“Soldiers keep on warrin’,
World keep on turnin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long…”
— Stevie Wonder, Higher Ground
Rain had fallen heavy for three days as I walked the edge of a line between two counties. It had been a year since I had seen or felt rain, and it was overzealous in wanting to remind me what it was like; what it was like for the angels to cry again. The rain had been warm, coming with a warm front, and once it had stopped the chill retook the air. The fog was dense. I had not seen fog in a long time, either, though I still felt like I was walking through the fog of war. It rose like dust after an IED explosion; drifting as slowly and carelessly as ghosts no longer concerned with the world through which they wandered. Thunder boomed at a distance, like RPGs exploding along the horizon. The ground was soggy and slick like blood-muddied sand beneath my boots. The moon, like the rain, came and went as it pleased in that darkly cloaked night.
The two counties were divided by a river. I walked parallel with the flow, following its distended flanks and giving it plenty of space to lounge however it pleased. It was swollen with rainfall and had driven herds of deer to higher ground. I saw many whitetails in groups of five and seven and even ten. There were several does, and many more fawns, but I saw only one buck—a pitiful-looking six-pointer who hadn’t even earned himself any scars yet. He watched the does like a middleschooler at the Christmas dance, afraid to approach the girls.
I followed the railroad tracks wherever the river claimed too much land to cross. The railroad tracks were elevated above the flood-plains and moved undauntedly between the ditches and the valleys that dropped at sheer slopes all along this manic Ohio River Valley landscape. Every natural concavity was brimming with water now. Many of the pools joined their water to the ever-expanding river that silently spread itself across the valley like a mute tyrant. Attrition and fatigue were not problems known to the river’s regiments. The rains came and went at intervals, never letting up for long, but always thickening the fog like corn starch in black bean soup.
I did not mind the rain. My leather duster was wool-lined and kept me dry and warm. Seeing rain was a nice change from what I was used to seeing. It never rained in the desert. It’s like what my drill sergeant once told me: God did not cry in the Middle East. He was a real bleeding heart for the Heartland, but he was a dry-eyed, hard son-a-bitch in the desert. If you got lost, you were on your own; if you got shot, you were on your own. The only time you did have someone watching your back was when a sharp-shooter had his cross-hairs fixed on your nigger noggin. You never had to worry about the levee breaking out in the desert. Except maybe in your skull. Even now I felt that I needed a watershed for my memories. I needed to relieve the pressure of that torrential flow. What was it the Medic did to help relieve the swelling of Connor’s brain? Trepan? I needed to trepan my memories.
Sometimes I wondered if the only way to remove memories was with a bullet.
I was hungry, and I did not want to wait to eat at the next gas station I might find—however far away it might have been. So I raised my rifle and aimed at the fawn that was most easily seen in the midnight murk. If the Army taught me anything, it was how to kill. I had been a good rifleman on the range, and an even better one in Kabul. There wasn’t a gnat at ten yards that I couldn’t shoot out between his wings.
As I pulled the trigger the fawn looked at me. Its innocent eyes flashed while a passing car’s headlights stabbed through the woods. Its eyes reminded me of someone else’s—pleading, sorrowful eyes. I blinked. The muzzle wavered just before the discharge and the bullet struck a tree over the fawn’s shoulder. The herds of deer scattered, running in every direction. Cursing the darkness, and my unsteady nerves, I watched as the panicked multitude fled. My aim had been true, but my nerves had betrayed me. The military trained you to shoot, but they never could train you how to deal with the aftermath. Despite however rational I tried to be, I still dreaded the sound of a gunshot. The anticipation of the sound was worse, and the ensuing silence was the worst. That terrible, deathly silence that was irrevocable.
I had money to buy food. I was, perhaps, the wealthiest homeless man in the Ohio River Valley. After returning from Afghanistan, I withdrew all of my savings, stowed it in my backpack, shed my military fatigues for a leather duster and denim pants, setting off with no direction in mind except freedom. AWOL freedom. I did not have to hunt to feed myself, but it seemed a shame to squander so much venison. I just needed to aim better, and not let the War shake me too much.
