped the other to drink from the lake. He caught his reflection on its surface. He looked just as weary and tormented as he felt, but Morgan was grateful that Matilda seemingly wasn’t pursuing him anymore. 

He dug into his pocket and a newly familiar voice echoed across the ancient rock shears moments later. Whereas Matilda had conjured a perfect impression, this version was tinny, and ever-so-slightly distorted. 

“Hiya. They’re about to put the tube in, but I don’t like how we left things. I don’t want to blame you for the crash, Morgan, but I have to be honest…there’s an ugly, angry part of me that does. But there’s the bigger part of me that still loves you. Even after everything we’ve been through. People will say that’s foolish but I don’t care. I forgive you, but on one condition. You have to confront your demons. To stop running and face them. Release them, and release me. So that when you love again, whether or not it’s me, you can give it freely. There’s nothing like being loved by you, Morgan. It’s why I fought so hard for it. Bollocks, they’re saying I need to go. I wish you were here. I’m telling myself this isn’t the last time we’ll talk but Morgan, I’m scared. Call me when you get this – just want to hear your voice.”

The voicemail ended. It was silent on the mountain until Morgan’s grief, the anguish he’d stifled for the past month, finally poured out of him like a dragon’s fire from its snout, as searing as it was cleansing. Matilda was fascinated by his catharsis, by the sobs that wracked his body, by the guttural noises of agony that left his trembling lips. He was a portrait of raw sorrow, and it was just as beguiling to Matilda as the visage of Katie was to Morgan.  

Pale blue had begun to paint the horizon line when Morgan’s weeping subsided. Matilda had loomed the entire scene, fashioning herself a strange sentinel to his grief. No longer encumbered by his despair, Morgan looked to the summit. There was something up there he needed. Matilda could sense it. There was something of the woman’s – Kaite’s – that remained on Cader Idris, and Morgan would not leave without it. He resolved to finish what he came here to do: to give Katie a proper goodbye. 

The wide line of Matilda’s mouth split into an impossibly wider grin as Morgan staggered to his feet. She would get a second chance with her knight after all.

VICTORIA MALE (she/her) has worked in creative development at Ivan Reitman´s The Montecito Picture Company as well as with the American division of the fast-growing South Asian media company Graphic India. Her screenplays have garnered attention from major agencies, A-list talent, and accolades. Victoria is a shrewd adaptor of biography, history, and mythology, and seeks to celebrate the complexity and the breadth of the female gaze in her written work and on screen.

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

“Megaphagia” Horror by Marie Brown

The cows are back again. All seven of them, with their sunken, hunger-bright eyes and their ribs poking sharply through red-brown hides. They stare at her unblinkingly, unmovingly, and Eri wonders if they see the same clash of starvation and madness in her expression that she sees in theirs. She wonders if starvation and madness are different names for the same disease.

“Whatcha looking at, Er?” Vivian’s voice comes from behind, and a moment later, the woman herself — shapely, smokey-eyed, and wry-lipped — follows. 

Eri acknowledges her with a slight nod but doesn’t turn from the window. “Just taking in the view.”

“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” Vivian stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Eri, leaning close to the glass. Outside, sunshine pours molten gold over rippling grass and splashes of wildflowers. Farther out, pine trees bristle for miles, while mountains stand proud and brilliant. Only Eri sees the blights on the land, never eating despite their obvious need and the abundance surrounding them.

“I’m so glad we planned this.” Vivian flashes a grin, her dark curls glossy in the light.

Eri finally forces herself to look at her best friend of over ten years and hopes she doesn’t sound flat when she says, “Me too.”

“What a beautiful view.” Danny strides into the room with his usual bravado, and Vivian bursts with pleasure as he wraps an arm around her waist and pecks her on the cheek. “The landscape is pretty, too.”

Vivian giggles and leans into him. “So charming. Did you come up with that all by yourself?”

“I’m insulted you’d think otherwise.” He squeezes her playfully before looking at Eri. “Are you ready? I just finished packing our lunches.”

It takes a beat too long for Eri to shake off the darkness that settles leaden over her shoulders and stirs in her gut. “Yes, we should go.”

“Great. We’ll meet you outside.” Danny, exuberant as he is ignorant, leaves hand in hand with Vivian.

Eri turns back to the window. In the meadow, a cow lifts its head and lets out a long, mournful moan.


She can’t remember exactly when she started seeing the cows, only that it was around the time Vivian began spending weekends at Eri’s dorm. They’d been inseparable for years — ever since Ms. Jackson’s seventh grade science class, when fearless Vivian helped timid Eri pull open the flaps of a frog’s stomach for dissection — and Vivian had seen no need for that to change just because Eri was off to college in a neighboring city and Vivian was still working retail, unsure if she wanted to study fashion or go to cosmetology school or just kiss a new boy or girl every Friday night.

Her visits brought all the energy Eri adored Vivian for: feisty, passionate, bright. Eri relished her friend’s runaway laughter and dazzling confidence, the way she pushed Eri to go to that party or try on that lipstick; and in return, she knew Vivian loved Eri’s steadiness and focus, her still waters to Vivian’s storms. “I’d get lost at sea if not for you, Er,” she’d sometimes say, squeezed next to Eri in her tiny dorm bed or as they ate ice cream on the floor at 2 a.m. “You give me somewhere to come back to.”

Eri never understood, in those moments, how she could both love someone so fiercely and fear she’d never escape them.

I will always be her shadow, Eri thought with terrible certainty one night after Vivian charmed a free appetizer out of their waiter and left her number on a napkin in big, bold handwriting. I will never be the one they want, I will never be the one they choose.

She had secretly hoped to remake herself in college, be more than an accessory to her strikingly beautiful friend; but how could she turn away Vivian, her Vivian, the one who’d taught her how to walk in heels and style her limp blonde hair? The one who’d held her while she sobbed after Benjamin Gardner literally laughed at her invitation to the girls’ choice dance — and then egged his car that night, consequences be damned? The one who sometimes stumbled through the door drunk and crying because she’d fought with her mom again, her dad had come through town again, she’d been broken up with again? No, she couldn’t do that. Not to her Vivian, not to her sister in all but blood.

Somewhere in the throes of life changing, Eri began seeing the cows. Perhaps she struggled remembering exactly when because their appearances were never startling or even all that distracting; it was like they’d always been there, simply waiting to be noticed. It was immediately obvious to Eri, though, that no one else could see them — if seven emaciated cows really were standing on the campus library lawn, or on the football field sidelines, or outside her dorm while she waited for Vivian to return from a date, she was sure she’d hear some whispers, at least, some confused conversations between bookshelves or on bleachers.

