Train In The Mist
a story by
The train station was misty and cold. That’s what happens when you finish work three hours late but with deadlines to meet. What else could she do? She had just landed her dream job. Despite her boss being a total creep, she knew that with putting in long hours and hard work she could really make something of herself. Even if that did mean putting up with the boss’s sour breath on her neck when he came into her office with the agenda of the day. Every morning she would sit on the corner of her bed and chant ‘Ashley, you will never nurture a baby. Your career is your baby.’ She took a magazine out of her bag and sat on the rusty metal bench. The man next to her twitched nervously as he pulled down his woolly cap. He tilted his head and gave Ashley a weak smile. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He looks so sad, she thought, and then she noticed the can of special brew that was resting in between his knees.
He coughed. ‘Keeps me warm.’
‘Don’t blame you. It’s freezing tonight.’ Ashley wondered if he even had a home? But then again, he was well-dressed—he just looked a bit troubled. He edged closer. Their legs almost brushed.
‘You work in Harpers. You were wearing that skirt on Tuesday.’
Ashley blushed at the thought that he might know she had worn it every day since Tuesday. Thank God it was Friday. She could put it in the wash to be ready for Monday. Hearing her train in the distance, she got up and straightened her clothes.
The train was packed. Only two seats opposite each other were free. Good, thought Ashley. I will be able to put my feet up. She kicked her shoes off to rest her feet on the seat, but the man from the station plonked himself down.
He offered his hand. ‘The names Peter.’
The way Peter was looking at her made her feel threatened.
Peter licked his lips. ‘The coat you wore on Wednesday really brought out the colour blue in your eyes.’
Ashley was thankful that she was getting off at the next stop. Now Peter really was starting to creep her out. ‘Well this is my stop.’ She raced off the train, taking the steps two at a time down to the street. Peter was hot on her heels. Ashley started to march the two minute walk home. She searched in her coat pocket for the front door key, but no, there was only the back door key. She raced down the poorly-lit lane, almost tripping over a fallen bin. She smelled stale beer. Then an arm wrapped around her chest. All she could see was black mist before she took her final breath.
Emma Doughty has had a love of writing since the age of ten years. Twenty years on, the passion to write keeps growing. At the age of fourteen, she wrote her first poem titled ‘From Black to Blue.’ She has written many poems inspired by her boyfriend Ben. Emma believes that the people she has met, whether good or bad, will make great fiction characters. She was born with mild cerebral palsy.
an ancient Mesopotamian folktale
circa 2000 BCE
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Penitence; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared Adonai, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Penitence would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Penitence said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed Adonai in their hearts.” Thus Penitence did continually.
Now there was a day when the sons of Adonai came to present themselves before him, and Satan also came among them.
Adonai said to Satan, “Whence have you come?”
Satan answered Adonai, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Penitence, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears Adonai and turns away from evil?”
Then Satan answered Adonai, “Does Penitence fear Adonai for nought? Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.”
So Satan went forth from the presence of Adonai.
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and there came a messenger to Penitence, and said, “The oxen were plowing and the asses feeding beside them; and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of Adonai fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chaldeans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
Then Penitence arose, and ripped his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; Adonai gave, and Adonai has taken away; blessed be the name of Adonai.”
In all this Penitence did not sin or charge Adonai with wrong.
Again there was a day when the sons of Adonai came to present themselves before him, and Satan also came among them to present himself before Adonai.
And Adonai said to Satan, “Whence have you come?”
Satan answered Adonai, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Penitence, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears Adonai and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.”
Then Satan answered Adonai, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
So Satan went forth from the presence of Adonai, and afflicted Penitence with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse Adonai, and die.”
But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of Adonai, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Penitence did not sin with his lips.
Now when Penitence’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eli′phaz the Te′manite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Na′amathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
The Man Who Fed Pigeons
a story by
There was a man on the bridge throwing pieces of bread, which meant pigeon wings and pigeon beaks and pigeon droppings. His eyes smiled and his flabby arms danced as he littered the sky with crumbs.
“Could you stop that?” I said. I squeezed by on the edge of the sidewalk.
“Got to keep ‘em friendly,” he replied.
A dump truck grumbled past. I threw my hands in front of my face amidst the cooing and beating wings.
I glared at the man. “Why, exactly?”
He breathed at me—heavy, odorous, and rapid. He smacked his lips with moist satisfaction. When he opened his mouth there was a gaping, toothless hole.
“They’re coming down from the mountains, and they don’t like birds,” he said, leaning on the railing. He dug his long nails into a bun, tearing it in two.
“Ah yes, that makes sense,” I said, and continued to walk.
“Hey!” the man shouted. I looked back at him. He tilted his head in the direction of the water. “Stay clear of that mess, will ya? Awfully dangerous.”
White waves of a rushing river passed beneath the bridge. For weeks it had been rising and falling, leaving an inch of sand each time it dropped back. Sand on the grass, sand on the sidewalk, sand on the steps. In many places the sidewalk had fallen into the water, the bank underneath eaten away.
Julie was waiting, so I hurried on. I took the path along the river to an old brick building. A raindrop landed on my nose as I reached the door.
When I reached the fourth floor, I saw Julie at our usual table, close to the windows and overlooking the river. Outside, the rain was picking up.
“You’re late,” said Julie.
“You’re not surprised,” I said. I sat down, keeping my eyes fixed out the window.
Julie frowned. “What are you looking at?”
“He’s still out there. He’s going to get soaked.” I pointed a finger towards the man on the bridge, surrounded by his pigeons. He showed no signs of discomfort as the rain came down harder. The birds were less tolerant; one by one they found shelter under the bridge. “He told me to be stay away from the river.” I looked at Julie.
She sucked on her drink. “The bird man?” she asked as she looked out the window again.
“Yeah, the bird man.” Then I told her what had happened on the bridge.
Julie lifted her glass off the table and picked at the ice cubes with her straw. “He’s right about the river. Don’t know about the pigeons.”
“It’s moving pretty fast now.”
“Faster than you think. It can suck you under before you know what’s happening. A girl was pulled under this morning. They’ve been looking for her all day.”
Julie shrugged and set her glass down on the table. “The world’s a scary place if you insist on being stupid.”
“I’m sure it was an accident, Julie.”
“I’m sure it was too, like those kids who accidentally shoot themselves.” She glared at the tablecloth. “Some parents are criminally thoughtless.”
A waiter stopped by our table. “Anything to drink?”
I looked at Julie and she nodded. “We’ll both have one of these.” I pointed at Julie’s glass.
“And are we eating tonight, sir?”
I looked at Julie again. She shook her head. “Just some chips,” I said.
As I handed my menu to the waiter, I glanced out the window. The water rose with the pouring rain. Bobbing on the surface was something large that moved with the liquid comfort of a fish. It floated under the sidewalk and slipped into a hole.
“Still looking at the bird man?” asked Julie.
I jumped. “No, I thought I saw something in the river.” I looked at the bridge—the man and his pigeons were gone. The only movement came from the falling rain and the rushing river.
“Probably did. There’s all sorts of garbage that gets caught up in this. Makes me sick when the water goes back down.”
We watched the river. Our drinks came, twice, and the minutes went by, not stopping to pay attention to our conversation. In half an hour the rain stopped. The last edges of yellow sunlight worked their way down the glass buildings across the river.
“That was quick,” I said.
“Usually is,” said Julie. “Water’s gone up three feet though.”
There was a slow moving pool where the river had been. It covered the benches and the sidewalks. A few small trees were in water up to their lower branches.
“It should clear out soon,” I said, “and speaking of, I’ve got to get going.”
“Last to show up, first to leave. You really do care about me, don’t you?” said Julie as she chewed on her straw.
“Of course I do. You’re my favorite. I don’t even talk to anyone else.” I pulled a twenty from my wallet and put it on the table. I walked to the elevator. When I stepped outside I was assaulted by the smells of water. The clean smell of rain gave strength to the tang of the river. I glanced down the sidewalk and was happy to see the river falling back to its bed. Plastic bags and bottles drifted and rolled as I started to walk. The fading twilight left me feeling transcendent. I looked at the towers of the city and felt they would fit in the palm of my hand. Even the mountains in the distance were pocket sized. I made eager progress and quickly found myself where the sidewalk dipped low under another bridge. The little remaining light didn’t fall here. I took small, careful steps forward. My foot splashed into an inch or two of water. The river was still retreating. Another cautious step, and my toe hit something heavy and soft. I reached down and felt cold skin. Quickly, I searched for pulse and breath, but found neither. “Oh god,” I said to no one.
I grabbed the body and pulled it from under the bridge. In the faint light I saw a young girl, maybe five years old. She was wrapped in river weeds. Long scratches covered her arms and legs, but there was no blood.
“I told ya it was dangerous,” said a voice behind me.
I spun around and saw a towering man. The sun was down, the world had grown, and everything was two sizes too big. I couldn’t see a face in the dark, but I recognized the smell.
“What did you do to her?” I said.
“I didn’t do nothing! They did it. I tried to stop ‘em. I told ya it was dangerous.”
“They did it?” I shouted. “They did it?”
“Yes,” he said, backing away from me. “I tried to help.”
“You’re making it up. You killed her, and you’re making things up.” He was trying to turn around. I stepped into his face.
“I didn’t do nothing!” He pushed my chest with both hands.
I stumbled backward and landed with one foot in the river. A sharp pain shot up my heel. I tried to pull it up, but it wouldn’t move. I screamed in frustration.
The bird man looked at my foot, eyes wide with fear. “They’ve got ya! I told ya it was dangerous.”
I was furious. “You did this! And you did something to that little girl!”
“I didn’t do nothing,” he said as he started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” I yelled.
He began to run.
My foot was jerked backwards. I slammed against the sidewalk. Another sharp tug and I was pulled into the river.
The cold water crashed around my head in wave after wave. The river was moving much faster than I had thought it could. I struggled to keep my mouth above the surface as I was swept downstream. My arms grew heavy and slow. There was a great weight pulling at my foot, and it was still hurting me terribly.
I was spending less and less time above the water as the stiffness overtook my arms. When they could move no more, I sank quickly, dark water closing over my head. I looked down into the water to find the source of my pain. It was difficult to see clearly, but there was a writhing shape, sinewy and scaled. A clawed hand gripped my ankle.
I twisted and pulled, but it was no use. I was trapped, and for a moment I was still. A dozen pairs of burning eyes stared at me from holes in the riverbank. And then out came claws, out came lean shiny bodies, out came thick webbed legs.
They were here.
In the water above me I heard a splash. Diving towards me was a bird, a long neck and a sharp beak, followed by two, maybe three more. They swam quickly past me, down into the darkness. Above me there were more splashes.
Soon the water was full of wings and claws and beaks and scales. It was impossible to see anything clearly. I was buffeted and nicked, scratched and clipped. Panicking, I kicked and thrashed. Then I discovered that my leg was free.
With burning lungs and arms and legs, I rushed up. I broke the surface and gasped. I moved to the sidewalk under a barrage of diving birds. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I pulled myself out of the water. Rolling onto my back, I breathed and watched.
The birds were large and black. They were diving still, plunging from the air at reckless speeds. They came up from the water with pieces of arms and legs, scaly grey flesh torn apart and swallowed.
“Had to wake the corm’rants,” said a voice behind me, “down at the lake.” I sat up on one elbow and saw the pigeon man. He sat with his hands on his knees and his mouth open wide. He breathed even heavier than he had before. He gave me a toothless grin. “Ha!” he shouted, slapping his leg. “They don’t mind so much when they get a little snack. Keeps ‘em friendly.”
Zach Walchuk is a writer and software developer living in Denver, Colorado. His stories have been published in Potluck and Beyond Imagination magazines. A happy husband and expectant father, he likes to find the possible in the everyday. For more from Zach, follow him on Twitter and Medium.
a story by
M. R. James
By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these pages. But it is necessary to prefix my extracts from them a statement of the form in which I possess them.
They consist, then, partly of a series of collections for a book of travels, such a volume as was a common product of the forties and fifties. Horace Marryat’s Journal of a Residence in Jutland and the Danish Isles is a fair specimen of the class to which I allude. These books usually treated of some unfamiliar district on the Continent. They were illustrated with woodcuts or steel plates. They gave details of hotel accommodation , and of means of communication, such as we now expect to find in any well-regulated guide-book, and they dealt largely in reported conversations with intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers and garrulous peasants. In a word, they were chatty.
Begun with the idea of furnishing material for such a book, my papers as they progressed assumed the character of a record of one single personal experience, and this record was continued up to the very eve, almost, of its termination.
The writer was a Mr. Wraxall. For my knowledge of him I have to depend entirely on the evidence his writings afford, and from these I deduce that he was a man past middle age, possessed of some private means, and very much alone in the world. He had, it seems, no settled abode in England, but was a denizen of hotels and boarding -houses. it is probable that he entertained the idea of settling down at some future time which never came; and I think it also likely that the Pantechnicon fire in the early seventies must have destroyed a great deal that would have thrown light on his antecedents, for he refers once or twice to property of his that was warehoused at that establishment.
It is further apparent that Mr . Wraxall had published a book, and that it treated of a holiday he had once taken in Brittany. more than this I cannot say about his work, because a diligent search in bibliographical works has convinced me that it must have appeared either anonymously or under a pseudonym.
As to his character, it is not difficult to form some superficial opinion. He must have been an intelligent and cultivated man. It seems he was near being a Fellow of his college at Oxford – Brasenose, as I judge from the Calendar. His besetting fault was pretty clearly that of over -inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault for which this traveller paid dearly enough in the end. On what proved top be his last expedition, he was plotting another book. Scandinavia, a region not widely known to Englishmen forty years ago, had struck him as an interesting field. He must have lighted on some old books of Swedish history, or memoirs, and the idea had struck him that there was room for a book descriptive of travel in Sweden, interspersed with episodes from the history of some of the great Swedish families. he procured letters of introduction, therefore, to some persons of quality in Sweden, and set out thither in the early summer of 1863.
Of his travels in the North there is no need to speak, nor of his residence of some weeks in Stockholm. I need only mention that some savant resident there put him on the track of an important collection of family papers belonging to the proprietors of an ancient manor-house in Vestergothland, and obtained for him permission to examine them.
The manor house, or herrgard, in question is to be called Råbäck (pronounced something like Roebeck) though that is not its name. It is one of the best building s of its kind in all the country, and the picture of it in Dahlenberg’s Suecia antiqua et moderna, engraved in 1694, shows it very much as the tourist may see it today. It was built soon after 1600, and is, roughly speaking, very much like an English house of that period in respect of material – red-brick with stone facings – and style. The man who built it was a scion of the great house of De la Gardie, and his descendants possess it still. De la Gardie is the name by which I will designate them when mention of them becomes necessary.
They received Mr. Wraxall with great kindness and courtesy, and pressed him to stay in the house as long as his researches lasted.But, preferring to be independent, and mistrusting his powers of conversing in Swedish, he settled himself at the village inn, which turned out quite sufficiently comfortable, at any rate during the summer months. This arrangement would entail a short walk daily to and from the manor-house of something under a mile. The house itself stood in a park and, and was protected – we should say grown up – with large old timber. Near it you found the walled garden, and then entered a close wood fringing one of the small lakes with which the whole country is pitted. Then came the wall of the demesne, and you climbed a steep knoll – a knob of rock lightly covered with soil – and on the top of this stood the church, fenced in with tall dark trees. It was a curious building to English eyes. The nave and aisles were low, and filled with pews and galleries. In the western gallery stood the handsome old organ, gaily painted, and with silver pipes.The ceiling was flat, and had been adorned by a seventeenth-century artist with a strange and hideous last judgment, full of lurid flames, falling cities, burning ships, crying souls, and brown and smiling demons. Handsome brass coronae hung from the roof; the pulpit was like a dolls-house covered with little painted cherubs and saints; a stand with three hour-glasses was hinged to the preachers desk. Such sights as these may be seen in many a church in Sweden now, but what distinguished this one was an addition to the original building. At the eastern end of the north aisle the builder of the manor -house had erected a mausoleum for himself and his family. it was a largish eight-sided building, lighted by a series of oval windows, and it had a domed roof, topped by a kind of pumpkin-shaped object rising into a spire, a form in which Swedish architects greatly delighted.The roof was of copper externally, and was painted black, while the walls, in common with those of the church, were staringly white. To this mausoleum there was no access from the church. It had a portal and steps of its own on the northern side.
Past the churchyard the path to the village goes, and not more than three or four minutes bring you to the inn door.
On the first day of his stay at Råbäck Mr. Wraxall found the church door open, and made these notes of the interior which I have epitomized. Into the mausoleum, however, he could not make his way. He could, by looking through the keyhole, just descry that there were fine marble effigies and sarcophagi of copper, and a wealth of armorial ornament, which made him very anxious to spend some time in investigation.
The papers he had come to examine at the manor-house proved to be just the kind of thing he wanted for his book.There were family correspondence, journals, and account-books of the earliest owners of the estate, very carefully kept and clearly written, full of amusing and picturesque detail. The first De La Gardie appeared in them as a strong and capable man. Shortly after the building of the mansion there had been a period of distress in the district, and the peasants had risen and attacked several chateaux and done some damage. The owner of Råbäck took a leading part in suppressing the trouble, and there was reference to executions of ringleaders and severe punishments inflicted with no sparing hand.
The portrait of this Magnus de la Gardie was one of the best in the house, and Mr Wraxall studied it with no little interest after his day’s work. He gives no detailed description of it, but I gather that the face impressed him rather by its power than by its beauty or goodness; in fact, he writes that Count Magnus was an almost phenomenally ugly man.
On this day Mr Wraxall took his supper with the family, and walked back in the late but still bright evening.
“I must remember,” he writes, “to ask the sexton if he can let me into the mausoleum at the church. He evidently has access to it himself, for I saw him tonight standing in the steps, and, as I thought, either locking or unlocking the door.”
I find that early on the following day Mr Wraxall had some conversation with his landlord.His setting it down at such length as he does surprised me at first; but I soon realized that the papers I was reading here were, at least in their beginning, the materials for the book he was meditating, and that it was to have been one of those quasi-journalistic productions which admit of the introduction of an admixture of conversational matter.
His object, he says, was to find out whether any traditions of Count Magnus de la Gardie lingered on in the scenes of that gentleman’s activity, and whether the popular estimate of him were favourable or not. He found that the Count was decidedly not a favourite. If his tenants came late to their work on the days which they owed to him as Lord of the Manor, they were set on the wooden horse, or flogged and branded in the manor-house yard. One or two cases there were of men who had occupied lands which encroached on the lord’s domain, and whose houses had been mysteriously burnt on a winter’s night, with the whole family inside. But what seemed dwell on the innkeeper’s mind most- for he returned to the subject more than once- was that the Count had been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him.
You will naturally inquire, as Mr Wraxall did, what the Black Pilgrimage may have been. But your curiosity on the point must remain unsatisfied for the time being, just as his did. The landlord was evidently unwilling to give a full answer, or indeed any answer, on the point, and being called out for the moment, trotted out with obvious alacrity, only putting his head in at the door to say that he was called away to Skara, and should not be back until evening.
So Mr Wraxall had to go unsatisfied to his day’s work at the manor house. The papers on which he was just then engaged soon put his thoughts into another channel, for he had to occupy himself with glancing over the correspondence between Sophia Albertina in Stockholm and her married cousin Ulrica Leonora at Råbäck in the years 1705-10. The letter were of exceptional interest for the light they threw upon the culture of that period in Sweden, as anyone can testify who has read the full edition of them in the publications of the Swedish Historical Manuscripts Commission.
In the afternoon he had done with these, and after returning the boxes in which they were kept to their places on the shelf, he proceeded,very naturally, to take down some of the volumes nearest to them, in order to determine which of them had best be his principal subject of investigation next day. The shelf he had hit upon was occupied mostly by a collection of account-books in the writing of the first Count Magnus. But one among them was not an account-book, but a book of alchemical and other tracts in another sixteenth-century hand. Not being very familiar with alchemical literature, Mr Wraxall spends much space which he might have spared in setting out the names and beginnings of the various treatises; The book of the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words,book of the Toad, book of Miriam, Turba Philosophorum, and so forth; and then he announces with a good deal of circumstance his delight at finding, on a leaf originally left blank near the middle of the book, some writing of Count Magnus himself headed ‘Liber nigrae peregrinationis’. It is true that only a few lines were written, but there was quite enough to show that the landlord had that morning been referring to a belief at least as old as the time of Count Magnus, and probably shared by him. This is the English of what was written:
‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince…’ Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr Wraxall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aeris (‘of the air’). But there was no more of the text copied, only a line in Latin: Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora. (See the rest of this matter among the more private things.).
It could not be denied that this threw a rather lurid light on the tastes and beliefs of the Count; but to Mr Wraxall, separated from him by nearly three centuries, the thought that the might have added to his general forcefulness alchemy, and to alchemy something like magic, only made him a more picturesque figure, and when, after a rather prolonged contemplation of his picture in the hall, Mr Wraxall set out on his homeward way, his mind was full of the thought of Count Magnus. He had no eyes for his surroundings, no perceptions of the evening scents of the woods or the evening light on the lake; and when all of a sudden he pulled up short, he was astonished to find himself already at the gate of the churchyard, and within a few minutes of his dinner. His eyes fell on the mausoleum.
“Ah,” he said, “Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you”.
“Like many solitary men,” he writes, “I have a habit of talking to myself aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an answer. Certainly and perhaps fortunately in this case, there was neither voice nor any that regarded: only the woman who, I suppose, was cleaning up the church, dropped some metallic object on the floor, whose clang startled me. Count Magnus, I think, sleeps sound enough.”
That same evening the landlord of the inn, who had heard Mr Wraxall say that he wished to see the clerk or deacon (as he would be called in Sweden) of the parish, introduced him to that official in the inn parlour.A visit to the De la Gardie tomb-house was soon arranged for the next day, and a little general conversation ensued.
Mr Wraxall, remembering that one function of Scandinavian deacons is to teach candidates for Confirmation, thought he would refresh his own memory on a Biblical point.
“Can you tell me,” he said,”anything about Chorazin?”
The deacon seemed startled, but readily reminded him how that village had once been denounced.
“To be sure,” said Mr Wraxall,”it is, I suppose, quite a ruin now?”
“So I expect,” replied the deacon.”I have heard some of our old priests say that Antichrist is to be born there; and there are tales-“
“Ah!” what tales are those?” Mr Wraxall put in.
“Tales, I was going to say, which I have forgotten,” said the deacon; and soon after that he said good night.
The landlord was now alone, and at Mr Wraxall’s mercy; and that inquirer was not inclined to spare him.
“Herr Nielsen,” he said, “I have found out something about the Black Pilgrimage. You may as well tell me what you know. What did the Count bring back with him?”
Swedes are habitually slow, perhaps, in answering, or perhaps the landlord was an exception. I am not sure; but Mr Wraxall notes that the landlord spent at least one minute in looking at him before he said anything at all. Then he came close up to his guest, and with a good deal of effort he spoke:
“Mr Wraxall, I can tell you this one little tale, and no more – not any more. You must not ask anything when I have done. In my grandfather’s time – that is, ninety-two years ago – there were two men who said:’The Count is dead; we do not care for him. We will go tonight and have a free hunt in his wood’ – the long wood on the hill that you have seen behind Råbäck.Well, those that heard them say this, they said:’No, do not go; we are sure you will meet with persons walking who should not be walking. They should be resting, not walking.’ These men laughed. There were no forest-men to keep the wood, because no one wished to live there. The family were not here at the house. These men could do what they wished.
“Very well, they go to the wood that night. My grandfather was sitting here in this room. It was the summer, and a light night. With the window open, he could see out to the wood, and hear.
“So he sat there, and two or three men with him, and they listened. At first they hear nothing at all; then they hear someone- you know how far away it is- they hear someone scream, just as if the most inside part of his soul was twisted out of him. All of them in the room caught hold of each other, and they sat so for three quarters of an hour. Then they hear someone else, only about three hundred ells off. They hear him laugh out loud: it was not one of those two men who laughed, and indeed, they have all of them said that it was not any man at all. After that they hear a great door shut.
“Then, when it was just light with the sun, they all went to the priest. They said to him: Father, put on your gown and your ruff, and come to bury these men, Anders Bjornsen and Hans Thorbjorn.’
“You understand that they were sure these men were dead. So they went to the wood- my grandfather never forgot this. He said they were all like so many dead men themselves. The priest, too, he was in a white fear. He said when they came to him:
‘I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again.’
“So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands- pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they had brought, and and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they begin to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them.And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place.”
The next day Mr Wraxall records that the deacon called for him soon after his breakfast, and took him to the church and mausoleum. He noticed that the key of the latter was hung on a nail just by the pulpit, and it occurred to him that, as the church door seemed to be left unlocked as a rule, it would not be difficult for him to pay a second and more private visit to the monuments if there proved to be more of interest among them than could be digested at first. The building, when he entered it, he found not unimposing. The monuments, mostly large erections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were dignified if luxuriant,and the epitaphs and heraldry were copious. The central space of the domed room was occupied by three copper sarcophagi, covered with finely engraved ornament. Two of them had, as is commonly the case in Denmark and Sweden, a large metal crucifix on the lid. The third,that of Count Magnus, as it appeared, had, instead of that, a full-length effigy engraved upon it, and round the edge were several bands of similar ornament representing various scenes. one was a battle, with cannon belching out smoke, and walled towns, and troops of pikemen. Another showed an execution. In a third, among trees, was a man running at full speed, with flying hair and outstretched hands. After him followed a strange form; it would be hard to say whether the artist had intended it for a man, and was unable to give it the requisite similitude, or whether it was intentionally made as monstrous as it looked. In view of the skill with which the rest of the drawing was done, Mr Wraxall felt inclined to adopt the latter idea. the figure was unduly short, and was for the most part muffled in a hooded garment which swept the ground. The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish, and continues:”On seeing this, I said to myself,”This, then which is evidently an allegorical representation of some kind- a fiend pursuing a hunted soul – may be the origin of the story of Count Magnus and his mysterious companion. Let us see how the huntsman is pictured: doubtless it will be a demon blowing his horn.” But, as it turned out, there was no such sensational figure, only the semblance of a cloaked man on a hillock, who stood leaning on a stick, and watching the hunt with an interest which the engraver had tried to express in his attitude.
Mr Wraxall noted the finely-worked and massive steel padlocks – three in number – which secured the sarcophagus. One of them, he saw, was detached, and lay upon the pavement. And then, unwilling to delay the deacon longer or waste his own working time, he made his onward to the manor-house,
“It is curious, ” he notes, “how, on retracing a familiar path, one’s thoughts engross one to the absolute exclusion of surrounding objects. Tonight, for the second time, I had entirely failed to notice where I was going (I had planned a private visit to the tomb-house to copy the epitaphs), when I suddenly, as it were, awoke to consciousness, and found myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, as I believe, singing or chanting some some such words as, “Are you awake, Count Magnus?Are you asleep, Count Magnus?” and then something more which I have failed to recollect. It seemed to me that I must have been behaving in this nonsensical way for some time.”
He found the key of the mausoleum where he had expected to find it, and copied the greater part of what he wanted; in fact, he stayed until the light began to fail him.
“I must have been wrong,” he writes, “in saying that one of the locks of the Count’s sarcophagus was unfastened; I see tonight that two are loose. I picked both up, and laid them carefully on the window-ledge, after trying unsuccessfully to close them. The remaining one is still firm, and, though I take it to be a spring lock, I cannot guess how it is opened. Had I succeeded in undoing it, I am almost afraid I should have taken the liberty of opening the sarcophagus. It is strange, the interest I feel in the personality of this, I fear, somewhat ferocious and grim old noble.”
The day following was, as it turned out, the last of Mr Wraxall’s stay at Råbäck. He received letters connected with certain investments which made it desirable that he should return to England; his work among the papers was practically done, and travelling was slow. He decided, therefore, to make his farewells, put some finishing touches to his notes, and be off.
These finishing touches and farewells, as it turned out,took more time than he had expected. The hospitable family insisted on his staying to dine with them – they dined at three – and it was verging on half past six before he was outside the iron gates of Råbäck. He dwelt on every step of his walk by the lake, determined to saturate himself, now that he trod it for the last time, in the sentiment of the place and hour. And when he reached the summit of the church yard knoll, he lingered for many minutes, gazing at the limitless prospect of woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of liquid green. When at last he turned to go, the thought struck him that surely he must bid farewell to Count Magnus as well as the rest of the De la Gardies. The church was but twenty yards away, and he knew where the key of the mausoleum hung. It was not long before he was standing over the great copper coffin, and as usual, talking to himself aloud:”You may have been a bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus, ” he was saying,”but for all that I should like to see you, or rather-“
“Just at that instant,” he says, “I felt a blow on my foot.Hastily enough I drew it back, and something fell on the pavement with a clash. It was the third, the last of the three padlocks which had fastened the sarcophagus. I stooped to pick it up, and – Heaven is my witness that I am writing only the bare truth – before I had raised myself there was a sound of metal hinges creaking, and I distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards. I may have behaved like a coward, but I could not for my life stay for one moment. I was outside that dreadful building in less time than I can write – almost as quickly as I could have said – the words; and what frightens me yet more, I could not turn the key in the lock. As I sit here in my room noting these facts, I ask myself (it was not twenty minutes ago) whether that noise of creaking metal continued, and I cannot tell whether it did or not. I only know that there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this that I have done?”
Poor Mr Wraxall! he set out on his journey to England on the next day, as he had planned, and he reached England in safety; and yet, as I judge from his changed hand and inconsequent jottings, a broken man.One of the several small note-books that have come to me with his papers gives, not a key to, but a kind of inkling of, his experiences. Much of his journey was by canal-boat, and I find not less than six painful attempts to enumerate and describe his fellow-passengers. The entries are of this kind:
24. Pastor of village in Skåne. Usual black coat and soft black hat.
25. Commercial Traveller from Stockholm going to Trollhättan. Black cloak, brown hat.
26.Man in long black cloak, broad-leafed hat, very old-fashioned.
This entry is lined out, and a note added:”Perhaps identical with No.13. Have not yet seen his face.” On referring to No. 13, I find that he is a Roman priest in a cassock.
The net result of the reckoning is always the same. Twenty-eight people appear in the enumeration, one being always a man in a long black cloak and broad hat, and the other a ‘short figure in dark cloak and hood’. On the other hand, it is always noted that only twenty-six passengers appear at meals, and that the man in the cloak is perhaps absent, and the short figure is certainly absent.
On reaching England, it appears that Mr Wraxall landed at Harwich, and that he resolved at once to put himself out of the reach of some person or persons whom he never specifies, but whom he had evidently come to regard as his pursuers. Accordingly he took a vehicle – it was a closed fly – not trusting the railway, and drove across country to the village of Belchamp St Paul. It was about nine o’clock on a moonlight August night when he neared the place. He was sitting forward, and looking out of the window at the fields and thickets – there was little else to be seen – racing past him. Suddenly he came to a cross-road. At the corner two figures were standing motionless; both were in dark cloaks; the taller one wore a hat, the shorter a hood. He had no time to see their faces, nor did they make any motion that he could discern. Yet the horse shied violently and broke into a gallop, and Mr Wraxall sank back into his seat in something like desperation.he had seen them before.
Arrived at Belchamp St.Paul, he was fortunate enough to find a decent furnished lodging, and for the next twenty-four hours he lived, comparatively speaking, in peace. His last notes were written on this day.They are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but the substance of them is clear enough.He is expecting a visit from his pursuers – how or when he knows not – and his constant cry is “What has he done?” and “Is there no hope?” Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him.The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?
People still remember last year at Belchamp St Paul how a strange gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of ’em did, and none of ’em wouldn’t speak to what they see, and the verdict was a visitation of God; and how the people as kep’ the ‘ouse moved out that same week, and went away from that part. But they do not, I think, know that any glimmer of light has been thrown, or could be thrown, on the mystery. It so happened that last year the little house came into my hands as part of a legacy. It had stood empty since 1863, and there seemed no prospect of letting it; so I had it pulled down, and the papers of which I have given you an abstract were found in a forgotten cupboard under the window in the best bedroom.
a story by
She turns them over in her old, traitorous hands, wishing they would move with the gracefulness they had once upon a time. She remembers when their moves dazzled the world, whirling, twirling, while laughter played around them in invisible waves. But that was long ago, when her hands were fast, when they obeyed her commands. Snap! There goes a string. Snap! Another. She sighs while tears fall onto their dusty porcelain faces. She says goodbye as she takes her final breath.
Tabitha Novotny is a homeschooled teenager who loves to write dark, twisted stories and poetry. She also paints landscapes, creates masks, volunteers at the library, watches Horror films, discusses with her family different ideas for new stories, and so much more.
a story by
One fine afternoon in the Spring, some village girls were tending their sheep on the sand-dunes which intervene between the vast forests of pine covering the greater portion of the present department of Landes in the south of France, and the sea.
The brightness of the sky, the freshness of the air puffing up off the blue twinkling Bay of Biscay, the hum or song of the wind as it made rich music among the pines which stood like a green uplifted wave on the East, the beauty of the sand-hills speckled with golden cistus, or patched with gentian-blue, by the low growing Gremille couchée, the charm of the forest-skirts, tinted variously with the foliage of cork-trees, pines, and acacia, the latter in full bloom, a pile of rose-coloured or snowy flowers,–all conspired to fill the peasant maidens with joy, and to make their voices rise in song and laughter, which rung merrily over the hills, and through the dark avenues of evergreen trees.
Now a gorgeous butterfly attracted their attention, then a flight of quails skimming the surface.
“Ah!” exclaimed Jacquiline Auzun,” ah, if I had my stilts and bats, I would strike the little birds down, and we should have a fine supper.”
“Now, if they would fly ready cooked into one’s mouth, as they do in foreign parts!” said another girl.
“Have you got any new clothes for the S. Jean?” asked a third; “my mother has laid by to purchase me a smart cap with gold lace.”
“You will turn the head of Etienne altogether, Annette!” said Jeanne Gaboriant. “But what is the matter with the sheep?”
She asked because the sheep which had been quietly browsing before her, on reaching a small depression in the dune, had started away as though frightened at something. At the same time one of the dogs began to growl and show his fangs.
The girls ran to the spot, and saw a little fall in the ground, in which, seated on a log of fir, was a boy of thirteen. The appearance of the lad was peculiar. His hair was of a tawny red and thickly matted, falling over his shoulders and completely covering his narrow brow. His small pale-grey eyes twinkled with an expression of horrible ferocity and cunning, from deep sunken hollows. The complexion was of a dark olive colour; the teeth were strong and white, and the canine teeth protruded over the lower lip when the mouth was closed. The boy’s hands were large and powerful, the nails black and pointed like bird’s talons. He was ill clothed, and seemed to be in the most abject poverty. The few garments he had on him were in tatters, and through the rents the emaciation of his limbs was plainly visible.
The girls stood round him, half frightened and much surprised, but the boy showed no symptoms of astonishment. His face relaxed into a ghastly leer, which showed the whole range of his glittering white fangs.
“Well, my maidens,” said he in a harsh voice, “which of you is the prettiest, I should like to know; can you decide among you?”
“What do you want to know for?” asked Jeanne Gaboriant, the eldest of the girls, aged eighteen, who took upon herself to be spokesman for the rest.
“Because I shall marry the prettiest,” was the answer.
“Ah!” said Jeanne jokingly; “that is if she will have you, which is not very likely, as we none of us know you, or anything about you.”
“I am the son of a priest,” replied the boy curtly.
“Is that why you look so dingy and black?”
“No, I am dark-coloured, because I wear a wolf-skin sometimes.”
“A wolf-skin!” echoed the girl; “and pray who gave it you?”
“One called Pierre Labourant.”
“There is no man of that name hereabouts. Where does he live?”
A scream of laughter mingled with howls, and breaking into strange gulping bursts of fiendlike merriment from the strange boy.
The little girls recoiled, and the youngest took refuge behind Jeanne.
“Do you want to know Pierre Labourant, lass? Hey, he is a man with an iron chain about his neck, which he is ever engaged in gnawing. Do you want to know where he lives, lass? Ha., in a place of gloom and fire, where there are many companions, some seated on iron chairs, burning, burning; others stretched on glowing beds, burning too. Some cast men upon blazing coals, others roast men before fierce flames, others again plunge them into caldrons of liquid fire.”
The girls trembled and looked at each other with scared faces, and then again at the hideous being which crouched before them.
“You want to know about the wolf-skin cape?” continued he. “Pierre Labourant gave me that; he wraps it round me, and every Monday, Friday, and Sunday, and for about an hour at dusk every other day, I am a wolf, a were-wolf. I have killed dogs and drunk their blood; but little girls taste better, their flesh is tender and sweet, their blood rich and warm. I have eaten many a maiden, as I have been on my raids together with my nine companions. I am a were-wolf! Ah, ha! if the sun were to set I would soon fall on one of you and make a meal of you!” Again he burst into one of his frightful paroxysms of laughter, and the girls unable to endure it any longer, fled with precipitation.
Near the village of S. Antoine de Pizon, a little girl of the name of Marguerite Poirier, thirteen years old, was in the habit of tending her sheep, in company with a lad of the same age, whose name was Jean Grenier. The same lad whom Jeanne Gaboriant had questioned.