Shouldering my rifle, I reached into my backpack and found the plastic bag where my hand-rolled joints were kept dry. Taking one out, I lit it with my lighter and smoked until my hands relaxed and my heart stopped pounding like a kettle drum. A few drags and I was feeling buzzed enough to calm down, but not be stupid or loopy. Those VA drugs couldn’t do that. That shit made you into a zombie. Half the day you’d spend just staring at the wall, and the other half you’d be dreaming about the wall. I didn’t know which was worse: the zombie pharmaceuticals or the deadly street stuff. I tried to warn Bo about both, but he didn’t listen. He was fool enough to start taking the painkillers they had prescribed for him, and by the end of his tour he was injecting his veins with heroin that was one part opium and two parts antifreeze. Died in a stall in the airport before we boarded. He eventually returned home, but in a box gift-wrapped in the American flag.
No, I was more cautious than that. Mary Jane was my bedside Nightingale. Anything the VA gave you was meant to negate legacy costs with zero patient outcomes. That’s why they never raised taxes to pay for us. They hoped we would either return able-bodied or body-bagged.
As I moved farther along the river I saw that venison wasn’t the only meat rampant around there. The flooding had driven several rabbits up from the valleys, too. They scattered everywhere as I strolled through the dark. If I could have trusted them not to have worms, I would have chosen to eat rabbit instead of deer. Then again, if I couldn’t shoot a fawn at ten yards then I couldn’t hit a rabbit.
Moonlight was not my enemy, but it wasn’t my friend, either. It tricked me with what it showed me, and deceived with what it suggested with shadows. I stumbled several times, following the deer as they bolted here and there. They would slow down, as if confused by the flood waters that pooled in the vales between hillocks and which made a maze of the land left above water. I also worried about pitching headlong into water. I did not want pneumonia because of soaked underwear and cold winds. The desert was cold at night, but you never had to worry about getting soaked to the skin.
Eventually I found myself on a highway. Here, too, the deer were abundant. When they saw me they fled. However, I was surprised to see them flanking the woods directly in front of them, rather than plunging straight into the trees for cover. They could have easily entered the woods, and escaped me, but it was as if the woods were a wall admitting no entry. At first I thought it was because the woods were flooded, like many of the other woods I had seen along the railroad tracks. But the land did not dip to catch water. It spread flatly at the same level beneath the haggard trees as it did beneath my feet, and so there could not be any water to deter the deer from fleeing in that direction, otherwise I would have been sloshing through water at that moment.
I raised my rifle and fired. A fawn tumbled over, dead even as it rocked, trying to stand up again. It trembled, then quivered, and finally lay still next to those shunned trees. Kneeling next to the fawn, I peered through the woods. They were only four or five trees deep, opening on the other side to a vast, moon-glossed field. The fawn could have escaped through there, but it skirted the trees as idiotically as the rest of the herd. All of the deer had skirted it. It made no sense. Curious, I left the fawn where it fell and walked between the trees until I came out on the other side.
There was a house in the center of that vast field. It squatted like a swamp cat in wait. Its muddy driveway ran in a straight line from its lightless portico to the backcountry road, bisecting the expansive stretch of land that was more swamp than field. The moon glistened upon the furrowed vastness where the soggy ground pooled with rains like the backwash of antediluvial times. Beyond the house the trees rose crookedly together like mobs of malcontents sulking and plotting mischief at the peripheries. Beyond them, and all around the horizon, the black knobs shouldered the silent sky and its scattershot-stars. Frogs did not chirp here. Coyotes that had yipped and yowled beyond the trees, and with great mirth, now tiptoed silently through the morass, as if fearful of too much sound amidst too much silence. Neither owl nor whippoorwill called near that stretch of land.
The house was silent and dark. It sat like a shadow within shadows, black-faced with the moon at its back. No one seemed to be awake in its squat squareness. It was like a big tombstone, toppled sideways and forgotten by its descendants.
Not wanting to be caught trespassing, I turned to leave. It was as I was turning that I saw the figure walking among the damp grass and beaten mud. Her bare feet splashed in hushed tones that sounded almost musical. I watched her a while, entranced. She was the whitest black woman I had ever seen, and the whitest white woman, for that matter. Bald, her head glowed brighter than the moon. She was wearing only a thin shirt, her albino legs bare to the thighs. Her calves glistened with water from the puddles she pattered through. It was a cool February night and it would have chilled me to my bones if I didn’t have my coat and muck boots on. Yet, the cold and the damp did not seem to bother her at all. She walked like a little girl through a flower field in July.