She worried at first that something was wrong with her mind. Should she tell Vivian, her parents? Should she seek professional help? But the cows never did more than come and go, watching her with gaunt eyes. Occasionally one would shift on its bony legs, maybe offer up a desolate groan. They were never difficult to ignore. So as long as they only stood and stared, as long as these hallucinations — what else could they be? — never became worse, Eri saw no reason to alarm the people who loved her best. And she certainly saw no reason to risk getting noticed in all the wrong ways. Soon the cows were an ordinary part of her background, as unremarkable as the grass or sky.

Weeks turned into months turned into years. Eri moved from freshman dorms to upperclassmen apartments, sinking deeper into schoolwork and her part-time math tutoring job. Vivian continued visiting, trying her hand at various pursuits along the way: culinary school, yoga instructor certification, jewelry making. Eri kept seeing the cows. And life would carry on this way indefinitely, she thought, with Vivian in front of her and the cows behind her and Eri caught somewhere inbetween, not quite invisible but not quite seen, either.

And then Vivian met Danny.

It started the usual way: one party or another that Vivian always knew about, her effortless flirting and dancing and pulling Eri into all of it. She winked at the handsome guy near the drinks, invited him to join her with a wave. He came as if drawn by a magnet — people always came to her — and they swayed and laughed and later kissed into the early morning hours. It was a typical weekend for Vivian, pretty and pleasured, and for Eri, watching with a dull ache while the cows stared inside through a window.

She didn’t bother remembering his name, assuming he’d disappear after a week or two like all of Vivian’s flings. But he stubbornly stuck around. One night turned into three turned into an entire month with no signs of stopping; Vivian stayed with Eri as often as her ever-changing schedule allowed, and he regularly drove the two-hour round trip between their cities. Vivian giggled more and glowed brighter and practically floated when she walked.

It was more than that, though. Eri realized it when the latest guy — she still wouldn’t learn his name — showed up unannounced at her door on a night Vivian was gone, pizza box in hand, and said, “Hey, can I come in?

Eri looked at him blankly. “Vivian’s not here.”

“I know.” He smiled sheepishly. “I just feel like we’re not really friends yet. You’re important to Viv, so you’re important to me, too.”

She was almost touched in the moment before she was insulted. “You don’t have to put on this show. Vivian’s already smitten with you.”

She began closing the door, but he caught it with one hand. “Wait, please? I’m sorry. What I meant was —” he flashed that sheepish smile again “— Viv talks all the time about how amazing you are. And I like getting to know amazing people.” When Eri looked at him skeptically but didn’t close the door, he pressed forward. “C’mon, at least eat some pizza? You can kick me out after if you still think I’m an ass.”

So Eri let him stay, and they ate pizza and talked — a bit reticently on her part, at first, but with increasing ease as his warmth and sincerity drew her out. And that was the night she became friends with Danny O’Sullivan. He’d been as good as his word ever since: keeping her company through long nights of studying whether Vivian was around or not, texting her encouragement before big tests, coming to her rescue when her car broke down halfway between campus and her parents’ house. A real friend, someone who made her feel cared about, wanted even. Not the way Vivian was wanted — Eri wasn’t sure she could give men what they were looking for, if they ever looked for it in her — but it soothed some of the rawness in her chest.

She worried briefly, early on, that Vivian might be jealous of the time Eri spent with Danny. But her face was beatific when Eri confessed. “He looks out for you when I’m gone?” she said, and her voice was high and her eyes shiny. “Eri, is he real? Does someone this kind actually exist?” Her breath hitched, and she turned away. “I wasn’t sure good guys were out there. And I never thought one would choose me.”

Eri only knew half of that feeling. Outside, the cows appeared in their customary line, bellies piteously shriveled and heads bowed low.

  Months became years again. Danny and Eri graduated and took jobs in the same town, and Vivian moved in with Danny. The three of them often shared meals, saw movies, went hiking or swimming or skiing. Sometimes Eri thought the cows were appearing more frequently: every time she felt the emptiness of the seat next to her, after every dead-end first date, during the course of every inconvenient, unreciprocated crush. 

She thought, too, that they might be growing more restless — stamping discontentedly anytime Vivian asked if she’d tried this or that way of meeting people, huffing with frustration whenever Vivian said, while wrapped in Danny’s arms, that an independent woman like Eri didn’t need a relationship, anyway. Of course I don’t ‘need,’ she nearly snapped each time. I want. And that’s so much worse.

For the most part, though, the cows were as they’d always been: starving, silent, still. And if thick, choking darkness welled up in her chest with each appearance, more dense and debilitating each time, if she was barely making it to her car before the tears came hot and fast, what of it? She was ignoring the cows. She was managing.

And that was the state of her life when Danny called Eri about spending the weekend with him and Vivian at his family’s cabin in the mountains. It was a trip they made frequently, often with several of the many friends Danny and Vivian had accumulated over their years together. But something was different this time; Eri heard it in the subtle, electric thrill speeding up Danny’s voice. “I was thinking we could hike the Bridal Veil Falls trail, have a picnic at the top, and then relax awhile before dinner. How does steak and a cabernet sound?”

Steak and red wine? “Delicious,” Eri said. “What’s the occasion?”

Danny laughed jubilantly, confirming her suspicions. “Just promise me you’ll take pictures, okay?”

“Of course,” Eri answered, then said her goodbyes.

She wasn’t surprised when she saw the cows’ suffering bodies through her window, a plea in their eyes like they thought she could undo their state of famine. Anger, irrational and sharp, flashed through her. You stupid cows, she thought. How do you expect me to fill your hunger when I can’t fill my own?


Eri, Vivian and Danny hike to Bridal Veil Falls under a brilliant sky. The air is fresh and crisp, invigorated with the scent of pine needles; the trail crunches with rocks and twigs, foliage brushing their knees. It’s a sublime morning, like nature itself is smiling on Danny and Vivian. Eri feels sick.

Danny and Vivian walk hand in hand while Eri follows close behind. She glimpses the cows through the trees every few yards but gives them little attention; she’d be more surprised, today of all days, if they weren’t hovering.

“Hey Eri,” Vivian calls over her shoulder, “did you ever give your number to that cute barista you told me about?”

Eri flushes but keeps her voice level. “I don’t think he’s interested.” She doesn’t particularly feel like telling the entire truth — how, pale and trembling, she’d written her number on a napkin and shoved it at the barista who made her coffee each morning, and how, with a pitying smile, he’d promptly handed it back to her and said, “Sorry, sweetheart, you’re not really my type.”

“He never texted you? Is he blind?” Vivian says, indignant on her behalf. “I’m sorry, Er. But you definitely deserve better than a guy who can’t see what’s in front of him.”

“Thanks,” Eri says, but she’s thinking how Vivian, with her swaying hips and easy confidence, would’ve gotten much more than a simple text. 