The little girl often complained to her parents of the conduct of the boy: she said that he frightened her with his horrible stories; but her father and mother thought little of her complaints, till one day she returned home before her usual time so thoroughly alarmed that she had deserted her flock. Her parents now took the matter up and investigated it. Her story was as follows:–
Jean had often told her that he had sold himself to the devil, and that he had acquired the power of ranging the country after dusk, and sometimes in broad day, in the form of a wolf. He had assured her that he had killed and devoured many dogs, but that he found their flesh less palatable than the flesh of little girls, which he regarded as a supreme delicacy. He had told her that this had been tasted by him not unfrequently, but he had specified only two instances: in one he had eaten as much as he could, and had thrown the rest to a wolf, which had come up during the repast. In the other instance he had bitten to death another little girl, had lapped her blood, and, being in a famished condition at the time, had devoured every portion of her, with the exception of the arms and shoulders.
The child told her parents, on the occasion of her return home in a fit of terror, that she had been guiding her sheep as usual, but Grenier had not been present. Hearing a rustle in the bushes she had looked round, and a wild beast bad leaped upon her, and torn her clothes on her left side with its sharp fangs. She added that she had defended herself lustily with her shepherd’s staff, and had beaten the creature off. It had then retreated a few paces, had seated itself on its hind legs like a dog when it is begging, and had regarded her with such a look of rage, that she had fled in terror. She described the animal as resembling a wolf, but as being shorter and stouter; its hair was red, its tail stumpy, and the head smaller than that of a genuine wolf.
The statement of the child produced general consternation in the parish. It was well known that several little girls had vanished in a most mysterious way of late, and the parents of these little ones were thrown into an agony of terror lest their children had become the prey of the wretched boy accused by Marguerite Poirier. The case was now taken up by the authorities and brought before the parliament of Bordeaux.
The investigation which followed was as complete as could be desired.
Jean Grenier was the son of a poor labourer in the village of S. Antoine do Pizon, and not the son of a priest, as he had asserted. Three months before his seizure he had left home, and had been with several masters doing odd work, or wandering about the country begging. He had been engaged several times to take charge of the flocks belonging to farmers, and had as often been discharged for neglect of his duties. The lad exhibited no reluctance to communicate all he knew about himself, and his statements were tested one by one, and were often proved to be correct.
The story he related of himself before the court was as follows:–
“When I was ten or eleven years old, my neighbour, Duthillaire, introduced me, in the depths of the forest, to a M. de la Forest, a black man, who signed me with his nail, and then gave to me and Duthillaire a salve and a wolf-skin. From that time have I run about the country as a wolf.
“The charge of Marguerite Poirier is correct. My intention was to have killed and devoured her, but she kept me off with a stick. I have only killed one dog, a white one, and I did not drink its blood.”
When questioned touching the children, whom he said he had killed and eaten as a wolf, he allowed that he had once entered an empty house on the way between S. Coutras and S. Anlaye, in a small village, the name of which he did not remember, and had found a child asleep in its cradle; and as no one was within to hinder him, he dragged the baby out of its cradle, carried it into the garden, leaped the hedge, and devoured as much of it as satisfied his hunger. What remained he had given to a wolf. In the parish of S. Antoine do Pizon he had attacked a little girl, as she was keeping sheep. She was dressed in a black frock; he did not know her name. He tore her with his nails and teeth, and ate her. Six weeks before his capture he had fallen upon another child, near the stone-bridge, in the same parish. In Eparon he had assaulted the hound of a certain M. Millon, and would have killed the beast, had not the owner come out with his rapier in his hand.
Jean said that he had the wolf-skin in his possession, and that he went out hunting for children, at the command of his master, the Lord of the Forest. Before transformation he smeared himself with the salve, which be preserved in a small pot, and hid his clothes in the thicket.
He usually ran his courses from one to two hours in the day, when the moon was at the wane, but very often he made his expeditions at night. On one occasion he had accompanied Duthillaire, but they had killed no one.
He accused his father of having assisted him, and of possessing a wolf-skin; he charged him also with having accompanied him on one occasion, when he attacked and ate a girl in the village of Grilland, whom he had found tending a flock of geese. He said that his stepmother was separated from his father. He believed the reason to be, because she had seen him once vomit the paws of a dog and the fingers of a child. He added that the Lord of the Forest had strictly forbidden him to bite the thumb-nail of his left hand, which nail was thicker and longer than the others, and had warned him never to lose sight of it, as long as he was in his were-wolf disguise.
Duthillaire was apprehended, and the father of Jean Grenier himself claimed to be heard by examination.
The account given by the father and stepmother of Jean coincided in many particulars with the statements made by their son.
The localities where Grenier declared he had fallen on children were identified, the times when he said the deeds had been done accorded with the dates given by the parents of the missing little ones, when their losses had occurred.
The wounds which Jean affirmed that he had made, and the manner in which he had dealt them, coincided with the descriptions given by the children he had assaulted.
He was confronted with Marguerite Poirier, and he singled her out from among five other girls, pointed to the still open gashes in her body, and stated that he had made them with his teeth, when he attacked her in wolf-form, and she had beaten him off with a stick. He described an attack he had made on a little boy whom he would have slain, had not a man come to the rescue, and exclaimed, “I’ll have you presently.”
The man who saved the child was found, and proved to be the uncle of the rescued lad, and he corroborated the statement of Grenier, that he had used the words mentioned above.
Jean was then confronted with his father. He now began to falter in his story, and to change his statements. The examination had lasted long, and it was seen that the feeble intellect of the boy was wearied out, so the case was adjourned. When next confronted with the elder Grenier, Jean told his story as at first, without changing it in any important particular.
The fact of Jean Grenier having killed and eaten several children, and of his having attacked and wounded others, with intent to take their life, were fully established; but there was no proof whatever of the father having had the least hand in any of the murders, so that he was dismissed the court without a shadow of guilt upon him.
The only witness who corroborated the assertion of Jean that he changed his shape into that of a wolf was Marguerite Poirier.
Before the court gave judgment, the first president of assize, in an eloquent speech, put on one side all questions of witchcraft and diabolical compact, and bestial transformation, and boldly stated that the court had only to consider the age and the imbecility of the child, who was so dull and idiotic–that children of seven or eight years old have usually a larger amount of reason than he. The president went on to say that Lycanthropy and Kuanthropy were mere hallucinations, and that the change of shape existed only in the disorganized brain of the insane, consequently it was not a crime which could be punished. The tender age of the boy must be taken into consideration, and the utter neglect of his education and moral development. The court sentenced Grenier to perpetual imprisonment within the walls of a monastery at Bordeaux, where he might be instructed in his Christian and moral obligations; but any attempt to escape would be punished with death.
A pleasant companion for the monks! a promising pupil for them to instruct! No sooner was he admitted into the precincts of the religious house, than he ran frantically about the cloister and gardens upon all fours, and finding a heap of bloody and raw offal, fell upon it and devoured it in an incredibly short space of time.
Delancre visited him seven years after, and found him diminutive in stature, very shy, and unwilling to look any one in the face. His eyes were deep set and restless; his teeth long and protruding; his nails black, and in places worn away; his mind was completely barren; he seemed unable to comprehend the smallest things. He related his story to Delancre, and told him how he had run about formerly in the woods as a wolf, and he said that he still felt a craving for raw flesh, especially for that of little girls, which he said was delicious, and he added that but for his confinement it would not be long before he tasted it again. He said that the Lord of the Forest had visited him twice in the prison, but that he had driven him off with the sign of the cross. The account be then gave of his murders coincided exactly with what had come out in his trial; and beside this, his story of the compact he had made with the Black One, and the manner in which his transformation was effected, also coincided with his former statements.
He died at the age of twenty, after an imprisonment of seven years, shortly after Delancre’s visit.
Old Tastes Sweeter!
a story by
Luciane de Souza
I don’t know the date, place, or even the time of writing these words—simply because I do not know. The last thing I remember is hanging a blue silk dress on the clothesline to dry, after having arrived from a graduation party. Then he came, grabbed my arm, and took me.
I don’t know how long ago that I became his prisoner, or as he says, his ‘preferred.’ The worst is having to see him do this repeatedly with others. The most touching scene for me was when he let little Amelia return to her parents. I think that I exert a certain influence on him, at least to some extent. He has made it clear that I will not starve because I feel sorry for his prey.
I decided to write this letter to let my family know what happened to me. Shortly after we left, I watched a newscast where my husband asked me to come back. I cried for three whole days. I did not die dehydrated because he watched me all the time and did not allow me to go without eating or drinking. This led me to believe that he might one day let me go. “Concern” for me is his instinct. Nobody eats favorite candy too fast. We like to taste it—and that’s what he does to me. Today is Christmas Morning—or Christmas Eve—and he bought me a blue silk scarf, the same shade of the dress that I hung on the line. It has been three or four Christmases since he kidnapped me, and today was the first day I actually thought I was dying. The feeling started when he took the last victim for our stash. Our. I have started to think we are a couple!
He spends seven or nine days watching the ones he chooses as food. He watches every step of the person (mostly women) and observes how they behave; how they eat and with whom they relate. He prefers older. He says that the blood of mature women is sweeter; that knowledge about the life we have is ingrained in our blood. I’ll never forget the day he kissed me for the first time, starting at my face to reach my neck. His bite was fast and delicate, barely felt when he finished. I think the amount of blood he sucked from me… sorry, I don’t want you know about it. It would be humiliating and scary if my grandchildren knew.
When he decides, he lurks and waits for an opportunity to get what he wants. He only come out of hiding at night. His preference at this time is difficult to understand, but he settles for young girls. These are the ones who suffer most. He locks them somewhere far away so I do not see, but I can hear their screams. I do not know if he knows I can hear, or worse, if he does this to terrify me! He keeps them for five to seven days. Then he rapes them and sucks their blood. When they die, he throws them in the house where they lived. This is cruel.
Five days ago, he brought a girl and her younger sister Amelia. I begged him to give Amelia back. She was no more than eight years. It was not fair that she should die that way. When he agreed with me, a glimmer of hope crossed my heart. The days passed quickly. I heard the cries of the older sister, and during the day, I counted the steps to get to where she was. With all the confusion of Amelia, he had forgotten to fasten the padlock that held the chains on my legs to the basement girder.
He always brought food and water for me, and I kept some of that food and water for the girl. By surprise, he walked in, grabbed my hair, and threw me against the wall. I feel two or more ribs are broken, and certainly my right foot is twisted.
“What do you think you’re doing?” His bloodshot eyes shined, his teeth whiter than I have ever seen. “How did you get out?”
“I just… she is hurt…” I did not know how to explain that we both tried to think of a way to escape.
He picked me up and sat me on the mattress where the girl lay tied. “Pay attention to this,” he said softly. “Watch.” He lay down on the girl. His hands roamed all over her skeletal body. The food I gave her was not enough to supply all the blood he took overnight. He bit her neck and lay still, only moaning as her blood entered his mouth. I turned my face. I could not bear to see this scene. When he finished, he took me back to the basement. I never discovered how he could find those horrible places. He closed the padlock and left. During the day, the young girl—I had thought she was dead—came through the door. She wobbled and held to the walls. Maybe she was just making herself look weak. I mean, she was visibly weak, but not too weak.
Everything happened quickly. She held a piece of wood. When he came in, he looked at us with an anger in his eyes that left me paralyzed. She had no chance. When she got close enough to drive the stake through his heart, he simply grabbed her neck with one hand and with the other pulled her by the hair until her head was severed from her body. I fainted.
When I woke up, he was sitting in front of me holding the head of the girl. He had a creepy smile on its thin, black lips. His skin was as white as a paper and his long black hair was shiny and silky. He could have easily be likened to a fairytale prince, if he had not been a monster. “You want to leave me?” he asked, still smiling. “Want to go home?”
I sighed. “Yes… but not like the others…” I was sure he was joking with me, as he always did in the early days. I wanted to go back alive! He looked at me in a way that frightened me. He was no longer smiling. Blood dripped from the head no longer, and I did not see the body. He stood and held out his hand. He took me to a window. I could see a tower covered by a thin layer of snow.
“Where are we?”
“Don’t you recognize that building?” he asked, seeming to be astonished.
“It is the building that is in front of your home!”
I stared at him in disbelief. I looked back out the window. Yes! We were a few streets behind my house. But, how?
“Every Christmas I bring you here. You never noticed?”
I looked and saw his face illuminate demonically. He did this for fun! Without thinking of anything but returning to my family, I pushed him away and ran, stumbling, to the door. I hit my face on his chest, hard as rock.
“You will not come back!” He held me by the waist and pressed his icy lips on my neck. I knew what would happen.
When I returned from my dream world, he was no longer with me. I wandered through a small space, I could not think of anything until I found this piece of paper, which is actually the back of a cookbook. It is burnt. I think this is the old house of the Silva family, which burned years ago.
So here I am, writing what has happened to me. Every moment I go to the window hoping to see someone to deliver these words. Who knows? Someone may enter this house during the day and save me! He is likely to go off to hunt another victim. So, if you can call the police or a lot of men to come here… If this is not possible, I just wish my family lives happy, do not worry about me. He is cruel, but he is never really a monster to me.
I almost felt sorry for her when I caught her handing this letter to a man passing by the window. You see, she knew that I have great hearing. Why did she yell at the man approaching? She knew I would not forgive something like this and that man would also pay! I really believed that she knew me. After all, we spent six years together. It was really a shame to have to suck all of her blood from her. I even enjoyed her company! Humans are really funny! Anyway, I will personally deliver her letter. This seemed to be a strong desire of hers. Never before has a woman of 86 years excited me as much as she. It will certainly be a long time until I find another as nice as her.
a story by
David W. Landrum
I was born with a caul—part of my mother’s womb attached to my head and covering my face. This is considered a good sign. The midwife preserved the caul and gave it to me. I bore it across the sea when I went to marry the King of Tunis. Perhaps the good weather we had then resulted from its presence (that is one story told about cauls). But if the stories about cauls are true, and they bestow some sort of special power to the one born covered, my behavior growing up would be more a sign of its magic than anything else.
Princesses live to be married. We learn to dance, look pretty, and manipulate men. I hated those expectations and detested the training I received to fulfill them. I remember rebelling against them at about age 9.
Some of my departures:
Riding. As a Princess, you learn to ride, but only so you can sit atop a white filly and go in a procession at a trot with two grooms walking alongside holding the reigns for you. I learned to ride at a ferocious gallop and soon had a stallion who would not listen to commands from anyone but me.
Walking. I walked in the wood. You may not deem that unusual, but a pure princess should not go where peasants live and wild animals roam; nor should she take off her shoes, hike up her skirts, and go wading in streams; or bathe in one of the delightful hot springs that erupted deep in my father’s hunting parks.
My parents were alarmed. As I came of age, the men to whom I might be married looked on me with a wary eye. I looked on them as crude, unlettered louts and did not return their overtures of affection. Most noblewomen in our kingdom were married off at age 16 or 17. I resisted the arrangements father proposed. Soon I was 20, then 22, 24—past the typical age of marriage. And I had no intention of becoming a nun.
Grumbling arose. Rumor spread that I had secretly become a Protestant—not true, but the fact that I, out of curiosity, had read Calvin, Luther, and Tyndale deepened the suspicion. Father grew anxious. Scheming nobles who wanted to be king abounded; they had allies and relatives in the Church. My behavior would give them occasion to bring a change against him. He knew that he had to do something with me, and soon.
I also knew what he had done to Prospero and his child Miranda. I had lodged for a Summer in the house of a noble family in Milan when I was 9 years. These nobles had a daughter who was lonely, so Father and Mother sent me there when Father said he had some ‘business’ in the area. I liked Cynthia. She taught me to speak English. I supplied her with books for clandestine reading. She was a delightful girl who shared my love for riding and mischief. She became my friend. One night, she snuck into my bed chamber and said she had seen my father. We dressed in warm, dark-colored garments and slipped down to the shoreline just below their home. Sure enough, Father was there, along with Antonio, the powerful Duke of Milan. We hid behind a rock as he, my Father, other nobles, and some soldiers herded Prospero and his three-year old daughter Miranda onto a vessel that even I could tell would sink when the first high wave struck it. We went back sobered. I had never thought my father capable of such treachery.
Time rolled on. When I reached age 25, Father and I got in an acrimonious quarrel where he told me I needed to either marry or enter a convent; that my being unmarried and unattached constituted a scandal.
I scoffed at him. “Scandal? I hid in the rocks the night you and Antonio sent Prospero and this poor little girl out on a rotten boat on a stormy night so they would die! Don’t lecture me about scandal!”
I should not have said that.
Father faced a dilemma. He could not kill his own daughter. I told him that if he put me in a convent, I would convert to Lutheranism. A few weeks later, he announced that he had brokered a marriage for me with Sulaimon, King of Tunis. Before I could protest, he put me in a sealed carriage, delivered me to a seaport and, accompanied by an entourage that included my brother, the detestable Duke of Milan, and a selection of others, and we sailed across the Mediterranean to Tunis, where I was married to the Tunisian king. None of my serving maidens accompanied me.
I don’t want to create any negative impressions. Sulaimon dazzled me with his beauty, strength, and courtesy. Tall, a warrior, with lovely black skin, piercing eyes, and a noble demeanor, he struck me as a better match than any of the scheming nobles who stood as possibilities in my homeland. I delivered three strong children—all boys and potential heirs, which everyone applauded. I loved Sulaimon and cherished his embrace. He came to my bedchamber frequently and did not take another wife all the years we were together. Sulaimon allowed me to practice my religion and did not force me to convert to Islam. I had serving maidens who were Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.
Not everything went smoothly. Some of the men on the Council of Elders who advised the king thought having an unbeliever in the palace did not bode well. They said I had surrounded myself with unbelievers and alleged that I meant to mislead the young women of the city so they would abandon their Muslim faith. My husband did not want to antagonize the Council, so he had his Grand Vizier appoint a ‘guardian’ for me.
I expected an older woman. Caliana, my age, an incredibly beautiful woman but stern and severe, became this guardian. She stayed near me all day. At night she slept in a chamber adjacent to mine. When the weather turned cold, she was my bedfellow. Everywhere I went, she accompanied me like my shadow—a constant presence in my life. Caliana had taken some sort of vow and could not marry until her vow ended four years from when she first joined my entourage. Until that time, she devoted all of her vigilant energy to keeping an eye on me. She belonged to a sect of Islam that pursued a fanatical interpretation of the faith and enforced severe asceticism on its followers. Her sour milk expression and judgmental silence could dampen even the most joyous celebration or excursion.
One morning I finished nursing my youngest son, Amahl, left him with an attendant, spent some time with my other two boys, and got ready to go riding by the sea. We cantered to a grove of trees where a spring poured water into the ocean, dismounted, and let our horses drink. It was then that we saw the bakahasten. It walked out of the trees, a magnificent white horse. We marveled at its beauty, but most of all Caliana seemed taken by it. She gaped as it stood in the fog, tossing its head, its long white mane shaking, its body shining in the grey dimness. Almost as if in a trance, she walked toward it. Everyone wanted to tell to her to stop, but my maidens were afraid of her, the guards did not feel that they should speak to her, and I did not quite understand what was going on. Caliana liked to ride—it was one of the few things she liked to do, but anyone knows you must be careful around a wild horse. This was a stallion, ferocious-looking, huge, and formidable. She walked toward him as if in a trance. Later I found out the cult to which she belonged made much of the Prophet’s ascent into heaven on his horse. They taught that such a horse would appear to carry the most righteous of their followers to Paradise. Caliana thought that she had been chosen, I suppose, maybe believing that she would ascend to heaven as the Prophet did.
I knew about bakahasten, brook horses, through the stories Cynthia’s mother had told me. They were water spirits, could change their shapes, and seemed to favor transforming into the shape of a horse. I wanted to cry out and warn Caliana, but by the time I realized what was happening she had pulled up her skirts and leapt on to the horse’s back.
The animal reared, bolted, and headed off at a sprint toward the seashore. My maidens cried out in horror. The soldiers mounted up and gave chase, but they had barely gotten into the saddle when the creature plunged into the water. Caliana screamed and tried to leap off its back. I knew, from what Cynthia had told me, that she would not be able to free herself and that the bakahasten would plunge her into the depths and drown her. After only a moment, her head and the horse’s head vanished beneath the slate-colored waves.
The women wailed and prayed. The soldiers took their horses into the sea as far as they safely could. I knew they would find no trace of her. The bakahasten had drowned Caliana. It would turn back into its form as a water spirit so as to be undetectable.
The day after we brought the news of Caliana’s death home, I dressed in sackcloth, put ashes on my head, and walked barefoot to a shrine her particular sect considered a sacred place. The 2 mile walk to the shrine exhausted me. Once there, I had the Muslim women among my attendants pray at the shrine. Back at the palace, I decreed three days of solemnity to commemorate her death, returned to my chamber, bathed, and fell into bed.
The next night Sulaimon and I dined at the home of the leader of the Jews in our city. That night I met Jacob. I also heard about the appearance of the Lotan. I asked what this might be.
“A sea creature,” said Abraham ben David, the leader of the Jewish community. “It is large and dangerous—the Hebrews call it Leviathan, the Greeks the Kraken. For centuries it has not been seen, but suddenly it has reappeared—very near to our shores.”
“Why would it appear after being gone for so many years?” my husband asked.
“Because of the magic of the Witch Sycorax,” replied a man far down the table where the lower-ranking people sat. All eyes turned to him. He looked to be 30 years or so, with sandy hair and a light beard. He dressed plainly but elegantly and did not seem reticent to speak despite his placement near the lower end of the table.
“Please explain,” said Sulaimon, overlooking the man’s speaking out of turn and intruding into the conversation of those who outranked him.
“On an island to the north lived a witch who for centuries cast her evil magic over our seas. She died, but the evil lived on until a magician named Prospero came to rule her island. He has gone now—happily returned to his homeland—but the evil of Sycorax, even though she died long ago, has asserted itself. Since Prospero’s magic no longer restrains the evil residing on the island—not to say the monsters Sycorax created—evil once again stalks the seas and, now, our shoreline.”
The man’s words sobered us. Abraham ben David brought in musicians and singers. Their performance put us back in a festive mode, and the party ended on an upbeat note. We got to bed late. I spent the next day with the children. In the evening my husband and I met with some new British merchants who had applied for admission to Tunisian territory as traders. They seemed shaken and said they had seen a sea monster off in the distance as they passed the Kerkennah Islands.
This troubled Sulaimon greatly. I asked him why what the British trader said had upset him so much. He paused a long moment, looking up at the moon that shined through our window and cast its light in a white square onto the bed.
“I know of Sycorax. My father ruled Algiers and was the one who banished her.”
Sulaimon’s father had divided his kingdom between three sons. Sulaimon received Tunis, his brothers Tripoli and Algiers.
“She is dead, but now the evil things she created by her sorcery are coming to exact her revenge.”
“Why would they come here and not to Algiers or Tripoli?”
“For one, this city is closest to her island; and I am the oldest son.”
The next day, the creature attacked.
The palace overlooks the harbor. Our family was eating fruit on the cool of the roof and enjoying the beautiful weather when the creature reared up out the depths. I screamed, recovered, had the serving women take the children to a safe place, and watched with horror as the monster attacked our harbor. Huge and scaly, much like the descriptions I had read of dragons, with giant claws and rows of sharp teeth, it wound its way around an anchored ship, tightened its serpentine body, and broke the vessel to pieces. It dove again and surfaced, capsizing another vessel; then, with its long tail, demolished a section of the sea wall that protected our city from the bay waters.
People fled in terror. Our soldiers released arrows at it, but they had no effect. A citadel guards the harbor and is fitted out to fight against an invasion by sea. The men there activated catapults and ballista. Large stones moving at high velocity and huge arrows from the ballista hit and seemed to hurt the creature a little. One shaft from a ballista stuck in its side. It emitted a loud, high-pitched scream that hurt my ears, used its claws to extract the arrow, and slipped back into the sea. We waited. As if to show us we had hurt but not defeated it, it rose out of the water, crushed one more ship, and slipped away into the open water.
I went to my bedchamber, where all my maidens knelt and prayed for deliverance. I joined them. The city was in chaos. People fled in droves for the hills. Mosques, churches, and synagogues filled with suppliants pleading with the heavens to keep them safe. My husband met with his staff and worked far into the night to reinforce our defenses.
I went to his chamber, but he was asleep from exhaustion. Upset, I took Angela and Lenora, my Italian and English serving women, up on the rooftop to pray. I felt too upset to do so, told them to pray, and stared out at the sea. It sparkled with small waves beneath the moon. After a moment, I looked over at my women. They had fallen asleep. I heard a noise, turned, and saw Jacob ben Gaon-Abuha. I almost screamed, but he held up a hand and I could not open my mouth.
“Peace, Queen Claribel. I mean you no harm. I will free your tongue now.”
I could speak again. Rather than screaming, I kept my voice low and asked him what he wanted and how he could be so impudent as to intrude into the harem.
“I beg pardon. It is necessary. The British merchants who spoke with you told the truth. The Lotan is near. Even now it sleeps at the bottom of your harbor and will unleash its fury on the city when it awakes. You alone are able to stop it, my Queen.”
“I deem it improper for you to be here.”
“I came here by magic. I put the sleep on your serving maidens. The situation is dire.”
“And how can I help the situation?”
“You can meet with Sycorax.”
“My husband said she is dead.”
“Witches die but travel to other lives. Sycorax is alive again. She has a new life.”
“If the creatures she created are filled with her hatred for our kingdom, what does it matter that she has a new life? The creatures will still exact revenge. Does she remember the old life she led on the island?”
“She remembers all her lives. Perhaps you can persuade her to leave us in peace.”
“I? What could I possibly do to persuade her?”
“We think only the human mind has memory. Earth remembers too. The memories her island holds reside within her heart. She knows what Prospero knew, and Prospero knew that you and the English girl who was your friend saw him sent to exile and were aghast at your father’s treachery. She admires you for this.”
I gaped. When I could speak, I said, “She knows of me?”
“She was already dead when Prospero arrived. But, as I said, the island remembers and she hears its thoughts. And she can hear the thoughts of her son Caliban.”
“Was she not a wicked woman?”
“In her prior life, she was. Remember, though, she has received another life. She is a changed woman. The life she inherited has given her a mild spirit and a propensity to do good. You might persuade her to undo the magic of her past life. Our city would be spared. Your husband, and his brothers, would escape the revenge she sent out in her former life.”
“How can I find her?”
“I will take you to her. You must agree to the journey. It will be outside of time, so your maidens will be there sleeping.”
“I’ll come with you,” I answered, “but not alone. I will insist that my serving maidens accompany me. Please wake them.”
He gave me a look. I suppose I was being snippy, but I needed to show him I had a authority in the face of his magic. He waved a hand. Lenora and Angela awoke. I explained to them what had happened and said I wanted them to accompany me. Lenora knew Jacob and seemed respectful and a bit afraid of him. Angela, who was devout, detested anyone who trafficked in magic. Still, they agreed.
I thought Jacob would magically transport us to where Sycorax, in her new incarnation, dwelt, but we walked down from the rooftop, through the courtyard, out the front gate, and into the city. We passed innumerable guards who took no notice of us. The same thing happened as we walked the city streets to the harbor. None of the watchmen saw us; nor did the thieves and prostitutes who roam there in the dark hours. We walked to the docks, avoiding the ruined sections, and climbed into a boat docked at one end. Jacob rowed us into the moonlit bay. In only minutes we came upon an island so far from the city we could barely see the beacon lights burning on shore.
We disembarked, walked a short distance, and came to cave where I was told Sycorax dwelt.
“You must go in alone,” said Jacob. “Remember what is at stake. Some people in the city dislike you. They will attribute the appearance of the Lotan to your presence and seek to have you killed. Don’t underestimate their power. My people are often blamed for any disaster that befalls our land. It is to our advantage that the creature leave our shores. Go in now.”
“What will I say to her?”
“The prophecy is dark at this point. I don’t know. Trust your heart, as you always have. The words will come when your heart speaks.”
I walked into the cavern. It had a dry, sandy floor and dry rock walls; it was not damp and not filled with spiders and other vermin. I smelled wood smoke and saw a dim light burning and casting long, unsettling shadows. I turned a corner which opened to a much larger section with a taller stone ceiling. A small fire burned. Sycorax sat behind it.
I had expected a hideous old woman. Sailors spoke of Sycorax and said the evil inside her had twisted her body to the extent that she was bent double like a hoop and her appearance frightened even tough mariners who did not fear storms and waterspouts. But instead of such a sight, my eyes fell on a young woman who rested a chair of stone, beautiful in the blaze of the fire. Her skin glowed vivid blue as I had always imagined the skin of water nymphs in Greek legend to look. Long, black hair fell over her shoulders, framing her. She wore a simply cut garment and no jewelry. I hesitated a moment and then sank down on one knee.
“It isn’t every day that a Queen kneels before a penniless woman.”
“Your wealth in magic is great, Lady Sycorax. And if beauty were wealth, I would be a pauper in comparison to you.”
She laughed. I guessed that was good.
“You have a way with words, Queen Claribel. I wandered many years in the spaces between before I found the path to a new life. You’ve given me the first compliment in my fresh existence.”
“It will be the first of many, be assured.”
“And you want me to stop the Lotan from ravaging your city?”
“I do, my Lady. I know you seek justice and requital for the wrong done to you. My husband was only three years old when you were banished. Should the sons suffer for the sins of the father?”
“Jacob ben Gaon-Abuha brought you here. What you have said is written in the holy writings of his people, is it not?”
The nuns had taught me some of the Old Testament, and I remembered, though vaguely, their teaching that a father should not suffer for the sins of his son nor a son for the sins of his father but that every man should bear his own sin.
“He fears for the welfare of his people, Claribel, as you fear—rightly—for your own safety. Yet I cannot punish his father, so how is justice to be done?”
“Is punishment necessary?”
“For me it is. My spirit will not rest until punishment for what was done to me is meted out. Someone or something must pay for that crime. The odious nature of the deed flutters in my spirit and in my memory like a hateful bird. I will not be able to assume my new existence fully until the matter is taken care of.”
I hesitated, gathered my courage, and then spoke. “May the punishment fall upon me?”
She stared at me a moment and then laughed. “I forget that you are a Christian. And I suppose it could. Let’s say, yes. But I like you. I don’t want you destroyed. Why are you willing to take your husband’s place?”
“I don’t wish to perish—but I love him. I have given him three sons.”
“Your sons will carry on his name.”
“They are young. If he isn’t there to protect them, they will die at the hands of treacherous men who would take the throne for themselves.”
“Rise,” she ordered, “and look into the fire.”
I gazed down into the orange flames. Suddenly I saw myself lying on my bed. My eyes were bulging, my tongue protruding, a dark line encircled my neck. I had been strangled by assassins. I heard screaming and pleading. My serving women were being murdered. My husband had been killed by the Lotan. My sons, undoubtedly, were captive, if not already slain. The vision faded. I saw the fire again.
“You are correct in your assumption. Return to your city. Go out and stand on the dock when the sun appears. The Lotan will come. Go now. This is all I have to say to you.”
We returned. I did not feel like speaking. Sycorax had changed, but the law of retribution had not. Someone had to pay the price for what was done to her. It would be me.
By the time we arrived back home, it was nearly dawn. I went to my chamber, washed, prayed, and dressed in a simple garment. In the grey of pre-morning, I stole out of my bedchamber and into the courtyard. Lenora and Angela were there.
“You didn’t tell us what the witch said to you,” said Lenora, “but we know your spirit, Claribel. We will go by your side.”
“I won’t hear of it. Return to your rooms.”
“We have never disobeyed you,” said Angela. “But this is different. It would be unseemly for you to die unattended. Give us the honor of dying with you.”
I could see that they would not be persuaded. And what they said was true. If people saw me walking through the city alone (and not hidden by magic) they would be suspicious. Tears came to my eyes to think two beautiful young women would be willing to go with me and die in their virginity for the honor of my name. I nodded. The three of us walked out to the docks.
I took my stand on the part that jutted furthest out into sea. Lenora and Angela took up positions on either side of us. The people of Tunis were too afraid to go near the docks, but when they recognized me, hundreds of them surged down toward us. The sun broke the horizon. The waters of the bay began to boil. I gathered my courage. Lenora and Angela blenched with fear but stood still. I felt Lenora squeeze my hand. The sun rose higher. The waters churched and splashed, and we saw the head of the Lotan rise from the bay.
I prayed my death would be a quick one. I suppose my maidens were praying the same, but the Lotan did not lunge at us and swipe us off the dock and into its maw as I thought it would. We waited, hearts pounding, and saw its back, claws, and tail emerge out of the waves. I realized that it was floating—not swimming and not moving. It had no strength. It was dead. What we were seeing was its corpse.
Lenora collapsed. Angela and I caught her. By that time the townspeople had seen that the Lotan was not alive. They flocked to us, shouting that the monster was dead and I had killed it. I had saved the city. Physicians rushed to me and asked if I was alright. I felt faint. They cared for me until my husband appeared. His guards carried me back to the palace. Our sailors launched boats into the bay, snagged the Lotan with grappling hooks, and dragged it out to sea so the rotting of its body would not foul the waters of our harbor. I went to my bedchamber.
I told Sulaimon everything. We had no secrets. He said I had been wise. That night I had Lenora sleep with me. Her warmth and nearness were assuring. I woke in the early morning hours when a strange silence fell. I could hear no one breathe or stir. I sat up in bed and saw Sycorax, in all her beauty, standing beside me.
“My Lady,” I said quietly.
“You have done well. I said someone, or something, had to die. Creatures such as the Lotan are constructed of old passions and hatreds. It was time for it to go away. Retribution will come. Your kingdom will be conquered, but not in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your sons’ sons. Your place is secure.” She vanished. I heard Lenora’s quiet breathing. I closed my eyes, weary but reassured. The grace of the forbidden had opened doors for me in the past. Its magic had worked good for me again.
David W. Landrum teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including Web Del Sol, The Barefoot Muse, WORM, riverrun, and many others.
a story by
When I was in cosmetology school in Pensacola back in the mid-80’s, there was a Pensacola Jr. College student who came in early one morning before class to have his long black hair cut.
“Just give it a little trim,” he said as he pulled his faded green Army jacket closer to his thin frame, as if it were colder in the salon than in the chill outside.
I began to do as he asked.
“Those look sharp,” he said of my haircutting shears—the ones I had paid $100 for, which was astronomical for those times.
“They’re sharp alright. I cut myself pretty often. What’s your first class?”
“English Literature. I’m a freshman. I know I don’t really look like a freshman. That’s because I’m twenty-three. I fished for crab in Alaska for a few years. I thought it’d be fun. It was, and it wasn’t. It was hard. I’ll tell ya that much.”
“Sounds interesting,” I replied. I was envious. I had never done anything. I had never been anywhere. My experiences in life were relegated to interesting conversations with students attending Pensacola Jr. College.
“You into Punk Rock?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I replied less hardily than I felt. My heart thrilled. The Punk subculture meant everything to me. Angry, aggressive middle-class kids screaming that their lives had been ruined by this and that and the other, mainly their parents. Today, it all seems so silly. Then, it was what I lived for… while refusing to be a part of the burgeoning Punk scene in Pensacola.
“You act like a Punk Rocker,” he said. “You’re kinda tough and cool at the same time. You’re kinda… scary.”
I felt empowered. It didn’t take much to make me swell with pride in the browbeaten days of my youth. I mean, this little, wiry, dark-haired guy who could pass for a seasoned AWOL soldier or a well-traveled European was saying that I—a boy found mostly in a world of poetry and dreams—was scary.
“We’re the same age,” I said as I undid the nylon cape from around him and shook off the cut hairs.
“I guess you’re getting a late start in life too. Thanks for the haircut. It looks great. My name’s Frithjof. It’s Norse.” He handed me two dollars as a tip and stepped out the door into the cold, unbuttoning his jacket as he went.
Two days later Frithjof came back in. His hair was the same length as it had been before I cut it. This time as I trimmed his locks, the conversation was a bit more surreal.
“You ever fished for albermagon in Pensacola Bay?” he asked me.
“What are albermagon?”
“A kind of fish that taste a little like catfish, but not really.”
“I like friend oysters, but that’s about it for fried seafood.”
“Albermagon taste like oysters too,” he added. “You ever lived in Los Angeles?”
“No,” I replied.
“You will,” he said matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean by that, Frithjof?”
“Oh, nothing really. Only that one day soon you’re going to be living in Hollywood, California. That’s all I meant.”
“That is a really strange thing to say.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Frithjof laughed along with me, and said nothing more on the subject. By this time I was fairly used to very strange people saying really odd things. It was Pensacola after all. A place that, to this day, I really despise, but that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the absolutely bizarre conversations one can have with seemingly normal people. There’s something in the air… or the water.
As I shook the thin nylon cape out again, Frithjof tipped me two dollars, as he had done the time before, unbuttoned his Army coat and walked out into the cold January morning.
“Yeah?” I turned to the voice of one of my cosmetology classmates. It was Susanna.
“Lamb, that guy you just cut… he came in three times last week. And every time, his hair was the same length. I cut it all three times.”
“Really?” I replied. “That’s just weird.”
“You’re tellin’ me.”
The next morning Frithjof came back in for another haircut. His hair was halfway down his back. I felt very nervous.
“Haircut?” he said. “You can take most of it off this time. Just leave me a long bang in the front. That’ll look cool.”
“Sure you don’t want a tiger stripe mohawk?” I asked him.