Where she passed, earthworms rose from the mud. I could see them because they glimmered in among the moon-kissed puddles. Their luminous bodies wiggled in the drowned earth like melting glow-sticks. I was disturbed to see how unnatural they were. Too large to be normal worms, they looked more like tube-worms rising up from the oceanic depths.
The woman suddenly stopped and turned. She looked directly at me, her eyes glinting with a glancing scant light. I began to withdraw, but she raised a hand; not quite waving and not quite beckoning. It was a languid, limp hand.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was just…well…” I suddenly realized my predicament.
“You were hunting,” she said.
I nodded, wondering if I would have to leave the county by morning.
“That is fine,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone.” She paused, her eyes unblinking in the shade that cowled her face. “Are you tired? You look like you need rest.” Her tone was dreamy, as if she was falling asleep at that very moment.
“I sleep well enough in the woods,” I said, warily.
“No,” she said. “You need rest from your life.”
She walked toward me, her bare feet slapping the swampish grass and mud like soft glottal gagging. She halted at the edge of the morass.
“I am tending my garden,” she said. She raised both hands to indicate the mushy field. “This is my garden of earthly delights.” She said it without any delight whatsoever in her monotone voice. “You are welcome here.”
The earth worms rose wherever she walked, as luminous as her albino skin. My eyes must have adjusted to the dimness because I could see her clearly now, her skin whiter than I had first thought; so white that it glowed like the moon. But it was not perfectly white. Along the edges of her arms and legs and her neck and part of her face, at the edge of her chin, there remained slivers and swathes of dark skin. Her skin had been nearly as black as mine, once upon a time. She must have had the disorder that my uncle had. Vitiligo. It was the body attacking itself. Autoimmune disorder. I always feared I would get it, too, and would one day wake up White.
A chilly February wind brushed against my face like a ghost’s palm.
“Doesn’t this cold bother you?” I asked.
“I have felt much colder,” she said. “This is balmy weather to what I have known upon my flesh.”
I became embarrassed. The way she said my flesh seemed too intimate and suggestive for a stranger to hear. Her eyes, I realized, were pale gray; almost white.
“Come with me,” she said. “Stay with me.”
“I can’t,” was all I could say.
She smiled at me and stepped closer. Her hand raised slowly toward me. I did not step away from her, or flinch.
“You are haunted by horrors, too,” she said, touching my cheek. “No matter how much we struggle, they cling to us, the trace touch of them stinging us even after they let us go and we seek sanctuary in oblivion.” She shivered, then, in the inert air. “Even now I can feel it clutch me with its blanching grasp.”
“I am dangerous,” I warned her.
“So is my husband,” she said. “But he is not here today.”
She smiled, and her smile was beautiful, but also empty. It was a porcelain doll’s smile: crafted to please, but artificial. It reminded me of that little girl in Afghanistan that smiled and then led Bo behind the street corner where a sniper waited. Bo got shot in the chest, the bullet cracking his chest, but not his body armor. He was given medication for the pain. It was supposed to help him live, but all it really did was sway him into killing himself with drugs later. The merciless irony.
“Come,” she said. “It is a cold night and we can keep each other warm.”
Maybe I wanted to die that night. Every functional nerve screamed danger, but I followed her to her house anyway. The dead fawn— and my dead friend— were forgotten.
The house had been damaged by water. Water stains colored the first six runs of siding, darkening the walls from white to greenish black, and the wood that comprised the porch had been damaged by water so badly that it looked like it was made of flotsam. She opened the peeling door and led me inside the house. She did not bother cleaning her feet, and so I did not bother taking off my boots. She lit a candle, illuminating the living room. The interior of the house was muddy and mildewed. Out of curiosity, I flipped a switch on the nearby wall. No lights came on.
“No electricity?” I asked.