They reach Bridal Veil Falls by noon, named for the gauzy, delicate stream tumbling over a sheer cliffside. Vivian moves towards it, but Danny hangs back, giving Eri a significant look. When Vivian turns around, they’re both ready: Danny on one knee, ring box open, and Eri frantically snapping pictures on her phone, afraid of losing one priceless second.

However Danny imagined this proposal, Eri is certain that Vivian  — with her joyous gasp, widening eyes, and hands over her mouth — exceeds all his expectations. Danny’s voice is husky with emotion. “My center of gravity shifted the night I met you. Every day since then, I’ve thought I couldn’t get any happier, and every day, you’ve proved me wrong. You astonish me, Viv, with your passion, your empathy, and your strength. And I can’t fathom spending my life with anyone else. Vivian —” He momentarily chokes, eyes glistening. “Vivian Rachel Stewart, I love you with everything I am. Will you do me the tremendous honor of being my wife?”

Tears run freely down Vivian’s face, rivaling the falls behind her. “Yes,” she finally manages. “More than I can ever say, yes!”

And then Danny is slipping the ring on her finger, they’re both laughing and crying and kissing til they can’t breathe, and Eri is thrilled for them — life is so exquisite sometimes, it’s so extraordinary when people choose each other — but she knows what’s next for her. The pressure is building, the cracks are widening; the dam breaks, and there it is, the inevitable rush of darkness in her chest. Not for you. Never for you. She’d known her happiness for them, sincere as it is, could not be unadulterated. She’d known the riptide of her wanting would not care how important the day or how significant the event.

They celebrate over a picnic lunch, the mood as effervescent as the champagne Danny brought for the occasion. They’re about to start the trek back when Danny pulls Vivian close, staring at her with profound, infinite hunger — the kind of hunger that doesn’t gnaw a person to their bones at night, Eri thinks, the kind of hunger that gives and doesn’t take.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Vivian says with a laugh, stroking his cheek. “You made sure of that.”

“I know,” Danny says, “I just never want to forget what you looked like when you agreed to be mine forever.”

Vivian’s face softens with a depth of emotion beyond Eri’s experience; and then they’re kissing again, more fervently this time, but more reverently, too, like they both can’t quite believe that this unspeakably precious person exists and is theirs. 

The cows seem closer on the way down the trail, more present somehow. They’re not flickering in and out of sight, Eri realizes; rather, they’re plodding steadily along beside her, though they keep to the edges of the trees. The change doesn’t sit well with her, small as it is. But her friends’ newly-engaged bliss is as dazzling as Vivian’s diamond in the sunlight, and she so desperately wants to be part of that brightness, to let it sear away her shadows, and so what if the cows are a bit nearer? She will not let them ruin this happiness for Vivian and Danny, she decides, even if they must ruin it for herself.

They reach the cabin and there are phone calls to be made, social media statuses to be updated. Eri sends the pictures to Vivian and Danny, then listens from the couch as the two ecstatically share the news with everyone in their wide, wide circle. The cows return to where they stood that morning — no, Eri sees, they’re a few yards closer. It unsettles her more than she likes, even more so as the afternoon passes and they’re still there, hour after hour. The knot in her stomach tightens. They’ve never stayed so long, even on the weekends when Vivian had more requests for dates than time to go on them, even through the months in which she told Eri all the technicolor details of falling in love with Danny.

She tries to ignore them, but it’s like the cows’ proximity is making her chest collapse, amplifying the darkness and its insidious croon in her ears. You will never be proposed to. You will never wear someone’s ring, you will never thrill someone with the word “yes.” You will never call everyone you know to tell them that it’s finally happening for you. These aren’t new thoughts, certainly not new feelings; but damn if they’re not more potent than ever before, digging their claws into the soft flesh of her lungs, chewing through her heart valves with ghastly, grinning teeth.

She forces herself to focus on Vivian, who’s dreamily listing off ideas for the wedding. “We’re thinking late spring or early summer of next year. We want an outdoor ceremony — around here, maybe, or in a garden. I haven’t quite settled on the colors, but I’m leaning towards pastel pink and pale gold. And roses to match, on every table and in my bouquet…” She sighs with a smile on her lips, eyes half closed; then they fly open with a delighted gasp. “Will you be my maid of honor?” She grabs Eri’s hand. “You’re the only sister I’ve ever had. Please? It would mean the world to me.”

“Of course I will,” Eri says, a bubble of warmth momentarily disrupting the darkness. How can she deny Vivian anything when her face is so earnest?

“Thank you, Eri!” Vivian pulls her into a hug. “And when it’s your turn, I hope you’ll let me return the favor.”

The bubble immediately bursts. The darkness screeches angrily, gouging bloody trenches through her chest. She mocks you, she pities you, she knows you will never be chosen and she resents the burden of your ugliness, your uselessness, your not wanted-ness —

Eri abruptly pulls back, startling Vivian. “Er? Are you alright?”

“Just a little tired,” Eri says with a weak smile. “I think I’ll go lie down for a bit before dinner.”

Vivian relaxes. “I might do that, too. I’ll get you when Danny starts the steaks, okay?”

“Okay,” Eri agrees, then retreats to her room. She pulls down the blinds, shutting out the cows’ soulless, haunted stares. She flips off the lights, lets the air still around her. Then she sinks to the floor, head pressed to her knees, fingers wound through her hair, and shudders with the effort of pulling herself back from an edge that feels dangerously like madness.


The cabernet is delectable, the steaks grilled to tender perfection. Danny lays a white tablecloth and lights candles and puts a red rose in a vase between his and Vivian’s plates. There’s a third plate, too, on Vivian’s right, and Eri feels like a rather unattractive wall fixture as she dutifully fills the space they’ve made for her.

To Danny and Vivian’s credit, though, they include her in the conversation, insisting she be present. Eri tries to welcome the distraction, but the corners of her mouth feel weighted with lead.

Fortunately, they’re too wrapped up in discussing their wedding party to notice if her smile is less than sincere. “Your brothers and their wives, of course,” Vivian says, and Danny agrees emphatically. “And Amy and Jared, they’ve been good friends to us. Perhaps Lauren and Jaycee, too?”

“Garret, Tyler, and Kyle,” Danny says, naming his childhood best friends. “You met them and their girlfriends on our Malibu trip last summer, remember?”

“Yeah, they were a lot of fun,” Vivian says. “And you met Matt and Scott when they came through town a few months ago, right? They just tied the knot themselves, maybe they’d have photographer recommendations…”

On and on they go, swapping names and relationships like they’re as abundant as air, like lovers are picked as easily as flowers. Smoke is filling Eri’s lungs, shortening her breath and blurring her vision and the darkness is louder, louder, louder every moment. They will never say, “Eri and someone.” You will always be their only single friend, they will always have to fit in your one around their twos. You will only ever fill in their backgrounds, you will always be a side character in their story —

As if reading her thoughts, Vivian pipes up with, “Don’t worry, Er. You can bring whoever you like as a plus-one.” She smiles playfully. “Who knows? There’s plenty of time between now and the wedding for you to meet someone special.”