“Can we do that?” His eyes grew wide with childlike glee.
“Sure!” I was excited to do something different than permanent waves and hair trims. “Let’s get your mohawk cut first, then we’ll mix up the bleach and get it lookin’ cool!”
I cut Frithjof’s hair the way he wanted it, and then left him there for a few minutes while I went to mix up the bleach. But when I returned, he was gone.
He never came back to the salon again.
Two years later I saw him walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Yes, the one in California. I wanted to say something, but he was too far away, and I didn’t want to yell. I was late for work anyway.
Lamb Shepherd is a writer who lives in Hollywood. Sometimes, anyway.
Noose, Dead Fruit
a story by
There’s a hangman in the wind tonight. They left him hanging in an old oak tree. Whistling in the dead night air. Whistling an earthy lullaby. As the wind catches gaps. In his broken teeth. The old tree cradles him. As a mother holds her plague child. Shaking and rustling.
The orange and brown leaves still dead from winter. Left hanging on an old oak tree. Like executed men on stem nooses. Flies rest to the sounds of music. With full bellies. Finding perch to feast before. Taking flight. And beating their paper thin membrane wings together. The world moves differently through the many colored eyes. Of flies. Decrepit flesh swaying in the cold spring night.
Storms patrol sectors on the planes. Lumbering giants. Taking slow gargantuan steps across the sky. Inclement guardians, their. Purpose comes from the direction of wind.
Lighting explodes silently. Painting surreal and without purpose. Pale eyes. Stare without hesitation or purpose. Onto oblivion. And over the planes of beasts.
Thunder crackles to life. In an artillery-like barrage of percussion. Beating the drums of war. Along to the hangman’s whistle. Calling home the night.
Nate Caines was born and raised in Chicago, but grew up mostly in the woods. After high school he ran away to various mountains, where he still dwells. Previous to this story, he was unpublished in any field.
The Haunted Palace
a story by
Edgar Allan Poe
In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace–
Radiant palace- reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion–
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,
(This–all this–was in the olden
Time long ago,)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!–for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh–but smile no more.
a story by
The new family has been living in my house now for five months. I like them better than the old family. They don’t snap at each other or argue about money like the old family did. They’re nicer, happier, warmer people. There are three of them: John, Lisa, and Maggie. They have a dog, too—a Border Collie named Tuxedo. I gather from their dinner conversations that John works at a bank. He is gone from six in the morning until six at night almost every day, and when he comes home, he always looks dead tired. He is never unpleasant,though. He always kisses Lisa and asks her how her day was. He picks up Maggie, twirls her around, and tickles her. He’s a good dad.
Lisa stays home with Maggie. She spends most days on the couch in the den, drinking coffee out of a glass mug, watching television, needlepointing pictures of foxes and rabbits in Victorian clothing. She isn’t a hovering mother, but she isn’t inattentive either. A few times a day, she puts down her needlepoint and does a puzzle with Maggie. Or the two of them sit at the dining room table and draw with crayons.
Maggie loves to draw, and she’s quite good for a four year old. She doesn’t just draw stick figures. Her crayon people have discernible features—eyes and noses, mouths and teeth, fingers and toes. They have bodies with proportional legs and arms. Her favorite subjects to draw are her mom and dad. She always draws her mom in a pink dress and her dad in his work clothes—a gray suit and tie. She draws me, too. She draws me in a white dress. With long brown hair and blue eyes. I guess it looks like me. I don’t exactly remember what I look like to be honest. I haven’t seen myself for a long time. I can’t see myself in mirrors anymore. I wish I could.
When John and Lisa ask Maggie who the lady in the white dress is, she says it’s her friend Mary. My name is actually Marianne, but Mary is close enough. I’ve stopped trying to correct her. John and Lisa think I’m Maggie’s imaginary friend. Lisa thinks Maggie invented me because she doesn’t have any friends her own age yet, and she’s lonely. She’s been pushing John particularly hard the past few weeks to enroll Maggie in preschool. She thinks that’s the solution to the problem. John isn’t as concerned about Maggie being lonely. He says Maggie is just creative. He says she would probably invent imaginary friends even if she had a dozen real friends.
Neither John nor Lisa has ever considered the possibility that I might not be imaginary. At least they’ve never admitted to considering it. I can’t blame them. They can’t see me or hear me or sense me in any way. Only Maggie can. Maggie and Tuxedo. When they first moved in, Tuxedo would bark his head off whenever I came around, but he’s gotten used to me. He doesn’t even flinch when he sees me now. He knows I’m not a threat. He knows I mean well.
Maggie has fantastic taste in movies. She likes Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade and The Wizard of Oz just like I did when I was a little girl. She knows all of the words to “Over the Rainbow,” and she can sing it from beginning to end without hitting one bum note. She has beautiful little voice—clear and high and lilting, like a flute. If she doesn’t become an artist when she grows up, I could see her becoming a singer. Maybe she’ll be the next Judy Garland. I think she has the talent. I wanted to be Judy Garland when I was a little girl, but I could never carry a tune. You can’t really teach yourself to be a good singer. You either are or you aren’t.
Friday night is always “date night” for John and Lisa. They go out to dinner or a movie, and Lisa’s mother, Anne, comes over to watch Maggie. Anne is a sweet old lady, but she spoils Maggie like you wouldn’t believe. Each time she comes over, she brings Maggie a new gift—a toy or a dress or a game of some kind. Most of Maggie’s toys and clothes come from Anne. Lisa and John get Maggie toys and clothes, too, but they can’t compete with Anne. Lisa has told Anne on several occasions to stop buying so much stuff for Maggie, but Anne can’t be stopped. “I’m a rich old lady, and she’s my only grandchild,” she always says to Lisa. “Let me have a little fun before I die.”
The way Anne talks, you’d think she was going to die tomorrow. I think she’s probably got at least ten more years in her. She’s pretty spry for a seventy-year-old. She turned seventy just last week. John and Lisa threw a party for her at the house. About twenty people came over—an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins. All of them sidled up to Anne at some point in the evening and quietly assured her that she didn’t look anywhere near seventy, which is true. She doesn’t. She still has thick dark hair and a nice slim figure, and her face isn’t nearly as lined or eroded as the faces of some seventy-year-olds you see. I would be eighty this year. I shudder to think about what I would look like. My grandmother looked about a hundred when she was seventy. There are some benefits to dying young. I wish I could have lived a little longer, though. Nineteen is too young.
Sometimes I get mad when I think about all that I missed. I wish I could have gotten married. I wish I could have been a mother. I wish I could have spent more time with my parents. I miss my parents very much. They were both marvelous people. My father was a smiling, affable Irishman who made friends easily and told the most delightful stories about his childhood in Donegal. My mother was a quiet, dark-haired woman from a respectable middle-class Italian family. She loved to read poetry and play the piano. Many a Sunday afternoon I spent lounging on the living room sofa while she played Liszt and Debussy, Chopin and Mozart. She had perfect time and exquisite control over the instrument. She tried to teach me to play, but I didn’t have the patience for it. Like my father, if I wasn’t good at something right away, I gave up. My mother was all patience—patience and kindness.
I don’t know why my parents aren’t here now. I don’t know why it’s just me in this house. I don’t have any unfinished business. I don’t have any interest in haunting anybody or chasing anybody out. If I could get out of here, I would. But every time I move toward the door, it pulls away from me. I can never reach it. I’ve stopped trying. Maybe I’ll be here forever. It’s a sad thought. At least I have Maggie.
I hope Maggie doesn’t stop seeing me, but she probably will. It’s just a matter of time. No teenagers or adults have ever been able to see me. The Thompson’s little boy, Jeremy, stopped seeing me when he was about six. I didn’t mind, though. I didn’t much enjoy talking to him. He was a cruel child—always throwing the cat down the stairs and breaking his mother’s dishes just to rile her up. He’s probably in prison now—if he’s even still alive. I will definitely mind when Maggie stops seeing me. She’s such a sweet girl. She has such a good heart. I’d like to think that if I’d been lucky enough to have a girl of my own, she would have been like Maggie.
Nights are the hardest—when it’s quiet and dark and there’s no conversation or activity to keep my mind off myself, off my situation. I stay in Maggie’s room. She knows I’m there, and she always says, “Goodnight, Mary,” after Lisa turns out the light and leaves. I don’t sleep. I don’t think I can sleep. But I wouldn’t even if I could. I like to keep watch over Maggie. I feel like I’m protecting her. I’m not, of course. If there were any threat—an intruder, a fire—there is nothing I could do to save her. Still, I feel like she’s safer when I’m there, as if my good will, my affection, my love were a sort of shield. I wish I could always be with her, but I know that can’t be. She’ll grow up. She’ll leave home. She’ll meet a man and have kids. She’ll do great things in the world. And that is as it should be. I hope she has a happy, productive life. And I hope she lives a long, long time.
Jack Somers earned his BA from Georgetown University in 2004 and his MAT from Brown University in 2006. For the past nine years, he has taught English at an independent high school in Cleveland. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and two children. Recently, he completed his first novel, Parnell’s Prime.The novel is available now on Amazon.You can learn more about the novel and Jack at http://www.parnellsprime.com
The Beresford Ghost
a true story by
“There is at Curraghmore, the seat of Lord Waterford, in Ireland, a manuscript account of the tale, such as it was originally received and implicitly believed in by the children and grandchildren of the lady to whom Lord Tyrone is supposed to have made the supernatural appearance after death. The account was written by Lady Betty Cobbe, the youngest daughter of Marcus, Earl of Tyrone, and granddaughter of Nicola S., Lady Beresford. She lived to a good old age, in full use of all her faculties, both of body and mind. I can myself remember her, for when a boy I passed through Bath on a journey with my mother, and we went to her house there, and had luncheon. She appeared to my juvenile imagination a very appropriate person to revise and transmit such a tale, and fully adapted to do ample justice to her subject-matter. It never has been doubted in the family that she received the full particulars in early life, and that she heard the circumstances, such as they were believed to have occurred, from the nearest relatives of the two persons, the supposed actors in this mysterious interview, viz., from her own father, Lord Tyrone, who died in 1763, and from her aunt, Lady Riverston, who died in 1763 also.
“These two were both with their mother, Lady Beresford, on the day of her decease, and they, without assistance or witness, took off from their parent’s wrist the black bandage which she had always worn on all occasions and times, even at Court, as some very old persons who lived well into the eighteenth century testified, having received their information from eyewitnesses of the fact. There was an oil painting of this lady in Tyrone House, Dublin, representing her with a black ribbon bound round her wrist. This portrait disappeared in an unaccountable manner. It used to hang in one of the drawing-rooms in that mansion, with other family pictures. When Henry, Marquis of Waterford, sold the old town residence of the family and its grounds to the Government as the site of the Education Board, he directed Mr. Watkins, a dealer in pictures, and a man of considerable knowledge in works of art and virtue, to collect the pictures, etc., etc., which were best adapted for removal to Curraghmore. Mr. Watkins especially picked out this portrait, not only as a good work of art, but as one which, from its associations, deserved particular care and notice. When, however, the lot arrived at Curraghmore and was unpacked, no such picture was found; and though Mr. Watkins took great pains and exerted himself to the utmost to trace what had become of it, to this day (nearly forty years), not a hint of its existence has been received or heard of.
“John le Poer, Lord Decies, was the eldest son of Richard, Earl of Tyrone, and of Lady Dorothy Annesley, daughter of Arthur, Earl of Anglesey. He was born 1665, succeeded his father 1690, and died 14th October, 1693. He became Lord Tyrone at his father’s death, and is the ‘ghost’ of the story.
“Nicola Sophie Hamilton was the second and youngest daughter and co-heiress of Hugh, Lord Glenawley, who was also Baron Lunge in Sweden. Being a zealous Royalist, he had, together with his father, migrated to that country in 1643, and returned from it at the Restoration. He was of a good old family, and held considerable landed property in the county Tyrone, near Ballygawley. He died there in 1679. His eldest daughter and co-heiress, Arabella Susanna, married, in 1683, Sir John Macgill, of Gill Hall, in the county Down.
“Nicola S. (the second daughter) was born in 1666, and married Sir Tristram Beresford in 1687. Between that and 1693 two daughters were born, but no son to inherit the ample landed estates of his father, who most anxiously wished and hoped for an heir. It was under these circumstances, and at this period, that the manuscripts state that Lord Tyrone made his appearance after death; and all the versions of the story, without variation, attribute the same cause and reason, viz., a solemn promise mutually interchanged in early life between John le Poer, then Lord Decies, afterwards Lord Tyrone, and Nicola S. Hamilton, that whichever of the two died the first, should, if permitted, appear to the survivor for the object of declaring the approval or rejection by the Deity of the revealed religion as generally acknowledged: of which the departed one must be fully cognizant, but of which they both had in their youth entertained unfortunate doubts.
“In the month of October, 1693, Sir Tristram and Lady Beresford went on a visit to her sister, Lady Macgill, at Gill Hall, now the seat of Lord Clanwilliam, whose grandmother was eventually the heiress of Sir J. Macgill’s property. One morning Sir Tristram rose early, leaving Lady Beresford asleep, and went out for a walk before breakfast. When his wife joined the table very late, her appearance and the embarrassment of her manner attracted general attention, especially that of her husband. He made anxious inquiries as to her health, and asked her apart what had occurred to her wrist, which was tied up with black ribbon tightly bound round it. She earnestly entreated him not to inquire more then, or thereafter, as to the cause of her wearing or continuing afterwards to wear that ribbon; ‘for,’ she added, ‘you will never see me without it’. He replied, ‘Since you urge it so vehemently, I promise you not to inquire more about it’.
“After completing her hurried breakfast she made anxious inquiries as to whether the post had yet arrived. It had not yet come in; and Sir Tristram asked: ‘Why are you so particularly eager about letters to-day?’ ‘Because I expect to hear of Lord Tyrone’s death, which took place on Tuesday.’ ‘Well,’ remarked Sir Tristram, ‘I never should have put you down for a superstitious person; but I suppose that some idle dream has disturbed you.’ Shortly after, the servant brought in the letters; one was sealed with black wax. ‘It is as I expected,’ she cries; ‘he is dead.’ The letter was from Lord Tyrone’s steward to inform them that his master had died in Dublin, on Tuesday, 14th October, at 4 p.m. Sir Tristram endeavoured to console her, and begged her to restrain her grief, when she assured him that she felt relieved and easier now that she knew the actual fact. She added, ‘I can now give you a most satisfactory piece of intelligence, viz., that I am with child, and that it will be a boy’. A son was born in the following July. Sir Tristram survived its birth little more than six years. After his death Lady Beresford continued to reside with her young family at his place in the county of Derry, and seldom went from home. She hardly mingled with any neighbours or friends, excepting with Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, of Coleraine. He was the principal personage in that town, and was, by his mother, a near relative of Sir Tristram. His wife was the daughter of Robert Gorges, LL.D. (a gentleman of good old English family, and possessed of a considerable estate in the county Meath), by Jane Loftus, daughter of Sir Adam Loftus, of Rathfarnham, and sister of Lord Lisburn. They had an only son, Richard Gorges, who was in the army, and became a general officer very early in life. With the Jacksons Lady Beresford maintained a constant communication and lived on the most intimate terms, while she seemed determined to eschew all other society and to remain in her chosen retirement.
“At the conclusion of three years thus passed, one luckless day “Young Gorges” most vehemently professed his passion for her, and solicited her hand, urging his suit in a most passionate appeal, which was evidently not displeasing to the fair widow, and which, unfortunately for her, was successful. They were married in 1704. One son and two daughters were born to them, when his abandoned and dissolute conduct forced her to seek and to obtain a separation. After this had continued for four years, General Gorges pretended extreme penitence for his past misdeeds, and with the most solemn promises of amendment induced his wife to live with him again, and she became the mother of a second son. The day month after her confinement happened to be her birthday, and having recovered and feeling herself equal to some exertion, she sent for her son, Sir Marcus Beresford, then twenty years old, and her married daughter, Lady Riverston. She also invited Dr. King, the Archbishop of Dublin (who was an intimate friend), and an old clergyman who had christened her, and who had always kept up a most kindly intercourse with her during her whole life, to make up a small party to celebrate the day.
“In the early part of it Lady Beresford was engaged in a kindly conversation with her old friend the clergyman, and in the course of it said: ‘You know that I am forty-eight this day’. ‘No, indeed,’ he replied; ‘you are only forty-seven, for your mother had a dispute with me once on the very subject of your age, and I in consequence sent and consulted the registry, and can most confidently assert that you are only forty-seven this day.’ ‘You have signed my death-warrant, then,’ she cried; ‘leave me, I pray, for I have not much longer to live, but have many things of grave importance to settle before I die. Send my son and my daughter to me immediately.’ The clergyman did as he was bidden. He directed Sir Marcus and his sister to go instantly to their mother; and he sent to the archbishop and a few other friends to put them off from joining the birthday party.
“When her two children repaired to Lady Beresford, she thus addressed them: ‘I have something of deep importance to communicate to you, my dear children, before I die. You are no strangers to the intimacy and the affection which subsisted in early life between Lord Tyrone and myself. We were educated together when young, under the same roof, in the pernicious principles of Deism. Our real friends afterwards took every opportunity to convince us of our error, but their arguments were insufficient to overpower and uproot our infidelity, though they had the effect of shaking our confidence in it, and thus leaving us wavering between the two opinions. In this perplexing state of doubt we made a solemn promise one to the other, that whichever died first should, if permitted, appear to the other for the purpose of declaring what religion was the one acceptable to the Almighty. One night, years after this interchange of promises, I was sleeping with your father at Gill Hall, when I suddenly awoke and discovered Lord Tyrone sitting visibly by the side of the bed. I screamed out, and vainly endeavoured to rouse Sir Tristram. “Tell me,” I said, “Lord Tyrone, why and wherefore are you here at this time of the night?” “Have you then forgotten our promise to each other, pledged in early life? I died on Tuesday, at four o’clock. I have been permitted thus to appear in order to assure you that the revealed religion is the true and only one by which we can be saved. I am also suffered to inform you that you are with child, and will produce a son, who will marry my heiress; that Sir Tristram will not live long, when you will marry again, and you will die from the effects of childbirth in your forty-seventh year.” I begged from him some convincing sign or proof so that when the morning came I might rely upon it, and feel satisfied that his appearance had been real, and that it was not the phantom of my imagination. He caused the hangings of the bed to be drawn in an unusual way and impossible manner through an iron hook. I still was not satisfied, when he wrote his signature in my pocket-book. I wanted, however, more substantial proof of his visit, when he laid his hand, which was cold as marble, on my wrist; the sinews shrunk up, the nerves withered at the touch. “Now,” he said, “let no mortal eye, while you live, ever see that wrist,” and vanished. While I was conversing with him my thoughts were calm, but as soon as he disappeared I felt chilled with horror and dismay, a cold sweat came over me, and I again endeavoured but vainly to awaken Sir Tristram; a flood of tears came to my relief, and I fell asleep.
“‘In the morning your father got up without disturbing me; he had not noticed anything extraordinary about me or the bed-hangings. When I did arise I found a long broom in the gallery outside the bedroom door, and with great difficulty I unhooked the curtain, fearing that the position of it might excite surprise and cause inquiry. I bound up my wrist with black ribbon before I went down to breakfast, where the agitation of my mind was too visible not to attract attention. Sir Tristram made many anxious inquiries as to my health, especially as to my sprained wrist, as he conceived mine to be. I begged him to drop all questions as to the bandage, even if I continued to adopt it for any length of time. He kindly promised me not to speak of it any more, and he kept his promise faithfully. You, my son, came into the world as predicted, and your father died six years after. I then determined to abandon society and its pleasures and not mingle again with the world, hoping to avoid the dreadful predictions as to my second marriage; but, alas! in the one family with which I held constant and friendly intercourse I met the man, whom I did not regard with perfect indifference. Though I struggled to conquer by every means the passion, I at length yielded to his solicitations, and in a fatal moment for my own peace I became his wife. In a few years his conduct fully justified my demand for a separation, and I fondly hoped to escape the fatal prophecy. Under the delusion that I had passed my forty-seventh birthday, I was prevailed upon to believe in his amendment, and to pardon him. I have, however, heard from undoubted authority that I am only forty-seven this day, and I know that I am about to die. I die, however, without the dread of death, fortified as I am by the sacred precepts of Christianity and upheld by its promises. When I am gone, I wish that you, my children, should unbind this black ribbon and alone behold my wrist before I am consigned to the grave.’
“She then requested to be left that she might lie down and compose herself, and her children quitted the apartment, having desired her attendant to watch her, and if any change came on to summon them to her bedside. In an hour the bell rang, and they hastened to the call, but all was over. The two children having ordered every one to retire, knelt down by the side of the bed, when Lady Riverston unbound the black ribbon and found the wrist exactly as Lady Beresford had described it—every nerve withered, every sinew shrunk.
“Her friend, the Archbishop, had had her buried in the Cathedral of St. Patrick, in Dublin, in the Earl of Cork’s tomb, where she now lies.”
The writer now professes his disbelief in any spiritual presence, and explains his theory that Lady Beresford’s anxiety about Lord Tyrone deluded her by a vivid dream, during which she hurt her wrist.
Of all ghost stories the Tyrone, or Beresford Ghost, has most variants. Following Monsieur Hauréau, in the Journal des Savants, I have tracked the tale, the death compact, and the wound inflicted by the ghost on the hand, or wrist, or brow, of the seer, through Henry More, and Melanchthon, and a mediæval sermon by Eudes de Shirton, to William of Malmesbury, a range of 700 years. Mrs. Grant of Laggan has a rather recent case, and I have heard of another in the last ten years! Calmet has a case in 1625, the spectre leaves
The sable score of fingers four
on a board of wood.
Now for a modern instance of a gang of ghosts with a purpose!
When I narrated the story which follows to an eminent moral philosopher, he remarked, at a given point, “Oh, the ghost spoke, did she?” and displayed scepticism. The evidence, however, left him, as it leaves me, at a standstill, not convinced, but agreeably perplexed. The ghosts here are truly old-fashioned.
My story is, and must probably remain, entirely devoid of proof, as far as any kind of ghostly influence is concerned. We find ghosts appearing, and imposing a certain course of action on a living witness, for definite purposes of their own. The course of action prescribed was undeniably pursued, and apparently the purpose of the ghosts was fulfilled, but what that purpose was their agent declines to state, and conjecture is hopelessly baffled.
The documents in the affair have been published by the Society for Psychical Research (Proceedings, vol. xi., p. 547), and are here used for reference. But I think the matter will be more intelligible if I narrate it exactly as it came under my own observation. The names of persons and places are all fictitious, and are the same as those used in the documents published by the S.P.R.
a story by
Our land was built in a swamp and gathered together, string by string and note by note, by the hard work of others. In some places, the swamp still exists, token reminders of how we cannot conquer, how our stubborn nature is sometimes refused. The Stork Man lives in those places, balanced on his high legs, walking with stealth. I do not know where he lives in daylight, but I know he stalks in the shade. His beak is his blade. I knew him by proxy when I watched a bright white bird fishing in the tide. The bird took spare notice of me, leaping from place to place, avoiding the buffeting of waves, flapping with purpose. When he saw prey, he furiously pecked with his needle beak, gathering unseen delicacies from the swiftly moving waters at his webbed feet. I imagine the Stork Man must work the same way, emerging at dusk’s last stand, dark plumage, gathering unfortunate wanderers into a small pile of rubble, attacking them with an edge of scalpel-like beak. It is best not to wander into the mire, it is best to leave those unconquered places to the lonely and mechanical violence of untamed and forceful nature.
JD DeHart is a writer and teacher. His chapbook, The Truth About Snails, is available from Red Dashboard.
New York City, 35
a story by
Fifty bows a day, even slight, was the average. My tips, come Christmas, were only five dollars to the day. That’s a dime a kowtow, I thought. Barely a cent a sin.
After a day’s work–you know, a day’s work my father never knew–I counted my blisters from standing so still. Two socks a foot, and even motionless at the door of 401 East 22nd they wore out; couldn’t afford those neither. Chipped pleasantries are what I got, between suitcases and missing keys. A call or two for stuck plumbing. I wasn’t a plumber, though father would have given me a singular hug for it. Honest work, he would have said, grimy and sweating beer, honest work means you do no wrong. That’s who he became after he fell from grace. Father called what I did being a toy poodle.
It was two that day, just two, that came up without shoes on their feet or food in their tennis ball bellies. Like the rest they begged for a restroom, or water not dripping from a hydrant. I could see them staring down a well and drooling until they died of dehydration and all they needed was a bit of rope and a bucket. So, my charity of twenty cents, I bowed for each of the lads and let them in. I knew, staring into that beady security camera lens, I had done wrong by some cheap but mighty perspective.
Jono Naito is a recovering New Yorker and MFA student at Syracuse University. His work has appeared in Bard Lux Literary Magazine, Paper Darts Magazine, and the Eunoia Review, as well as online at jononaito.com.
a story by
We moved into the new building last year. We had to move because travelling was getting hectic for Aishu, our four year old. The school she attends now is just a walk away from our new house.
Anyway, our old home wasn’t that great, or maybe I already had my closure. A day before we moved, when our place was bare of all furniture, I moved my hand across the peeling wall paint like one would on a historic site. I retraced all the tiles with my eyes and said to myself, ‘It is time.’
I have never been a social person. Dhruv, my husband, chided me for not being friendly with the tenants in our new building. He would say, ‘Go, Shruthi, make friends. You won’t achieve anything just locking yourself in. Do you even know who lives next door? We need a friend or two here at least, right?’
I shrugged. ‘Well they are not very friendly either. The man next door seems to be very reserved.’
‘Seems to be, right? Why don’t you get to know him. I have seen him twice throwing trash out at night. He seems quite old.’
‘Why don’t you talk to him? Why me?’ I said as I flung the ball in his court.
And Dhruv did talk to the old man. After that, he raved about Krish. ‘Shruthi, that man has wisdom, I tell you. Even his silence does. We as youngsters blabber so much nonsense.’ He paused and then said, ‘Maybe our Aishu would have the grandfather she never had.’
When I raised my eyebrows at his last sentence, Dhruv shrugged and said, ‘Just saying. You may never know.’
And that’s when I started sending Aishu over to Krish’s house to play—a house bare of any photographs.
Aishu was playing on her rocking horse (the one that we moved temporarily into Krish’s room) when I asked him, ‘Why don’t you have any photographs?’
He smiled and said, ‘I’m not a narcissist.’
Krish always preferred to play with Aishu when I was around.
‘It’s okay. You can be with her for a little while longer. She likes it here. She just got her toys here to play. You won’t send her back so soon, right? I’ll just make a call and be back.’ I said once, wanting to get rid of Aishu if only for a few minutes.
‘Um… she would miss you. You can take her with you.’
I told this to Dhruv. He tutted. ‘Poor fellow. He knows how skeptical the world is now. But he should also know that we trust him. Aishu is like a granddaughter to him. Anyway, if he isn’t comfortable, let it be.’
I started talking to Ms. Kurana. She lived right below us, and always said, ‘Thank goodness you don’t have a boy! The noise they make!’ She had a brown Dalmatian that she loved to take on walks in the nearby park in the afternoons. I had made an effort to be her friend, so I felt that I should also make an effort to sustain it, right? I took a deep breath, tightened the lace on my running shoes before I could change my mind, and stuffed the aglet ends into my ankle socks to prevent them from sticking out. Then I stood up and smoothed out my track pants so that just a little of the lace’s bows were visible from below the hem of my pants.
In the park I was alone with Ms Kurana and Spotty her dog. I felt relieved to be away from Aishu for at least a little while. Dhruv had taken her shopping. I told Ms Kurana that I would run for about 15 minutes and then chat with her.
I loved the way the breeze zoomed past my ears, blowing stray hairs towards my face. But it tickled my cheeks, so I readjusted my hair band. My mind drifted. Aishu is growing up. Is it really okay to let her play with Krish? Of course it is! She is like his granddaughter! But then why is he so shifty when I think of leaving her alone with him for even a few seconds? I tried to concentrate on the circle that I had to make to reach Ms. Kurana. I spotted an old couple on a bench, the woman solving a crossword, her forehead crinkling in thought and her husband reading the paper with glasses almost slipping off his nose. How would Dhruv and I be in our old age? I tried to concentrate on the circle I had to make. This run turned out to be more depressing than relaxing. I reached Ms. Kurana. She had found something in the grass and was scrutinizing it with her arthritic fingers. Spotty sniffed something under the bark of a Gulmohar tree. ‘Can I ask you something?’ I was slightly panting.
‘Sure, dear.’ Ms. Kurana looked up from the thing in her hand. It looked like the tab of a soft drink can. I remembered that when I was a child I used to collect them and make bracelets out of them. Why was Ms. Kurana interested in it? Anyway, I asked her what was on my mind before I had got too distracted by the tab.
‘Do you know my neighbor Krish? Nice chap, isn’t he?’ I sat down beside her. I sat a little too close unintentionally and then readjusted myself so that a little space existed between us.
‘He doesn’t talk to anyone, does he? But I guess he is a harmless fellow,’ she replied, a little distracted because of the tab.
‘He seems really nice, but also a little awkward at times. He is really close with Aishu. Is he a bachelor?”
‘I guess so. No one knows much about him. But I heard that he had a daughter. I don’t know if it’s true, though.’ Ms. Kurana flung the tab away.
‘Oh,’ I replied, my eyes following the descent of the tab. It got lost in the grass.
‘See, you could ask him about his past. Maybe he will tell you. But be careful. If I were you, I wouldn’t ruin what I already have with him. He doesn’t talk to any kid for more than three seconds. So maybe he considers Aishu special.’ Ms. Kurana got up to walk Spotty.
On my way home her words repeated in my mind. If I were you, I wouldn’t ruin what I already have with him. I just had to ask Krish about his past. But I didn’t have to. He told me himself. That evening I found him in his favorite chair, crying.
‘I might die anytime, dear. I need to relieve this off my chest. I know I will lose Aishu, but I have to tell you. I have to tell someone.’
I caressed his hand. My fingers ran over his swollen veins like a car over bumps in the road.
‘I didn’t mean to do it. I really didn’t, I just had to. I don’t know what came over me. I and my daughter were vacationing in Shimla. We had so much fun. She always wanted to make a snowman on her own, and she did. We did. That was our last happy memory together. The day we were about to leave for home, a blizzard stranded us in a small abandoned house. We were left like that for days. No one came to help us. We were stranded. She died. And I didn’t know what to do. I was starving. I was losing my mind. No one else was near us. It was just me and her… and she was dead.’ He gulped.
My fingers stopped caressing Krish. I withdrew from him, dreading what was about to come.
‘When I did it, I was numb. It was all so surreal. And after it was done, I felt like a monster! I thought of killing myself. But then my act would have gone in vain. I had, after all, done it to survive, right? A man can do anything to survive. Even eat his own daughter? Only I didn’t know that this man could be me. Before that day, I had thought she was the only reason I was alive in this cruel world. And, that turned out to be true, right? I am here now because of her.’
I got up and quickly ran out of his apartment. ‘Aishu! Aishu!’
I ran into our flat and locked the door hoping that would lock the horrific revelation out.
I found Aishu on our bed, playing with her doll. I sighed in relief.
I didn’t tell anyone about it.
I didn’t want it to ruin what we already had with Krish.
I found him dead in his chair the next day.
Michelle D’costa is published in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Bactrian Room, Hackwriters International Magazine, Big River Poetry Review, eFiction India, and The Bombay Review among many others. She is currently a prose reader at The Stardust Gazette. A huge fan of R.L. Stine, as a kid she never thought she would also be known as a dark-lit writer.
The Lily People
a story by
Nollaig loved to go alone into the hill country near her home—though not too far up, in case she should be hurt and no one would be able to find her. Her favorite place was where a swift brown brook flowed through a lush wood of deep green oak and ash. Not far from the brook stood three large standing stones, and also the stone temple ruin of an ancient people who had gone before. The day after Nollaig was told that she and her brother would not be allowed to travel with the shepherd Nial and his friendly companion Focal (and maybe even the funny little man called Yng), she longed to be alone in her secret place, and so she went.
On this day the sun shone with an unusual brightness, but Nollaig didn’t mind, for with the brightness also came a wonderful warmth that went straight to her bones and made her feel profoundly alive. Nollaig’s mother Banmaith, daughter of a renowned teacher from Baile Átha Cliath, had taught her how to read and write. So, when she went alone to this quiet place or that, she enjoyed bringing things to read. Sometimes she brought ink, quill, and paper. This day she brought an old manuscript. It told only part of a story about a brother and sister who met an ancient woman, and then, not long after this time, the sister drowned and saw wondrous things below the waves.
The air lay heavy with death. A wind moved like mercury through the air and over the land that seemed to Esma as if it had never been alive. All appeared grey, and fruitless, and filled with hopelessness.
‘We are children of twilight,’ said Esma’s brother Grimbold as he tossed a fist-sized stone into a dull field of rocks and weeds. ‘How can we sing here when the skies are brass?’
‘Then let us sing hymns of other places,’ Esma said. “Let us make psalms of bright groves where tall ones wander, touching with their strong fingers every note as they search for sovereignty in our joyful requiem.’
As Nollaig sat with her back against an olden oak, she felt an overwhelming need to weep, and so she did. She felt her heart stricken as if someone had touched it… yes, with strong fingers; and in her weeping she began to sing, and to pray, and then to lift her hands in wordless praise.
Presently, in the shade made by myriad leaves, figures like shadows began to emerge from fallen foliage and come toward Nollaig. When she opened her eyes, all around her stood a strange people with skin as white as lilies-of-the-valley. At first she thought they all might be stricken with leprosy, but seeing that nothing of them was deformed, she wondered. They smiled at her, these odd people, yet said not a word. Lily People, Nollaig thought, and this is what she felt she should call them.
“Good morning, strangers.”
No one answered her. Instead, they all turned away and gathered around the temple ruin, their white robes billowing like clouds in a morning breeze.
Nollaig knit her brows. “Curious.” She lay her book aside and rose to her feet. One of the Lily People saw her stand, broke away from the circle, and walked toward her.
“Torn Wrist,” said the woman, for Nollaig had suffered an accident once where her hand had been utterly severed from her wrist, and then miraculously healed by the shepherd Nial. “Why do you come to this place? Would you have us teach you? Is it the Ðaioiӕ tongue and its meanings you seek to learn? We will teach this language to you, if you will know it.”
Nollaig looked at the scar on her arm. “My name is not Torn Wrist. My name is Moiré Ní Cumhach, baptized as Nollaig. Who are you?”
The woman’s champagne eyes glazed over as if she were suddenly ill. She spoke nothing in reply.
“Are you ill?”
“I say, who are you? Answer me, for I have told you my name. You should answer me, if you would be kind.”
The woman shielded her eyes with her long, pale fingers. “I… am Neavglana. We… are called the Lost Ones. Please. Remove your… heart. It shines… too brightly….”
Nollaig reached into her dress and took hold of her heart. She closed her eyes. Something was amiss. Something abnormal. She looked past the white woman standing in front of her. The other Lily People—and there was a score of them—all stared at her, their eyes dim with sickness, their bodies in various poses of weakness. Some leaned over on sturdy staves, others crouched and held their bellies, others knelt with their arms crossed tightly over one another. One—a man—rested on his hands and knees as if he needed to wretch. “Remove your heart!’ He began to weep. “It be… bright! It… burns!”
It was as if Nollaig was now in a dream. She thought that she should be terrified of these white-robed Lily People, terrified of their frightened expressions, terrified of their moans and screams coming first like a trickle and now like a flood.
Notwithstanding, she pushed her fingers beneath her skin and below her ribs. She took hold of her heart, felt it beating, felt the warmth of her flowing blood. She wrapped her hand around it and gave a little tug. It broke free and surrendered to her. She pulled it from her breast and held it in both hands, wondering at its beauty—amazed that it seemed to be on fire, yet it did not burn.
A woman who knelt in the long, swaying grass spoke. “She removes her heart… as we have asked.”
“No!” said a man who leaned on his staff, the only thing keeping him upright. “She takes out her heart… not for us. Another hand… guides her. She removes it… not to destroy it… but to defeat us! The spirit who guides her knows… it knows we…”
“It knows!” cried an anguished woman, her eyes covered with her hood. “The spirit… knows we speak… the Ðaioiӕ tongue!”
Nollaig no longer knew that she stood in the company of the Lily People. She knew only one thing. She knew that the beauty cupped in her hands was more precious to her touch than the gentlest lamb, and that its scent made burning myrrh smell like burning paper.
“Hold it close, hold it dear, for you will not have it for long,” whispered a sweet voice in Nollaig’s ear.
“No!” The young shepherdess began to weep. She knew this could not be true, yet the voice was so clear, so beautiful, like that of an angel. “I… know… I know that you are lying to me.”
The Lily People began to wail as if they were a chorus of singers trapped in unquenchable flames. They could not escape, though they tried. They rolled and writhed. They reached out for Nollaig, beckoning for her to help them, their faces contorted in agony.
Nollaig knew that it was right to place her heart back into her body, and she did so, but the celestial warmth that flowed around and through her did not cease. Her action did not lessen the pain of the Lily People. Rather, they thrashed about with even more violence, for now the girl’s heart was where it had been before she removed it—in its holy temple. The screams of the unclean pale folk were piteous to hear, but a peculiar joy overwhelmed Nollaig so that her thoughts were captive to the gift of her fiery heart. She heard nothing at all now except the sound of waves rolling onto a far distant shore.