She did not answer me. Instead, she lit another candle, lifting it and walking toward a back room. I waited by the front door, my instincts screaming at me to both flee and to follow her. She glanced back at me, then beckoned me with a languid wave of her hand. The gleam of the candle transformed her bald head into an eyeless skull. She had no eyebrows. The ridges of her eye sockets were smoothly sculpted. I stayed by the door, distracting myself from her comely body by staring at the discolored walls in that dilapidated house. There was a stench of more than mere mildew in the house. The air was heavy with a fishy odor, like shrimp on ice. The whole county stank of fish because of the rain and the river, but it was denser here, like a distilled perfume. I felt sickened to my stomach, and yet the nausea disappeared as she approached me.
“My husband will not be home for days,” she said, slipping her shirt over her head and tossing it aside. She stood naked in the dim candlelight, her body a clash of albinism and blackness, coiling in conflict across her sumptuousness. No pubic hair interrupted the marbled mound of her womanhood. “Take me.”
As soon as I saw her bare body I craved it, and forgot the stench and the squalor and all of my survival training. My instincts were swayed by the contours of her figure. Any remaining iota of caution dwindled and withered in the bright whiteness and dark blackness of her starkly conflicted body. I should have left, then and there, and never looked back. But it had been so long since I had touched a woman, and been touched by a woman, and so I let her black-and-white hands pass over me, peeling my dirty clothes from my body. I needed a bath, and she needed a bath, too, but the stench of the house was so pervasive that our mutual smells became a refuge within the oppressive stench of the river and that ruinous house.
We did not make “love” so much as make frenzy. The destitution and self-loathing that I felt was obliterated during our heated rut. I lost sense of my self in her entangling legs and arms and labial folds. I did not want to recover from it. I wanted to die in the climax and let the rest of the fractured mosaic that was my life scatter and sink into shadows and silence. If I was to die then, let me die in the throes of coital obliteration. It was a peace, after all, of its own sort.
But I found myself still breathing after our mutual orgasm, albeit under the strain of the damp, heavy air. Her bedroom smelled of mildew, and so any breathing done was belabored. It was the closest to drowning in air I had ever experienced. The desert could steal your breath, too, with its aridness, but it was not so heavy and moist and rotten as this air, especially now that I lay in a puddle of my own self-loathing.
We lay afterwards on our backs, sharing the only pillow the bed offered. I looked at her sideways, tracing the profile of her black-and-white face. She was bald and zebra-striped and pale-eyed and beautiful. She was a crazy assortment of deal-breaking deformities, and yet they all worked in concert with one another, complementing each other. I realized I did not know her name, so I asked her for her name.
“Zoya,” she said.
Of course, I thought; she had to have a strange name. White folks thought us Black folks chose strange names all of the time, but even I had to admit being perplexed by that name. Zoya.
I did not tell her my name, and she did not ask.
“Your husband doesn’t take care of you,” I said.
“He has done what he needs to do,” she said.
I concluded, upon that instant, that Zoya and her husband were drug users. This house was probably a heroin den. It was too dilapidated to be a Meth lab. But despite my initial conclusion, I had to admit that Zoya didn’t look skanky and bony and wasted with drugs. She was in good shape, and by all measures must have eaten well to keep her curves and her muscles in such excellent condition. She had shown me just how fit and flexible she was when she was grinding on top of me. She had a physique that some supermodels would kill for, and so would some Marines. There were Olympic athletes with less conditioning.
But that wasn’t to say everything about her was beautiful. Her teeth were yellow and her breath stank badly. I didn’t kiss her but once, and she didn’t react to it with any passion, so I didn’t kiss her more than that, thanking God above that she wasn’t romantic and old-fashioned. Her breath was worse than a pussy ever could be.
I unconciously stroked her white-bud nipple as I lay there, thinking. Was her husband a drug dealer? If so, he was probably armed. What if he came in while I was still in bed with his wife? He’d shoot me dead for sure. Then again, maybe that was their plan. Have Zoya bang my brains out and then kill me and rummage through my stuff afterwards for pawn store compensation. No. Any guy that had a woman like Zoya wouldn’t wait until after his woman had fucked the victim. He would have done it while I was tit-stunned at the outset, still fumbling with my dick.
“Your husband,” I said. “What’s he do?”
She did not seem to want to answer the question, so I changed my approach.
“How long has he been gone?”
“A long time,” she said. “But he will return in three days. The river is right for it.”