The darkness roars. Eri stands abruptly, running for the bathroom. She’s going to be sick.

She barely hears Vivian’s concerned “Eri?” or the bathroom door slamming shut behind her. There’s only the toilet’s gaping mouth and the harsh overhead lights, the violent hacking that shreds her throat as she vomits again and again — more than she’d eaten for dinner, more than should fit in her body, she’s sure. And there’s the darkness thundering relentlessly through her, taunting her with flashes of Vivian’s sparkling eyes and teasing lips. You insult her with your presence, you degrade her with your plainness. She was born to be chosen, and how dare you exist next to her? Not for you, never for you, never and never and always alone…

When the wet, shuddering retches finally stop, Eri kneels over the toilet, gasping and trembling and leaking tears from the corners of her eyes. A gentle knock sounds against the door, followed by Vivian’s voice. “Eri? Are you alright? Oh hon, I’m so sorry. I should have realized earlier that you weren’t feeling well.”

Eri isn’t listening, though. She’s staring at the toilet bowl’s contents with a sort of detached bemusement, because whatever she threw up doesn’t remotely resemble Danny’s cooking. It’s viscous and disturbingly black, floating on top of the water like oil. She wonders if anything she ate is the culprit, but immediately dismisses that idea. She wonders if she’s caught some kind of rare disease, but dismisses that idea, too. Perhaps she already knows; perhaps that’s why she’s not surprised when she looks in the mirror.

The darkness coats her lips and chin, dripping onto her neck. The tears have left gray tracks over her cheeks; her hair’s taken on a grubby cast. Her skin is sickly white, her veins starkly blue and violet. And her eyes — sunken, bruised, and damningly black — shine hunger-bright and pain-mad, just like the cows’.

Eri falls backwards with a hysterical giggle. Just like the cows, she looks just like the cows now. She glimpses her teeth in the mirror and bares them for a closer look — each one filed to blade-sharp points, each one slick with the tarry substance. Her laughter doubles. Her darkness is visible, it’s bursting out of her, and isn’t it grand to finally be worth noticing? What will Vivian and Danny say when they’re not the most striking people in the room?

Vivian’s knocks become more insistent. “Eri, please, talk to me. Are you alright? Do you need anything?”

Eri stumbles to her feet, not bothering to flush the toilet or wash her mouth. Let Vivian and Danny see all her monstrous glory, let her be undeniable, just this once. She opens the door with a sense of impending triumph — and is entirely unprepared for Vivian to not so much as flinch. “Hey, I was getting worried about you. Are you feeling any better? Do you think it was something you ate?”

Eri stares at her numbly, her tongue supplying an automatic response. “No, it wasn’t anything I ate.” Vivian still doesn’t see her. Not the aching, not the cows, not the darkness literally ejecting itself from her body — she’s still just Eri, still just a supporting cast member in Vivian’s life, and why is she never more than that? Why does Vivian get to eat and drink freely while she starves?

The darkness rises with ugly vengeance; but instead of expelling itself through her mouth, it drops to her stomach and bottoms out. Eri is no stranger to wanting. She’s felt every shade of longing known to lonely girls; she has always been more intimate with desire itself than with any person. But this — this. This is a freefall through Tartarus; this is violence on her belly, in her blood. This is a hunger so wild it will eat all the guests if it’s barred from the feast, and Eri is no longer pulling back from the edge. She’s throwing herself over it.

“I asked Danny to put the kettle on,” Vivian is saying. “I thought some ginger tea might settle —”

“I don’t need tea,” Eri snaps, staggering past her. “I’m hungry.”

“Hungry?” Vivian says, following her. “Er, you just threw up your guts. Are you sure food is a good idea right now?”

“I’m hungry,” Eri insists. She lurches into the kitchen and Danny turns from his place at the stove, smiling sympathetically. “Hey, how are you feeling? Viv said you —”

“Get out of my way.” Eri shoves past his stupid, sloppy smile and reaches for the well-stocked snack cabinet. Granola bars, trail mix, jerky — she tastes nothing, just tears off wrappers and rips open packages as fast as her shaking hands can manage. The granola bars go down in two bites or less, the trail mix is gulped like water, the jerky is swallowed in unchewed chunks. Hunger. Hunger. Hunger. She trembles with its ferocity, nearly doubling over as it stabs her again and again. How can any living thing, human or beast, feel this and still exist? How can her heart keep beating, how can her lungs simply push and pull air?

She’s vaguely aware of Danny and Vivian standing behind her in shocked silence, a little more than friendly concern in their expressions now. Outside, the cows stamp and toss their heads, lowing one after another with increasing agitation. They cast long, skeletal shadows in the fading light, and Eri wonders if her body will eat itself, too, if her bones will eventually join the cows’ mad chorus.

She sweeps the snacks aside in disgust — they’re only worsening the hunger, offending it with their pathetic attempts to satisfy. She needs something… meatier. Rawer.

Eri stumbles to the refrigerator, scattering plastic and half-eaten refuse as she moves. It seems to snap Danny out of his reverie, since he steps closer and places a hand on her arm. “Eri, please. You’re not well. You —”

“Don’t touch me,” Eri snarls, yanking her arm away, and she doesn’t miss how her voice doesn’t sound fully human, how Danny and Vivian flinch backwards with wide eyes. Can they see her darkness now?

But it doesn’t matter anymore if they can or if they can’t. She flings the fridge door open, pawing desperately through its contents for something, anything, to staunch the cataclysmic hemorrhaging in her gut. There — an uncooked steak, bright and red as a blood moon. She grabs it with both hands and tears into it with feral vehemence.

“E-Eri,” Vivian stutters, sounding well and truly frightened now, “what’s wrong with you? Please, tell us how to help.”

Eri slams the fridge shut. She’s devoured everything worth offering up to the hunger and still it rages through her innards, savage in its wanting. Her eyes dart desperately from cabinet to cabinet, fingers winding through her hair. There’s more food here, there has to be, the hunger is barbaric and brutal and screaming and screaming —

“Eri.” Danny cuts steadily through her panicked thoughts. “Take some deep breaths. Everything will be all right.” He holds his hands out like he’s approaching a rabid animal. “We’re your friends, remember? We want to help you.”

A harsh, choking sound fills the kitchen, and Eri realizes it’s her broken-glass laughter. “Of course you’re my friends. All I’ve ever had is friends.” And then she’s yanking cupboards open and ripping out drawers, shattering their contents against the tile floor, hurling silverware and measuring cups and that idiotic kettle put on to boil as if some damn tea could fill a void deep as her lifetime. She thinks a window breaks; she thinks the cows’ bellows grow louder; she thinks she’s on her hands and knees, swallowing anything that will fit into her mouth. Plastic packaging, scraps of paper, ceramic shards — let her bruise, let her bleed, just let the hunger be filled, just let the screaming stop —

Thick arms wrap around her from behind. Danny hauls her to her feet, shouting, “Viv, call 911! She’s hurting herself!”