In the Valley of the Shadow
a story attributed to
The rubber-tyred wheels jolt unevenly over the granite setts. Dimly I recognise the familiar grey streets and garden-centred squares. We stop, and through the little crowd on the pavement I am carried indoors and up to the high-ceiling ward. Gently they lift me off the stretcher and put me in bed, and I say: “What queer curtains you have! They have faces worked on the border. Are they those of your friends?” The matron smiles, and I think what a quaint idea it is. Then suddenly it strikes me that I have said something foolish, but still the faces are there right enough. (Even when I got well I could sometimes see them in certain lights.) One of the faces is familiar, and I am just going to ask how they know So-and-so, when I am left alone. For hours and hours (it seems) no one comes near me. At first I am patient, but gradually a fierce anger seizes me. Did I submit to be brought here merely to die in solitude and in suffocating darkness? I will not stay in this place; far better to go back and die at home! Suddenly I am borne in a winged machine up, up into the cool air. Far below and infinitesimally small lies the “New Town,” half-hid beneath the fluffy smoke; yonder, clear and blue and glittering, is the Firth of Forth; and beyond the sunlit hills of Fife are the advance-guards of the Grampians. A moment only of sheer palpitating ecstasy, then a soul-shattering fall into the black abyss of oblivion. (I hold Mr H. G. Wells partially responsible for this little excursion.) It is light again, but what is that which prevents my seeing the window? A screen? What does that betoken? A blackness of despair grips me. It is all over, then! No more mountaineering, no more pleasant holidays. This is the end of all my little ambitions. This is, in truth, the bitterness of death. Presently a nurse comes with a cooling drink, and, making a tremendous effort to look unconcerned, I ask for the screen to be removed. She laughs and folds it up, when I see another screen opposite partially concealing a bed. So I have company. (This was a comparatively lucid interval.) What a queer place to have texts! Right round the cornice of the room. And they are constantly changing too. “The Lord is my Shepherd-” “I will arise-” Really this is most irritating. I cannot finish any of them. If the letters would only stay still for a single moment! But what is that below? It is a wide sandy beach with the blue sea beyond. On the top of a pole in the foreground is a-what is it?-yes, a man’s head, of course. (It was really a hanging electric light which by some curious means I must have seen in an inverted position.) “Sister, I am sure that could be worked up into a splendid story. Please give me some paper and my fountain pen. If I don’t write it down now I shall forget it, just as has happened before when I have thought of things during the night.” (As a matter of fact, when, I was convalescent I did want to write not only this particular tale, but a complete account of my visions. Of course, I was not permitted, and now, alas! it has gone to join that great company of magnificent-seeming but elusive ideas one has in dreams.) “Honestly, Sister, I must go out for a few moments. The man is in great danger, and I alone can save him. There is a desperate plot against his life. He lives quite close by in one of the two houses on each side of this.” Sister promises to see about this, and I lie back only half-satisfied. Presently my bed begins noiselessly to move. It goes through the wall into the next house. Room after room is visited, but my doomed friend is not there. The other houses are then inspected in turn, with no result. I have a feeling that he is being spirited away just in front of me so as to be always in the next house. Sister is at the bottom of this trick, I am sure. (Here began that absurd hatred and suspicion of her which only left me with the delirium.) “Oh, doctor, I am glad to see you! Really in a free country it is intolerable that a simple request like this cannot be granted me, and to save a man’s life, too. You can see for yourself that I am quite sensible and very much in earnest. Try me.” The doctor asks what day of the week it is. I answer, Scots fashion: “Oh, that’s easy! If I am the man who came here on Monday, then it is Wednesday, but if I came on Thursday, then it’s Saturday. If you will tell me which man I am, I will tell you what day it is.” Overcome by this logic, the doctor gives in, but suggests a compromise, to which I agree. It is that the four neighbouring houses be brought in and placed before my bed, so that I can make sure of seeing and warning my friend in distress. “No, I will not drink whisky. Surely you know perfectly well that I am a Mussulman and forbidden to drink spirits? You cannot wish me to violate the principles of my religion?” Sister assures me that the draught is not whisky, and puts the glass to my lips. In horror I dash it to the floor. “Devil in human form, you tempt me to my destruction. Begone and let me die in the true faith.” (Of course it was not whisky, but something of quite an opposite nature. Weeks later, on recounting this incident, I was reminded of having one day casually read a page or two of a novel in which a Mohammedan is tempted to drink wine. It made no impression whatever at the time, but it must have been stored up somewhere.) Presently Sister returns with three other nurses and a fresh supply of the accursed stuff. All means are tried, from argument, in which they are signally worsted, to persuasion and gentle force. Suddenly I resolve on flight, and actually reach the door of the room before being overpowered and brought back to bed. Then I am asked to put my finger in the dose and prove to myself that it is not whisky. In this suggestion I see Sister’s malicious cunning, so I smell the wet finger, and triumphantly assert that it is whisky. When they say it is twelve o’clock, and that I am keeping them all out of bed, I answer that they need not stay for me, and, anyway, what is that to the loss of my soul? At length I am forced down, and the glass put to my clenched teeth. I pray inwardly for help in this dire extremity. Lo! a brilliant idea. I will pretend to be dead. I stiffen myself and hold my breath. (I can remember no further effort, but I was told afterwards the imitation was wonderful. Even the nurses grew alarmed, and the doctor was sent for. I have a dim recollection of his coming, and before I knew where I was he had injected something, which I thought was the whisky, into my arm.) I sit up in bed, and glare at them all with concentrated hatred, then I fall back, heartbroken at my forced abjuration, sobbing, sobbing. I am suffering for my sin. Sister is stabbing me in the Shoulder-blade with a red-hot dagger. (It was a fly-blister, and my skin is very sensitive.) I am aching all over. Suddenly I am alone on a flat desert plain. I am sitting with my back against one of the stone pillars of a huge closed gateway reaching to the sky. In front of me is proceeding a cinematographic entertainment on a stupendous scale. (I cannot now remember much about it, but the series was long and of an appalling character. Below each picture was a placard stating the subject of the next one. I had the feeling that they were not pictures at all, but real events in the process of happening; further that by answering a question put to me by a mysterious voice I could bring the series to an end, but, though I knew the answer, it was quite beyond my power to give it. Immediately following my failure to reply, from somewhere behind me a full organ pealed forth and a choir of voices broke into a mocking ditty, which embodied the proper answer, and also words of scorn directed against myself. Till recently this ditty haunted me occasionally, but I have now, I am glad to say, forgotten both air and words. All I know is that it was like a quick chant, and quite unfamiliar to me. When the horrid song was over I fell into a state of self-condemnation mixed with helpless expectancy, which was so poignant as to move me still when I think of it.) This picture is one of wars and earthquakes and burning mountains. Underneath it are the words “End of the World.” I have a vision of the countless myriads of mankind kneeling in agony on the other side of the gate. A multitudinous murmur swells into an awful shriek for pity. “Who am I, O God, that this burden is laid on me? Am I the keeper of that countless host? I cannot answer.” Even as I speak a shudder cleaves the air, a cataclysmal mirage comes into view, the organ booms and the impish choir begins its torturing refrain. Underneath this picture there is no placard. The dreadful music ceases, and the horrid scene before me works on in silence. It passes, and then there is neither light nor darkness. The desert disappears, the gateway is no more, the infinite host has gone like the dew of the morning, and I am left in presence of nothing. The realisation is frightful; my brain is whirling; relief must come; human nature cannot bear it. Ah, thank God, I am going mad-when from somewhere, but whence I know not, comes a light scornful laugh, a Satanic voice says, “Sold again!” the organ swells, the invisible choir sings anew, and the whole series of pictures begins again from the beginning. For a moment the tension is relaxed, “God’s in His heaven” after all, when, like the clang of steel, the Voice utters the unanswerable question. Oh, God, I must-I shall speak. The answer, the answer is- “What time is it, Russell?” (Russell was the male night-nurse, the necessity for whose presence the reader will by this time fully understand!) “Half-past four, sir.” “Well, I must get up to catch the first train to Glasgow. It is a matter of life and death. Please give me my clothes.” Russell endeavours to soothe me with promises of going tomorrow, and so forth, all of which I see through with merciless clearness. In the end, as I threaten to alarm the whole household, I am wrapped up in blankets, carried to an easy-chair before the fire, and a screen put behind me. “You can’t get a train, sir, before half-past six.” “Excuse me, there is a train at 5.55, and I am going to get it. By the way, are you sure Sister is not about? I thought I saw her round the corner of the screen. No? Then give me some soda and milk, and have you a cigarette anywhere?” Russell naturally denied having cigarettes, whereupon, as he afterwards told me, I proceeded to curse him, his family, antecedents, and descendants together, with such copiousness and minuteness of diction that I spoke without stopping for an hour and a half! I fancy Mr Kipling is responsible for at least the Indian meticulosity of my comminations. Anyhow, the effort having exhausted me, on Russell saying that I had now missed the train, and had better go back to bed to wait for the next, I sensibly agreed. That was the climax, and on awaking some hours later from a peaceful sleep I found that the crisis was past, and that I was as sane again as usual. The first book I asked for was the Pilgrim’s Progress, and as soon as I was permitted to read I turned to the account of Christian’s passage through the Valley of the Shadow. I had felt before that Bunyan’s demons were stage demons, his quagmires and pits merely simulacra, the accessories generally such as Drury Lane would laugh to scorn. Now I am sure of it. The real difficulty, of course, is to do it better.
a story by
There He Was, bearded and set in chopped bark, like it was hewn there by skilled hands. I said to Marie, the neighbor’s cousin, that it was a holy man I would someday study as a minister, showing his face not in book pages but in real, live wood. A spirit-touched place, a single divine fingerprint. She laughed at it, and said she saw nothing. I wanted to push her, but the face was watching me.
She pulled me across the grass and told me to look at clouds and feel the dirt on my toenails, to know that nature was our mother and father. Marie always knew when I was angry, when I would hide, kicked out for a tantrum behind the barn. There I sat, chipping away at paint. That would show them, I prayed, banging my head against the wall. Every time, Marie would come and laugh at my tears, and drag me away to some distraction.
At the well Marie flipped a coin, a nickel, over her head and into the darkness, and made a wish out loud so I could hear it. I didn’t know why she wanted to be tall someday; tall people had to duck to hold their children, to get under doors. She sat on the edge, like she wasn’t supposed to and said if I was so angry with her I could just push her then, into the well. I didn’t, but I confess I considered it. I just looked down the well at the eye of God, a still water, a deep notion that, even as a child, I feared to see nothing but light.
Jono Naito is a recovering New Yorker and MFA student at Syracuse University. His work has appeared in Bard Lux Literary Magazine, Paper Darts Magazine, and the Eunoia Review, as well as online at jononaito.com
a story by
The Brothers Grimm
There was once a forester who went into the forest to hunt, and as he entered it he heard a sound of screaming as if a little child were there. He followed the sound, and at last came to a high tree, and at the top of this a little child was sitting, for the mother had fallen asleep under the tree with the child, and a bird of prey had seen it in her arms, had flown down, snatched it away, and set it on the high tree.
The forester climbed up, brought the child down, and thought to himself: ’You will take him home with you, and bring him up with your Lina.’ He took it home, therefore, and the two children grew up together. And the one, which he had found on a tree was called Fundevogel, because a bird had carried it away. Fundevogel and Lina loved each other so dearly that when they did not see each other they were sad.
Now the forester had an old cook, who one evening took two pails and began to fetch water, and did not go once only, but many times, out to the spring. Lina saw this and said, ’Listen, old Sanna, why are you fetching so much water?’ ’If you will never repeat it to anyone, I will tell you why.’ So Lina said, no, she would never repeat it to anyone, and then the cook said: ’Early tomorrow morning, when the forester is out hunting, I will heat the water, and when it is boiling in the kettle, I will throw in Fundevogel, and will boil him in it.’
Early next morning the forester got up and went out hunting, and when he was gone the children were still in bed. Then Lina said to Fundevogel: ’If you will never leave me, I too will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ’Neither now, nor ever will I leave you.’ Then said Lina: ’Then will I tell you. Last night, old Sanna carried so many buckets of water into the house that I asked her why she was doing that, and she said that if I would promise not to tell anyone, and she said that early tomorrow morning when father was out hunting, she would set the kettle full of water, throw you into it and boil you; but we will get up quickly, dress ourselves, and go away together.’
The two children therefore got up, dressed themselves quickly, and went away. When the water in the kettle was boiling, the cook went into the bedroom to fetch Fundevogel and throw him into it. But when she came in, and went to the beds, both the children were gone. Then she was terribly alarmed, and she said to herself: ’What shall I say now when the forester comes home and sees that the children are gone? They must be followed instantly to get them back again.’
Then the cook sent three servants after them, who were to run and overtake the children. The children, however, were sitting outside the forest, and when they saw from afar the three servants running, Lina said to Fundevogel: ’Never leave me, and I will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ’Neither now, nor ever.’ Then said Lina: ’Do you become a rose-tree, and I the rose upon it.’ When the three servants came to the forest, nothing was there but a rose-tree and one rose on it, but the children were nowhere. Then said they: ’There is nothing to be done here,’ and they went home and told the cook that they had seen nothing in the forest but a little rose-bush with one rose on it. Then the old cook scolded and said: ’You simpletons, you should have cut the rose-bush in two, and have broken off the rose and brought it home with you; go, and do it at once.’ They had therefore to go out and look for the second time. The children, however, saw them coming from a distance. Then Lina said: ’Fundevogel, never leave me, and I will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ’Neither now; nor ever.’ Said Lina: ’Then do you become a church, and I’ll be the chandelier in it.’ So when the three servants came, nothing was there but a church, with a chandelier in it. They said therefore to each other: ’What can we do here, let us go home.’ When they got home, the cook asked if they had not found them; so they said no, they had found nothing but a church, and there was a chandelier in it. And the cook scolded them and said: ’You fools! why did you not pull the church to pieces, and bring the chandelier home with you?’ And now the old cook herself got on her legs, and went with the three servants in pursuit of the children. The children, however, saw from afar that the three servants were coming, and the cook waddling after them. Then said Lina: ’Fundevogel, never leave me, and I will never leave you.’ Then said Fundevogel: ’Neither now, nor ever.’ Said Lina: ’Be a fishpond, and I will be the duck upon it.’ The cook, however, came up to them, and when she saw the pond she lay down by it, and was about to drink it up. But the duck swam quickly to her, seized her head in its beak and drew her into the water, and there the old witch had to drown. Then the children went home together, and were heartily delighted, and if they have not died, they are living still.
The Piecemeal Boy
a story by
J. A. McGowan
Enclosed pleased find the story I mentioned at your grandmother’s funeral, the one I found amongst her intimate effects. It was published back in the ‘30s, as you can see, but from my many conversations with your late grandmother, it is the only story she ever wrote which she claimed was based on personal experience. I hope this will shed some light on the delusions from which your grandmother suffered during her long life, which, as this story demonstrates, took hold of her much earlier than we previously thought. It may also go some way to explaining her reaction when you gave her the news that you were moving to the Dorset coast. Should you wish to republish this or any other pieces of her work, she left you the rights in her will. There is some hope of the National Trust taking on Glenholme, dilapidated as it is.
August Berringly-Orr, Esq.
published in Weirder Tales, May 1938
The Black Isle
by April Darling
I was eighteen and in university when I became embroiled in my uncle’s affairs. He had become increasingly reclusive of late, only ever contacting family and friends by phone, often at three or four in the morning, ranting that he could hear Their footsteps over the roar of the sea, but they weren’t to have him. Which in and of itself was odd, as he lived near the shores of Loch—, which was often stirred by bad weather, but could scarcely be said to mimic the sea.
Just before the Easter holidays I had received an unwonted, terse, and mysterious letter:
I shall be glad to receive you at Glenholme during your holidays. Maybe a quick young mind like yours can help me out of this hell. Your loving uncle T—.
I called my mother, who confessed she had “volunteered” me for familial duties. In vain, all my protestations that I had planned (and paid for) a sojourn on the Côte d’Azur with my girlfriends. I pleaded at least to be able to bring a friend or two with me, though I knew few if any would sacrifice warmth and sand for sunless Scotland. The very suggestion, voiced hesitantly by my mother, brought on a near-apoplectic fit in my uncle, which in turn brought on one of Mother’s migraines.
Nothing, of course, could shift one of Mother’s migraines except blind and unquestioning obedience. And so, like the sacrificial Paschal lamb, I arrived on the foreboding shores of Loch—, shivering and vulnerable in the face of the storm about to break.
Uncle T— met me with his pony trap, his greeting a mere “Well. So you’re here then.” Living as isolated as he did, manners counted for little—unless you should happen to cheek him. Then you were as likely to feel the whip as the poor pony. So, exhausted from a long and convoluted train journey, I risked no speech during the two-hour ride back to Glenholme. Once a dog-fox barked. Uncle T— stopped, listened, and said in a satisfied manner, “Good. They don’t know you’re here yet.” By this time I was three-quarters of the way to slumber, but I would remember that, later, and wonder what he had actually heard.
Two days at Glenholme passed, with Uncle T— not offering any more than casual conversation or criticism about my choice of dress for this time of year (I was very much my age in terms of dress); we met mostly at meals. How I longed for my university chums, no doubt giddy with dissipation in France! The silence, the stillness, the sheer heaviness of Glenholme pressed down on me, till I could bear it no more.
On the third day I rose early, threw some necessities into a hold-all, and stole out with some half-formed scheme to steal the pony and flee to the station. As I quietly entered the stable, the sun was not yet risen, and some godforsaken forest creature, of which many wandered the estate, gave rise to a piercing scream. I, too, shrieked, and then it seemed my uncle was immediately before me, standing in the door and blocking my way out. He met my eyes. I saw nothing but grim determination in his.
“You awake yet?” he asked needlessly. My heart hammered. I noticed his haversack was packed and slung in a corner. He tacked up his riding horse, a beast only he could ride, and asked me to hand the haversack to him, a feat I could barely accomplish, due to its weight. He told me to open the door, which I did.
“April,” he said, light hands flicking on the reins. “I’m going back to Hell. You’ll find all you need on my desk. If you need help cleaning or cooking, Mrs. MacDonald will call in three times a week. I should be back by the time you leave. If I’m not,” and here he hesitated and checked his dancing mount. “If I’m not, God have mercy on us all,” he concluded, looking at me queerly. He spurred his horse to a canter, and called over his shoulder, “You must read what I’ve left for you.You must. And for God’s sake don’t let them in, no matter what you see or feel.” And then he was gone, leaving me alone and barely awake as the sun rose. I had hardly noticed the brace of pistols on his belt. My uncle hardly ever went armed.
The pony’s snoring roused me from my shocked stupor, and an out-of-season pheasant exploded out of the brush, spooking me. I went back to my room, and slept until noon.
I was not a great walker, but I walked that afternoon, all around the estate, tiring myself out. Glenholme was a huge place to be alone in, and the departure of my uncle seemed to sap all life from it. When I got back in at dusk, the house seemed to welcome me enthusiastically, as if it wanted me inside. I mused that an estate of this sort must want a family in it, to fill it with warmth and light. The thought struck me afterwards as nonsensical. So I went to the kitchen, and by the light of a hurricane lamp ate a cold supper. Then, exhausted by my exertions, I slept.
I woke up early the next morning, though daylight had broken. A fine rain washed the outside of the window, daunting the prospect of a walk that day. My enthusiasm had been diminished by the day before, and I was of the age to find comfort in art rather than nature. But, of course, I had brought no books, for what young student wants to work in the holidays? So I wandered Glenholme looking for distraction, feeling, as any young girl does, for the poor animals whose heads were mounted on the walls in all rooms (save, thankfully, the bedrooms), and not interested overmuch in the heavy tomes written and bound by the worthies of my father’s generation. I drifted from picture to picture, but they were no different than those any other old house of the period—watercolours and oils in dark and heavy frames.
The rain continued. Driven by sheer boredom as much as anything else, I entered my uncle’s study. It was a huge room, and untidy in the way only a man can be when he has unassailable rights to his own property, with papers everywhere, and especially shoved willy-nilly into the crannies of the rolltop desk that took pride of place along one wall. I noticed that on that wall several sketches had been tacked wrongly, so the pictures could not be seen. Curious, I turned them over, and saw pencil and charcoal sketches— island views, and two or three scenes of a small village, its landscape bereft of any pylons or wires that might hint it was on either the phone or electricity. The views were done in a strong, if bored hand (my uncle’s), and labelled only, “The Black Isle—view to the north” and the like.
The pictures of the village, though, were done by a hand that showed much perturbation. The pencil marks were more heavily scored upon the paper, and the strokes more angular and slightly erratic. These were simply labelled with names of the houses. At the last, there was one picture of a village green with a maypole about it, and figures dancing about the maypole. The picture had pencil shaded across it as if to give the impression of mist or rain, and underneath in a decidedly disturbed hand was written clearly, ‘HELL.’
Why were the pictures back to front? Had I stumbled upon a secret? The evidence of the pictures could be used to show my uncle was not in his right mind. I shuddered to think what a handwriting expert, such as the police might these days employ, would make of the desperate scrawl on that last picture of the village green.
I started to take note of the books in the room. Many of them were such as you’d find on any gentleman’s bookshelves. But the ones scattered about were of a different nature completely—lists of sacred sites, pilgrimages, Roman ruins—all sorts of antiquarian Scottish history that had come into vogue at the time of the old Queen. There were journals, there, too, in cramped, undistinguished hands, records of intrepid men (or so I guessed) who gathered the information in the books. There were biographies of Somerled, and many books of the history of the Inner Hebrides. These last had lines and heavy underscoring, which I saw corresponded to a large map on the table under the window in which my uncle had drawn five lines in a sort of five-point star, with one of the points in the Hebrides, one off the southwest coast (in the Scillies, I guessed), one on the Isle of Wight, and then one other on the east coast and one that ended at the very top of Scotland with an arrow indicating it needed to go further north. The map bore the heading “THE FIVE CARDINAL (ELDER) POINTS,” with the caveat “NB: all islands—why?” underneath. In heavy lettering the largest isle with the point under it was labelled “THE BLACK ISLE,” with all manner of sketching about it.
I couldn’t properly discern the sketches, as they were done in miniature and I am vain enough not to like to wear spectacles, but the nature of those sketches was like enough to the picture of the village green to disturb me. There was a dot on the island which no doubt corresponded to the village I had seen.
A sudden crack of thunder brought me to my senses. It was dark already. I went back to the kitchen and ate another cold supper, which sat like lead in my stomach as I went up to my room. I couldn’t get my uncle’s sketches out of my head. Hell? He had said he was going back to Hell. We were not a religious family, yet the drawings were unequivocal and spoke of a great perturbation of mind. I fell asleep in the armchair by the fire, wondering.
In the morning, I could see we were headed for a long bout of rain, such as defines rural Scotland in the Spring. I spent the morning pleasantly with Mrs. MacDonald, and gave her a note to compensate her for her trouble in getting to Glenholme in the rain, for which she was effusively grateful. She baked and cooked all day, and I was quite cheered by the time evening came and she left for home.
I went back to my uncle’s study. I had near to forgotten the pictures during the day. I took them off the wall and gathered them in a pile, arranging them by the dates I noticed in the lower left-hand corner. They had all been drawn over the span of a month some few years before. I sat down at the desk to go over them at leisure.
Oh, the dangers of an unoccupied mind! I saw on the desk a large folder, which contained a small book and a great quantity of papers. It was labelled, “April.” These, then, were the affairs my uncle had mentioned. I opened the folder.
The small book appeared to be a diary of some sort, such as a gentleman might keep. I resolved to put that aside, as a gentleman’s affairs are not best looked into by a young woman closely related to him, and I imagined the look on my mother’s face should I dare to read it. But I pulled the loose sheaf of papers closely, and saw that they were mostly portraits.
If I had stopped there—if I had not started to look at the portraits—how much might have been averted! But youth is ever curious, and I leafed through them. They were a series of faces and studies of other bits of anatomy. They started off normally, but oh! what they turned into! They seemed to be organised by families, and traced generations as far as I could tell. The older ones seemed normal enough, but as we got closer and closer to my generation I noticed that the faces became bent, distorted, mockeries of themselves. Eyes became too large, expressions twisted to give the onlooker a sense of such unease! There was a study of one young boy who had one eye larger than the other, and studies on the same page indicated that this young man had webbed hands, as well, and a twisted shoulder. I looked through the rest of the pictures and saw progressive degeneration in all the series of studies, but that one of the twisted boy demanded my attention. I stared at it, fascinated, until I was convinced his expression was one of purest malice.
Distressed and determined to put my mind at rest, I took a turn about the room. My eyes were tired and playing tricks on me, and the wind outside excited me to strange fancies. As the rain lashed against the windows, I imagined that I could see movement—just a little movement—in the ocean views my uncle had drawn, and, whenever I looked at the wall, I seemed to see a portrait hanging there, a boy portrayed piecemeal, watching me.
I retired to bed. My sleep was fitful.
On the morrow I was still haunted by the portrait. I imagined in the hours before dawn that the wet branches slapping against my window made a sound like webbed fingers sliding across them. I shook myself and, despite the rain, resolved to walk out again that day. I wouldn’t go far.
I fought to keep my balance in the storm, and took more than one spill. But I fought my way to a point that overlooked Loch—, and stared across its rain-scarred surface. For a moment I found such peace as may come in extremes of cold and discomfort, and then another dog-fox barked and I realised that the surface of the loch had become in my mind the blackest of black seas. I struggled home, summoned a hot bath out of the ancient boiler workings, and eventually fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.
The next day I felt better. The rain abated somewhat, though it did not stop, and I decided to do some tidying, as Mrs. MacDonald couldn’t possibly cover the house in one day. It needed teams of maids working around the clock just to keep the dust in abeyance. In trunks long-unopened I found not just moth-eaten linens but skins, possibly of the various animals, and one that looked like an entire seal skin, mottled with age. In the late afternoon the foxes were going crazy, barking and howling. By the time dark fell I, too, fell into my bed, exhausted with the effort of merely trying to stem the tide of Glenholme’s imminent decay.
That night’s sleep was not dreamless. Oh no. I dreamt of what I now know to be the Black Isle, shrouded in mists, with treacherous rocks off its coasts. I dreamt I was staying in a small village, much as any poor Scottish village might be that was off the track of travellers, nestled around a village green. I dreamt that the villagers there relied on the sea for their living, and in the darkness of my dreams I saw them dressed in sealskins, barking like the seals themselves, capering wildly in deformed silhouettes against the falling darkness. Several amongst them afterwards slipped down to the sea, where they took the form of seals and swam off.
I woke to a pre-dawn chorus of pheasants, and the barking of the dog-fox again. I realised that I must have heard him barking, and changed that in my dream into the sound of the seals…
Having exhausted my meagre store of cleaning skills the previous day, and with the weather turning for the worse again, I was once again thrown on my uncle’s resources. I visited the pony and did as much as I could to ease its boredom, but to be honest, that was a boy’s work, not a girl’s who was brought up gently. Inevitably, I went back to my uncle’s study. I put the portraits face down on the desk and began reading the other papers, once of which was his will, which required quite a bit of concentration as it was writ in outmoded and lawyerly speech. There were some other innocuous affairs too, which I made myself mistress of. Then I was left with the diary. I took it reluctantly, went to the kitchen, ate, and retired to bed with my uncle’s diary.
April 2, 19–.
Have been recommended to get some proper sea air for my health. Glenholme weighs upon my sorrows like the overaged elephant she is. I need to find one of my family to take over her care. Or marry. Ha.
Have arrived at the small village of Grayburn. Am staying with the MacTavishes near the green, but close enough to the cliffs to hear the seals barking on the cliffs below. The Isle is pretty in a very isolated sort of way—I supposed the doctor thought that more of what I have already would be good for me. I arrived late—will sightsee the Island tomorrow. There’s none of it that can’t be reached in a day’s ride. They looked at me askance for bringing Runnymede, but won’t protest against the coin that fills their pockets, I dare say.
Have been riding about the island, doing sketches. How very worthy of me, and how unutterably boring. Still, I suppose my chest is clear, so that’s a good thing. Mrs. MacTavish’s granddaughter is close to her time. Apparently she’s had a difficult time of it, and Mrs M. keeps going to check on her. Still, as long as I’m fed and there’s a decent brandy…
Have in an effort to engage myself gone around the village offering to do sketches, and in the process have elevated myself to something of a novelty. All of the adults have volunteered, and trotted out those who are confined to their chairs, too. The children are intrigued. I have noticed that some traits breed very true here, but they seem to change over the course of generations.
I was woken by tapping on the door, soft but insistent. As I awoke from my slumber, a young girl came in. She whispered not to wake anyone, or there would be consequences for both of us. I feared for my virtue—ha—but she said she wanted her picture drawn. I said yes, not being fully of my senses, and got my tools. By candlelight she was revealed to be remarkably pretty, but with only one eye. The other wasn’t even sewn shut—it was as if it had never grown in her head, and only a dent where the eye should be. She seemed satisfied, but whispered not to tell anyone that she’d been. Her voice took on an aura of menace as she spoke, or so it seemed. Couldn’t get back to sleep as the seals were ululating wildly.
Less and less sleep. Accursed seals. My days are filled with daytime things, and the nights with increasing unease. What poison dwells in Grayburn? Children come to me in the night each night, sometimes by twos, demanding to have their portraits taken. They are all quite grotesque. Not a one of them seems to have a normal, healthy body, and they seem to revel in the fact. They tell me in echoing whispers how this sets them apart, how they are special, and chosen by the Isle to serve her. The one-eyed girl seems to coordinate them, and seems intent on seeing how much of these poor, deformed creatures I can take. When the last had gone, I heard laughter outside, and carefully looked through a chink in the curtains to see grotesque figures capering on the green in dim light. One of the grotesques turned, and I fancied I could see the baleful glance of the one-eyed girl.
Here I stopped reading. What coincidence was this, that I had dreamt of this sort of occurrence but the night before? I felt flushed, as if the portraits that I had left face-down on my uncle’s desk were hanging on my bedroom walls, staring at me. My face and chest were hot. I would have opened the windows, but the foxes were crying like seals, and the rain would have soaked the carpet in seconds. I washed my face, emptied the basin, and filled my ewer afresh. I could feel the heat rising in the room, even still.
My chest is clear but I have a fever, born of little sleep, I feel, and not much else. I’ve taken to stealing out in the night after the children leave, just to get a little cool air and feel as if I’m not suffocating. I cannot seem to rid myself of the conviction that the one-eyed girl is watching me. I even dreamt that she and the others waited for something on the green, watching my window with wary eyes.
Most of the villagers were out preparing for the Mayday revels, whatever that entails. I feel worse and worse—only long rides on Runnymede seem to help, and the Island seems increasingly smaller—I took lunch at another town and felt better, but I’m paid up for the next two weeks in Grayburn, and I can’t afford to be cavalier with money. MacTavish’s granddaughter has moved into the house for her birthing—whilst they were out I tapped on the door to see if she needed anything. I found her breathing laboured, fever high and her eyes wide with fear. She gestured me into her room, which I did reluctantly, leaving the door open. She whispered to me urgently, “Don’t… don’t let them take it. Please. Don’t let them take it,” and only my repeated reassurances that everything would be all right would make her let go of my hand. No sleep. Out of brandy. Bloody seals.
I don’t know if people have got wind of the nocturnal visits, or whether Mrs MacTavish found out about my visit to her grand-daughter, but I am watched all the time now. They will let me take Runnymede, but I get severe disapproval from all except the boy who keeps the horse. He tells me to come tonight. The granddaughter has started crying, a thin, pitiful sound that goes on forever.
Another boy was waiting when I went to see Runnymede. I have never seen anyone as twisted, as horrible as he. Large, malformed eyes, one higher than the other, a twisted shoulder, and—I swear it—webbed hands. He made me draw them all, while I could still see, he said, and added that it was nearly time. None of his speech made much sense, and though he is but a boy, in my febrile state I am convinced he means me ill. Could not sleep but for dreams of his face, and the one-eyed girl’s, and all of them dancing, dancing…
I have found a knife in the hay where that horrid boy sat. It is twisted and cruel, and bloodstained. I threw it off the cliff. Later I found a long cut on Runnymede’s neck, and a stained tin cup in the hay in his stall. I buried it. MacT’s granddaughter will not stop wailing, nor will the seals.
I woke to screams from downstairs. The girl was giving birth. I didn’t feel well—or welcome–enough to go downstairs, and whenever I looked out the window a child was watching me. So I returned to bed. After a few hours the screaming stopped and so did the seals, so I fell into a fitful slumber. Later I went downstairs for some tea—it was only for some tea—and the granddaughter was sitting numbly in the rocking chair. She looked at me with such hate! “You let them take it,” she said. “It was beautiful, and you let them take it!” I made my escape.
Last night I can’t tell if I dreamt. I can’t tell what is real any more. They were erecting the maypole, and I watched from my window. Then it seems I was either asleep or delirious, that the villagers and children all gathered on the green, those with straight bodies wearing seal skins to mimic the blessed children, and chanting “Ia! Ia! Ila!” over and over, and the noise of the sea over all. And then there was utter silence, except for the thin wail of a child cut off short. I stole out—or did I?—and found a sticky patch on the ground near the maypole. Hot and sticky.
Glenholme. Oh, dear God, what to write? How did I manage to escape? I went to the May Day celebrations, shaking with fever though I was. They slaughtered a lamb before the celebrations, and it made such a feeble wailing noise. The MacTavish’s granddaughter broke down when she heard it, and started shouting that it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair, it was a beautiful baby and they had killed it like they had killed all the others, and what about… when she was bustled away by a dozen or so villagers. I only noticed then that they all had knives at their belts. They asked me to do the Maydance and I refused, pleading infirmity, which seemed obscurely to please them, but said I should watch.
They played drums, which seemed to go on and on in my head, and the blood on the ground from the lamb spread out towards the Maypole where it joined the dried blood from last night, and the villagers danced barefoot weaving over and under, over and under like a net, and the Maypole started to throb like a phallus that rode the undulating earth and then the seals starting to moan like a woman in pain or pleasure…
I ran. I ran to the shed where Runnymede was, with what little I had on me, and I rode for the beach. I don’t know how many times I fell off because of dizziness, or how many times I could swear I heard uneven footsteps, like those of the horrid boy’s coming after me, impossibly fast, knife glinting, but I made the beach, I made it, we swam for hours and I shall never go back to that hell—
Here the entries abruptly ceased. I was shaken and hot, and could not, would not believe it. The dark had come whilst I was reading, but I could still hear the cacophony of the foxes and pheasants, and the high keen of a rabbit being killed and eaten. The tapping of the trees against my window sounded like uneven footsteps. There was a sudden hush and a windy noise, and something slid down my door. Heart in my mouth, I opened it, only to find that a window must have been open somewhere, for the portrait of the piecemeal boy and some of the Isle pictures were scattered up the stairs as if they were coming for me.
I am not proud of the fact that I screamed, nor of the fact that I shuttered my windows and locked them. When Mrs. MacDonald came in the morning she found me in bed, mumbling deliriously in a fever about “the boy, the boy.”
She, more practical than I shall ever be, hitched up the pony to the trap and brought me, nearly senseless, to her place, with its fill of tumbling children. She told me I could not bear to be near the children at first, but they were blithe and bonny and soon began to bring me out of myself.
I spent a week there, slowly coming back to myself. In the clear and full light coming through the windows of her cottage, I felt ashamed of what I had come to feel at Glenholme, for such nightmares as I imagined had been brought on by boredom and loneliness, and no more. Surrounded by Mrs. MacDonald’s family, I mended, and though she offered to let me stay until Uncle returned, I knew I had to go back and settle my uncle’s affairs.
Uncle T— did not come home. I did what I could with the accounts and then, late on the last night before I was to leave (the MacDonalds had volunteered to see me off to the station), I took the pictures that had caused me so much anguish. The rain had started again, not so much a downpour as a wind-driven tempest, howling under the eaves, and yet I fancied I could still hear the foxes barking. Stop it, I told myself firmly, and did what I knew I had to. I burned the old sealskin and fed the horrid pictures to the fire.
As I came to the one of the piecemeal boy, the world seemed to spin. No doubt it was the wind blowing things back down the flue, but the boy refused to burn, and as I chased around trying to catch the picture as it wafted about the room, I heard the scream of a horse, as if in terror, and in a flash of lightning I thought I saw Runnymede silhouetted. I finally caught the piecemeal boy, and as I did, something thudded against the window. I screamed.
It was my uncle! Unkempt and beaten, he scrabbled imploringly at the closed window with his bloody hands, clawing, scrabbling, clawing. Blood ran down his face, drenched his shirt collar, and those damned foxes were yowling again. I took the poker and thrust the piecemeal boy deep into the heart of the flames, and as he burned, my uncle slumped against the outside wall.
I found him there. His arms had been slashed at the wrist, and bound crudely but not ineffectually. His throat, too, was lacerated, and when I went to catch Runnymede I found that he, too, was cut and bleeding. Runnymede I could do nothing for, but I threw my uncle over the pony’s back and started the long trek to the MacDonalds’. He was raving by the time we got there, and he never stopped, tales of human sacrifice and living land and swimming through tooth-edged rocks to escape being the next victim, and always the boy and the one-eyed girl.