Looking into her eyes, I saw that their pallor had darkened, and with the darkening came a recognition. It was as if she was a sleepwalker suddenly waking up.
“You still have your rifle, don’t you?” she asked.
I had set it down with my backpack near the door, leaning against a corner.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it…is it powerful enough to kill someone in one shot?”
“Are you wanting me to kill your husband?” I asked, unnerved by the question.
“No,” she said. She said no more on it, and her eyes once again paled like old milk.
Gazing along her body, I realized that there were blisters cropping up along her white flesh, blooming across her breasts and nipples, too. Was it an STD? If so, then I had it, too. I hadn’t had a condom. Sex was one of the last things I thought I would be doing while tramping around the country.
“What is wrong with your skin?” I asked.
She did not answer my question, but stood up and opened the bedroom window. A cold air blew in. The blankets on the bed were too damp to keep me warm, so I hurried to put on my clothes. As I dressed myself, I watched Zoya stand by the window, letting the cold air waft over her naked body. I thought she was crazy, but then I saw something that made me question whether I was the one that was crazy. Her blisters disappeared. Wherever they had popped up, they shriveled and flattened. I couldn’t understand it, but it terrified me.
As I put on my clothes, I watched Zoya watch me. A porcelain emptiness returned to her face. Her eyes were pale and devoid of expression, but when they had darkened her face assumed habitation. Which was worst was hard to decide. When she was “there”, her face brimmed with fear. When she was not “there”, it was like being in a room with a living statue. As I headed to the door, she followed me with her blank gaze.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I was hungry before,” I said. “Now I am starving.”
I stepped outside and found my way back to the fawn that I had shot. The night was cold and the meat had not wasted yet, even in the soggy grass. I slung the deer over my shoulder and brought it to the porch. There, I skinned and gutted it with my bowie knife, throwing the viscera in the swampy yard. Seeing it disturbed me, and I was glad to be rid of it. It reminded me too much of Kabul. The glowing earth worms wiggled up from the drowned soil and converged on the discarded guts. It drove them wild. I didn’t think earth worms ate meat. I thought they just tunneled and tilled through the soil. Maybe they weren’t earth worms.
I cut a chunk of thigh meat and brought it inside the house, letting the rest of the deer air out on the porch. The house was very old and had a stove in the kitchen. There was no wood for miles that was not soaked through and through, so I looked around Zoya’s house for anything that might be burned and not missed. Indifferent as Zoya was, and already in squalor, she did not seem to care. Moreover, I had already decided to take her someplace else once the rain had stopped and the river had receded. She needed help, badly.
I took an old, splintered chair in the kitchen and broke it apart, stuffing its pieces into the iron-bellied stove. Using the lighter I kept in my backpack, I set the wood on fire and tended it with my bowie knife, moving the tinder around as it caught fire and crackled. When the stove was hot enough, I cut the venison into cubes and used my gun-cleaning rod as a kabob, roasting the cubes in the stove until they had cooked enough to eat.
Zoya watched me from the living room. She looked nervous. Maybe she was upset because I had broken her chair. It was only later that I realized that she was afraid of the fire, and its light.
When the meat had cooked well enough, I stripped the kabob with my mouth. The meat burned my tongue, and was gamy, but I was so hungry that it did not matter to me. I ate three kabobs’ worth, and then offered Zoya some. She stared at the hot venison, and shuddered in fear. She broke for the door, running outside. She was still nude, her black-and-white body flashing in the fog-mooned chill of night. She lingered outside, as if collecting her frayed nerves and twining them together.
I watched her as I ate, looking through the kitchen window. She stooped down and picked up what appeared to be a crawdad. Without a second thought, she bit into its head and chewed at it. The remainder of the crawdad was flailing as she popped it into her mouth. She ate several crawdads this way, and all the while the luminous earth worms followed her, springing up from the soggy ground.
“What the hell is wrong with her?” I asked aloud. Neither god nor devil answered me.
When she had eaten all that she wanted, Zoya squatted in the swampy field, her hands clutching her bald head as if she was in agony. I was about to look away— because I have never been fucked up enough to want to watch a woman make like an animal in the wild—but she moaned, as if in terrible pain, and the moan became a shriek, and the shriek tapered to a groaning, grunting sigh, and there came a glow, a phosphorescent spillage, and where she had squatted a whole tangle of earth worms now wiggled and writhed. I retched, looking away. They were parasites, I thought. Maybe some kind of tapeworm. I suddenly feared for my own intestines. Perhaps that was why the deer did not cross this land, and avoided it at the cost of their own lives.