Eri thrashes in his grip as Vivian shakily dials. “P-please help, it’s my friend. She’s having some kind of m-mental breakdown, we need an ambulance…”

“Eri, please, please,” Danny breathes in her ear, over and over. “It’s me, it’s Danny, I’m your friend —”

With startling, sudden strength, Eri twists hard and throws Danny off. He trips backwards and catches himself against the table, and Vivian whimpers into the phone, “Please hurry.”

Danny straightens slowly, storm clouds gathering on his face. “Eri, that is enough.” All gentleness is gone, replaced by what Eri immediately recognizes as fierce protectiveness of Vivian. She’s aware, too, of the furious thunder of Danny’s heartbeat; the fleshy balloons of his lungs, their rapid in-out, in-out like fists tightening and relaxing; the rich, salty meat of his muscles and the organs quivering hotly beneath them. There’s blood in her mouth, she realizes, and the hunger likes it. The hunger demands it.

Quicker than thought, quicker than breath, Eri lunges at Danny. The darkness surges, giving her claws, and she sinks them into the soft tissues of his belly.

Vivian screams. Danny gasps, a terrible, retching sound. His eyes are bright with betrayal, and Eri almost feels triumph — finally, she’ll be the last person someone thinks of before they fall asleep — but in the same moment, he defies her by turning to Vivian as he collapses. “Vivian,” he murmurs, reaching for her, “my Vivian.” 

And then he’s gone, and Vivian is shrieking hysterically, her phone on the floor and the operator’s words hanging uselessly in the air, and Eri is trembling because even in her supremacy, it’s still her dearest friend he notices, it’s still her he chooses. When Vivian runs at her with unhinged fists and wild eyes, Eri sends her flying without a twinge of remorse, merely watching as she hits the opposite wall and slumps into unconsciousness. 

But the hunger doesn’t let her dwell on any anger. The feast is laid out, she’s a guest at the table, and she tears open Danny’s stomach — no need for Vivian’s fearlessness now — to begin. The intestines are slick and syrupy, the kidneys sweet and sour, the liver a fatty treat; she gorges on his innards with relish, and though the hunger is by no means silenced, it’s quieted to a manageable purr. The relief is euphoric, and Eri wonders what else the hunger might reward her with. Does the secret of what men look for in women lie somewhere between Danny’s spleen and pancreas? Is it in how his gallbladder bursts with sour bile on her tongue? Will she learn, in the crack of his bones and the taste of his marrow, how to be desirable?

Eventually, Eri plucks out his heart  — the obvious place to get answers, but perhaps not the incorrect one — and sinks her teeth into it like a ripe plum, the juices flowing past her mouth and down her neck. But though his lifeblood is a fine wine in her throat, though pleasure shivers through her skin, no new knowledge strikes her mind, no lightning obliterates her solitary existence.

She keeps digging, then, through lungs and ligaments and arteries, through veins and nerves and glands. Will she find what she’s looking for in the vocal cords that spoke such sweet love to Vivian? In the eyes that never left her, the ears fine-tuned to her every inflection? In the brain saturated with her face, her scent, her touch?

At last Eri lifts her gore-streaked mouth. It’s not enough. She’s chewed the best of Danny’s flesh, left only gristle and bone, and still the hunger demands more, becoming louder every second she doesn’t feed it. Outside, the cows are writhing and wailing — otherworldly sounds, the kind no animal has any right to make — and Eri raises her voice with theirs, an inhuman howl she shouldn’t be capable of producing. It’s happening, she’s joined the mad chorus, and is this the sum total of living? Mania and suffering and hunger, always, always the hunger?

A soft moan draws her attention — Vivian is stirring. She blinks blearily, wincing as she tests her limbs and slowly stands. Eri doesn’t move, slathered in blood and viscera. She sees the moment Vivian registers the wreckage, the carnage, Danny’s carcass and Eri beside it. She watches as Vivian gasps, doubles over, spills tears in a dark parody of her earlier joy. She studies how Vivian’s lips open first for a scream that doesn’t come, then for violent, earth-shattering sobs — sobs like the sun has gone out, like the stars have been cut from the sky. And that’s when Eri swells with triumph, because Vivian finally, finally feels hunger.

Vivian sinks to her knees, her cries rising to a fever pitch. “Why, why, why?” The words slur into a high-pitched keening. “Why would you do this, why?”

Eri watches her for a long, resentful moment. “Because there are people like you who are wanted,” she says. “By men, by women, by everyone. And there are people like me —” she laughs harshly “— who do the wanting.”

Vivian is hyperventilating now, eyes darting from Eri to the door to the jagged edges and kitchen utensils strewn around her. Whatever she’s about to attempt, the hunger will get there first — it’s boiling in Eri’s belly, choking her chest and mouth, and she should be angry that nothing sates it, but the terrible truth is that she enjoyed butchering Danny and she’ll enjoy this, too. The darkness swells, her fingers are claws, and then they’re sheathed in Vivian’s chest.

She hears Vivian’s last gasps, smells her sweat and blood and the perfume that was a gift from Danny; she sees the shock and betrayal on Vivian’s face — and the sudden surge of love, right before she fades. “Eri,” she whispers, “my Eri…” And then she, too, is gone, and Eri is left with the bittersweet taste of receiving her wish.

The hunger hums as she consumes Vivian’s body, content as long as it’s gnawing through muscle and fat and bone; but Eri knows now that Vivian’s death will mean no more than Danny’s. When she reaches Vivian’s heart, she bites eagerly into its ripe flesh, but there are no secrets here, either, no siphoning of Vivian’s charm and beauty. Just the carrion stench of death, and whatever monstrosity she’s become.

Only when it’s over, all too soon, does Eri hear how the cows’ unearthly bellows have become agonized screams. She crawls from Vivian’s husk to the window and drags herself up, just enough to see through the broken glass — to see massive, bleeding chunks missing from the cows’ shoulders and haunches. They’re tearing into each other, she realizes, thrashing and mauling, but she’s unsure if their frenzy is driven more by the pain of being devoured or by the desperation to devour anything, no matter how unnatural. 

She looks at herself, then, at her scrawny limbs and sunken stomach. There’s meat and marrow here, too, she thinks, and viscera for the taking. 

She could wait; police cars and an ambulance are undoubtedly making their way up the canyon right now, carrying fresh food. But the hunger doesn’t want to wait. And maybe she doesn’t, either.