When they came to take him away he resisted, turning to me at the last and telling the men that they should ask me for I knew it was all true, all true, all true…
To my shame, I kept my silence. For I could hear the foxes barking, and heard the uneven steps in the darkness, which sometimes I still do, even though I live so very far now from the sea…
previously published in HAUNTED MAGAZINE
I Can See You
a story by
A. E. Shaw
Vicious, bold sunshine and a thick kilt in black-and-blue tartan are a brutal combination. Emily’s bare legs are burning as she tip-toes around a grassy square, trying as hard as she might to fit the full spectrum of her Victorian-built school into the frame. But this isn’t Emily’s only problem.
The auto-focus wants to play around the sundial which stands in the gravel octagon that leads paths to and from the entrance’s grand double doors. However much Emily fights the multitude of buttons and settings, the camera won’t shift its opinion to ‘landscape,’ refusing to disable the infuriating ‘facial’ recognition feature. And this isn’t Emily’s biggest problem, either.
Everything reflects off everything else – she sees herself scowling in the viewfinder, has to squint through it to find the image, but even when she does, the arched and lead-crossed windowpanes refract rays of white and yellow across the shot. Thus each click, when examined through the glare, results in something increasingly less close to the composition she has in mind. Still, this isn’t Emily’s real problem.
Emily twists and turns and contorts herself a little longer and then gives up on that plan, sweat running down her back. She longs to remove her blazer, but that wouldn’t be allowed, because she’s outside, during school hours, which she thought would be a privilege and a pleasure, thank you, final art project, thank you, great inspiration, and then it isn’t either of those things, it’s just hot, furiously so, where the air chafes your throat and there isn’t enough cold water in the world to slake your thirst.
She walks down the path, crunch-crunch, every step a weight with the little blue camera slippery-smooth in her damp hands, requiring just a little more grip than is comfortable. At the corner of a withering flower patch, an easy stone’s throw from the sun-flooded buildings, she re-angles the camera at one corner. Taking a deep breath, Emily ignores the dusty urge to cough it out again, holding, sharp focus, there, there, there except then not, because that sodding auto-focus is there again, great, get off the window, that’s not the point. She snaps the picture anyway, because at this rate not only will she not have the references for texture, perspective and light that she’s shooting for, she won’t have anything at all.
As the shutter clicks and the camera whirrs in digital imitation of those beautiful machines which rotated old film and didn’t try to decide on the subject, object, focus and face for you, Emily is surprised to feel a cold shiver at her sides, as if a wind has whipped around her. But there is no breeze. She blinks, as if hoping to clear her eyes of something – was there something? She creases her face tight, holding the camera a matchstick’s distance from her eyes to check she didn’t blur the picture.
She didn’t. It’s fresh razor-bright. The school looks luminescent. The ornate wallwork is cut perfect white against a bright blue sky, and the yellow haze of the day is finally absent.
But there’s something – someone – in the window, ruining the symmetry. Who? Logic suggests it’s the housemistress, mahogany-haired Mrs. Mellor, but… no. It’s a blonde girl. No one she recognises. She’ll be Emily’s insurmountable problem. But Emily doesn’t know it yet. She snaps on, satisfied by the sudden break she’s had. It’s as if everything plaguing her before has passed.
At this stage of the year, there is little time, or inclination, for socialising, and what there is has been quelled by the relentless layers of heat. Emily holes herself up in the computer room, hotter even than direct sunlight thanks to all the electronics, as desperate as anyone’s lungs for their next breath of fanned-up air to be cooler, and, on this day, just as unsuccessful.
The day’s photographs load as slowly as someone trying to sprint through the weight of the weather, but when they appear on the screen then once more there is a whisper in the air, and Emily feels her head swim like she’s weighted down at the bottom of the school pool. She clicks enlarge, zoom. She looks again, and again, but there is a girl there, in that picture of the corner of the building, and she is not just in the window, but leaning out of it. Staring, wide-eyed. Out at her.
That face doesn’t belong to anyone at this school, of this, after fifteen years in a wretched woollen kilt and hideously-cut shirt, Emily is sure. But the hair is tied in school colours – how can Emily see this, in such a picture? Yet she can – and her shirt is regulation, and there’s no other school left in the whole country with a collar so ridiculous.
“I can see you,” Emily whispers, the words falling deft from her lips as if they were incantation. In the next picture, and the next, where there had been nothing, there now are thin white legs, and a swish of golden hair, another kilt but there was no one else out front and there’s this face… this unfamiliar face.
I can see you.
Emily doesn’t even know if she’s hearing, or saying the words, now. She stares and stares, and when Anna comes by to check her course calendar she grabs her and says, “Do you know who this is?” but Anna yanks her arm free and looks at her as if they haven’t been fair friends since the age of seven. “I’ve got to get on, I’m sorry…” she says, and leaves, and Emily feels oddly alone.
I can see you.
Emily shifts and switches this way and that in her seat, but there is nothing, and no one, left in the lab.
And now the voice has started, it refuses to stop.
Evening rushes up, and there is no relief in the air. Emily feigns a headache to get early to bed, glad of the chance to rest – delirium, begone – but bed doesn’t feel her own tonight. Her nightdress is itchy and weighty as the wool of her uniform. As if this were not enough, there is that voice, wheedling, a creeping pinch of a plea at the edge of Emily’s understanding.
It has to stop.
It won’t stop.
Emily rubs her eyes, and tries to relax, but there is no relaxing to be had. The windows are open wide, but they may as well be barred shut with a raging fire in the dorm for all the relief they give. Windows this old shouldn’t be left like this, but it’s so hot, someone must’ve thought it a sensible idea.
No, Emily thinks, but doesn’t say, because it’s all in her head, isn’t it, it’s not something that’s happening in her dorm, it isn’t real, no, ‘please’ is not something you whisper plaintively through the ether, not in the real world.
“Jump!” comes the plea, louder now, and Emily is sure, still, that this is inside her head. It is. There’s no stirring in the dorm. Emily’s heart is thumping apace once more; it is unbearable, but there is nothing to be done but bear it and repeat the facts. It’s just the heat. It’s only the weather. Tomorrow will be better.
Emily presses her face into the pillow, sucking in its feathery denseness, no storybook trustworthy friends to turn to, just her determinedly academic grit to get the last couple of months of A-levels out of the way so she can get out of this godforsaken school and into the real world which must, surely, be less cruel than this.
As the hours pass, she is swamped by the day, by the heat, by sweat and torment. The voice grows louder and the face is clearer. At one point she swears the girl is next to her, clear as anything even in pitch dark.
Emily doesn’t remember getting up, nor does she remember changing. Nor does anyone else in her dorm notice her movements. Greater forces are at work.
She would remember standing at the window. Furious and confused at what she almost did, but doesn’t do. No! she yells in her mind, turning, willful, definite. She is not jumping anywhere. She heads down the stairs.
The result is the same for Emily, but if she won’t jump, she must be pushed. That changes things for our whispering vision.
The discovery is made by the aforementioned Mrs. Mellor, on exiting the front doors for her daily constitutional. The scene is horrific. How can it be that no one yet has seen it? As it happens, this can’t be seen through the windows. Is it a trick of the light, strange fortune, an awful coincidence, or something else? It’s all four. Nobody saw.
Suicide, it must have been. What a terrible, unfortunate thing. Must be the weather, Mrs. Mellor thinks to herself, convinces herself, and she doesn’t worry about the strange angles of the leap Emily, never the most athletic of girls, would have needed to make, the hideous precision with which she would have to have arranged herself, mid-air, never mind the fact that she is merely stabbed, rather than halved, by the sundial.
Lucky, isn’t it, that there’s that camera, just there, on the gravel, placed neatly six feet from the sundial, to show that actually there’s more to it than that daft assumption. Mrs. Mellor goes to pick it up, but she realises just in time that there might be prints or evidence upon it, so she leaves where it lies. She saves lives and minds with this simple lack of action, although she’ll never know that, for the story now moves on, to the investigation of the contents of that camera, which happens first at the local police station, and then later in many, many more places, all of which will come to wish, quietly, that they had never offered to ‘take a look.’
Emily’s first pictures, those that disturbed her so, that plagued her mind, they come out now without a shred of interest to them, plain and dull, no shapes, no faces, no suggestions. There are twenty-odd, just the school, the topiary, the flowers. The sundial. It’s only the last two pictures that have any impact.
The second-to-last picture on the camera is that of Emily arched back, impaled upon the sundial. It’s shocking, of course, but it isn’t the worst. Poor Emily. She’s still alive, her mouth clearly open in an active scream, but her arms are already hanging limp and jointed back upon themselves as the nerves and muscles give out. She is neat and tidy, her school uniform as pleated and placed as if someone had arranged her, she might be resting at break time on a bench, save for that scream, that contortion of her mouth and face, and for the area between her shoulder-blades, pierced dark by the point of the iron gnomon, then at least still clean of the swarm of tacky blood she would later be found in.
The final shot is a smiling girl, long blonde hair tied tight in two tails with black-and-blue tartan ribbon, the collar of her white shirt starched bright, broad and round.
previously published in HAUNTED MAGAZINE
a story by
Four sailors went abroad to ensnare Moment in their nets.
At break of day they went forth; and wind yelled in their sails, and gulls flashed them by, and cliffs rose and fell away behind them; and come noontide they sailed to a cove where the sun lulls waves and Moment is wont to swim.
The day long they stood, poised with spear and net. Here they glimpsed it lolling amid shoals, or there swimming neath flashes of sun.
Yet Moment proved elusive, and the sailors, try as they might, threw their nets to no avail, and to no target hurled their spears—but Moment’s scales always gleamed away, laughing.
Cursing their luck, they raised oars, and turned their prow shoreward; and wind yelled in their sails, and gulls flashed them by, and cliffs rose and fell away behind them.
But going homeward they caught Year, for he is clumsy, and huge, and dove headlong into their nets.
Kevin DeLuca is a writer of weird fiction. He has a strong appreciation for the tranquility that accompanies 3 AM. His influences include, but are not limited to, Oscar Wilde, Lord Dunsany, Brian Jacques, HP Lovecraft.
a story by
They say that all the sin eaters in Appalachia died out. Went by way of the dodo birds, and the Indians who once made their homes up in the mountains before the white folk chased them off. My daddy was the first to tell me otherwise.
He said that when night fell around the tops of the mountains peaks, thick and velveteen, when the fog settled low-slung and grievers shook in their beds, and echoes of dirges moved between tree trunks, you could hear them up there singing along, glutting themselves on the sins of the dead.
When I asked him why they didn’t come down he told me, “People like to die with what they have. They like to keep their evils close.”
He shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigarette. “You live with yourself, you die with yourself. Don’t need no damn sin eater to atone for what you should’ve already made peace with.”
I pulled my legs up to my chest, set my chin on my kneecaps. “That why they’re all gone?”
“Not gone,” he said. “Just away.”
Four years later he died in a wreck along the highway. There was a woman in the car with him, not my mama, some girl he picked up from a rest stop, bruised and bleeding, with silver hoops through her ears big enough for me to fit my hand through. She was sixteen, just a year off my age. A young little thing, or at least that’s what they called her on the news.
Down at the morgue they took blood from his arm, found alcohol in his system along with a cocktail of other things, cocaine and heroin, the prescription pills my mama kept in the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink.
That night while Mama sat in the living room, sipping coffee black and staring at the TV, I stood out on the porch and prayed to the Eaters, asked them to take his sins from him, chew them up and swallow them so he could make it to Heaven.
The moon hung low that night and there was mist about the treetops. I got no answer save for the sound of humming cicadas and the slow drag of my own heart beating.
We put my daddy in the ground a few days later. Gathered in the church where I was baptized and my parents married. Sang a couple hymns, clamped clammy hands and accepted condolences from distant relatives and schoolteachers, a few family members that came down from Pittsburgh for the funeral.
After they put him in the ground there was a reception in the basement of the church. We piled our plates with fried chicken thighs and the green slop of over-boiled collards, squares of cornbread, and crumbles of dry dressing. People talked while they ate, thick words through mouthfuls, chicken grease spattering pressed suits, napkins bunched and shoved into shirt collars. There was the clash of forks on plastic plates, chairs scraping across tile, a smell of Thanksgiving on the air thick and noxious as though the event was something to celebrate.
Across the room a woman spoke my daddy’s name, talked about the kind of man he was. “A good one,” she said. “He was a good man.”
I pushed back from the table. Stood up fast with my hands fisted. My chair hit the floor, clattered.
I felt eyes on me. A lot of them. Looks from around the room.
I started to say something about my daddy. About the how he fell into a bad way and the things he did to me and my mama. The reek of the food and the sick sounds of their chewing, meat torn off chicken bones, drinks guzzled, cups emptied. Porcine dining. Gluttony. I wanted to speak to all of it.
“Lydia,” said Mama, her fork bobbing in her hand, the prongs slick with gravy and dripping. “Please.”
I left for the mountains the day after the funeral. Packed a hiking bag and three of the lunchboxes I used to carry as a kid, put ice packs at the bottom and filled it full of the leftovers from the funeral feast. I pulled my hiking boots out of the closet, a windbreaker, a thick wool scarf. I started on the mountain path a few hours before sunset, took one of the snaking dirt roads that lead to crags where the Eaters lurk. I walked with my pack bumping my spine, sweat beading along my brow, the sun slanting down through the treetops and dappling the forest floor. The sky was stinging blue.
A few does crossed my path as I walked. Rabbits ran wild through the thrush and thickets. I could hear the humming of bees on the air, the whisper of wind in the bare branches of the birch trees.
My daddy taught me how to hunt them when I was little. Bought me a 22-caliber rifle with brass bullets. Taught me how to the hold the butt of the gun to my shoulder, fire with one eye closed. For hours we’d crouch between the pines, or behind blackberry brambles waiting for rabbits to cross our paths. On the good days we’d come home with bunches of them, on the bad days we’d trudge down the mountain bone-tired and spitting. We didn’t have a lot of bad days back then.
Sometimes Daddy and I would walk the woods for the hell of it. I’d pocket pebbles and pine cones gnawed skinny by some hungry squirrel stock piling for wintertime. Once we found the skull of a possum in a nook between two tree roots. Daddy picked it up and brushed it clean, spit on it a bit to get the dirt off. Then he held it up to the sun so he could see the light shine through its eye sockets.
“Beautiful,” he said, and he handed it to me. “God’s work.”
It was dark by the time I reached the top of the mountain. I limped on swelled feet, my toes thick and throbbing, sticky with sweat. Half out of my mind with tiredness.
Across a field of gravel and flowers I saw a cabin. A girl stood by it, dressed in a white sundress, barefoot despite the cold. She had her hair down around her shoulders, bruises and bite marks up her arms.
I took the lunchbox out of my backpack, held it out to her. “I’m here on behalf of my daddy. I want you to take his sins, all of them.”
She came forward, took the lunchbox from me, opened it up and unwrapped the cornbread, gnawed on a chicken leg, slurped up wet collard leaves. She chewed through the chicken bones and sucked the marrow out, licked the crumbs off the bottom of the box and bit into the ice packs. Ravenous.
A west wind swept along the mountainside and whistled through the pine needles. I felt the dirt shift under my feet; little pebbles loosed themselves and ricocheted down the mountainside. The girl kept eating, tore into the side of the lunchbox, bloodying her mouth as she worked through the metal. She swallowed the handle last, and wiped her mouth clean on the back of her hand, smearing blood and gravy.
The cicadas quit singing.
The wind went quiet.
I felt a sickness in my stomach like worms writhing.
“Hold still,” she said as she started towards me. “This is God’s work.”
Alex Henderson is a college student and Speculative Fiction writer from the Low Country. When she’s not writing she likes to spend her time drafting novels, painting, and reading the scariest books she can get her hands on.
A Rich Man
a story by
“Did you know, Pablo, that I am a rich man?” Damon stopped oiling the old man’s foot, and glanced up at the yellow eyes that were not looking at him. A rolled cigarette hung from Mr. Malcham’s white lips, the ash drifting listlessly onto the dirt floor. Damon had gotten used to the old man calling him Pablo, and garçon, and Felipe, and Juan. They were names caught in the filter of his decaying mind, while their context flushed itself into the rest of the melded mush. Damon picked up the glass bottle sitting next to him, and poured more of the yellow grease into his hands. He worked his fingers in between the old man’s toes. The nails were yellowed, cracked, long. The soles remained rough and calloused, no matter how much oil was applied. He stared at them, working his strong fingers over the translucent flesh, and wondered if the names were redolent of the days when Mr. Malcham traveled as a sailor. The old man often talked of crumbling societies, nameless European colonies no longer resembling their pasts nor acclimating to their proposed futures. But Damon held doubts that the old man ever sailed anywhere except to this island—their island, their nameless society—and that he was ever anything except the dying creature in front of him. He had gotten used to hearing strange things emanate from the old lips and cigarette smoke. The idea that Mr. Malcham had money peaked his interest, slightly. It was different from the other stories.
Damon adjusted his legs on the floor, ignoring the pins-and-needles that surged through his left foot all the way up his thigh. He looked out a small window which revealed nothing but a pink sky and fat purple clouds. He wondered if the rain would start again tonight. The fire in front of them was dying, but every once in awhile a flame would poke and lick the red ashes. They didn’t need the extra warmth it provided. The rains had not snuffed out the ongoing heat. It only seemed to make the hotness moist, and even more unbearable. Between the ashes and the cigarette smoke Damon felt as if there was no air to breathe. But the old people liked the fires, even in the hot weather. It took more and more to keep them warm the worse they became. Damon’s eyes fell on the fire and thought he saw a face. He blinked, trying to focus, but it was gone. It was not the first time he had seen a face there. Sometimes it was the face of one of his little brothers. Sometimes his mother. He tried to hold onto the face that was there now, but it was a fleeting vision, and it became the glowing ash again, moving and pulsating with heat. If Damon had been a few years younger he would have thought it was a ghost, but he no longer had a childlike faith in ghosts. He kicked his foot, trying to get rid of the awful sensation.
“I am a rich man, and everyone knows except for you.” The old man patted Damon on his black hair. Damon flinched. Mr. Malcham’s touch was odd and revolting. He visited all nine of the huts throughout the week, spending the night in several of the small rooms, and of the nine people he saw, Mr. Malcham was the only one who threw things at him, swore at him, swung at him with his walking stick, and denied him to sleep in his hut on the cot brought in for him by the nursemaids. The old man made it clear that Damon was to sleep outside his door, in the dirt, to keep out invisible intruders. A horrible smell filled Damon’s nose. He stifled the urge to gag. He had cleaned out the pot only minutes before, but this dirty man did not always find it necessary to use it. The smell and the heat were unbearable. Damon coughed and rubbed the cold fleshy foot harder, wishing he could crush it. He wished he could run. He would have run then, if there had been anywhere to go.
“Do you speak English, Pablo? Habla? Habla?” Damon could sense the rising irritability that lead to Mr. Malcham’s tantrums. He had found that usually it was better not to speak at all. He looked up into the yellow eyes, and shook his head ‘No.’
“Of course not.” The clouded eyes returned to the dying flames. “A man tells you he’s rich, and you continue to sit in the dirt massaging his feet, in a hut made for the poor, the old, the feeble…” Damon looked up from the nearly weightless foot. He watched as white spittle crept out of the corner of Mr. Malcham’s mouth and trickled down his chin. You’ll never know the difference between a rich man and a poor man because you’re beneath them all. You’ll never climb out of the dirt high enough to rid yourself of the stench of feet.” Damon clenched his teeth. He jumped to his feet, knocking over the bottle of oil. They both watched as the oil soaked into the floor, forming a dark mud stain. Damon looked into the old man’s face. He recognized the familiar rage. He was determined this time to meet it with his own, to finally stand up for himself, when he saw the anger melt away into a crooked smile. “Take it easy,” the old man said, though the yellow eyes still retained a remnant of the ire. “I tell you this, Pablo, because I am going to make you rich. All the money I have, all I own, I leave to you.” The aged lips twitched and the words began to slur. “When they take my body away on that boat, throw it to the sharks as if it never meant anything, you’ll own it all.” Damon continued to stare at him, his expression blank. His heart was still pounding from his new found rebellion. “But all the money in the world won’t teach you the difference,” Mr. Malcham said quietly, the smile still lingering on his white lips, the cigarette still dangling.
Damon’s mind raced, thinking if he should speak, when a heavy knock on the door interrupted them. “Come in!” said Mr. Malcham. As the words left his lips, he grabbed Damon’s hand with his arthritic fingers and shoved something warm and hard into his palm. Damon pulled away and saw that it was a gold coin. He froze. “Come in! Come in for God’s sake!” Mr. Malcham spoke loudly, but there was no malice in his voice. Damon saw that the smile had returned, curling at the edges of the white lips which were bubbling and pushing out the stub of the cigarette. Damon heard the lips mumble wordless somethings, but he couldn’t make them out. He thought the knocking was one of the nursemaids, bringing water, or logs for the fire. He was surprised to see a large body filling the frame of the bamboo door, blocking out the dying pink light. The man was unlike anyone Damon had ever seen on the island, though there was a vague familiarity about him. A broad nose and stern mouth. It was the lips, white and firm, that were familiar. The man’s eyes were a piercing blue, almost white, and cut through the shadowy darkness of the hut as if radiating their own sharp light. Damon was dazzled by the eyes which were so full of life. He had gotten used to the yellow eyes of the dying, and the glazed look of those lost in memory. The man walked into the room with a heavy step. Damon noticed that his feet were not bare. He wore thick brown boots that were covered in dust and dirt. It had been a long time since Damon had seen shoes of any kind. They were a luxury, nearly extinct. He would remember such a man if he had seen him on the island. Then he remembered that, after all this time, he had not seen much of the island. Since his arrival, he had been confined in the quarters for the separate community. He could not believe that there were other people here, other men, that were not weak and crippled and dying. The man’s light hair was swept back and wet-looking, though loose strands, beaded with sweat, hung in front of his eyes. His face was shaven, but stubbled. He was dressed in a button-down shirt that fell open at his chest, revealing tangles of blonde hair underneath. Dark, wet patches stained the shirt at his underarms. His desperate look made Damon nervous.
“Father.” The word fell out of his mouth as he dropped at the old man’s feet. As his knees hit the dirt, Damon backed away, not sure if the man had seen him standing there. He held onto the coin tightly. He had almost forgotten it. The weight of it sunk into his mind. He no longer cared who the stranger was, nor why he was here.
“Sebastian.” The old lips were no longer inhibited by the cigarette. “You’ve come.” Mr. Malcham’s words were quiet and solemn, his small smile replaced with inexplicable gravity.
Damon continued to back away into a corner of the room, giving the two men as much space as possible. The coin. He allowed himself to glance at it quickly. Damon had never seen a gold coin, but he recognized the type and the similar look it shared with the coins from his childhood away from the island. With his brothers and mother. Small coins wrapped in cloth thin as tissue and kept in a jar behind the bed. The island had no currency. No one on the island had coins, and yet this old man living in a filthy hut had given him one. It did not mean much on the island, but if Damon could leave… if he could find a way to get more, find a boat, find his way back…
“I’ve been away. It took them some time to find me, you understand that, but I’m here now.”
“Drifting at sea, among the hard-to-find.” The old man’s word were full of memory.
“Yes, I’ve been at sea, father. Things are… falling apart.” Sebastian’s words hesitated, paused, drifted. His mind was not here with the old man. Then he came back. The alert blue eyes searched frantically, trying to cut through the murk of the yellow clouds. “I needed to find more men. For protection. Just a few strong bodies to stop some of the trouble here. More… women, too.”
Damon allowed the words between the men float into his ears without thinking about their meaning. The coin occupied his mind, sat there like a heavy lump that needed tending. The old man said he was rich. He said that he would leave Damon everything. The stench returned to his nostrils, more potent than before, countering the idea that any semblance of truth could be uttered by that stinking, wrinkled body. If Damon wanted the old man’s money, he would have to search the hut and take it.
Sebastian held his hands in front of his face. “Bring more people, bring control. Outsiders, new faces, it helps sometimes, I know it does. I know you never believed that, but I wanted to prove you wrong. I had dreams for this place, too.” Sebastian took his hands away, and lowered his voice. “It’s done nothing but make the others angry. More mouths to feed.” His voice continued to drop until it was nothing more than a whisper. “There are talks of slavery. Of immoralities around every corner. They cannot see beyond themselves. They’re saying this place is Hell itself.”
Damon’s eyes darted, assessing the room. It was nearly bare. In one corner, a small bed with a thin rumpled blanket and a heron-feathered pillow. Next to the bed, on the floor, the metal pot crusted with a thin layer of rust. Off to the side, near the wall, a small wooden table where some flies circled and danced around the delicate fish bones on Mr. Malcham’s dinner plate. A bookcase sat near the bed, consisting of two driftwood shelves nailed clumsily into the bamboo. One shelf lay bare. The top one held four thin paperbacks, water-warped and yellow, and a thick hardcover, old and black, with traces of gold letters no longer legible. It was frequently touched, for it had no dust on its cover. There was the rocking chair where Mr. Malcham sat. It creaked with every slight movement as the air between the two men grew thick and intense. And there was the fireplace. It was more of a stone niche with a hole in the roof to ventilate the rising smoke. A flame flicked its pointed tongue. And there was the unused cot—a bare hand-stitched mattress on a bamboo frame—sitting blank in the corner. There was nothing else. There was nothing along the walls, not even a drawing or one of the berry paintings some of the hut-dwellers liked to collect from the nursemaids. He decided it would have to be the bed, or behind the books. It wouldn’t take long to search both. Damon began to move and then stopped. He heard a noise outside the window behind him.
“They’re coming, father.”
Damon thought it was the rain starting again, after finally stopping for a few hours. He cursed to himself until he realized it was voices. Many voices, muffled, rising and falling, sounding as if the ocean had made its way to the huts and was reaching for them. He held the coin tighter, and shifted away from the window.
“They want to hear it from your lips. What’s going to happen to this place. They tolerated it when you brought in orphans for labor.” Mr. Malcham coughed violently, and did not bother to cover the phlegm flying out of his mouth. Sebastian backed away with a disgusted look that quickly fell back into desperation. He dropped his head and closed his eyes. “They didn’t know if it was right, but they tolerated it. The new faces helped, and we needed the extra hands.” His eyes darted to Damon, then turned back to the old man. “They tolerated much more after that. But now, the community is hungry. The rain keeps coming. Only one of our supply boats has returned.” Sebastian stopped. The voices were getting louder, a dull buzz that began to permeate the walls around them. “People are… taking things. From each other.” The blue eyes regained their intensity. Damon did not know what was happening, but he knew that he had to stay focused. If Sebastian distracted Mr. Malcham long enough, he could make his way to the bed, sit down. Feel around. “The women… they’re not safe.” Sebastian stumbled over his words. Sweat fell off his hair onto his cheeks. “They want to leave, but I can’t allow it. There’s only one boat now. There’s too many of us, and we cannot leave people behind.”
“What is it you want from me, Sebastian,” the old man said, his yellow eyes blank and staring at the wall, seeing nothing.
“Tell them I’m in charge. They need order. They need a leader. They have to hear it from your lips.” Sebastian moved closer to the old man. He hesitated, and then put his hand on his father’s clenched fist. Mr. Malcham did not seem to notice. Damon sat down on the bed. “You are still the authority here. That never changed. Even though you’re here, in the… separate community, that never changed.”
Damon thought he heard a woman’s scream outside, among the voices. But it was muffled. Far away. His hand searched under the pillow as he kept his eyes on Sebastian.
“And what will you do to end the chaos?”
Sebastian said nothing, but stared at the old man with wide eyes, lingering on his lips the formations of words he wanted to say. Damon reached his hand under the mattress, careful not to let his movements show. He wished they would leave the room, but he knew Mr. Malcham rarely left his rocking chair. The voices sounded as if they were right outside the door now. They pulsated and cracked like the glowing ashes of the fire.
“Tell them. Please.” Sebastian rubbed sweat from his forehead with his palm. The tone of his voice made Damon look up, into his face, his eyes still glowing in the shadows. “There will be nothing left.”
“There is nothing left.” Mr. Malcham’s voice softened for a moment. “I know why you were out to sea, among the hard-to-find. The man grows, the man knows, but he cannot reap what the other man sows.” The old man practically spat the words into Sebastian’s face. “You want my money. You want this island.” Mr. Malcham coughed again, violently, more phlegm flying. “You want to take my beautiful dreams, and turn them into your lesser fantasies.” Sebastian backed away with a look of horror. “Let them die with me.” The old lips trembled. Spit dribbled down the prickles of the white chin. The yellow eyes widened, then squinted, as if there were thoughts or dreams of something far away. The voices faded, then grew, pulsated. “Let them all die.” Sebastian stood up and turned his back to his father, lowering his head to face the ashes. He ran both hands over his face.
Damon had his hand on the thick book on the bookshelf, the tips of his fingers touching the smooth black cover, when there came a pounding on the door. The moment held a thick silence. The banging resounded again, the door bending and threatening to shatter into pieces. Damon felt darkness descending on them, moving around them, as if something outside shifted around the hut, blocking the pink light coming from the cracks in the bamboo. Sebastian jumped with every knock, but did not acknowledge it. Instead, he turned to his father, his eyes pleading. Mr. Malcham did not look at him, but he nodded, his face bobbing loosely in the thick air. “I’ll see them. I’m ready.”
Behind the large book, Damon found it. A small leather bag, heavy in his hands. He pulled it fast behind his back. The jangling of the metal sounded deafening even though the men did not react. He waited a moment for his heartbeat to slow, then he felt around inside with his fingers. Coins. It was not the piles of riches that Mr. Malcham would have him believe, but it would be enough. Damon could not keep the smile from his lips. He would have to leave tonight—right now. As soon as Sebastian left, he would follow him to the supply ship, sneak on. Damon looked up and saw that the old man was walking out of the room, holding onto his son’s arm. They opened the door. A cacophony of voices reached their pitch. His heart jumped when he saw the pile of men’s faces, mean looking and yellow with firelight. He kept the bag behind his back as he walked towards the door, keeping a safe distance and peeking around the frame. Mr. Malcham had his walking stick in one hand and Sebastian’s arm in the other. His voice permeated the thick air, filled it slowly and deliberately, captivating the attention of the mob of men outside, silencing their crackling voices. Damon did not hear the beginning of Mr. Malcham’s speech, his ears and mind buzzing with excitement, but now the words were starting to come into focus and form meaning.
“I brought you comfort and new life. And I have lived long enough to see you all strangle the good out of this place.” Damon moved into the doorway, trying to hear better, trying to understand why everyone was listening to the old man, wondering what they wanted with him.
As soon as Damon took one step out of the hut, Mr. Malcham turned around. He gazed at Damon, his yellow eyes full of a strange vitality that made Damon’s heart pound. “I have found my replacement! His name is Pablo! He smells of you all! He smells of feet! He reeks of the feet of this island! His hands are coated in a permanent grease that can never be washed off!” The old man started laughing, a horrible screeching laugh. He turned back to the confused and shocked faces. “I leave everything to him, to cover everything in his grease, in his smell, in his stench! He is the rich man now! He is the one that I leave for you to strangle with your greed!”
The angry voices returned all at once. One man threw an object that hit Mr. Malcham on the shoulder. Sebastian seemed shocked, but before he could react, a rock hit Mr. Malcham’s forehead, knocking him to the ground. Sebastian tried to pick him up, yelling unclear things at the men, but the mob surrounded them. Damon could not believe how many men there were, and could not understand what was happening. A rock whizzed by his ear. It startled him and caused him to trip. He landed clumsily on the ground. All he could see were feet. Bare feet, glistening with oil and mud and sand, stampeding the old man, running over his sick body, kicking him, stomping him, bloodying their soles on the fragile-looking skin that tore like paper. Damon knew he should move, that he should run, but all he could think about was the shining oil on the feet. It glistened in the yellow torchlight and dying pink. It became more slick with blood. He wondered how something so smooth could tear skin like paper. He scrambled up and ran. He ran through the forest of palms, heading towards the dock he had seen many times before. There was a boat there. He and the other laborers would use it for fishing when the larger community denied them food, but mostly it was there to row out the dead, row them out to the reefs, to the sharks, not wanting bodies, or parts of bodies, to wash back up onto shore. He could hear feet behind him, running heavily, drunkenly. He would not look back, but he could see them in his mind, oiled and shining, covered in the old man’s blood, the grease catching the sand and dirt as they stumbled after him. The feet grew closer. Closer. Heavy, stomping, fast. He let a scream escape his lips as he came up to the dock, convinced in his mind that he wouldn’t make it. He could already feel the oiled flesh touching his skin, his face, his neck. Tearing his skin like paper. Greasy calluses stomping out what was left of this life. He fell headfirst into the fishing boat, a simple wooden row boat with two unmatched oars. He let himself look up as he pushed off the dock, his eyes searching frantically along the water and back the trees behind it, but whoever had been following him was not there. He felt eyes all over him. Flashes of the mob’s oiled feet covered in blood filled his vision until he could see nothing else. He rowed away with his back to the vastness into which he traveled. The island was in front of him, still immense though he wished it to be a speck. The boat sounded hollow and fragile as it scraped the top of the reef, reminding him that he had never rowed this far before. He laughed to himself. The laugh started small, and then grew louder and deeper until he had to drop the oars because his tight stomach and cheeks hurt from laughing so hard. I now own all that the old man had, and all that I see before me, he thought. His laughter convulsed his body again. “There is no difference,” he said aloud. His laughing slowly ceased. His hard feet, gritty and rough with sand and dried mud, knocked against the only item in the boat besides himself, the leather bag with Mr. Malcham’s coins. He picked up the oars and let his mounting sobs dominate all sounds of laughter. “There is no difference.”
Veronica McDonald received her MA in Literature from American University in Washington D.C. She grew up in New England, but now moves around the country every few years. She is currently working on short stories and a novel while wrestling two rambunctious toddlers.
a story by
He would take anything Pa had to offer. He would be our scarecrow. Pa led him to the cross.
It was not until he hung above the corn did I notice his gauntness and tufts of yellow hair abandoning him strand by strand. He strained. I believed the crows would outlast him.
Pa dumped a glass of water on my face. “You have your chores,” he said.
“Is it a dream?” I asked. “Is it still here?”
“The scarecrow,” I said.
Pa gave me a pail of cold oatmeal and I fed him by hooking the pail’s handle onto a stick. He slurped like a horse while his stomach swelled. I loosened his rope belt when he asked. “Better,” he said. “I needed that.”
A few crows perched on his shoulders. He cawed and they almost flew into one another.
We laughed and I asked, “Need anything else?”
“Water.” His voice crackled. He gulped as he drank. “Good,” he said.
After I did my chores, I visited the scarecrow again. I asked if he ever left the cross. He told me no, so I asked how he did all the things ordinary people did and he said, “That’s my secret,” and he laughed. But I did not.
For the next few days, our visits went the same. I never got him to talk much about his life. He told me he had seen the country by riding the rails. He loved Maine because of the seafood that came from the Atlantic. He would go back one day. I asked, “Why didn’t you go there instead of coming here?”
“I needed a good, long break before I deserved it again,” he said.
I nodded, but I didn’t understand, so at dinner I asked Pa what the scarecrow could have meant. He said, “Mind yourself. Leave that man alone. He’ll be moving along soon.”
It was late and I could not sleep. The man was still out there. He was not going anywhere.
I sneaked through the corn. The moon guided me to him. “Where are you really from?” I startled him. I had not known he could sleep with his eyes open.
“You should be asleep,” he said.
“I want to know where you’re from.”
The scarecrow looked up. The stars were still. “From there,” he said. He let his head fall. “Or, maybe from down there.” He looked at me. “Or, maybe I am where I’m supposed to be, waiting, making sure the crows don’t bother you and your father.”
I shook my head. “You lie. You’re probably some kind of thief.” I kicked the cross. He grinned, and, for the first time, I saw he only had a few teeth. “Tell me the truth, tell me your secrets,” I said.
“They wouldn’t be secrets if I told you. And, I have told you the truth.”
“Tell me just one secret.”
“Maybe I can’t,” he said. “Maybe I made a promise to someone.”
He lifted his head in a way that gave him a cruel expression. “Someone you don’t want to know.”
Several crows landed on his arms and pecked at his skin. He did not make a sound. His eyes were open but cold and stiff and soon I lost sight of his breath. I was scared. Before I ran home, before I decided to hide under my sheets instead of telling Pa, the scarecrow howled, “Go! Before we get you!”
Pa ripped the covers off and shook me. “Get up.” I tripped over my feet as he led me to the cross. The morning sun was strung. “Where did he go?”
I wanted tell him what the scarecrow had said, but I didn’t. “I don’t know,” I said.
“I wanted to pay the man for his services,” Pa said. “I haven’t seen one crow.”
I ran my hands along the wood, checking for secret buttons. Secrets only the scarecrow could know. I wanted to know more, but I had a feeling that it was good I did not. I climbed and posed just like the man had.
Pa shielded his eyes from the morning light. “Son, what are you doing?”
“Maybe he was sick and had to leave,” I said.
“Pa, how can a man do such work if he’s sick?”
“Sometimes, he don’t have a choice.”
A crow landed on my arm. “Pa?”
He grinned like the scarecrow. “Maybe he knew he wasn’t cut out for scaring away the death of our crop.”