“Fuck this place,” I said.
It was time for me to leave. I needed to get medical help for Zoya. She was living in squalor in a parasite-infested swamp and eating raw mudbugs from a swamp that was probably tainted with blackwater overflow. My appetite gone, I threw the last few pieces of cooked venison into a plastic bag, then grabbed my things and prepared to leave. Outside, Zoya stepped in front of me. Her eyes glowed pallidly and her face was as expressionless as a blank page.
“My husband comes in three days,” she said.
“That’s why I am leaving now,” I said, trying to keep myself calm.
“In three days, he comes,” she said.
I looked down at her feet. The mud swallowed them almost to the ankle, and the earth worms were swaying around her.
Only, they were not earth worms. Part of them looked like earth worms, but as they wiggled and wagged, their ends split apart into small tentacles that writhed independently of each other, grazing her calves with their feelers. They reminded me of little squids, tunneling through the wet muck.
“What are they?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“My children,” Zoya said. “When the river crests their father will come for them. They will follow him downstream and separate, like dandelion seeds from the stalk, scattering and growing and finding wives of their own.”
“Who is your husband?” I asked. I immediately amended the question. “What is your husband?”
She did not answer. The squid-worms glowed brightly around her, swaying like strangely petaled flowers in a rhythmic wind.
I hurried toward the tree line, tearing my eyes away from Zoya. She followed me.
“Don’t leave,” she said, her voice suddenly pleading.
I glanced back and saw the little creatures recoil from her, as if her skin burned them. Her eyes were darker again; browner. Her expression was no longer blank and forced. Somebody was home in her face, looking out through her eyes
“Don’t leave me here alone,” she said. “I…I…”
Her eyes paled once again, and the glowing squid-worms coiled their tendrils around her feet. Her face lost all of its former composition of personality, reverting once more to its impenetrable porcelain mask.
I looked away, horrified, and felt my way through the shadow-flooded trees, leaving that swampy field behind. I did not understand what was wrong with Zoya, and I did not want to understand. I just wanted to get as far away from her as I could that night. The whole world had its share of problems and all you should focus on, I told myself, was your own.
My life had been simple since going AWOL. I traveled and hunted by night. Less eyes to see me, and less light to betray me. Less people to question why a young black man was walking around with a loaded rifle. Evidently it was fine for a black man to be armed in the Middle East, but not in the heartland of America. Okay for a black man to have a gun in a war zone, but not among a bunch of oversensitive Whites. What they didn’t understand was that a black man was always living in a war zone. Your whole life was full of enemies waiting in ambush. The police. The justice system. The media. Fox News. AM radio. Even smiling Whitey was a threat.
Especially smiling Whitey. His smile was always a trap.
I thought about Sylvester Stallone in the movie First Blood and how he gave them a “war you wouldn’t believe”. That was a great quote, but I wasn’t Rambo. I wasn’t a killing machine with PTSD. I was a reluctant soldier with PTSD. War hardened me, but it had hardened me like thin clay, so I was brittle. I wasn’t tempered steel. I wasn’t cold bronze. The desert had taken my greenware heart and heated it, but only after Afghanistan had smashed and flattened it and riddled it with honeycomb holes. It was called the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. It was a dead-end for everybody that went there.
I still wondered how I could be so stupid to be recruited. I had to have been blind back then. Sent to rebuild another country while the one I knew was falling apart. Drugs, gangs, violence, poverty. Same problems; different longitude. I should have known better. But I was a green kid. Worse, I was a green black kid, and that was a “kick me” sign you couldn’t shake off your back.
“Freedom isn’t free,” they said. As if that asinine platitude wasn’t an inherent contradiction. I hated when some of the rednecks in my platoon parroted that stupid shit. It was as insubstantial and absurd as “land of the free” and “United States of America”. We weren’t the land of the free, and we sure as hell weren’t united.