So Eri slumps backwards, into the slaughter, into the hunger, and lifts an arm to her mouth. She feels nothing, just blood bursting on her tongue and a pleasant chewiness between her teeth. And when that’s swallowed, she tears off more. 

“I’m so hungry,” she murmurs around skin and bone. “I’m so, so hungry…”

Marie Brown is the pseudonym for a writer in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her former and forthcoming publication credits include Hole In The Head Review, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Agape Review, The Ocotillo Review, Fleas on the Dog, Thimble Literary Magazine and KAIROS Literary Journal.

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

“Second-hand Skin” Dark Fantasy by Susan Oke

VM: Spring Bank 

16 May 2025 (04:51)

They say it was solar flares that did it. That changed us. But since when did the sun or radiation or whatever turn your clothes into your skin? Maybe it really was God teaching us a lesson, or the Devil having a bit of fun.

And no, we didn’t wake up like this. It wasn’t a midnight, cosmic ray revelation. It was bright and sunny, blue sky, birds singing––perfect for a lazy day off work. There I was mooching about in my onesie, trying to decide if I could be bothered to make toast, when it happened. 11:06. There’s one of those digital clocks on the cooker. I remember staring at it as my skin itched into fur. Black lines cut across my chest, black bobbly bits sprouting up like scattered currants. Don’t know what the ‘bandolier’ is for, but it tickles when I touch it.

You guessed it yet? That’s right, I’m one of the Onesie Losers. A knock-off Wookiee to be precise. My flatmate, Sophie, is a pink unicorn, complete with a surprisingly sharp horn, and her boyfriend is a big bad wolf. I’m just glad my onesie didn’t have a hood or a tail. Still got my own spiky chestnut hair and nail-bitten hands, but my feet are thick-furred, thick-soled and clawed. Saves on footwear, right? Might have to skip my next pedicure—joke! Do you know how many different onesies there are? I didn’t. Forget all the cuddly predators, we’ve got everything from Elmer Fudd to the Dark Lord wandering the streets. 

Onesie Losers for sure.

So, this is me, pacing the bare floorboards of my flat, checking out the street below every time I pass my curtain-less windows—let’s face it, fibres, synthetic or otherwise, aren’t exactly popular these days—recording my thoughts on this crappy phone. It’s supposed to help keep me sane, or so says the latest government guidelines. Worth a try. 

Ah, there they go. Our local clutter of bug-eyed midget spidermen, chasing each other across the bonnets of abandoned cars on their way to the park. At least kids still know how to have fun.

The Dog-Collars claim—no, not the ones who got caught in spiky collars and leather shorts, the other type, you know, all clerical and that––they claim we got what we deserved. They’re busy calling for everyone to repent, filling their churches with people on their knees wailing for forgiveness. I gave it a try—yeah, I was that desperate—sat on the back row, watching them Dog-Collars swishing around the pews like a murder of crows. Read that in a book somewhere or was it a Sting lyric? But crows is about right, carrion crows. People fool enough go into those churches don’t always come out again. Me, I’d rather trust them in the spiky collars, at least that’s a kind of truth, laid bare for all to see. 

We’ve all got our crosses to bear. That’s one of Ma’s favourite sayings, or at least it used to be. In those first weeks, everyone was wild-eyed crazy. Looking for something or someone to blame. Turns out there were monstrosities even us monsters couldn’t abide. The Slug-a-Beds and Couch-Potatoes didn’t last long, ripped to shreds or starved out. Still makes me shiver. If it’d happened on a Saturday morning instead of a weekday, that would’ve been me melded to my duvet or whatever. Freakshow free-for-all, that’s what they called it on social media. Afterwards, the Suits declared the slaughter ‘a necessary culling’.

Gives us a lie to hide behind, I guess.

Those of us still left look near enough human: head, arms, legs all in the right places. Some of us are lucky enough to have our own clans, but most are odd-ball unique. I mean, all I’ve got to contend with is fur and my freaky ‘bandolier’. Most of you out there, with your skirts and scarves; trousers and boots; jackets, hoodies and hats. All part of your body. All performing some kind of function. All freaking different.

It’s kind of gross when you think about it.

The Suits did some things right. Got the power on and the networks back up. Social media rallied, reformed, let us hook up with our own kind. As of now, there are 2,305 Wook-alikes scattered across England, Scotland and Wales. We don’t hear much from across the water. Just snippets about riots in Europe. Word is Northern Ireland got swallowed up by their southern neighbour in the ‘Change’. That’s what the Suits call it. Not panic/carnage/end-of-the-world chaos that trashed streets/cities/lives. Yeah, the Suits haven’t changed much. All those idiots in suit-and-tie at 11:06 on a Wednesday morning, making their announcements twice a day on the single working tv channel. It’s OK until you spot their ties twitching, like cocks trying to poke you in the eye while they ejaculate rhetoric on the New Order.

Speaking of which, time to check ReBuild. The new government app glitches half the time, but it’s the only way to get paid work. It’s full of adverts for volunteers to help in the search for a cure. No way I’m signing up to be prodded and poked by their ‘teams of dedicated researchers’. Don’t care how much they pay.

VM: Walton Street

18 May 2025 (03:29)

On my way to work. The usual building site grunt job—the fur came with muscles. Not many office-type jobs available these days, and even if there was, no way a Wook-alike would get a sniff. The Suits and Skirts have got the cushy jobs nailed.

Surprised at the number of people out and about this early. Glad I’m not the only one muttering into their phone. We’re all hanging on by the skin of our teeth/nails/claws. 

The local market looks busy. You know the one, down Walton Street, used to be a huge carpark? They call it a market, but really it’s just a sprawling patchwork of wooden pallets piled with junk. You never know what you’ll find amongst the looted belongings of the poor sods who never made it. Not clothes, though. Never clothes. When the Change hit, some tried covering up with coats and scarves and the like, ended up with a whole new layer of weird to their bodies. I see them sometimes, shuffling around. I was lucky—bolted straight out the door, never thought to grab my coat or anything else.

I miss my combat boots, my jeans, t-shirts, all of it. But clothes are an ‘anathema’ or so says every social media feed. Street bonfires devoured every last scrap. That was all right, had an almost party feel to it, helped bring what was left of the community back together. But then all that outrage turned outwards: clothes shops, shoe shops, charity shops, they were the first to go, burned to the ground by jeering crowds, egged on by clergy-types shouting about sin and the devil. You know how it went down. One thing led to another, until, when everyone stopped to take a breath and look around, nothing much was left.

There’s a real mix scavenging around the market today. The Aprons are all right. Just got to be careful, they’ve got a real stinger in those apron-strings of theirs. The PJ Brigade are a pain-the-backside, swanning around in silks and satin, with their brushed-cotton hangers-on. A group of Party Girls had just sashayed in—not as rare as you’d think at 11:06 on a Wednesday morning—it’s worth stopping for a look. All that skin, real skin, the skin we remember, on show. Don’t get me wrong, they can look after themselves. It’s something to do with the way they smell. When you’re up close, breathing in that warm, soft scent, they’re the ones calling the shots.