Andrew Davis lives in Lowell, Massachusetts. He has contributed to The Apeiron Review, The Oddville Press, Black Heart Magazine, and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society.
‘When I wrote this story, I started thinking of the guy on the cross as a flawed outsider who was being pulled between Heaven and Hell. I imagined the Grim Reaper, but a more human representation of Death, and I started wondering what perspective a character like that might have. For people, Death is scary and we have all sorts of thoughts about it and its purpose, so I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of Death as being more of a misunderstood protector, one without fancy armor or big Hollywood effect. Just a loner that lives so simple it seems brutal to the rest of us. I think the child allows the feel to be more curious, hopeful, and innocent.’
Paris In Achromatism
a story by
Allister Farrington turned, and looked back at the picture from which he had just emerged into his living room. Paris scene. Watercolor sketch by Charles Demuth. A painting Farrington had not found listed in any of Demuth’s works when he returned from Paris to his residence at Chestnut Village in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Here is what he remembered…
Farrington had purchased the watercolor for a song one sunny afternoon as he walked out of the Louvre. He immediately encountered a wizened man holding a painting in each hand and in a weakened voice asking anyone within hearing distance: “Vous souhaitez une peinture de la ville lumiere reelle?” Behind the man was a hodge-podge of watercolor and oil paintings, all resting against a black iron fence running near the museum side exit. The paintings showed faded or darkened pigments that once must have been bright, but now were in varied stages of deterioration on torn canvas or heavy paper, all nailed to frames. The paintings looked old to Farrington, but, were they really? ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘this is Paris. I’m in the right place to be duped!’
“Etes-vous certain?” the old man asked as Farrington handed francs to the man and took hold of a watercolor that had caught his fancy. “Il n’y a aucun retour, Monsieur,” the old man said with a twinkle in his eye, that in an instance suggested malevolence.
Walking away, Farrington frowned, thinking the old coot might be slightly off his rocker! Farrington looked at his wrist watch and hurried on. His schedule called for a rendezvous with a lady who had caught his eye in the hotel elevator, and who had subsequently accepted his invitation to dinner. He had spent more time than planned in the Louvre, delayed by a group of Japanese tourists who insisted on taking photos of the Mona Lisa with camera flashes going off all over the place. Time was taken up by a female attendant sitting to one side of Leonardo’s famous painting, and who would flick a light switch on the wall so that no one could see the enigmatic lady encased in the box with a glass front cover. She would call out to the Japanese: “Arretez les flashs! Arretez, au nom de cet art precieux!”
Farrington walked to the Rue d’Alger where earlier in the day he had passed a Bureau de poste. Inside, he used what high school French that he could remember and asked if they had paper and string to wrap his purchase to mail home. With some French mixed with English and much gesturing of hands, Farrington was finally able to purchase paper and string at what he considered to be an outrageous price. He proceeded to wrap his new acquisition and half-hour later emerged from the building, pleased that he had sent a small watercolor to himself in Lancaster from Seine City. He smiled at his little impromptu play on words, retracing his steps of earlier in the day to Place Vendome where he could catch a bus that would take him back to the Hotel de Paris Nord. Farrington had barely glanced at the faded watercolor, but looked forward to having all of the time in the world to study it when he returned home.
Several days later, Farrington’s self-mailed package from Paris was waiting for him in the Chestnut Village mail room. He sat in the retirement community’s main entrance foyer and opened the fourteen-by-sixteen flat package.
“What you got there, Allister? A poster?” On his way to the mail room, Morgan
Childress stopped and stood in front of Farrington’s chair.
“Watercolor,” Farrington said as he finished unwrapping the sketch, hoping that there was no damage to it. “Bought in Paris.” He frowned. Had the picture faded since he purchased it from the old man on the street outside the Louvre? And the colors? What had happened to the faded pastel colors that had caught his eye, causing him to make the purchase?
“Let’s see!” Childress said, moving his body and scrunching his neck around to look down at the painting. “It’s…it’s….”
“…Faded,” Farrington finished for his friend.
“Well…but…it’s all in…gray? That’s okay,” Childress hastened to add. “Almost all gray—maybe I see a bit of blue, there…and…is that a suggestion of pink?” Childress pointed.
“I…think it is,” Farrington said with not a little consternation in his voice. It was only a sketch. Not a finished production. But, it had suited his muse to look upon it. As a matter of fact—
—Sitting, while Childress waved and went on his way, Farrington now found himself entranced with the achromatic watercolor that he held out at arm’s length. It was as though some of the buildings became more than two-dimensional, almost straining to move out of the page! Perhaps he had drunk one cup of coffee too many at breakfast! He did feel a bit fuzzy. Maybe his overseas trip had been more fatiguing than expected. Farrington folded the brown wrapping paper loosely about the sketch, took up the string and rushed to his apartment.
A few minutes later, the Paris watercolor sketch was on Farrington’s living room floor, propped up against his favorite recliner. On hands and knees, Farrington looked intently for what remnants he could find of colors that had receded into near oblivion. He looked hard at what was now gray and black lines of suggested buildings along a street with the Tour Eiffel in a distant background. In the foreground…in the foreground was a familiar looking dark figure at a wrought iron fence; the old man from whom the painting had been purchased!
‘But… but… he was not in the painting when I purchased it! Was he?’
Mouth opened quizzically, Farrington leaned in toward the sketch. Rather, he found his mind and body merging into the painting….Until he found himself standing next to a wrought iron fence beside the Louvre. He looked about at people going to and fro. Weathered two-dimensional art works were resting haphazardly and looking poster-like against the fence. Farrington’s head bobbed and his body turned this way and that, searching for the old man who had sold him the watercolor, and whose figure was presented foursquare in the sketch back home on his living room floor.
“Hey, bub! Er these things fer sale, pardner?’ The Texas accent startled Farrington.
“Ce qui?” Farrington found himself asking.
“Fer sale? Parlays vous ‘merry-can?”
“I speak English,” Farrington stammered. He continued looking about for the old man.
“Hey, bub! I asked yuh, how much fer this’n? You sellin’em, ain’tcha?”
It was then that Farrington looked down at his clothes: old, dirty, tattered and with scuffed and torn shoes on his feet. He brought his arms up closer to his face to examine the sleeves on the ragged coat that he wore. He touched his face and felt several days—weeks?—of beard. He smelled himself. He needed a bath. He attempted to stand straighter, taller. He could not straighten himself.
Farrington was that old man in the fading pen and ink and watercolor, and from whom he had purchased the sketch several days ago! It was only days ago, wasn’t it? The time had gone awry in his mind.
Farrington put out a hand in supplication to God, and into which, the Texan put a wad of francs and picked up a picture that he handed to the lady with him. They walked away with the Texan saying: “…Must have somethin’ matter with’m!”
Now, more people were crowding around him and handing him money and taking paintings of their choice.
He froze in place, voiceless, with both hands remaining outstretched in bewilderment.
A thought slammed through Ferrington’s mind: ‘After all, this is Paris….’
But, Farrington wanted to return home, to America and his comfortable apartment and surroundings at Chestnut Village retirement community. How could that be accomplished? He was in Paris. No doubt about that. And had moved from the United States to France in a nano-second. Desperate, he could think of only one thing to do in order to extricate himself from this bereft of reason situation. He took off running! He ran to the Rue de Rivoli and straight toward a large truck bearing down on him. He did not care what happened now. Better to be dead than this sort of life experience! He ran and ran and ran right into the truck. He felt nothing, heard nothing, and for a split-second saw only shapes in aspic. Until….
Allister Ferrington tumbled out onto his living room floor, not a little dazed. He lay heaving for breath. Too weak, too sick to move for a minute. Then, a strong compulsion came over him to roll over and look at the Paris watercolor.
Nausea returned. The watercolor now held no suggestions of fading colors, only grays to near blacks. But it was not drab. Most startling of all, the painting had changed from a traditional rendering of a Paris street, to flat planes juxtaposed against and over and under and beside one another! There was even a half-circle locked in amongst straight planes. The half-circle… the half-circle: ‘a partial face of the Mona Lisa?’ He had to imagine buildings, people, the very street featured in the painting. And the figure of the old man—of himself?—could barely be discerned; it was dark and in a squared-off manner against what might be perceived as a fence. Squinting his eyes, Farrington viewed a poster-like painting; it reflected precision. ‘Probably done when Demuth was at the Academie Julian,’ Farrington thought. The septuagenarian leaned forward—not too close—attempting to detect whether or not he saw anything resembling his own face in that dark plane of a man who must be the seller of pictures.
In a quandary, Farrington sat on the floor for many minutes. What had happened? What was this bizarre thing going on? He finally rose, not looking at the sketch. A good night’s sleep might set things right.
The next morning’s eggs were too hard, the bacon greasy, toast was burned and the coffee tasted like dishwater looked. He sat back in his Chestnut Village café chair, recalling croissants with strong, flavorful coffee and a piece of cheese as a sufficient breakfast in the Parisian spring time that he had recently experienced. This led him to make comparisons between Lancaster’s narrow, stultifying horizons, and Parisian social freedom accompanied by a constant metaphorical breath of intellectual fresh air.
“Parles-tu francais?” Farrington asked the Puerto Rican waitress who was clearing his table. “Allez-vous souvent a l’Opera de Paris? Notre Dame? Montmartre?”
“Que?” the girl responded sharply. “Que estas hablando?” As she walked away with a heavy tray of dirty dishes, she added: “Viejo loco!”
He sighed. It was then that he made a momentous decision, for a widower and retired fuel oil truck driver.
Before lunch, Allister Farrington was in the Chestnut Village Park, desperately clutching under one arm a flat, brown parcel bound loosely in white string. He walked vigorously on the macadamized walkway in anticipation of what he hoped would soon happen. Again. The experience in his apartment was one thing; it was something else to try the same out of doors. He headed toward the park pond and gazebo beside it.
Alone in the gazebo, Farrington unwrapped the achromatic watercolor sketch from Paris. He propped it up on a bench that went around inside the structure except for the entrance way. Allister Farrington looked one last time over the grounds of Chestnut Village. He took in a deep breath and walked directly into the sketch.
A day later, Chestnut Village administrators and Lancaster police searched for Allister Farrington. The only possible clue—not recognized as such—was found in the gazebo by the pond: a blank piece of heavy and aged paper nailed to a worm eaten wooden frame.
A lone, slightly bent figure in tattered clothing watched from a line of evergreens bordering the western edge of Chestnut Village. After several minutes, he moved away with the aid of a walking stick. ‘C’est que, comme on dit!’ he said aloud to himself, and walked on into Lancaster, the Red Rose City.
Henry Brasater was a radio-television newsman before going into academia. His PhD is in Rhetoric & Public Address. He has taught at various colleges and universities, including Cairo University as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. Brasater’s stories are published in ezines, print anthologies, and magazines. His novels are: Nondum, Dead Guns Press; and Upheaval, Spanking Pulp Press. His nonfiction book, A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy’s Icon, is available from Booklocker and Amazon.
a story by
There she was again, not in the middle of my room, her usual spot, but slightly to the side, as if to cause as much damage to the carpet as possible with the inexhaustible water dripping from her clothes and hair. For a moment, I wondered which less disturbing to look at—her swollen fingers bent in unnatural angles with shards of bone protruding through the skin, or her bruised legs, a hose twisted around one ankle, the soaked rim of her dress leaking streaks of indigo-blue color down her pasty flesh. For sure, it was not her head, and closing my eyes wasn’t an option. When I did that last night, she came to stand above me, and the blood squirting from the wound on her forehead mixed with the mud in her hair and came down on my face in long, sticky drops. I had jumped out of my bed and begged her to move away so she wouldn’t ruin my pillow and sheets, but she stood there for the rest of her visit.
“How may I help you?” I asked, not expecting an answer—she hasn’t spoken once in the previous five nights—but out of inbred propriety. I so wished Grandma were home. Maybe she would know who this woman was and why her ghost had come to bother me. But Grandma was enjoying her mineral baths, and I alone had to deal with all this, every night playing guessing games, every morning dabbing the muddy carpet with towels, and mopping the water from the hardwood floors in the entry and the living room. I had to agree that it was polite for a ghost to enter through the front door, but on the other hand, I was afraid that the moisture would lift the parquet pieces and ruin the floors. Which reminded me to ask the ghost a favor.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Would you mind draping yourself with the blanket over there?”
She stared at me with her usual stare, blank and solemn at the same time, not giving any indication she had heard me. I knew better than to get angry. However, the situation was starting to wear me out.
I took a deep breath and spoke slowly, carefully enunciating each word, trying not to shout. “Who-are-you? What-do-you-want-from-me?”
The woman lifted a hand to her face and moaned. I couldn’t understand what she meant; each of her broken fingers pointed in a different direction.
“What?” This time I shouted. “Open your mouth and speak up, damn it!”
She opened her mouth. A dense flow of hemorrhaged blood, carrying chunks of flesh and broken teeth, spilled down her chin.
That served me right.
“Sorry…I am very sorry. Please close your mouth. Ma’am, please. Maybe you could nod?”
The woman closed her mouth and nodded.
“Thank you,” I said, and went on asking my questions. Was I supposed to know her, was she a relation of mine, did she want dry clothes or anything to eat (I was smart enough to not offer her water), and did she have a message for somebody, to all of which she slowly shook her head. I wished she would wipe the blood from her chin, but she didn’t.
Finally, the first rooster crowed, and before the rest of them had a chance to join in, the ghost was gone. I thought for a moment about the soaked carpet and the wet floors, but couldn’t make myself get up and start cleaning. Tomorrow I would put plastic sheets all the way from the front door to my room, three feet wide at least.
The next morning I woke at ten. The sun had just reached the damp spot on the carpet, and greenish vapors filled the room. The air was rich with smells of acidic soil, stale water, blooming cattails and manna grass. The tang of decomposing matter mixed with the sweet fragrance of calamus leaves, reminding me of the marshes along the river.
I cleaned the mess, took a shower, and after opening all windows and interior doors, and turning on the fan in the living room, I left the house.
Mrs. Quince, the next-door neighbor, had already installed her scrawny self at her watching post—on the front porch of her house, partially hidden behind the boxes with begonias. She didn’t notice me. She seemed to be nodding off.
Farther along the street, Mr. K. Bayo and Mr. J. Bayo, the twins, were fighting dandelions on their front lawn. They appeared more inept then usual, and seeing me, used the opportunity to abandon the weeds. They crossed the lawn with their identical, jerky gaits and came to a tentative halt in the shade of the magnolia tree.
“Mrs. Quince is asleep on her porch, and you don’t look your cheerful selves,” I said. “Did something happen?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Mr. K. Bayo, the older twin, said, wiping his bald dome with a huge, checkered handkerchief. “Only the masons made an ungodly amount of noise last night, and no one in the neighborhood got enough sleep. I mean us, the oldsters. You probably slept through all the ‘..more sand…more bricks…pass the mortar hoe’, but at some point I was about to be rude and tell them to shut up.”
“Talking about ghosts, I had a little problem myself. Do you happen to know about a woman who drowned in the area?”
“Many people, both men and women, drowned in the time of the flood, nineteen-fifty-seven,” Mr. K. Bayo said. Being the older of the two, he did all the talking. “Can you tell by her clothes if she lived then?”
“No. Maybe… Her clothes are plastered about her body, and so wet, I couldn’t even tell what color they had been. And I’ve never heard of any of the flood victims haunting the town. It seems kind of late to start doing so after more than fifty years, don’t you think?”
“You should’ve asked her,” Mr. J. Bayo said all of a sudden. His voice sounded stronger and clearer than the voice of his brother, as if he had preserved it by not using it.
It took me awhile to overcome my surprise. “I did ask her. She wouldn’t tell me anything. Most of all, I want to know what made her choose our house. I am sure there has been a mistake.”
“Hardly a mistake,” Mr. J. Bayo said. “The only two houses in town not haunted presently are yours and Mrs. Quince’s. Do you think anyone, living or otherwise, would want to move in with Mrs. Quince?”
“That’s a good point, but… Can’t you take her? You have only your mum’s ghost to haunt you, don’t you?”
“It won’t work,” Mr. J. Bayo said, almost wistfully. “Mum doesn’t get along with girls, and—”
Mr. K. Bayo coughed. It sounded as if he was trying to clear his throat of rusty nails. “Off with you, Reni. Didn’t you say you are on your way to the library?” he said, and turned to his brother, “Come on, Jeleb. The heat is insufferable. I can barely stand on my legs.”
They went into the house, and I went to the library where I asked Miss Mona for the Statistics, Particulars, and Curiosities of Kirpich by the locally renowned historian, St. Kvasin.
“Kirpich is a small picturesque town in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains,” I read. “It has 15,678 inhabitants according to the last count (1968.) The citizens think they are just as refined and sophisticated as the people living in cities with populations of up to 100,000. Which is probably true.” It went like that for about twenty pages before I reached the part that interested me. “The town has one of the largest per capita ghost manifestations. No less than two thousand five hundred ghosts haunt residences and public areas. For a detailed description and haunting habits, see Appendix B.”
I leafed to Appendix B and spent an hour-and-a-half going through the list. The masons were classified under “Fratricides, Double, Trivial.” The two brothers had decided to build a house together, on the lot next to Mrs. Quince’s house—the lot stood empty since—but had quarreled before the walls were all the way up and killed each other with their masonry tools. Now their ghosts could be heard on clear nights going about finishing the house, shouting orders and requests to each other and robbing a whole neighborhood of peaceful sleep.
Fatima, the other communal ghost, was listed under “Suicides, Love, Unshared.”
The coachman that cruised the streets from one end of the town to the other, beating his horses mercilessly, was under “Revenges, Love, Lost.” I disliked his ghost, but thankfully, it was easy to avoid a chance encounter—wheels screeched, horseshoes met the asphalt casting sparks, dogs howled in its wake.
I found twenty-six cases of death by drowning, accidental and intentional, none of which referred to the ghost in my room.
The Kirpich Times Call was housed just two blocks from the library. I walked there and placed an ad to appear for the next three days in Lost & Found: “A ghost of a drowned woman, circa nineteen-fifty-seven. Any information appreciated. Reward.”
Imagine who called the next day? My grandmother. “Why didn’t you tell me about the ghost?” she asked.
“How did you hear about it?”
“Well, what do you think? We have computers in the lobby—actually, one computer, the other one is always broken—and I read the paper online every morning.”
“Grandma, I didn’t want to spoil your vacation, but since you know already…” I told her all about the ghost, the wet clothes, the puffy flesh, the twigs in her hair. I skipped the part with the muddy water dripping onto the floors.
“Twigs in her hair? What was her hair like?” Grandma asked.
“Hmm, loose, maybe dark.”
“What do you mean by maybe?”
“I don’t know. She has mud all over—”
“Knee-length, three-quarter sleeves.”
“It doesn’t ring a bell,” Grandma said, and then her voice became muffled as if she had covered the phone to talk to somebody there. When I thought we had been disconnected, she spoke with a high-pitched, girlish voice I almost didn’t recognized, “Sorry, dear, my bingo is starting in a minute. Just keep the ghost happy until I come home. Talk to you soon.”
She called again in the evening, just as I was starting to fret. “Check with the Vlaevs,” she said. “River Street Number 80, second house east of the dike. The old Vlaev lost his wife in the flood. No one blamed him—he couldn’t swim, and even though the water was only waist-high, the current was really strong down there. The rumors were that he had climbed up a pear tree, watching from there as the water carried away his wife, screaming and begging for help. He never admitted being haunted, but still, it’s worth a try.”
“Ciao, dear. See you on Wednesday.”
“I thought you were coming back tomorrow!”
“Change of plans. Need to practice my samba a bit more,” she said, and giggled.
I looked at the frozen dinner still rotating in the microwave and, deciding a delay wouldn’t make it any less tasteless, I hurried through town, down to River Street Number 80.
At least I knew one of the Vlaevs—Ivaylo. He was a senior in my school, a year ahead of me. He had once asked me out, and when I refused, he stopped speaking to me. I hoped he had forgotten about it.
When I rang the bell, it was Ivaylo who opened the door. He pretended he didn’t know who I was and said, “We do not appreciate soliciting at dinner time.”
“I haven’t come to sell you things. I need to talk to your parents.”
“None of your business,” I said, and rang the bell again. Finally, Ivaylo’s mother came to the door.
“Do you have a ghost missing from the household?” I inquired politely.
“What are you talking about?”
“A drowned lady, short, stocky, lots of mud. My grandmother seems to think she was your mother-in-law.”
The woman started choking, recovered quickly, and waived her arms in fake outrage. “Ha! What nonsense. Go away, girl, and don’t bother us again.”
The door closed. I stood there, my hand halfway up to knock, unsure what to do. I’ve never heard of anyone disowning a family ghost. In a town with so many of them, there were unspoken rules and regulations of conduct. No one dared to insult a ghost, no matter if in residence or a communal one. No one turned their back and slept through the visitations without at least offering an explanation. I knew some people made excuses with work the next day or tests in school, but it had to be a really good reason, or they paid the price later.
What did the Vlaevs think they were? An exception?
I knocked on the door, rang the bell a few times, and when no one answered, I shouted through the mail slot, “You better come and collect her tonight, or…or…” I didn’t know what I would do if they didn’t show up. Call the police? Expose them at the town’s meeting? Write to the editor?
I went back home, ate the adhesive blob that my dinner had turned into, and used all the plastic bags left in the box to cover the floors. I had barely finished when the ghost stepped in, dragging her feet and dragging along my plastic bags, which were too thin and too light and stuck to the mud of her soles.
“Excuse me…excuse me,” I kept repeating while trying to hold the edges of the bags down, pressing them with my big toe. I pointed to the chair covered with towels that I had prepared earlier and called the Vlaevs. I didn’t care one bit that it was after midnight.
“Who is it?” Ivaylo asked. His voice was slurred. In the background, I could hear music and chatter.
“Having a party, yeah?” I said. “A celebration, I guess?”
There was a short silence, then: “It’s Saturday, Reni. What do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to come over and fetch your grandmother’s ghost. Haven’t you any shame?”
“Are you crazy? Or stupid? Why would I want to do such a thing?” The noise from the party died. Ivaylo was drunk, but not drunk enough to let his friends hear what he was about to tell me. “Do you know how much trouble she’s been? Because of her, we had to tile all the floors. Every night, we needed to roll up the carpets and lift them onto the tables or prop them along the walls. Do you think that was fun?”
“But she is yours. It’s not my fault that your grandfather let her drown.”
“I don’t care. Dad doesn’t care, and Mom doesn’t care the smallest bit. You are stuck, Reni.”
“What about your grandfather? Doesn’t he care?”
“The old fool has no say in the matter. By the way, he won’t be around much longer—he is going to a nursing home. No more spending his whole pension on wine to drink at night with the damned ghost.”
Ivaylo slammed the phone hard but must have missed the slot, because I could hear him swearing under his breath, then opening a door and shouting, “Is there any beer left?”
I turned around. The ghost sat at the edge of her chair, shivering, and looking more miserable if that were possible.
“Sorry,” I said. “No one is available at the moment. Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”
I hadn’t undressed yet, so I only needed my sandals. One of them was close to the ghost’s right foot, which she moved an inch or two to allow me to take my sandal without the discomfort of reaching into her aura. “Appreciated,” I muttered and left the house, this time in no particular hurry.
In the middle of the street, Fatima, the ghost of the Turkish woman that had thrown herself into the neighborhood well, sat on the asphalt with her legs crossed under her. Since they had filled the well in 1986 when the city paved the street, Fatima had nowhere to sit but on the ground. She hadn’t been an unhappy ghost before, I was told, sitting on the ledge of the well, tinkling the bangles on her wrists, and greeting the late night passersby with a soft “Assalamu Alaikum.” These days she kept her eyes down, her hands limp in her lap, and her bangles silent. Usually she sat very still, but tonight she was rocking her upper body as if in trance, back and forth, back and forth.
“Good evening, Fatima,” I said. She didn’t answer, just kept rocking. I took a good look at her. Even taking into account the shimmer and the luminescent transparency of her body and clothes, I could see that she didn’t have a drop of water on her. She had jumped to her death into the well, probably hitting the stone walls on her way down, and definitely drowning in the water, but her clothes were dry, her face wasn’t marked with bruises, and her hairpiece neatly covered her hair.
Deep in thought, I didn’t hear the warning thunder of hooves and barely had time to flatten myself against a fence when the coachman came down the street. The coach leaped behind the galloping horses, the coachman cracking his long whip over their haunches and howling with full voice, “Giddyap! Giddyap!” as if they could possibly run any faster. The coachman’s features were distorted with rage but clear of blemishes, even though he had found his end tumbling down a 200 foot deep ravine. I tried not to look at the horses, wretched beasts, frothing and showing their teeth, the whites of their bulging, horrified eyes iridescent in the light of the half moon.
When we were in elementary school, my best friend and I collected signatures and tried to interest PETA in the inhumane treatment of the ghost horses, but no one returned our calls.
After that encounter, I proceeded more carefully, and managed to cross the town without meeting the coachman again. Just as I was about to turn into River Street, I heard him coming from the opposite end. I made a quick escape, cutting through somebody’s backyard and climbing the dike. He wouldn’t follow me here. I knew that for sure—he cruised only the streets and roads that had existed at the time of his death. The dike along the river was built in 1958, after the big flood.
As I walked along the dike, the houses down on my left, the river on my right, I thought about the flood. I remembered it with the false memory of an impressionable child, in the colors of the yellowed newspapers I’ve seen in the basement. If I closed my eyes, I could see the old tsar wading through the muddy water and the floating corpses.
I must have really closed my eyes, because when I opened them, I was standing on nothing, five feet up in the air. The dike had disappeared. The river was roaring under my feet.
Vertigo and disorientation overwhelmed me. I swayed in place, afraid that if I made just one step away from my invisible platform, I’d fall in the water. “What is going on?” I cried. “This is not supposed to be happening!”
Maybe I would have kept yapping like a lost puppy if the cool, prickly presence of a ghost hadn’t brought me back to my senses. It was the ghost of the drowned woman. She lifted her hand and pointed in the distance. A ten-foot wall of murky water was rushing down the riverbed. The ghost made sure I saw it and pointed down, at the houses. If I were not mistaken, one of her broken fingers was aligned with the Vlaevs’ house.
Eerie light replaced the illumination of the occasional streetlight. Actually, the streetlights, along with the posts they were attached to, had disappeared. Some of the houses remained the same, others were gone, and a few that I didn’t remember sprouted up in the vacated spaces. There were no street trees, no sidewalks, and even the concrete pavement was replaced with cobbles. At last, I understood. The ghost wanted me to see what had happened to her back in 1957.
The wall of water hit the first houses, parted around them and flew into the streets and the yards, uprooting small trees, hauling up cars, household items, a horse cart along with the struggling horse, people—men, women, small children. Birds abandoned their nests, filling the sky with black wings. Cats climbed on the roofs. The dogs in the dog runs didn’t stand a chance.
“I can’t… I can’t watch anymore…I can’t stand it.” I turned my head, preferring to look the ghost in the face but not the horror unfolding around me, but the ghost’s hand kept pointing with its broken fingers, and I had no power to refuse.
The water was no deeper than four or five feet now, but it seemed to flow even faster. A man’s voice hollering, “Paraskeva! Paraskeva!” drew my attention to the Vlaevs’ yard. First, I saw the man only. He was up a pear tree, leaning at a dangerous angle over the water. He straightened for a moment, only to take off his belt and wrap it around a branch, then he took the other end and leaned even farther. Now he was two feet closer to the water but still not close enough to reach the young woman holding to the trunk of the tree. Waves rolled over her head one after another. Every time her head bobbed up, she gasped desperately for breath, water streaming from her nostrils and mouth, waiting for the next wave to come and hit her. Still, it seemed she was going to make it. She hugged the tree with the fervor of a lover, and a branch the man had bent down was within her reach.
She waited for the right moment, concentrating on the task, not noticing the two barrels that just popped out of the basement. The water carried them across the yard so swiftly that when she saw them it was too late. One of them hit the tree trunk, smashing her hands into a bloody mass. The other one caught her on the side of the head.
It all became still. The dike rose from under my feet, the streetlights flickered as if just lit, the houses slept, and the river was only a silvery ribbon winding through the purple shadows of the jacaranda trees.
I sighed. So that was that. But what was it? What did it mean? I turned to look at Paraskeva’s ghost, but her expression was unreadable. She had shown me what she wanted me to see, and now it was up to me to draw the conclusions. Sorry as I felt for her, it had been Ivaylo’s grandfather who didn’t manage to save his wife. I wasn’t going to get stranded with her ghost.
Making sure the coachman was not in sight, I climbed down the dike, crossed the back alley, and jumped the low fence around the Vlaevs’ backyard. It was darker here than up on the dike. I stumbled through a vegetable garden, my feet stirring the fragrance of mint and crushed tomato leaves. The two-story house loomed above me with its black windows. Somebody coughed, a dry hacking cough that came from a smaller building to the left, a detached garage. Dim light squeezed out from under the door. I turned the knob, expecting to find Ivaylo’s father polishing his golf clubs or whatever the guy did after midnight in his garage. Instead, I found a very old man lying on a narrow bed, covered to the chin with a dirty comforter. A table and a single chair completed the furnishings. The bastards! They had put the old man to live in the garage!
“Paraskeva,” the old man spoke. He wasn’t looking at me, but to the side. I turned and saw Paraskeva’s ghost sitting on a big, old fashioned suitcase next to the door. “Sorry, sweetheart, they won’t let you visit me in the nursing home. It’s against their policy—I asked the nurse that came to fill out the papers. No spirits of any kind, she said. Ah, what are we going to do?”
Paraskeva’s ghost pointed at me. The old man saw me for the first time and slow understanding started to creep up his face. Not allowing him even a moment of hope, I cried, “No! I am sorry. We don’t have the accommodations.”
The old man started sobbing quietly, tears running down his hollow cheeks, disappearing into the white bristles of his week-old beard.
Unable to take my eyes away from him, I stepped back, tripping on a loose piece of concrete and almost losing my balance. The concrete chip fit nicely in the palm of my hand. I swung it with all my strength and sent it flying at one of the second-story windows. The crash splintered the quiet, and the Vlaevs’ shouts and cusses came through shredded and unrecognizable.
I ran the whole way home. Last I saw Paraskeva’s ghost, she was sitting on her husband’s suitcase, but fast as I ran, she still beat me to my room. I dropped another towel around her feet, and barely having the strength to remove my sandals, I fell into my bed.
The next three days I lived my life in very small increments. I took small steps everywhere I went, sipped small sips of water when thirsty, cut my bread into miniature bites, and answered questions with yes or no.
At last, Wednesday came and at six-twenty-five, a very ancient taxicab delivered my grandmother and her numerous bags in front of our house. I had been waiting there for the bigger part of the afternoon. Grandma patted me on the cheek and said, “There, there, it couldn’t be all that bad,” but when we got inside, she seemed to think otherwise. “Oh my,” she said, and after a short moment of indecisiveness, she rolled her sleeves up, noting, “Good thinking about the plastic bags.”
It took Grandma two hours to clean the house, air the rooms, and start dinner. Around nine-thirty, she fed me my first home-cooked meal in the past eighteen days, and told me to get lost. Not in these words, but the meaning was clear. She needed to be alone with the ghost, and I had to go and entertain myself elsewhere.
I went to the rock club and drank diet sodas until closing time. The tower clock rang two times when I finally headed home. The closer I got, the faster my heart beat, about to explode when I took the last turn. Fatima was already there, seated in the middle of the street. “Assalamu Alaikum,” she said, and when I answered, she gave me a little wave. The bangles on her wrist jingled. It seemed like a good sign. I felt a little better.
Grandma had left the porch light on. Otherwise, the house was dark. I opened the front door, starting to hope for the best. Releasing a long breath, I reached for the light switch. “He, he, he,” I heard my grandmother’s laughter from the direction of the kitchen. My hand froze in the air. Holding my breath again, I tiptoed through the living room and looked into the kitchen.
At the table, Grandma and Paraskeva’s ghost chatted amiably. More precisely, Grandma chatted and the ghost nodded, her crooked fingers wrapped around the stem of one of my grandmother’s second-best sherry glasses. Grandma had a glass, too. Between the two of them, the liquid in the decanter shone like a lava lamp.
My grandma must have sensed my presence, because she said over her shoulder, “Don’t worry, dear. We have an arrangement with Paraskeva—she will be entering through the kitchen door and will try to keep to the lawn chair.”
Paraskeva’s ghost was, indeed, seated in one of our plastic lawn chairs.
“But, Grandma,” I whined. “She looks so…er…untidy. And she drips water.”
“Her appearance will improve as soon as her husband passes away—doesn’t it happen to all of us?” Grandma said. “And a little water won’t hurt the linoleum. Besides, after twenty years of insomnia, there are not many books left that I care to read. Go to bed, dear, and don’t give it a second thought.”
Grandma turned to Paraskeva’s ghost and continued the conversation, I mean, the monologue I had interrupted. “And then I told him: You are such a flatterer! I haven’t danced for years. And guess what he said…”
Heaton Triptych I
3 stories by
woman in the valley of Sorek
I found myself blind, behind a bamboo curtain, clapped in sensory deceptions and stacked pheromones, my aloe illusions indentured to what seemed. The leggy web-lass splayed her motif in pleasure quarters; veiled beneath a soupçon of pollen. A mime: a chatelaine, a single dancer. Her whims, lithe enough to assuage the trepidations of my impetuous inquisition. I purled, pulsating, nonplussed; my eyes crossed in her anther. Gold-plate heightened the way light played on them; silken, tailoring me to my denouement without an antidote: a spun chrysalis hemmed by his lotus thorn—still courting hopes of dying softly.
Somewhere along the River Euphrates, in the garden of good and evil, the ghost of Juan Ponce de Leon possessed the serpentine tongue of an emerald python who told the Moorish tale of an everafter fountain formed by strange tides and diver’s tidings, where red flamingos panned for watercress, scarlet parrots preened their plumes in the refilled cup of Christ, forbidden fruits dined on flesh without conviction, and fabled springs foretold the lies of each inquisitor.
An Israelite prophet sojourning in Sierra Leone, happened on a Gullah priest canting Igbo slave tunes at a ‘ring shout.’ From this priest, the prophet begged a bundle of twigs with which to weave a weeping willow basket. He lined it with lion tuft, and blood-stained Kinte cloth—filled it with goobers, Jollof rice, grandmama scriptures, & living sculptures cast in the doctrines of Father Divine. He strapped this burden to his back with overseer lashings, walked on water through a chain of Lowcountry islands, & laid it all on the altar of magnolia anthers.
When I Awoke
a story by
It was the first day of Autumn when I awoke to find that my wife of three years had been replaced by a Patek Philippe 5104P Grand Complications timepiece. The wristwatch rested on her pillow, the minute repeater softly chiming after I turned off the morning alarm. I searched around the house for some cause but found nothing. All the doors were locked, chains set, windows clamped shut.
I stood in the kitchen over my coffee scratching my head for probably fifteen minutes until our three month old daughter Delphine awoke. I placed the watch on the dining table and set to getting on with the day. Delphine had this marvelous expression of surprise at the speed to which I changed her, clothed her, fed her. I gave her the watch to play with and carried her upstairs where she lay on the bed while I dressed in the bathroom. When I came out she had the navy crocodile leather strap in her mouth. I quickly took her mother away and said “No, no, no, darling, we don’t treat Mommy that way.”
I dropped Delphine off at daycare and went to work. On my lunch break I called the house to see if my wife would pick up, if she’d changed back. I left a voicemail: “Jeanne. Jeanne, are you there? Jeanne? I’m leaving work early and will be there soon. Are you there, Jeanne?”
I told my boss I had a small emergency. He wished the family well.
I went home to find Jeanne in the same spot I had put her, on the nightstand. I placed her in the passenger seat of the car and we went to her parents to see what their thoughts were on this new situation. We sat in their baroque parlor for tea, I in my usual armchair, Jeanne on the matching ottoman. “No, no, Jeanne, that’s not for sitting, now. Take the chair next to Louis.” Her mother smiled at the Patek Philippe, awaiting obedience. I gently picked Jeanne up and placed her in the matching armchair next to me. We stayed for an hour, her parents commenting on how well she looked, that we both seemed so happy, that the coming weekend we should bring little Delphine and have dinner. “She has your eyes, Jeanne.”
I said goodbye and drove to the ice cream shop we’d frequented since our dating days. I ordered two cups of coffee and a scoop of vanilla. She rested across from me on the table. I said enough was enough. I asked her why she was doing this. Was it something I did? Was she unhappy? I tried to think of the days prior, weeks, months, had anything gone awry that I may have missed. She seemed tired, but so was I. A new baby does that to anyone. Was she thinking about Delphine? How this passive aggressiveness will affect her?
I became so frustrated at her lack of response that I slammed my fists down, the reverb knocking her from the tabletop and onto the tile floor. I whisked her up and held her cupped in my hands, checking to see that she wasn’t scratched or cracked. I brought her to my face and whispered, “I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t mean it. Please, forgive me.” When she didn’t say anything I held her closer, dropping some money on the table before leaving to pick up Delphine from daycare.