I walked for a while before I realized I had walked in a circle. I told myself that the darkness had fooled me. I told myself that my unfamiliarity with the land, and the deceptive scatter of pools and ponds made me lose my bearings under a starless night as I circumnavigated their concentric mazes. Later that night—or, more accurately, early the next morning—I found a truckstop diner. It was just off the interstate, but also atop a hill, which seemed an unusual place for a truckstop, especially as I watched a tractor trailer climb uphill, roaring in disgruntled agitation at the steep ascent. I followed the road and headed up toward that bright, unnatural beacon amidst so much dreary, damp darkness.
It was too early in the morning for many people to be inside. Most of the truckers were either asleep in their cabs, or getting a jump on the lazy sun. The sun would not be up for three more hours. I walked to the front doors, glancing in through the windows, and then chose to go around to the side of the building. I was in no condition to enter the front door. Too much attention. Too much stank still on me. I looked and smelled like trouble.
Needing a shower, I hid my rifle behind a dumpster, under my duster, and went into the truckstop through a side door. This door led almost directly to the bathrooms and the showers. I knew I stank badly and I did not want an incident because some dumbass redneck trucker decided to open his fat mouth and quip about “jungle stank”. The last time it happened I broke a redneck’s jabbering jaw and fled into the woods, just as the blue-and-red lights of the Law flashed between the trees.
Truckstop showers were never the safest places in the world. Not only did you have to worry about perverts and theft and muggings and seeing things you never wanted to see, but no amount of bleach could sanitize the showers themselves enough to rid yourself of the nagging paranoia that you might catch something from the spigots. Still, it was a better life than in the desert. No amount of water could get the sand out of your ears. It stayed there forever, drifting around and rustling and taunting you with its whispers.
The showers were unoccupied. I chose the one that looked the cleanest, even though I knew any one of them could be teeming with bacteria. In the Army I had to learn to take showers with other dudes, but it was something I never liked. Obviously. I did it because I had to. Now that I was out of the Army, I never wanted to see another guy’s ass again. Hell, I didn’t even want to see my own.
I lathered up with some lye soap I carried in a plastic bag in my backpack, and then rinsed off. Then I dried off. I used a lot of deodorant because I know I still reeked of Zoya’s house, and then I put on a fresh set of clothes. Denim jeans and a sweater. Basic clothes for Winter. Nothing conspicuous. Nothing that a black twenty-something might be wearing in a mugshot. No hoodie. No ghetto jewelry. Just the getup of an upstanding young black man with a non-threatening outlook in life.
When I had finished, I threw my dirty clothes into the quarter-a-spin laundromat just outside the showers. I should have probably just burned the clothes. But I hated to waste anything. While they washed, I went to the diner to buy some coffee. I needed some coffee. It had been a long, strange, unsettling night, and I did not want to go to sleep with the image of those worms fresh in my brain. I needed to put time, and eventually miles, between me and them.
The diner was dimly lit so as to not antagonize its groggy-eyed patrons. There was a long counter with several chairs. A few smaller tables with two chairs apiece sat toward the back. A gray-bearded man in a white apron stood behind the counter, a greasy spatula in his hand. This implement he waved around as he opined on the moral decay of America. Two truckers sat in front of him; one in flannel and the other in denim coveralls. Both had sagging guts that spilled over their laps.
“It’s why we’ve got to fight them over there,” the cook was saying. “The libtards sure as hell ain’t going to fight ‘em here. They’ll give them the keys to the kingdom.”
“And wrap themselves up like good little ragheads,” said the flannel trucker. “I tell ya’, I don’t know what this new generation’s gonna’ do if we ever have World War Three.”
“We’re already in World War Three,” the trucker in the coveralls said. “And they’re losing it. Damn near ten years now and they ain’t done shit over there. We should just bomb the hell outta’ them, but they’re too afraid of doin’ that. ‘Think of the children.’ Hell, the children’d be better off dead.”
“It’s all part of the Globalist agenda,” said the cook. “Weaken America with the Jihadis and then destroy us economically. Then the Chinese come in and take all of our natural resources, sharing them with the UN.”
“Or just keeping it all to themselves and taking over the rest of the world,” the flannel trucker said. “Chinese don’t have no allegiance but to the Chinese. They’re just using the UN Globalists. Playing them like suckers.”