That’s not true for the Skins. Naked as the day they were born. Yeah, we still say that. Rare, they are. Kept safe. Kept secure. Fed, watered, admired. Put on show. People––I guess you can still call us people––pay to have a look, maybe touch, if you can afford it, just to remember what all-over skin is supposed to feel like, you know? 

I paid up, once. Made me cry.

Better get a move on. The foreman goes ballistic if any of us ‘fur balls’ are late. At least I’ve got my Wook-alike clan—online and now in my flat. Didn’t take long for Sophie to move out; not to share her gruff wolf’s lair, no way, but to find her ‘soul-mates’, aka other pink, fluffy unicorns with killer horns. Go figure. A couple of Wook-alikes, Havel and his partner Kofi, moved into her room. Real nerds, the both of them. Into all that Star Wars stuff. Spend half their time complaining about their fur: it’s not long enough, not shaggy enough, blah, blah, blah. It was a onesie, idiots. Be happy with your soft, curly fuzz. I got my onesie from a charity shop, bought it because it was cheap and promised to be warm. 

Just realised, does that mean I’ve got second-hand skin? Keeping that to myself.

VM: Spring Bank 2

25 May 2025 (01:38)

It’s been a week. Supposed to record something every day, that’s what they said, ‘process your emotions’, or some such rubbish. Well, I’ve got emotions a plenty to process right now.

I’m still sweating, heart thumping, on a proper high. Pacing my room, trying to settle. Havel and Kofi aren’t helping. I can hear them shouting at each other in the living room… something about a ‘Sky Walker’ and ‘trouble’. Well, I had trouble of my own. I was down the market, just rifling through a box of reclaimed phones, wondering if I could afford to upgrade, when I heard shouting from the market gate. A handful of the Lost were trying force their way past the two Wook-alike guards.

The Lost are too weird even for the Goths and the Punks: all writhing chains and those stupid 3-D t-shirts: fanged mouths drooling where your chest is supposed to be is never a good look. If I had my way, I’d call them the Eaters, but another group snapped up that title, obvs. 

The Lost charged the gate. I stepped in to help my Wook-alike brothers, or possibly sisters; it’s hard to tell. Chains lashed out, trying to pin my arms. I dragged the grinning youth straight into a jaw-crunching punch. The guards slapped down a couple more. Shoulder-to-shoulder, we snarled at the Lost. A full-chested, throat-ripping, roaring kind of snarl. It felt great. The Lost backed off, shouting and swearing.

 I never used to snarl, the urge crept up on me, just like the muscles.

No army patrol near the market. A stroke of luck, that. All those soldiers stuck in their green-and-browns, marching around, shouting orders, like they’re in charge. Well, OK, they are in charge, or at least they do whatever the Suits tell them. They stopped the looting, I guess. If requisitioning everything that’s not bolted down counts as ‘keeping the nation safe’.

VM: Spring Bank 3

1 June 2025 (05:34)

Now that I think of it, Star Wars has a lot to answer for. We’ve got a bunch of Jedi-types swaggering about, calling out the Vaders and generally making trouble. They’ve got their own territory around Bank Side. Havel and Kofi go there sometimes, they say it’s great, that they really fit in. Me, I’m not too sure. Don’t like the half-wild, half-desperate look in their eyes when they stagger back in the early hours. The Vaders are different, keep themselves to themselves. I guess they know how it’s going to go down if they tangle with the Jedi-types. I’m keeping clear of the lot of them. That’s not for me, whatever ‘that’ is. 

For once I’m following my ma’s advice: best keep off the streets at night.

Speaking of my ma—was I in for a surprise. Back when it first happened, when the panic took hold and I poured boiling water from the kettle over my hand just to prove to myself I was dreaming. I wasn’t. When I’d stopped screaming and ripping away clumps of fur, all I wanted was to run back home. I tore out of the house, racing through grid-locked streets, past smashed up piles of smoking wreckage. You remember that, right? It’s all a bit of a blur now—still gets to me sometimes, mostly at night, or if I doze off, or anytime I close my eyes for more than five seconds: that beetles-under-the-skin sensation, heart hammering fit to burst, hot-needles in the back of your eyes. You looked in the mirror expecting to see blood running down your cheeks and found a monster staring back at you. 

Soz, we’ve all been there. 

Right, my ma. Well, I gets there, battering at her door like I’ll cave it in, and she opens it with a ‘what’s all the fuss about?’. At first she looks no different: flowery skirt, old cardigan that she knitted herself, hairnet to keep her perm in place. I step inside, sobbing. She steps back, gives my onesie a critical once-over. Her skirt ripples around her knees and keeps right on rippling; the cable-stitch in her cardi pulses, like fat veins full of blood; when she frowns, her hairnet flexes. But it’s her glasses that really freak me out, frames twisting as the lenses contract and expand, magnifying the contempt that I’d tried all my life not to see. And then she says it: ‘I’ll not have your kind under my roof.’

I was eighteen when she threw me out, with the ‘no daughter of mine…’ speech shouted in my face. Came home to find all my clothes in black bin liners by the front door. Couch-surfed for a while; finally got a flat-share, a crappy office job, a bit of space of my own, you know, where I can think. And then, Wham! I’m a Wook-alike. I still squat to pee. No tits though, not that I had much to start with. Like I said, the fur came with muscle, everything else just kind of flattened out. I don’t miss them, if that’s what you think. It’s just… it’d be nice to know for sure, you know? 

I’ve never felt like a girl. Never felt like a boy, either. 

I was a freak before the Change hit.

It’s gone quiet in the living room. Either the boys have gone out, or they’re in their room, busy making up. Safe enough to take up my post at the living room window…

…Yes, there she is. I love to watch as this woman—the big, chunky type, her new ‘skin’ all green and gold, sun-on-leaves, that’s what it reminds me of––I love to watch as she goes through her daily routine. When the Change hit, she must’ve been wearing a square-necked and short-sleeved top with a skirt that went straight down to her ankles. She glides along the pavement, feet criss-crossed with gold, toes peeping out. I envy her all that lovely black skin on her arms. Every day she moves up and down the street, on the sunny side, stopping here and there, before settling into place. I think maybe she’s looking for someone. Closing her eyes, she smiles up at the sun, her head-tie unfolding like a sleepy cat, spreading out into a green-and-gold halo. It shivers and shimmers and the woman smiles even wider, and I smile back even though she can’t see me. Joy just seems to burst out of her. 

A Sun Sipper, according to Havel. Seen it on the news, he said. She was so happy, I said. Just wait until winter hits, he said. And then Kofi started going on about all the freaks that dodged the culling, that it was about time someone did something about it. I don’t get it. I mean, has he looked in the mirror lately? 