Back home, with our baby napping in her room, I sat with Jeanne on the sofa. I took her between my fingertips, inspecting every facet of her design. I could see why she chose this form. She was platinum with a rose gold slide for the repeater. The dial was skeletonized. I could see every one of her five hundred fifteen components, each cog and wheel, the small hammers that made her sing. She was perpetual. Even her hand movements were unique, traveling along an arc and jumping back at each new hour instead of going round and round in circles. I pushed on the rose gold slide to activate the repeater, and before I fell asleep to the rhythmic chimes I told her to take as much time as she needed, that I could wait it out.
Eight years later and she’s still in Patek Philippe form. She’s with Delphine most evenings and I watch the baby in the morning. Some days I can’t stomach the sight of Jeanne, so I lock her in the safe at the back of the closet.
When the recession hit, I was laid off and almost pawned her on twelve different occasions. She could have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of just sitting there not even moping around. Delphine and I almost lost the house. I barely survived on two jobs until the economy picked up and I found better work. I don’t know what stopped me from giving Jeanne up. Maybe love, or hope, or out of respect to the life we’d built. Maybe because I wanted to prove her wrong, prove that she was silly to do this, silly to doubt.
But sometimes I wonder if fear held me back. I know I shouldn’t be so paranoid, but every night after Delphine dozes off I wake up every hour and check on her. I inspect her long and reaching fingers, her twitching ears, her once delicate yet dull face that has since grown more and more in resemblance to Jeanne’s. I look for any sign of metal, of gems, knelling, ticking or tocking, just to make sure I don’t lose her too. When she draws a long breath, I think back to the last night I saw Jeanne, how she carefully arranged her hair along the pillow after getting into bed, how that hair fell against her shoulders and down her back as she leaned to me right after I’d turned off the light because she’d forgotten to say, “Goodnight.”
editor’s note: the Patek Philippe 5104P Grand Complications presently retails for 675k to 900k USD
The Ink Android
a story by
Manna—born of dew and chocolate overdose like most of us, only more so—opened her eyes for the first time on a dusty bookshelf. Church mice snuffled around her, curiously; she wasn’t more than a flesh-wrapped spark in electrical wire.
“She can’t live like that!”
So they found her limbs in the glossy pages of a science textbook; a voice in a hymnal; one clear blue eye in a newspaper and another, purple, in a poet’s sketchpad. They papier-mâché’d cookbooks, a magazine, and romance novels into digestive tracts, gustatory mores, and intimate parts. Letters between friends became her ears, and a picture book settled into her lungs.
For her heart, they called their cousins and heaved a big black leather book from the pastor’s knapsack. Unfortunately, even if a heart’s good, it won’t match the body without breath and blood, and try as they might, the little mice couldn’t make Manna really live. No smiles or footsteps from her—only shuffling, longing sniffles. Her skin froze, and one by one the mice left so she wouldn’t singe off their fur in her embrace.
She didn’t call after them.
She didn’t care, really, she told herself.
Her fingers tingled for a moment—ached like holding your breath too long—then stiffened and felt nothing. Her eyes crinkled; she couldn’t cry as they dried. The spark was receding into her core.
But as Manna sat frigid, shutting down, her heart drew back towards the pages that comprised it, and just before her other body parts flexed back into paper, she read.
She—she had letters etched on her heart! Figures scrawled across her arms—lyrics dripping from her voice box into her lungs—!
And each one told a story.
She choked—her head pounded for the first time as blood, breath welled within her, searing her chest. She croaked. “More! More!” She clawed across the shelf to her heart’s tome, clouds of dust exploding around her. Her limbs dragged—still the spark receded—ice crackled on her temples—
“No, no!” she cried, throwing her weight against the book.
It thudded open besides her.
She tore into it, sucking the words in, rolling in them, filtering them through her bare skin. The stories burst inside her, climaxing into one Word, and when she reached the end, she lay panting, staring at the shelf above her, and whispered it.
Lightning and laughter glittered around her ankles.
“More one-words!” Dust trailed Manna like airplane exhaust as she pounced across other pages, building her blood with one-words. A Tale of Two Cities gave her “sacrifice”; Mara, Daughter of the Nile, “courage”; a Batman comic, “persistence”; Peter Pan, “playfulness”! As she ran, she caught her reflection in the back face of a discarded pocket-watch, and with a gasp she found more letters she couldn’t quite see, on her back, under her arms, shining stories back at her. She stared at herself, head tilted, spinning and peering and sniffing as her reflection brought her new one-words, one-words that colored her skin with brilliant, shifting iridescence.
A rainbow of light pierced the hole where the church mice lived. Some withdrew into the furthest corners of the cathedral, shrieking; a few crept to the door, black nub-noses twitching. “Manna, is that you?”
Manna raised her hands and shouted her first one-word. Fragrance like fresh jasmine burst from her mouth to encourage the brave mice, and they cheered. From then on, through every Winter she kept them warm; from every cat she rescued them; and her dances calmed their babies during thunderstorms.
The mice in the dark corners never trusted her and never came out again, and sometimes, Manna even felt strange with the friendly ones, knowing they hadn’t stayed by her side at her worst. But she was never lonely. The stories inside found her companions in the stars, and on clear Summer nights the mice would gather on the tallest spire to watch her fly.
It’s one of those nights tonight. A little piebald sits on his hind legs and wonders as Manna takes off. “Why didn’t it work when we built her of words?”
“I suppose the most important words don’t make any senses without stories,” says an old rouge rat. “Especially if no one lives them out for you–
–you can’t just say Love, you know. Love has to say you.”
a story by
Wickerton Hall burrowed into the landscape like a resilient tick. Long derelict, its integrity sagged. Gap-toothed slate littered the roof. The Cotswold stonework was encrusted with lichen and creeping vines. In the thin, winter light, a garment of mist wreathed its edges.
Two people walked up the drive. They stood small as figurines on the gravel and studied the glaring facade with wide eyes and craned necks. Wind whipped the hair from Tess’s collar. “This is it?”
“Yeah, must be,” her brother Michael replied. ”Buckinghamshire, after the Aylesbury turnoff. Left up the lane with the stone pillars and the little gate house, Danny said. There’s no other place around that fits the description.”
“It’s so big.”
Michael grinned. “I know.”
“It’s falling down!”
“So? Makes it more exciting.” He tilted his head at his sister. “Shall we?”
Tess swallowed and nodded. Her shoulders narrowed. Skeletal roses strangled the path. They stretched their arthritic limbs toward the sky. One snagged her leg. She tussled free but not before the bush pricked her thumb, leaving a signature of blood.
Michael juggled the key into the lock. Tess stood closer, sucking pain from her hand. The door relented with a groan of inconvenience, and together, they stepped inside. An unmistakable ‘hiss’ fell over the silence. Like a cut in the surface of one’s skin, the house knew it had been breached. The siblings listened, but no other sound followed; nothing but the tension drumming in their ears. Tess turned to Michael. Her face curled into a question. He shrugged. They walked into the entrance hall and scanned the shadows. To their left was a broken staircase; to their right, two doors that led to the west wing; and straight ahead, an archway through to a much larger space.
“Wow…” Michael’s breath pierced the silence. He walked forward, unable to resist the opening. Tess skittered behind. The room beyond was vast. Water damage had stripped the paneled walls and cracked the cornices. A chandelier hung from a bowed ceiling. Broken, one-eyed windows overlooked a terrace snarled with vegetation. The stench of rot insulted them. Dust climbed over their feet, molding them to the house. Higher up, the flecks drifted through splinters of dirty light. A thrill rolled down Michael’s spine.
“This is so cool…”
Tess clasped her elbows against the cold. “We shouldn’t be here.”
She had no answer. Michael walked into the hall and spread his arms. He kicked the remains of a chair, then propped his hands on his hips. “So, this was the ballroom.” His words were inflated with authority.
Tess didn’t reply. Her eyes traced over the shapes. The room where guests once danced in gilded wilderness now lay silent. A rug covered the floor, its flowers long decomposed. Sadness filled the empty chairs; the spaces in which years of love and laughter no longer lived, stories halted in time. She touched a lounge chair. Distantly, in another age, refined chat and tinging glasses floated on the air. A Strauss waltz weaved among the crowd.
“Hey, this way!”
Tess glanced up. Michael was across the hall, heading into the east wing. She ran after him, aware of her isolation and remembering her anxiety. They explored room after room, Michael declaring ‘Drawing room. Dining room. Billiard room,’ as they went. The decrepit spaces had little furniture, making it impossible to have this knowledge unless one had studied the house plans or was an educated historian. Tess listened to the dip and rise of Michael’s adolescent voice. He gestured wildly, his thin hands shaping too-big words. She often wearied of his posturing. They did not have the house plans, and her brother was no historian.
Deep within the east wing, the siblings found a door they couldn’t open.
“Huh, that’s weird. Wonder why it’s locked,” Michael said.
“To stop delinquents roaming the halls?”
Tess was shot a glare of irritation.
“Sorry,” she said with a sigh, not sorry at all. “Do you have the key?”
“Maybe.” He pulled out a ring of keys.
“There’s so many.”
“They open a lot of doors. Remember, there’s still upstairs and outside.” Michael’s eyes flickered. “This one’s a bit smaller.” The key found its home. The door argued, grinding on calcified hinges, then opened into a small passageway, which led down a flight of stairs. “Oh, cool.” He moved forward, then faltered. The yawning void swallowed some of his bravado. “I need a light.”
Tess disappeared, and then returned with a squat candle.
“Where’d you get that?”
“The dining room. There was one on the mantelpiece.”
“Yeah I know. But how are you going to light it?”
“My lighter, of course.”
The expectant air begged the words to be asked. “So . . . why don’t you just use that?”
He stared dumbly at the two objects. “This’ll be better.”
The siblings tossed comments back and forth, trying to mask their tension. Michael lit the candle. His fingers betrayed a slight tremor. The flame perched on the wick, shimmying a timid salsa. They descended the stairs. Michael held the candle in front, its light engulfed by the gloom. Tess followed, clinging to him like a shadow. As they reached the ground, the smell of decay overwhelmed them. Both clapped their sleeves to their faces.
Michael gagged. “Gross!”
“You think something died down here?”
Their muffled whispers stayed close to their lips. Michael swallowed. He sincerely hoped not. In the darkness, their four other senses stepped into the light. A sour mould mixed with the decay. Their shuffles echoed, bouncing off tile. The air was expectant. Tess could taste it. Her hand brushed against an object; square and wooden. She swallowed a scream, realizing it was only a table. As their eyes adjusted to the surroundings, they discovered they were in a kitchen. Cobwebs laced the ceiling, casting threaded shadows. A coke-fired cooker hunched against the wall. Above a copper-bar sink pewter dishes hung, scarred with patina. Michael fiddled with the cooker. He tried the taps. “No water.”
He scratched at the few eager hairs sprouting forth on his chin; an improbable beard. Listing sideways, as only an ungainly teenager could, he looked at his sister.
“Can we go back upstairs now?” Tess glanced furtively at the shadows.
“Aww c’mon, it’s fine.” Her brother pitched his voice a shade too bright.
A long corridor led off one corner of the kitchen. Doors lined either side, all closed, tunneling the dark. Michael peaked his eyebrows at his sister. “We’ve come this far,” he said, as though duty-bound.
Tess shook her head but he walked off, taking the precious candle. “Wait!” She dashed after him. They crept down the hall. Their shadows crouched beside them as the light licked the walls.
“Must be the service wing.” Michael’s confidence had a puncture. His words dropped to the ground like deflated balloons. They stepped past the mechanical bell panel: spring bells upon a long strip of wood, each with a label, marking the location of its caller. The deep arteries of the house were less exposed to the elements, but the signs had still aged. Tess just deciphered the words. ‘Library,’ ‘Guest Suite,’ and ‘Tea Room.’ They had not gone far when they heard a noise; a steady, paced dripping.
“Can you hear that?”
“Is there a leak somewhere?”
“It’s coming from behind us.” Michael went back into the kitchen. He swung the stuttering candle around.
“It’s stopped,” Tess said.
They listened, poised. Michael marched over to the sink, but the taps and basin remained dry, perished and cracked beneath his fingers. “Hmm. Definitely not from here. Never mind. Probably nothing. This place is full of holes. Could be a leak anywhere.” Back in the corridor, Michael reached for the door on the left. The dripping began again. Heavier, louder. He swept back into the kitchen. It stopped. His palms began to itch. “It’s nothing,” he repeated, his voice chalky, unconvincing. He turned to leave a third time, when a gush of water ripped through the air. He spun around. The sound ceased as abruptly as it had begun. “Oh, come on!” His voice rose into a shriek.
Tess, shrunken in the corner, studied her brother. All the color had drained from his face, as though a plug had been pulled. “Please let’s just leave it.”
Michael glanced back down the hall. Part of him was fearful, part longed to explore the basement, and part was righteously annoyed. The sum of his desires wrestled over what to do. He stood still, apart from the hand that held the candle. The flame trembled slightly, shaking out his nerves. “Fine. Let’s go.” Back on the ground floor, Michael headed to the staircase, new conviction in his stride. He hated being scared.
Tess scuttled behind. “Aren’t we leaving?”
“You can. I still want to check out the first floor.”
A skating wind slammed into the house. Wickerton Hall rumbled, already irked by its intruders. “See? This place isn’t happy. It wants us out,” said Tess imploringly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a building.”
“Then how do you explain the water?”
Michael glared. Even more than getting a fright, he couldn’t stand not having an answer. “I’m going upstairs.”
As much as Tess wanted to leave, she wasn’t about to wait outside alone. “Fine.”
The first floor opened onto a long gallery hall with rooms left and right, and a wing at either end.
“I reckon one side would’ve been ol’ man Howlett and his wife’s rooms. Then, the kids’ rooms, and the nursery, and the nanny’s room would’ve been up the other end.”
“And these rooms in the middle?”
Michael shrugged. “Guest rooms I suppose. And probably things like, breakfast room, and trophy room, and stuff.”
“How do you know?”
Michael tried a worldly air on for size. “When you get to my age, you just know these things.”
“Also, Danny told me,” he added quietly.
They began to explore. Traces of Early Georgian and Queen Anne lingered, but the oak paneling and ceiling emblems were harshly weathered. Tess peeked into one room. It had a musk of old velvet. The windows overlooked the stepped grounds; an overgrown rank of wet abandonment, spread out like a sheet. Weeds covered the remains of a fountain. A dovecot hunched beneath the trees.
“So this would’ve been the trophy room,” said Michael from the darkness ahead of his sister.
Tess followed his voice. He stood in a small space in the east wing, hands on hips once more; a proprietary stance. A stag hung lopsidedly over the fireplace, one antler broken. Tess stared at the beast, immensely sad. Man’s selfish pride amounted to naught. A few books lay open and back-broken in the dust. She loved books; beauteous and noble, they deserved respect. But their worlds only lived through the eyes of readers. Spayed and forgotten, they were merely debris. She bent to touch one and stopped. Graffiti had been scratched into the wall behind. She peered closer. It read ‘YOU WROTE THIS.’
“There’s writing here.”
“Huh. Just some kid trying to be clever.”
“It looks old.”
“This place has been abandoned for years.”
“Yeah but—” A bell pinged in the distance.
“Shh, what’s that?”
They listened, ears cocked.
“No. No, I think it’s the bell panel.”
“But surely we couldn’t hear it up here.”
Michael’s eyebrows puckered. “There’s likely more than one in a place this size. Probably one in the servants’ corridor we missed. Then there’s also the attic. It would’ve been a pretty complicated system. See?” He pointed to a lever beside the fireplace. The mechanical wiring ran up the wall into a crank in the cornice. The ringing continued. Paced. Methodical. Determined.
A swirl of fear rose in Tess’s throat. She whimpered. “What do we do?”
Michael clenched his fists, thinking. “We need to go check.”
Downstairs, they traced the noise back to the basement steps. Both knew the sound couldn’t have reached the trophy room. But it had. “I’m not going down there again.” Tess peered into the dark, her heart thrumming.
Michael re-lit the candle. It’d almost guttered into the holder. It wouldn’t last much longer. “Fine.”
He began to step down in a body larger than he felt. Tess watched his coat disappear into the dark. The bell went quiet. Minutes later, he emerged, his face as white as his eyes. His jaw opened and shut like shears. “It just stopped.” His staccato voice was colorless.
“Please let’s go. This place really wants us out.”
“No.” Michael shook the shock from his mind. His obstinate tone had returned. “There’s no reason why we can’t be here.” A child wanting his own way, he may as well have stamped his foot for good measure. “I’m going back to check out the west wing.”
“Are you kidding?”
Michael bordered on obsession. He threw down the expired candle and stomped upstairs. Tess ran behind. Now, not only scared of being alone, but worried for her brother.
They reached the west end of the gallery and entered a room with an ancient four-poster bed. The drawn curtains muted the light. Tess approached a mirror. Browned and spotted, it stood in one corner and eyed a gritty world. It emphasized her porcelain frame. She’d always been the hint of a person, a faded photocopy, having owned ‘a nervous disposition’ for longer than she could remember.
Michael banged a chest open, briefly distracting her. Turning back to the mirror, Tess jumped. Her reflection wore a soft, high-waisted dress. Tight ringlets corkscrewed over its ears. A shawl draped across its shoulders. Tess blinked. As quickly as it’d come, the image vanished. The figure staring back was dressed in her lilac raincoat and jeans.
Don’t be stupid, her conscience chided. She peered closer, the architecture of her face blunted by the dun. Her reflection blinked. She gasped and shrank away.
“I . . . I . . . this sounds crazy, but I think my reflection just blinked.”
Michael scoffed. “Yeah right.”
“No, really. It . . . first I was wearing old clothes. Like Jane Austen-style. And then, I’m sure my reflection blinked at me. I was looking right at it.” Tess’s voice tripped over the words. They tumbled from her mouth and collapsed at her feet.
“Oooh, spooky. The mirror’s watching me,” Michael said with a jeer. “Next it’ll be talking. Telling you where the treasure is hidden.” He wiggled his fingers and danced with a mockery all big brothers come to perfect. Moreover, covering his own nerves with ridicule.
“Stop! I’m serious.”
Michael glanced at the mirror, then his sister with speculation. She stayed folded by the door. He sighed as if greatly burdened. “Fine. Just so’s you’re happy,” and turned the mirror around. “There. Your reflection’s not gonna get you now.” He wiped his hands like quite the hero and chucked her a grand smile, his condescension patting her on the head. Tess glared at the space between her feet, unsure which emotion took precedence—fear or annoyance. As she shuffled through her thoughts, Michael continued to explore. When he opened the curtains a crack, something in the room shifted, offended by the light. The door swung shut with a click. A fatal silence followed. Michael stared at his sister. “Did you do that?”
“No, I swear, I didn’t touch it!”
He inhaled, the quiver audible in his throat. He crept toward the door and turned the handle. The corridor was empty. They looked at each other. “Must’ve been the wind.” A textbook retreat to reason. But Michael’s voice had a wavering timbre. Straining to reach a note of sincerity, his words fell flat on unconvinced ears. “The wind,” he said again. Firmly. Decisively.
Tess stared at him, maddened by his denial. “I want to go!”
“Calm down. We’re almost done. We can’t come this far and leave the last few rooms.”
“Just stick close. Or wait outside if you really can’t stand it anymore.” He knew she’d never leave by herself. They stared at each other. He won. He always did.
“Fine. But quickly.”
Michael began to walk down the corridor. Tess followed with a whispered, apologetic tread, shrunken within her skin.
“Hey!” He stopped after a few steps. A picture had snagged his gaze.
“This lady kinda looks like you.”
Tess squinted in the half-light. A young couple posed on the front steps; hands folded, shoulders stiff, spaniels at their feet. The fragile woman had watery hair and hollow eyes; her pallor further dilated by age. Tess froze. “That’s the dress.”
“The dress in my reflection.”
“Come on. How can you tell? The picture’s all faded and damaged.”
“I’m telling you, it’s the same cut. The hair is exactly the same. It’s the woman I saw in the mirror.”
“No. You saw yourself in the mirror. Your eyes were playing tricks. This lady just happens to look a bit like you. That’s all.”
Silence. Tess knew she was right. “She seems sad,” she finally said. “And scared.”
“Do you think they were the first owners?”
“Nah, I reckon that’s 1800s. This place would be older than that.”
“Well, Danny said early 1700s, but I’m sure some of it was remodeled afterward.”
“How do you know?”
“You can just tell.”
“No you can’t.” She squinted closer. “Something happened to them.”
“What makes you say that?”
Tess didn’t reply. The question hung in the air, reopening the silence. They continued to study the painting.
Eventually, Michael moved away.
“Wait. Do you hear that?” Tess asked.
Her brother halted. From the room with the mirror, there came a faint knock.
“Sounds like something’s tapping on a window.”
“Could be a bird.”
Tess cocked an eyebrow. By now, she knew it wouldn’t be something as reasonable as a bird. They crept back down the hall. She fisted her hands, her body rigid.
“Didn’t you shut that door?”
“I thought I did.”
They entered the room and looked around. Nothing had changed. They glanced at the curtain, hesitant to touch it again, given what’d happened last time. But the noise didn’t come from the window. It came from the corner. From the mirror. Michael moved closer, each step an eternity. Mortal fear coiled around Tess. Between each tap, her heart banged in her head. “Don’t . . . ” she pleaded. But Michael was transfixed. Hypnotized. His arm stretched forward; thin and bloodless. He touched the mirror. The tapping stopped. Tess’s heart arrested. Her breath trapped a scream trapped in her mouth. Her brother grasped the frame and heaved it around.
The mirror reflected her image, dressed as the woman in the picture, hanging above the staircase, limp and white and twisted at the neck. Memory floated behind her vision, releasing the scent of history. Panic roared between her ears. She couldn’t breathe.
At the same time, a black voice howled, “Get out! Get out! GET OUT!”
The thread of their nerves snapped. They both threw themselves at the door and tumbled down the stairs. Their limbs tangled as they hit the ground outside, knocking the air from their lungs. They lay in pieces on the path. Distress ratcheted through Tess’s frame. Her breath came in serrated coughs.
Tess sobbed. “It was me! It was me! I lived and died here!”
“Shh. Shh. Shh.” Michael hugged her, staring vacantly, his comfort expelled in metronomic breaths. Slowly, they gathered themselves together and stood on shaking legs. “You okay?”
They looked up at the house. The atmosphere was as it’d been when they arrived: still. Too still. Across the sea of field beyond, a murder of crows squawked a sorrowful flight. The bleak-scape was rinsed of color. A brunt wind tousled the clouds. It hooked under Tess’s collar and made her eyes wince. She closed them over her tears. “Please let’s go home. I don’t want to come here again.”
Michael nodded. “Danny needs the keys back at the estate agents by five…. We had to see for ourselves.”
The house settled on its foundation with a satisfied creak.
“What do we do about it now?” Tess asked.
Michael, for once, had no answer.
The two orphans stared at their inheritance.
Merran is an Australian physiotherapist and mother-to-be who has been writing since 2013. Her work has appeared in: The Legendary; Alfie Dog Fiction; Writer’s Forum; Seizure Online; Tincture Literary Journal; Darker Times Collection Volume Two; One Page Literary Magazine; was commended for the KSP Speculative Fiction Award 2014; and has been nominated for the Write Well Award 2014.
a story by
The only thing the boy knew about the parade was that it didn’t come very often. The last time it came through, the last time the moon was as low and heavy as it was tonight, his parents had forbade him from leaving the house and he had been too small to do anything but obey. That night he heard the sound of the parade marching down the road. It was loud and lovely, filled with competing noises. Too much noise to be able to say what any of it was except beautiful.
Not this time, not these short years later. This year, he’d stowed a lawn chair under a bush and waited for his parents to go to bed. By the time he got outside, the heat of the late Summer had passed and even the mosquitoes had gone to sleep. He sat there on his lawn for a while, slowly draining a water bottle full of lemonade and ice cubes and staring into the empty road in front of his house, waiting for the yellow lines to come to life. As the while grew longer he tried to listen for things, for marching feet in lock-step with drums, for laughter, for blowing horns and yelling people. None of it came. All he heard were the Summer sounds of crickets on his quiet street and the foghorn blaring far out in the harbor. So he sat there in the near-silence, contemplating the huge swollen moon hanging above him like pale fruit. It seemed to follow his eyes hypnotically, swinging back and forth wherever he looked.
The boy woke jumpily, nearly spilling the lemonade into his lap. The drink was still cold and the ice was still clinking around within it. He couldn’t have been asleep for long. But now the parade was here marching past him, though more somberly than he expected.
Some of the people had already passed the bend in his road. In front of him were marchers, not moving in matching steps but all in strong, brisk strides. The faces felt like people he should recognize, like things he ought to have seen, but the moonlight cast such white shadows on them it was as if they were all wearing masks. They weren’t silent, but they were hushed. The noise felt like it was miles off, like it was coming to him from somewhere far out to sea. Behind those marchers came drummers dressed in black and white uniforms, beating huge white bass drums with huge white mallets. He could feel their vibration through the ground, and through the bottle in his hand, but that sound was distant too. He let the water bottle roll from his fingers and he got up to get closer.
After the drummers came a float, a giant wooden whale he’d seen trotted out in the daytime for the Fourth of the July parade. Now, in the moonlight, it seemed to writhe and splash against the wooden waves and frothy-looking trim. He felt the quiet rumble of the float moving past him, still sounding too far to hear, and he drew closer.
More people passed him, more instruments, more miming of laughter. He could see it all dance before him in blue moonlight: a sea of strangers he thought he should know that felt far off and muted to him. More floats passed him: wolves that seemed to be howling, ships who sails seemed to be billowing, smiling mouths that in the day time advertised the dentists but tonight seemed like slivers cut out of some white sun. Each time he felt it rumble he drew closer, until he stood with his toes at the edge of the sidewalk and his nose sticking into the road. He was so close he was at risk of falling in like one can fall into a river, but even this close it felt so far away.
Then the moon float came and the parade rolled to a stop in front of him. The model moon was huge, twice the size of the wooden platform beneath it. It’s size almost matched the real moon still hovering above it all, like they were twins, and it throbbed with a matching whiteness that hurt his eyes. The boy found himself staring at it, and so did all of those in the parade. They all looked at it expectantly, like they were waiting for something spectacular that was not arriving quite yet. The boy was so caught up in the display he didn’t notice the girl in front of him until she was waving for his attention.
Hers was a face he hadn’t seen before but couldn’t help but want to know. She looked brightly colorless, as everything else did that night and he found himself staring at her like he had been staring at the model moon.
“Allons-y,” she said, with an outstretched hand. He kept staring at her, bewildered. “Allons, Allons…” she said with increased annoyance. He reached out his hand—in confusion, more than anything—and she grabbed it and pulled him into the march he did not understand.
The noise came all at once when he stepped off the sidewalk and onto the road. Laughter and clapping and the sound of moving feet and bodies bumping together. Then it was more than the noise: it was the smell of home cooking and beaches and the kind of sweat one earns by being alive and a little embarrassed. The girl’s hair was either red or brown or blonde or a hundred different colors all at once that didn’t matter. She led him towards the moon as the crowd started marching again. The boy was lead down the road, away from his house, as the faces around him grew brighter and more familiar. As the woods gave way to the harborfront, the nameless strangers surrendered themselves to something close and unnameable. The girl stayed beside him, moving just fast enough that he had to catch up, though he never quite matched her step.
She lead him further on, closer to the moon float, which looked larger and higher and brighter than it had from his yard. The people of the parade—now also larger and higher and brighter—each touched it in turn. There were so many people. The boy didn’t know how they could all be touching it at once. They were a tide of multitudes pulling and pushing against the moon. The girl lead him through, bumping them past a crowd that was both too small and too big all at once. When they got there she put her hand on the gigantic moon and guided his hand up to do the same. It felt warm, far warmer than the boy had expected. Like sand in the sun.
And then they were moving away, back through the crowd, but the boy kept his eyes on the moon. He saw all the hands pull away at once as lines begin to split down the moon from the top and bottom. Then—slowly at first, but then faster—the moon cracked open like a pomegranate. At first the boy worried that he’d broken something somehow, the float, a spell, a heart, something. But as the moon broke and broke again, falling into pieces on the platform that held it up, the boy saw smaller moons inside it, all the size of baseballs.
The tiny moons peeled apart from each other, and began to lift up towards the air like balloons. The crowd followed after them, cheering and clapping. The girl followed the crowd and the boy followed her, cheering and clapping along with them all, losing himself in a way he had wanted to for a long time.
He had expected the parade to stop when they came to the beach. Then, when the parade kept marching, he expected them to stop at the water. Then, when the parade kept marching, he expected them to stop somewhere in the water. But when he came to the end of the beach the crowd before him kept going. The floats were floating. There were schools of small fish moving around people’s legs like flocks of birds. The boy hesitated before putting his feet into the water, but the girl stepped ahead and gave his arm a yank and he was moving again.
The tiny moons drifted ahead of the crowd and the crowd marched after them, walking deeper and deeper into the harbor. Walking out much farther than they should be able to. The boy felt the warm Summer water climb up his legs inch by inch and stop at his calves. It did not seem to go any deeper—for him or for anyone else—no matter how far out they went. He passed a tall sign that said DANGER: STRONG CURRENT, DEEP WATER in a bright red diamond, and yet the water wasn’t even high enough to wet the bottom of his shorts. Everyone marched on, down the very middle of harbor, as if they were heading straight out to sea. Ahead of them the moon, the real one, the one in the sky, seemed larger than ever. The boy could feel the light of it on his skin, and it only felt like it was getting closer.
That same white moonlight, shining off the faces of the crowd, made each of them look like they were carrying a torch. The girl saw him looking, and pointed in the sky above the boy. One of the tiny moons hovered above him, moving up and out to sea, just ahead of his own steps. There was another above the girl. And everyone else. Everyone there, with their bright faces, just composed a stream of white lights in the water, following after a stream of white lights in the sky.
Then, at the edge of the harbor, it all ground to a stop. The boy bumped into the girl. He was confused. His eyes moved from once face to another, but none were looking at him or at anyone else. The laughter and noise had all wound to a stop. The girl touched his shoulder and pointed up.
The moon—the proper one—was no longer ahead of them, but above them. On top of them, almost. The crowd had formed a circle right below the moon, as if they were planning to catch it, but the moon did not move. Instead, all of the tiny moons ascended to it and fell inside with a ripple and a splash, like they were being dropped in a bathtub.
The boy had expected more laughter when the last small moon floated into the big one. Instead, one by one, everyone fell beneath the water. The boy began to worry again. He didn’t know if they were sinking or submerging themselves. Were they drowning? Would he? What would…. The girl grabbed his nose between her thumb and her forefinger, and with her other hand grabbed her own. She looked down at the ocean at their legs, and then began to descend. The boy followed after her. Then they were underwater.
In that moment, no one in the parade was a reflection of something smaller. They were not tiny moons. They made up something larger and more beautiful. Each of them was a moon, but each of them was the moon. Together they were a reflection of something bright and huge and beautiful. They were one of a pair of twins on either side of an ocean. Two things that that could never be the same nor could be quite different. Two things that were not together or apart, because they were the same hot light.
The boy felt the water run over his warmed skin and thought This is the sea, and then he felt it move over everyone’s skin and he thought I am the sea. He looked up and thought I see the moon, and then he thought I am the moon. In that way he got to be everyone there, and everyone who wasn’t there. In that way the girl beside him had become a part of him. In that way they were all a part of everyone. In that way, in the light of a moon he’d never truly seen before, he saw himself. The girl let go of his nose. He could still feel the laughter rippling down the tide and found that he was laughing too. Everyone was laughing, and it was beautiful and he could hear it. He looked at the girl, laughing rough bubbles out into the ocean, and felt thankful. She had led him here and let him listen to the sound of the whole world at once.
It was still night time when the boy woke up, drooling onto his lawn chair, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. The bottle of lemonade was beside him, the ice melted and the drink spilled out onto the lawn. The mosquitoes had beaten him to wakefulness and hovered around his head as he stood. He could hear cicadas beginning to growl from the trees. There was no sign of a parade. He was not wet with ocean water. And yet, when he slapped his arm to kill a bug, he nearly yowled with pain. He had a bad burn on his arms and—he checked—yes, on his legs to. He touched his face and found it the same.
But his skin was not red and itchy and warm, as if he had spent too long on the beach. The burn was so bright and pale it was almost luminous. It glowed with a brilliant white color, like the moon the boy now saw sinking below the horizon.
a story by
The curfew was a red-orange that night, the sort of aborted color that hung in the air and left you wondering if they meant it to be red or was it in fact orange, and you worried because the difference meant an entire hour. The street was narrow, and even if I were caught, it would be worth it. There was no other way I could…
“Penny for your thoughts?” A stranger stepped in front of me. I jumped. He held out a penny, bright in the street lamp’s flickering light, between two grimy fingers. His face was hidden. The air was silent.
“A penny.” I forgot the red-orange. I took the coin from him, rubbed it between my own fingers. It was warm and lighter than I had imagined, smaller than it looked in the pictures, but real.
“What’s your name?” asked the stranger.
“Wilhelm.” I stared at the penny.
“Wilhelm, do you want my penny?”
I knew the price, but I did want it. How lucky I was.
So I let him have my thoughts in trade for my desire. I closed my eyes and let him through. I could feel him stumble around inside at first, uncertain, looking for all my thoughts, finding some and then others, sorting through them and collecting them. He grew comfortable and moved around more deliberately. I was thankful. It was always better if they knew what they were doing.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that he had collected them all in a small, glass jar. They popped about, flitting against the glass, the lid, and back against the glass. Like trapped fireflies, they were caught bits of my past. Pink at first, then a soft green as they grew used to their new, cold environment.
The stranger had not taken thoughts of her, though. I kept those from him, locked away in a box in the corner of my mind, hidden under the shrouds of frustration and desire. She was my first thought when I woke the next morning, when I looked into the mirror at the end of the room. I walked slowly toward it, approached the figure within it. I held out my hand and felt the cold, smooth surface. I did not recognize the person who stared back.
“Stranger,” I said in a whisper.
I looked down. In my hand, I still held the penny. I would have to break curfew again to see her. The only time those in quarantine were ever near, as they were shuffled past the wall of iron bars along Over Street.
Tonight I would show her the penny.
a story by
C. C. Green
From childhood I had been no great lover of the company of others and so, for a long time, it had been my habit to spend vacation time indulging in the solitude of a calm and thinly populated corner of the coast. A retreat, you might say. A chance to get away from the people and things that, during the rest of the year, took up so much of my time.
So it was, then, that during one such Summer, after a particularly difficult year, I found myself walking coastal cliffs near the small village where I usually took up residence. At my usual slow pace, walking stick in hand, I ambled along a forgotten cliff-top as I took in familiar sights and sounds.
Reflected sunlight sparkled from the calm sea below. A clear sky, uninterrupted by cloud, merged at the horizon with the darker blue of the ocean. In the distance a flock of seagulls gave throat to their sadness as they wheeled.
Over the cliffs a gentle sea breeze blew, stirring the short grasses at my feet. Below, the waves, innocent as they undulated from sea to shore, broke against fractured rocks with unexpected ferocity, sending plumes of spray high into channels cut in the cliff face by millennia of patient assault.
As I surveyed these peaceful offerings, I stopped for a moment and shaded my eyes against the glare of the sun. As I looked out to sea, I saw the indistinct smudge of a ship resting lazily on the horizon as white tips appeared and disappeared.
On a whim, I decided to change my route and take the path along the cliff-top rather than, as was my original intention, to meander back to the heathers and gorse of the headland. The day was fine and the sea breeze an amicable companion.
A little way off there came into view a structure which, oddly, I had never noticed before. A lighthouse. I was struck by the sharp contrast it made with the bare and windswept panorama before me. It had been built precariously at the head of the cliffs, and was surrounded by a dry stone wall.
With nothing better to do and with no particular itinerary to fulfill, I thought to detour from the route I had set for myself and inspect the lighthouse. So, taking a worn path amongst the heathers and grasses, I started the half mile walk.
Just after midday, with the sun at its highest and most intense, I came to the stone wall that enclosed the lighthouse and thankfully rested on it. Putting my stick to one side and wiping perspiration from my brow, I gazed at the lonely and seemingly uninhabited outpost. A small but stout door presented itself at the base of the tower, while a few windows appeared to be randomly inset along its height. Clearly there was obvious need for such a building in this setting, but there was about the place a sense of abandonment, desertion. For a brief moment, this observation produced in me a sharp feeling of isolation. I felt utterly alone. Curious and half wishing to dispel this transitory but uncharacteristic sensation, I decided upon a closer inspection of the property.
The tower was cool to the touch and produced in me an immediate sense of the unyielding character of the structure as it stood unmoved though battered by storm and blanched by burning sun.
As I looked up, I marveled at the majestic pinnacle of the tower with the sun breaking through its glass. Then, for the briefest moment, a vague shape seemed to obscure the sun as if inside a body crossed and blocked the light. I squinted. The shape was gone. A seagull, I assumed, had flown across, or perhaps a trick of the light. My feeling of isolation and unease grew. I looked around me for some sign that another might be present, but I was met only by rocks, heather, and the stone wall. Feeling like a fool at being caught off guard by these sensations, I made up my mind to dispel my anxiety. Taking a step towards the door, I decided to knock and make the acquaintance of whomever I should find, if anyone were there at all.