We’re not supposed to say ‘monster’ or ‘freak’ or ‘weirdo’ anymore. The Suits say we’re all the same underneath, that everyone should receive equal and fair treatment, and more importantly, that everyone should work equally hard. They’re always banging on about it:

<We must pull together to save our country. To save the world! Anti-social behaviour will be stamped out.> Cue gif of military boot. 

And pics like: Suit kisses cute tiger cub; Suits-with-fixed-grins linking arms with members of the Lost; and my favourite, Suits surrounded by a pack of growling Old Biddies as they hand out food parcels. 

We’re all the same underneath. I guess that’s true. Still as bigoted and mean as ever. OK, not totally fair. But not far off, either. I’m still waiting for that ‘silver lining’ Ma used to harp on about every time I used to gripe. Maybe she finally got hers. I mean, she’s not exactly house-bound anymore. Those Old Biddies really get about, lurking in groups of two or three on street corners, cackling at passers-by.

VM: Spring Bank 4

10 June 2025 (00:59)

Whispers of a so-called ‘cure’ are doing the rounds. Not the crazy claims that circulated in the first few weeks and months, but stories about underground labs and cutting-edge science. Their strapline is popping up all over the place: ‘Shed your skin. Find the real you.’ 

Not sure which of those two options is the most terrifying.

Posts on ReBuild insist there’s no cure. Or if there is, it’s years off. Accept your lot. Work hard. Pull together. Might’ve believed it if the Suits didn’t keep contradicting each other. Don’t see them pulling together or working up a sweat on a filthy building-site. 

I put my shifts in and keep my mouth shut. The actual construction workers, with their hi-vis skin, like to shout and lord it over us ‘fur balls’. But they don’t push it too far, not since one of them had his yellow bobble-head popped off by, as a newscaster put it, ‘a deeply offended Wook-alike’. The Jedi-types stumped up bail and the Wook-alike walked.

 The Army stomped around a bit, but eventually gave up. After all, us ‘fur balls’ all look alike.

VM: Spring Bank 5

17 June 2025 (01:08)

It’s all over the news! A Cure! An actual Cure! Not for us, but for the next generation. The news presenter is grinning ear-to-ear… have a listen: 

‘All type-1 females of child-bearing age will be pinged with an appointment to attend a pop-up clinic in their area. The vaccine, which will need to be administered every six-months, will ensure that all babies are be born as God intended.’

Hey, shift over. Can’t believe how much space you two take up. Come on, Havel, scrunch up a bit. 

‘Look at the newscaster’s tie, it’s going to get stuck up his nose any second!’

Shh, the pair of you, I want to catch this last bit:

‘Time to save the world, ladies. Go forth and multiply!’

Get those stupid grins off your faces. Yes, you Havel. And you Kofi. I swear, if you two could have kids, there’d been little bundles of fur toddling all over the flat. No, I don’t want a hug. I’m going to my room… I said, no!

[Slam!] Idiots. 

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not their fault. Wook-alikes count as type-1. I should be happy, right? According to the scientists there’s enough of us with ‘matching genitalia’ to make inter-breeding doable. When the Change hit, it was bad. I know that. Women miscarried; babies died. Like I said, end-of-the-world stuff. But we’re still here. I’m still here. And there’s no way they’re turning me into some sort of baby factory. 

VM: Spring Bank 6

30 June 2025 (00:16)

I’ve been ignoring the pings. And the stack of reminders. I’m tempted to delete the ReBuild app, but then how will I get work? Can’t avoid the news, though. There are posters plastered everywhere: on rusted fences, the sides of buildings, on crumbling bus shelters. 

I don’t know what to do.

VM: Spring Bank 7

5 July 2025 (00:21)

The boys were cuddled up watching re-runs when the programme cut-off for an emergency announcement: As of midnight, Sunday, only females fully committed to the ‘Babies for the World’ scheme would have access to ReBuild support circles, job boards and the sketchy but still crucial health clinics. 

I stomped around the flat, punched a new dent into our crappy chrome table. It didn’t help.

VM: Princes Avenue

19 July 2025 (00:31)

Last night, Havel came home alone. Seems Kofi decided to stay with the Jedi-types. Havel sniffled and then cried in my lap. Kofi was the love of his life, Kofi was a two-timing traitor, Kofi was this and Kofi was that. I’d started to tune it all out when Havel swiped his tongue along my ‘bandolier’. Nipples I didn’t know I had hardened in unexpected places.

So, that’s what it’s for. Should’ve guessed.

I shoved him off, slapped him down. Havel shuffled off to sob in his room.

Right now, I’m stalking the streets. At night. Yeah, so what? Anyone messes with me, they’ll regret it.

VM: Humber Street

22 July 2025 (01:23)

It wasn’t easy finding this place. There’d been hints on some of the more controversial threads about a clinic that offered more ‘bespoke’ work. I called in a few favours. They led me here. Now I’m pacing around a shabby excuse of a waiting room, trying to convince myself that this is the right thing to do. Pacing. I do that a lot. Does it help? No idea.

Sold my stuff, handed over every penny, my savings, the lot. All I’ve got left is my fur and my phone. And pretty soon I won’t even have the fur. Guess I’m committed. Can’t imagine them being big on refunds.

Here we go. A lab-coat type just pushed through the swing-doors. He almost pulls off ‘the scientist’ look, but then his tie jerks, and I see his ‘lab-coat’ for what it is: coarse rumpled skin dotted with gaping, pocket mouths.

He’s headed straight for me. I’m going to leave the voice recorder running. You never know. 

‘Caroline, is it?’


‘I’ve got you down for a standard re-fit. A popular choice.’

‘Yeah, choice, that’s what it’s all about.’

‘There’s no need to look so worried. SK453 is our latest synth-skin design. Durable. Waterproof. And, most important of all, Change proof.’

VM: Humber Street 2

25 July 2025 (02:23)

That lying, two-faced, vicious …I can’t believe what he did! According to the nurse, that sadistic whoreson should’ve sedated me from the get-go. If he shows his face in the recoup-ward, I’ll teach him what pain really means!

Wait, got to get my breath back. I’m not supposed to get too excited. Don’t want them to take my phone away.

This is how it went down. I followed that lab-coat along the corridor, claws digging into the lino like they didn’t want to let go. I’m not stupid, I knew there was a risk. I mean, no-way they’ve had time to properly test this stuff. 

Should’ve just punched him in the head and made a run for it.

The next door was white and metal and made a hissing sound when it opened. Inside was all white too. Just one white-on-white chair in the middle. Sit, he said. What choice did I have? He rattled around behind me; said, you’re lucky, you get to keep those muscles. He didn’t even ask if I wa