I tapped on the weathered wood, but was greeted only by an echo. I waited. Inside, no foot falls followed, no sound that would suggest an occupant might have heard me at all. I knocked again, more loudly. I waited, but still there was no indication that I had been heard. Tentatively, I put my hand on the handle of the door. To my surprise, I felt an unexpected coldness. The tarnished metal of the latch gave an icy chill which seemed to be carried from inside the tower. I paused. Perhaps the door was locked? Perhaps this was an automated beacon which required no one to be in residence? Was my mind getting the better of me? Why was I finding reasons not to at least try the door? Ignoring the sensation of coldness in my fingers, I popped the latch smartly and the door opened. Half expecting to be confronted by the whine and labored creak of old and poorly lubricated hinges, I was greeted only by the scraping of wood over a stone floor as the door opened inward to the darkness of the room beyond. Listening again for any sign that an occupant may be aware of my presence, I stopped and craned forward. I could hear nothing except the sounds of waves breaking and wind whistling over the open doorway.
I could see only darkness penetrated here and there by the faint light from the small windows I had observed outside. Indistinct shapes crouched in the gloom, but there appeared to be no movement. In a weak attempt to penetrate the shadows, I narrowed my eyes but was unable distinguish any other features.
Moments passed and still there came no sign of a light keeper. Somewhat unsettled and ever less enthusiastic, I called out, hoping now that the lack of a response would negate my original plan of entering the tower. For a reply, I heard the creak of what I presumed to be another door, but nothing else.
Under the circumstances and with a growing concern that I might be trespassing, I reached for the handle with the intention of closing the door behind me. I heard a voice.
Startled by this apparent answer to my call, I froze. A voice. Faint and indistinct, but definitely a voice. Immediately I experienced a resurgence of uneasiness to which I been prey before. I was sure that eyes now observed me from both inside and outside the building. I felt isolated and vulnerable. I tensed and, for a moment, I was conflicted between the urgent need to look to behind me and the necessity of directing my attention to the shadows in front of me. I stepped back and hastily cast a glance over my shoulder to the scene outside. All was as it had been before. Perhaps it was the very stillness of the place that unnerved me?
Composing myself and shaking off this thought, I was abruptly struck by a new predicament. My instinct was to retreat. To leave the lighthouse behind me and return to the village. On the other hand, not to now enter the building after a perceptible response from the resident would, doubtless, produce further difficulties. Particularly since I had opened the door unbidden and called out. Assessing this dilemma, I reminded myself again, although with less conviction, of the irrationality of my previous behavior, and in so doing I decided upon a course of action. Warily, I entered the tower and shut the door behind me. The scent of salt water and the odor of disuse rose to welcome me. With gradual adjustment to the gloom and the pale glow of light coming down from above, I was able to make out old ropes, chains, and tackle piled upon the floor. A rusty bucket on its side, weather-beaten wooden crates, corroded tools of various shapes and sizes, an aging table against a wall and upon it a neglected oil lamp. Carelessly thrown on the ground below this was a heavy but shabby coat of some dark material. Rising before me into the heights of the tower was a wrought iron spiral staircase which appeared not to have seen paint for many a year. Still there appeared to be no evidence of an inhabitant. I called out again, louder this time. No answer. Steadily, I made my way around the objects strewn across the floor. I heard only the crunching sound my boots made as they ground the dust and dirt underfoot. Stepping into a patch of light, I took the handrail of the staircase and looked upward.
The spiral of steps climbed out of sight into the upper reaches. Placing a foot on the first stair, I measured its resistance and ability to take my weight. Despite a scrape of metal and a vibrating clang, it seemed that the structure would not collapse. Heartened by this observation, I began to ascend. Listening all the time for an occupant, I heard nothing but echoes of my footsteps.
Gradually I climbed to the second story of the building, and once again surveyed the scene before me. Much as it had been below, there appeared to be no contemporary signs of habitation. The room, however, or landing, was perceptibly smaller than the first floor room, reflecting the narrowing of the tower as it rose.
A murky window allowed sunlight from the outside world to enter. Particles of dust disturbed by my entrance glinted in the air around me. An old moth-eaten upholstered chair stood tattered next to a low, worn table. Aging, grimy pages from a yellowed newspaper lay at intervals upon the stone floor. A dull tin cup, its contents long since drunk or evaporated, stood on the table as did an empty, wax encrusted candlestick.
The look of the place was confusing. The room below was obviously used for storage, and perhaps necessary financial accounting. Here, though, instead of a chair and table, I expected to find an oil heater, oil buckets, things used in the maintenance of the light. In looking over the unusual items I found there, my earlier apprehension began, once more, to overcome me. There was something about the place that didn’t work. Something that was so plain I should have noticed it straight away, but what was it? It was not the cold air and moldy atmosphere, nor the nature of the objects before me. Nor was it the arresting stillness of the place, nor the silence that pierced my senses. The place looked abandoned, but something nagged at the back of my mind. Something I had seen. Something so obvious it hid in plain sight.
I looked at the floor and staircase that continued to rise above me. There were no foot prints, other than my own, to be seen. No impressions of any kind in the accumulated dust. Then it was clear to me. Nothing could have entered here. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust untouched for who knows how long. What then of the voice I believed I had heard? What of the creaking door and the shadow I had seen above?
I froze as the weight of my discovery amplified my anxiety. In an effort to rationalize my fears and suppress a rapidly rising panic, I began to address each of these questions. The shadow? A gull flying near the peak of the tower. The creaking door? The sound of an old and disused building settling. The faint and distant voice from within? This had merely been some trick of my mind. Yet, the sound had given the distinct impression of a voice, unintelligible though it had been. Try as I might, I was unable to ignore the conviction that the sound I had heard was, indeed, a voice. And if what I had heard was a voice, could I also now trust the reliability of my reasoning with regard to the other phenomena?
Despite the chill of the air, I began to perspire as I turned the thoughts over and over in my mind. Still I came back to where I had started. The voice.
As if reading the turmoil of my thoughts, there came again the sound of a rusty door hinge above me. I jumped. Then came a further muffled utterance. Louder to be sure, but with the same formless and indefinite quality, whispering something I was unable to decipher. Rendered inert by the chaos of my thoughts and this sudden onslaught of ambiguous noise, I found myself unable react. I stood transfixed, as if waiting for the passage of time itself to make a decision for me.
My skin began to crawl. I felt as though I were being studied—as if I were being observed as each imagined terror carefully chose its method of attack.
To retrace my footsteps was to reenter the gloom below and run headlong into the arms of what my mind now told me was surely waiting for me. On the other hand, to advance and continue climbing the stairs was to meet the source of the sounds I had heard above.
With my imagination summoning up faceless beasts lurking both above and below, preventing both advance and retreat, I was rapidly overtaken by a another fear shouting to be heard above the scream of the others. Standing still and waiting, I thought, might also cause me to fall victim to whatever anonymous horrors stalked the darkness.
My body unlocked and spurred on by this new dread, groping again and again for the least perilous course of action, I finally reasoned, irrationally—for I had no rationale left to me—that I could only continue to climb the stairs and confront whatever lay in wait for me.
Timidly I took another step, and then another. I sensed movement in the shadows. In answer, I climbed faster and with less care, quickly closing the distance between myself and the next landing for fear that whatever it was I had seen or thought I had seen might catch me at my heels.
As I climbed, the air grew colder. The odor of salt water and the rotting stench of neglect began to claw at me. The light afforded by the upper windows created dramatic divisions between illumination and shade, sharply silhouetting what few objects came into view.
I climbed past ever smaller and darker levels, each showing less evidence of use than the one previous. At last my ascent was halted by the termination of the spiral stair in one last tiny room. My breathing was labored, my legs weak from exertion. I took a quick look down the stair, expecting to see some cloaked phantom or slavering ghoul close behind me. There was nothing save thin billows of dust thrown up in my wake. I turned again, fearing the now greater threat of this perhaps not so empty room presenting itself to me. A door led out to the balcony while a set of smaller steps climbed up to the service room.
Holding my breath, I strained to hear any noise that might offer some explanation for the horrid images in my mind, or at least provide me with a location upon which to bring to bear my now acutely heightened senses. I could hear nothing but the beating of my own heart. Absurdly, in the same way that a child believes that hiding under the bedclothes will protect him from the creatures of his nightmares, I let the breath in my lungs out in a slow whisper through pursed lips, for fear that I might give away my position with a loud exhalation. As I did so, I became aware of a faint mist before me, the chill air making my breath tangible before it evaporated. Again I narrowed my eyes and attempted to pierce the gloom, but with no better result than before. I surveyed what I could of the chamber, my vision darting from one small patch of light to another, acutely aware that what was visible to me was only a tiny fraction of the whole.
Barely perceptible against the wall across from me stood a silhouette. Unformed and shapeless, I got the impression of a figure menacing by its very stillness. Abruptly, there came a sound from the shadows. A soft, barely perceptible sound like cloth rubbing cloth, suggesting movement. I stumbled backwards, my throat clenched. I began to tremble uncontrollably. Then I saw the silhouette move.
The same weak voice. A slight, ephemeral sound. I shrieked as I made sense of the previously indiscernible words. My name had been called! Whatever was there had spoken my name! As if to emphasize this appeal, there came into the afforded light an extended hand. Grey and wrinkled, the outstretched fingers beckoned as if summoning me. I screamed. The sound hung in the cold air like a shroud. The voice, louder and more urgent now, called my name once more. The hand gestured more aggressively.
Impatience saturated the air as the plaintive request became an order. The figure began to shuffle forward. In a weak effort to demonstrate that I was, however feebly, armed, I lifted my hand in defense. My walking stick, however, was not with me. In a frenzy such at that which accompanies feverish and, to a greater extent, futile action, I looked about me. My stick was neither on the stair nor at my feet. Instead, I discerned its gnarled, weather-beaten form on the floor before me! It lay perhaps half the distance between myself and the phantom. Dust covered its shaft while faint green tinges of patina displayed its comely autograph on the brass handle and tip.
No, this surely could not be my possession! It lay at a remoteness that did not correspond to my entry into the room. It could not be mine! And yet, its brass horse-head handle, unusual because I had borrowed it from the handle of a discarded brass fire poker, immediately announced it as familiar. In a flash of memory that befitted a clearer and more sober mind, I recalled that I had placed my stick to one side when entering the tower.
Without the corporeal, if ineffectual, defense of the walking stick, I could only stumble back onto the stairs, turning to race away from the horror before me. As I plunged downward, I imagined that cold, wet fingers would surely grasp at me and take my life.
At each turn, shadows rose up and clutched at me; with each retraced step my name was screeched from above.
The clang of metal steps under my feet resounded with the ululation that was the calling of my name. At each landing, the small windows grew darker. At length, only feeble illumination remained. With a last effort, I hurled myself at the closed door, but I was unable to open it!
I turned to see the phantom slowly, ponderously alight from the final stair. Its form was now more visible than before. I could now see the tattered remnants of its habiliments. On its feet was the rotting residuum of a once stout pair of boots. The thing made its way toward me, hands now extended as if in supplication. I fell to the ground and looked into the face of the spectre that was to be my doom.
Its face, such as it was, came close to mine. Its cold breath nauseated me. The remains of the creature’s clothing I now recognized to be my own, the boots as those that were on my own feet. I closed my eyes against the repellant figure, and my mind against the terrifying evidence of my own eyes.
In a whisper laced with sorrow and anger, the phantom cried my name! The thing with my face called my name again!
From taught, colorless lips it warned, it implored, it pleaded, it beseeched me as if knowing that any entreaty would serve no purpose.
“Do not walk the cliffs!” it cried. “Do not walk the cliffs alone!”
Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.
The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks
a story by
J. K. Bangs
A Letter To The Editor
It is with very deep regret that I find myself unable to keep the promise made to you last spring to provide you with a suitable ghost story for your Christmas number. I have made several efforts to prepare such a tale as it seemed to me you would require, but, one and all, these have proved unavailing. By a singular and annoying combination of circumstances in which only my unfortunate habit of meeting trouble in a spirit of badinage has involved me, I cannot secure the models which I invariably need for the realistic presentation of my stories, and I decline at present, as I have hitherto consistently declined, to draw upon my imagination for the ingredients necessary, even though tempted by the exigencies of a contract sealed, signed, and delivered. It is far from my wish to be known to you as one who makes promises only to break them, but there are times in a man’s life when he must consider seriously which is the lesser evil, to deceive the individual or to deceive the world, the latter being a mass of individuals, and, consequently, as much more worthy of respect as the whole is greater than a part. Could I bring myself to be false to my principles as a scribe, and draw upon my fancy for my facts, and, through a prostitution of my art, so sickly o’er my plot with the pale cast of realism as to hoodwink my readers into believing what I know to be false, the task were easy. Given a more or less active and unrestrained imagination, pen, ink, paper, and the will to do so, to construct out of these a ghost story which might have been, but as a matter of fact was not, presents no difficulties whatsoever; but I unfortunately have a conscience which, awkward as it is to me at times, I intend to keep clear and unspotted. The consciousness of having lied would forever rest as a blot upon my escutcheon. I cannot manufacture out of whole cloth a narrative such as you desire and be true to myself, and this I intend to be, even if by so doing I must seem false to you, I think, however, that, as one of my friends and most important consumer, you are entitled to a complete explanation of my failure to do as I have told you I would. To most others I should send merely a curt note evidencing, not pleading, a pressure of other work as the cause of my not coming to time. To you it is owed that I should enter somewhat into the details of the unfortunate business.
You doubtless remember that last summer, with our mutual friend Peters, I traveled abroad seeking health and, incidentally, ideas. I had discovered that imported ideas were on the whole rather more popular in America than those which might be said to be indigenous to the soil. The reading public had, for the time being at least, given itself over to moats and chateaux and bloodshed and the curious dialects of the lower orders of British society. Sherlock Holmes had superseded Old Sleuth in the affections of my countrymen who read books. Even those honest little critics the boys and girls were finding more to delight them in the doings of Richard Coeur de Lion and Alice in Wonderland than in the more remarkable and intensely American adventures of Ragged Dick or Mickie the Motorboy. John Storm was at that moment hanging over the world like the sword of Damocles, and Rudolph Rassendyll had completely overshadowed such essentially American heroes as Uncle Tom and Rollo. I found, to my chagrin, that the poetry of Tennyson was more widely read than my own, even though Tennyson was dead and I was not. And in the universities whole terms were devoted to the compulsory study of dramatists like Shakespeare and Moliere, while home talent, as represented by Mr. Hoyt or the facile productions of Messrs. Weber & Fields was relegated to the limbo of electives which the students might take up or not, as they chose, and then only in hours which they were expected to devote to recreation. All of which seemed to indicate that while there was no royal road to literary fame, there was with equal certainty no republican path thereto, and that real inspiration was to be derived rather under the effete monarchies of Europe than at home. To Peters the same idea had occurred, but in his case in relation to art rather than to literature. The patrons of art in America had a marked preference for the works of Meissonier, Corot, Gerome, Millet–anybody, so long as he was a foreigner, Peters said. The wealthy would pay ten, twenty, a hundred thousand dollars for a Rousseau or a Rosa. Bonheur rather than exchange a paltry one hundred dollars for a canvas by Peters, though, as far as Peters was concerned, his canvas was just as well woven, his pigments as carefully mixed, and his application of the one to the other as technically correct as was anything from the foreign brushes.
“You can’t take in the full import of a Turner unless you stand a way away from it,” said he, “and if you’ll only stand far enough away from mine you couldn’t tell it from a Meissonier.”
And when I jocularly responded to this that I thought a mile was the proper distance, he was offended. We quarreled, but made up after a while, and in the making up decided upon a little venture into foreign fields together, not only to recuperate, but to see if so be we could discover just where the workers on the other side got that quality which placed them in popular esteem so far ahead of ourselves.
What we discovered along this especial line must form the burden of another story. The main cause of our foreign trip, these discoveries, are but incidental to the theme I have in hand. Our conclusions were important, but they have no place here, and what they were you will have to wait until my work on Abroad versus Home is completed to learn. But what is important to this explanation is the fact that while going through the long passage leading from the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi Gallery at Florence we–or rather I–encountered one of those phantoms which have been among the chief joys and troubles of my life. Peters was too much taken up with his Baedeker to see either ghosts or pictures. Indeed, it used to irritate me that Peters saw so little, but he would do as most American tourists do, and spend all of his time looking for some especial thing he thought he ought to see, and generally missing not only it, but thousands of minor things quite as well worthy of his attention. I don’t believe he would have seen the ghost, however, under any circumstances. It requires a specially cultivated eye or digestion, one or the other, to enable one to see ghosts, and Peters’s eye is blind to the invisible and his digestion is good.
Why, under the canopy, the vulgar little spectre was haunting a picture-gallery I never knew, unless it was to embarrass the Americans who passed to and fro, for he claimed to be an American spook. I knew he was not a living thing the minute I laid eyes through him. He loomed up before me while I was engaged in chuckling over a particularly bad canvas by somebody whose name I have forgotten, but which was something like Beppo di Contarini. It represented the scene of a grand fete at Venice back in the fifteenth century, and while preserved by the art-lovers of Florence as something worthy, would, I firmly believe, have failed of acceptance even by the catholic taste of the editor of an American Sunday newspaper comic supplement. The thing was crude in its drawing, impossible in its coloring, and absolutely devoid of action. Every gondola on the canal looked as if it were stuck in the mud, and as for the water of the Grand Canal itself, it had all the liquid glory under this artist’s touch of calf’s-foot jelly, and it amused me intensely to think that these patrons of art, in the most artistic city in the world, should have deemed it worth keeping. However, whatever the merit of the painting, I was annoyed in the midst of my contemplation of it to have thrust into the line of vision a shape–I cannot call it a body because there was no body to it. There were the lineaments of a living person, and a very vulgar living person at that, but the thing was translucent, and as it stepped in between me and the wonderful specimen of Beppo di Somethingorother’s art I felt as if a sudden haze had swept over my eyes, blurring the picture until it reminded me of a cheap kind of decalcomania that in my boyhood days had satisfied my yearnings after the truly beautiful.
I made several ineffectual passes with my hands to brush the thing away. I had discovered that with certain classes of ghosts one could be rid of them, just as one may dissipate a cloud of smoke, by swirling one’s outstretched paw around in it, and I hoped that I might in this way rid myself of the nuisance now before me. But I was mistaken. He swirled, but failed to dissipate.
“Hum!” said I, straightening up, and addressing the thing with some degree of irritation. “You may know a great deal about art, my friend, but you seem not to have studied manners. Get out of my way.”
“Pah!” he ejaculated, turning a particularly nasty pair of green eyes on me. “Who the deuce are you, that you should give me orders?”
“Well,” said I, “if I were impulsive of speech and seldom grammatical, I might reply by saying Me, but as a purist, let me tell you, sir, that I’m I, and if you seek to know further and more intimately, I will add that who I am is none of your infernal business.”
“Humph!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Grammatical or otherwise, you’re a coward! You don’t dare say who you are, because you are afraid of me. You know I am a spectre, and, like all commonplace people, you are afraid of ghosts.”
A hot retort was on my lips, and I was about to tell him my name and address, when it occurred to me that by doing so I might lay myself open to a kind of persecution from which I have suffered from time to time, ghosts are sometimes so hard to lay, so I accomplished what I at the moment thought was my purpose by a bluff.
“Oh, as for that,” said I, “my name is So and So, and I live at Number This, That Street, Chicago, Illinois.”
Both the name and the address were of course fictitious.
“Very well,” said he, calmly, making a note of the address. “My name is Jones. I am the president of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks, enjoying a well earned rest from his labors on his savings from his salary as a walking delegate. You shall hear from me on your return to Chicago through the local chapter, the United Apparitions of Illinois.”
“All right,” said I, with equal calmness, “If the Illinois spooks are as Illinoisome as you are, I will summon the board of health and have them laid without more ado.”
Upon this we parted. That is to say, I walked on to the Uffizi, and he vanished, in something of a rage, it seemed to me.
I thought no more of the matter until a week ago, when, in accordance with an agreement with the principal thereof, I left New York to go to Chicago, to give a talk before a certain young ladies’ boarding school, on the subject of “Muscular Romanticism.” This was a lecture I had prepared on a literary topic concerning which I had thought much. I had observed that a great deal of the popularity of certain authors had come from the admiration of young girls–mostly those at boarding-school, and therefore deprived of real manly company–for a kind of literature which, seeming to be manly, did not yet appeal very strongly to men. In certain aspects it seemed strong. It presented heroes who were truly heroic, and who always did the right thing in the right manner. Writers who had more ink than blood to shed, and a greater knowledge of etiquette than of human nature, were making their way into temporary fame by compelling chaps to do things they could not do. I rather like to read of these fellows myself. I am no exception to the rule which makes human beings admire, and very strongly, too, the fellow who poses successfully. Indeed, I admire a poseur who can carry his pose through without disaster to himself, because he has nothing to back him up, and, wanting this, if by his assurance he can make himself a considerable personage he falls short of genius only by lacking it. But this is apart from the story. Whatever the general line of thought in the lecture, I was, as I have said, on my way to Chicago to deliver it before a young ladies’ boarding school. I should have been happy over the prospect, for I have many warm friends in Chicago, there was a moderately large fee ahead, and there is always a charm, as well, in the mere act of standing on a dais before some two or three hundred young girls and having their undivided attention for a brief hour. Yet, despite all this, I was dreadfully depressed. Why, I could not at first surmise. It seemed to me, however as though some horrid disaster were impending. I experienced all the sensations which make four o’clock in the morning so dreaded an hour to those who suffer from insomnia. My heart would race ahead, thumping like the screw of an ocean greyhound, and then slow down until it seemingly ceased to beat altogether; my hands were alternately dry and hot, and clammy and cold; and then like a flash I knew why, and what it was I feared. It suddenly dawned upon my mind that, by some frightfully unhappy coincidence, the address of Miss Brockton’s Academy for Young Ladies, whither I was bound, was precisely the same as that I had given the vulgar little spook at Florence as my own. I had entirely forgotten the incident; and then, as I drew near to the spot whereon I was to have been made to suffer through the machinations of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks, my soul was filled with dread. Had Grand-Master-Spook Jones’s threat been merely idle? Had he, even as I had done, dismissed the whole affair as unworthy of any further care, or would he keep his word?–indeed, had he kept his word, and, through his followers in the Amalgamated Brotherhood, made himself obnoxious to the residents of Number This, That Street?
My nervous dread redoubled as I neared Chicago, and it was as much as I could do, when the train reached Kalamazoo, to keep from turning back. And the event showed that I suffered with only too much reason, for, on my arrival at the home of the institution, I found it closed. The door was locked, the shades pulled down, the building the perfect picture of gloom. Miss Brockton, I was informed, was in a lunatic asylum, and two hundred and eighty-three young girls, ranging from fourteen to twenty years of age, had been returned to their parents, the hair of every mother’s daughter of them blanched white as the driven snow. No one knew, my informant said, exactly what had occurred at the academy, but the fact that was plain to all was that, some two weeks previous to my coming, the school had retired at the usual hour one night, in the very zenith of a happy prosperity, and gathered at breakfast the next morning to find itself wrecked, and bearing the outward semblance of a home for indigent old ladies. No one, from Miss Brockton herself to the youngest pupil, could give a coherent account of what had turned them all gray in a single night, and brought the furrows of age to cheeks both old and young, nor could any inducement be held out to any of the pupils to pass another night within those walls. They one and all fled madly back to their homes, and Miss Brockton’s attempted explanation was so incredible that, protesting her sanity, she was nevertheless placed under restraint, pending a full investigation of the incident. She had, I was informed, asserted that some sixty ghosts of most terrible aspect had paraded through the house between the hours of midnight and 2 A.M., howling and shrieking and threatening the occupants in a most terrifying fashion. At their head marched a spectre brass band of twenty–four pieces, grinding out with horrid contortions and grimaces the most awful discords imaginable–discords, indeed, Miss Brockton had said, alongside of which those of the most grossly material German street band in creation became melodies of soothing sweetness. The spectre rabble to the rear bore transparencies, upon which were painted such legends as, “Hail to Jones, our beloved Chief!” “Strike One, Strike All!” and, “Down with Hawkins, the Grinder of Ghosts!” This last caused my heart to sink still lower, for Hawkins was the name I had given the vision at Florence, and I now understood all. It was only too manifest that I was the cause of the undoing of these innocents.
photo by linda orlomoski
Come in, come in! Warm thy cockles! Welcome to the Spring 2015 issue!
Brilliant fantasist Alina Rios opens this volume with her creepy yet heartwarming ‘Midnight Man.’
Christine-Marie L. Dixon then shares ‘Ephemeral,’ a prose poem of depth, beauty, and sadness.
Heartfelt and intrepid writer Deirdre Fagan then offers us ‘There Once Was A Man Who Thought Too Much.’
Sue Ann Connaughton brings us a wonderful and warm story from her own hearth, ‘Wrought from a Perukemaker’s House.’
Then last, but certainly not least, Ed Nichols brings us a tale from the Deep South with ‘Last Born.’
Enjoy this issue of Beorh Quarterly, please, because, after all, these are the best stories out there!
a story by
There once lived a puppeteer.
He was not very old, nor very young. Nobody could really tell and nobody asked. His name was Bartolo.
All his life, Bartolo made little puppets for a small theater he set up outside his shop. He would make puppets all week, and as he made them, the puppets told him their stories.
Then on the weekend, he would have a show of all the puppets’ stories. The neighborhood kids knew about this and looked forward to the show, because inevitably, there was a puppet who needed rescuing, or an evil puppet who had to die. The dying was especially exciting and dramatic, because Bartolo would orchestrate a beheading for such puppet, with a giant knife.
One day, after the show, Death visited Bartolo in his shop and told him he had seven days to live.
Bartolo scratched his head. How was he to spend his last seven days? It was nice, after all, of Death to give him this warning. But Bartolo was a lonely man. He had no wife, or kids, or much in the way of friends. And while the town’s kids loved his puppet shows, they were scared of the dark man who put them on. They whispered that the man was um bruxo, a warlock, because he made the puppets talk in such different voices—it didn’t seem possible any other way.
Bartolo wished he had more time. He wished for another chance at life, for maybe a wife and a family. But alas…. Instead, he decided to make the best puppet he could, just something to be remembered by.
The puppet he was building was very tall—twice his height. It was a man. Bartolo dressed him in the finest clothing, and, since it was a week before Carnival, he dressed him in bright colors. The puppet’s tuxedo was green, with gold shiny buttons. On his head Bartolo placed a black top-hat made of the finest silk. The hat he swapped for a case of his best paints at the little store down the street that sold all manner of things. In the same store, he found two pairs of deep purple trousers, which he paid for with his mother’s wooden comb that had one broken tooth. From these, he fashioned one pair of long trousers for the puppet.
Bartolo stood back and examined his work. The purples didn’t exactly match, the darker being at the bottom, but the puppet still looked like a well-dressed man.
Now for the face. Bartolo shaved his thick, black beard and gave it to the puppet along with his gold tooth, his prized possession, which he took out with pliers and stuck in the puppet’s mouth. The blood from the tooth dripped onto the puppet’s beard and glistened in the candlelight.
All this time, as Bartolo was working, the puppet was silent. He didn’t tell him a single story. Not even a whisper escaped his painted lips. “Just as well,” thought Bartolo. “I don’t have time for another show.”
On the evening of the seventh day, Bartolo costumed himself with his puppet and walked out the door. It was the night before Carnival. The puppet’s clothes covered Bartolo completely—only his eyes showed through. People pointed at the strange puppet. Some whispered, frightened. Some laughed, thinking it was somebody’s clever Carnival idea. For the first time in his life, Bartolo felt free, because he wasn’t Bartolo anymore, he was just a puppet.
His feet in hard leather boots clicked against the cobblestones. Around him, the city was alive: bursts of laughter from groups of people for whom the celebration started earlier, embarrassed giggles of young couples who couldn’t find a dark-enough corner, kids squealing from the welcome confusion of being up past all reasonable bedtimes, and the insistent chirps of bats distraught by all the activity below.
Smells of chocolate and sweet spices, hot oil, limes, and a welcome freshness of mint drifted from open doorways. It all reminded Bartolo of the Carnivals with his mother. Him, excited and proud to be at her side. The spicy goodness of coxinha, still hot from the bubbling oil. He could almost feel the burn on his fingers, trying to hold it, too anxious for the first bite as his mother blew on it, the softness of her breath—the essence of love.
His back ached from having to keep it straight, but he didn’t mind. His heart beat faster than it had in years, as if trying to prove to him that it was not ready to stop.
It was a perfect last day.
Close to midnight, Death joined Bartolo and walked at his side. “I like what you did with your time,” he said.
“Thanks, I do too,” said Bartolo.
At midnight, Death reached in and took Bartolo’s heart. Bartolo collapsed on the gritty cobblestones. The puppet man fell next to Bartolo, his blank eyes reflecting the dark sky.
Death was about to swallow Bartolo’s heart, but he stopped and chuckled, as an idea came to him. He bent down to the puppet man and put the heart into its hollow chest.
The puppet man sprung up to his feet. He looked down at Death.
“Thank you!” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” said Death and walked off down the hill.
The puppet man watched Death leave with some sadness. Then, he walked in the opposite direction, following the sounds of the Carnival. A group waved him over to their make-shift table and poured him a drink. A woman gave him a hug. He walked dizzily among the revelers and somebody was always near, sharing a story or a joke. No one was afraid of him. In the morning, they made him march at the front of the Carnival procession. The puppet man was joyful.
The next day, the papers told about the mysterious boneco gigante, a giant doll that walked the parade. They called him Homem da Meia Noite, Midnight Man, and the name stuck. People loved him so much that a few years later, they made him a wife, whom they called Mulher do Dia, Woman of the Day. The two were very happy and had two children, a boy and a girl, of course, whom they named A Menina de Tarde, Girl of the Afternoon and O Menino de Tarde, Boy of the Afternoon. They asked Death to be their godfather, to which he agreed, chuckling happily.
Now, every midnight before Carnival, the whole family walks the streets to the joy of all people.
And if you ask Midnight Man, as he’s the only one of the family blessed with a human heart, and so the only one who can speak, he’ll tell you he lives happily. But in the dark, away from the lights and the people, he misses Death.
Russian-born Alina Rios now breathes in the coffee-scented air of Seattle, edits technical documentation, and reads her work at local open mics. She was recently short-listed for the Gulliver Travel Grant. Her poetry has appeared in Mused and Rust & Moth and is forthcoming in Neon and Starline. www.alinarios.com
a prose poem by
Christine-Marie L. Dixon
Sometimes I look upon the setting sun and weep because I know I cannot keep it safely inside my dresser, folded neatly between linens and handkerchiefs. I cry because I know that I shall die without swallowing the moon into my soul or exchanging confidences with a marigold. Sons and Daughters, you shall grow old; your knees shall someday soon turn to creaking hinges, echoing through lonely halls of timbered prisons and clanging gongs. You will exchange fading whispers for your favorite songs, the words of which you do not know. You will look at the stars and repent that you did not try harder to scale their heavenly depths. You will cry that you have wasted countless precious breaths conforming to the rise and sink of mankind’s demands and the office which fed you for fifty years will quickly crumble, dissolved into sand.
Standing on this side of eternity my heart breaks because I know there is not enough time to love the rushing winds and roaring ache of ocean waves. My soul craves a road paved around this earth with my feet, every secret measured by my heartbeat.
Christine-Marie L. Dixon is a writer and musician from Detroit.
There Once Was a Man
Who Thought Too Much
a story by
There once was a man who thought too much thought too much thought too much. He lived on an island in the borough of wee wah wah and slept not at all. His back was strong his legs were long and he wore a moustache below his nose and fur one supposes upon his chin.
It all started when he was just a boy and was dreaming about it.
About what he was dreaming is what we do not entirely know but it had something to do with what is what and what was what and so he went and found a book and then he sat within a crook and as he turned the pages of that book he began to think and think about it. As he read and thought and read and thought he wondered what if anything others thought so he took that book and gathered some more and went from his crook to a crescent on a hill where others who also began as boys left as men and he not only thought and thought about it more than others seemed to but he somehow some way on many a day began to teach other boys and girls to think about it too.
One day when all the books were put away and he was thinking thinking about what he had done and what he would do and how to give to others all the thought he ever knew his thinking grew and grew.
This man who thought too much thought too much thought too much first saw a thinning in his hair. His eyes squinted to procure what was not there but all he saw was that part in his hair. So he thought and thought and thought about it and then he washed what was not there with little care and left the rest to bear.
On another day while walking down a summer lane he thought he saw a willow in the air and taking the willow as just as fair as what was departing from his hair he grasped it between thumb and forefinger and put it in the part that was there. The willow blew and blew about leaving his part without and as he chased it down the lane his legs that were too long seemed to disintegrate in thin air! With each stride his part widened and his gait spasmed and soon it was as though his legs were not there — he was gliding on air!
The man who thought and thought about the thinning in his hair was now losing his legs his only pair. This he thought was quite rare.
With himself down to his legs that were not there and with that part dividing wider his thinning hair he began to think and think and think about what had gone awry for before he had always seemed quite spry. Strong back strong legs and fur beneath his nose one had never supposed that his grasp between thumb and forefinger would no longer grip what was there but would somehow lead him to what was not. The book’s leaves which he would leaf when he was loafing in the summer breeze upon that hill that he could no longer climb had the answer that he was trying to find but as he reached for another book to see what others’ thought and determine what had somehow brought what had been brought upon him to others too his grip gave way to another waylay — his arms had grown taut.
Not for naught but first it was the thinning of his hair and then the legs that were no longer there and now the arms had grown thin and taut and about this he thought and thought.
The more he thought the more he read and the more he read the more he learned that it was not the thinning in his hair that had led to this despair but the loss of strength in his legs his only pair and his arms which now no longer felt there. Before he knew it his lips would cease moving and air that had always been without a care would be heaving — it would be entirely rare and unfair.
Those that knew not what to do made absent queries:
Had this to do with the thinning in his hair? Had his hair to do with the thinking that had been? What happened to the legs no longer there? What about that willow placed in his hair?
No no nothing is so unfair that it punishes those who think so fair yet somehow the thinking that had had such a good run caused people to start to point and stare not at the thinning in his hair but at the thinning of what was still there.
Unmoving the rest were moved as he thought and thought and thought about it. While he could not bring back the legs no longer there or the arms that were in need of repair and while his lips only gently passed air his thinking thinking thinking taught and taught and taught all about it.
Like the other boys and girls who glide on air because the body they once had is no longer there it was not because of thought that life brought too much to bear. The man who thought too much had not used up all his thinking — those fools! There are no such rules.
But if we do as the man had done and we think and think and think until our own days are done we may too go taut (or not) but not for naught because we will have taught others not only how to live but how to die and through thought we may even try and write down for others to read how to survive not only the loss of this man and other boys girls and women like him but we may devise a plan for how to undo what his thinking had not done but with some more thinking what could have been done.
If we can do this we will somehow have won.
Deirdre Fagan is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of Composition at Quincy University. She is the author of Critical Companion to Robert Frost and has published stories, poems, and articles in various journals and magazines. Her interests include but are not limited to American poetry, memoir, and creative writing.
Wrought from the Perukemaker’s House
a story by
Sue Ann Connaughton
A brass wedding ring, clay pipe, tiny porcelain doll, poison bottle, and large bones—these are some of the artifacts that my husband unearthed while excavating under our kitchen during renovation. Our research indicates that the artifacts date from the late 19th century, although the house was built in the late 18th century. We devised a legend around the items, one that incorporates love, marriage, childbirth, and unexplained death, not necessarily in that order. Intrigued by our discoveries, I urged my husband to dig deeper. I wanted to uncover the 18th century. But alas, he declined, on the basis that it was more prudent to finish the kitchen renovation than to spend several more weeks shoveling and groveling, while taking all meals from the microwave.
The house was built in the 1790’s for John Archer, a perukemaker. The current kitchen did not exist then. Cooking took place in the keeping room, which is now our dining room. I wonder if John Archer made his wigs in the keeping room, by the cooking fireplace, the only source of heat on the first floor at that time. Or, perhaps he made them in the front room, where he could open the Indian shutters and hang a shop sign on one of the 12 over 12 windows.
Maybe John Archer chose the middle room for his workroom, labeled the “dismal room” on the electric box, by another owner, presumably because the windowless room lacks natural light, or views of the outside world—features that make it perfectly suited for my writing room.
As we move from room to room, renovating each one, we observe the imprints left by former inhabitants: the wooden stair treads, worn smoothly in the middle from decades of boots and shoes – we’ll never hide those with carpeting – and layers and layers of wallpaper and paint, with still brilliant colors that reveal different eras and fashions, peel by peel. Occasionally, we find dated initials under a beam, or on a floorboard, charming signatures of previous carpenters or handy homeowners. Regarding the floors: they all slant, causing cracks in the walls and ceilings, which recur, no matter how often they’re patched.
The renovation of our antique home progresses slowly and may never be completed. Future owners will make changes, stamp the house with their own touches. We hope they’ll be charmed to discover my husband’s initials carved into the kitchen shelves he built, and a copy of my first published story, hidden inside a closet in the dismal room.
Sue Ann Connaughton writes from a drafty old house in New England. Her short pieces have appeared in various journals, most recently: Counterexample Poetics; One-Sentence Story Anthology; Barnwood Poetry Magazine; The Bicycle Review; The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts; GlassFire Magazine; You are here: The Journal of Creative Geography; and Fabula Argentea.