I knew better than to talk to conspiracy nuts, especially since the majority of them were hostile to people of my skin tone, but by the time I made the decision to leave I had already caught the eye of the cook.
“Whoa there, boy,” he said. “You got a hot date or something? You’ve got enough perfume to make a pig farm stink.”
“And he’s wearing a backpack!” remarked the flannel trucker. “Must have a date for the playground.”
The truckers laughed. I sensed trouble coming and started to back away.
“Don’t worry, boy,” the cook said. “You want something to eat? I can make you something. If you’ve got money, I mean.”
I should have said no, but if I did they would have become suspicious. Belligerent.
“I have money,” I said.
“What do you want, then?”
“Can I have some…?” I glanced around for a menu or a sign. Evidently, you were just supposed to know what the diner offered. “…eggs?”
The truckers glanced at each other, then at the cook.
“All right then,” the cook said. “That’s the breakfast of champions, boy.”
He turned around and started preparing the breakfast I ordered. I sat down on a chair that was a couple of seats down from the truckers. They watched me sidelong, and I kept them in my periphery vision, pretending to be looking at a watch on my wrist that didn’t work.
“You in a hurry, boy?” the flannel trucker asked.
“Excuse me?” I said, innocently.
“I said, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ You keep looking at your watch.”
“My watch is broken,” I said, honestly. “I was just wondering what time it is.”
The two men exchanged knowing glances, as if they smelled a rat, and I raised my watch for them to see. I doubted they could see it, as dark as it was in the gloom of the diner, but they took my gesture at face value and abandoned doubt. Somewhat, anyway.
“It’s half past four,” the trucker in coveralls said.
“Too damn early is what time it is,” the flannel trucker said. “Damn pigs can go find themselves something to eat. They don’t need no distiller’s grain.”
“You ain’t Boss Hoss,” the trucker in coveralls said. “So you don’t get to decide when they eat and when they don’t.” He turned his attention to me. “Where you from, boy?”
“Atlanta,” I said.
“What brings you out here?”
“I needed to get away for a while,” I said. It was the truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth was that I needed to get away forever.
“Atlanta’s a nightmare,” the flannel trucker said. “I fucking hate going through that hellhole. Why anybody’d live there is fucking beyond me.” He suddenly looked at me as if surprised; as if I had materialized out of thin air. “Wait a second. Are you moving out here?”
“No,” I said.
He nodded, but did not take his eyes off of me. “Good. If one moves out here, more will follow. That’s how they all are. And then they start breeding…”
“Don’t mind him,” said the cook. “He doesn’t like people much on account that he likes to fuck pigs. But he likes to do it like a gentleman. Offers them flowers and chocolates first.”
The trucker in coveralls snorted a laugh, but the flannel trucker scowled at the cook. The cook did not seem to care. He brought me my eggs, and a few links of sausage, and set them in front of me.
“You want ketchup with them or anything?” he asked.
“Just pepper,” I said.
He handed me a silver shaker and I blackened my eggs with a few shakes. He lingered nearby while I ate, stroking his beard in thought. I tried to ignore him. The eggs and the sausages were fine, but they didn’t earn him the right to stare at me.
“I got it!” he said, suddenly. He grinned. “You’re military, aren’cha’?”
I swallowed the last bite of sausage and cleared my throat. “Ex-military,” I said.
The cook grinned wide. “You ain’t never ex-military,” he said. “I see it in the way you talk and move and eat.”
I could only nod in agreement. The Army had scarred me for life in more ways than one. Their Eagle-tread boot had disfigured and reconfigured me. Uncle Sam’s boot smarted hard, especially in the nuts.
“I served in Vietnam,” the cook said. “Two tours. Fucking hated it. But I’m here. Lots of folks ain’t so lucky. Lots of folks underground.”
I took out my money to pay him, but he waved it away. “Aw no,” he said. “Vets eat for free.” He glanced around suddenly. “Ain’t no sign, but that’s my policy.”
“What about me?” the flannel trucker said. “I was in the military.”
“You were in the National Guard,” the cook said. “That ain’t shit.” He turned to me again. “So what are you really doing out here?”
“I’m just waiting for the floods to subside,” I said. “Then I’m moving on.”
The cook considered this, crossing his arms. “Well, you’ll be waiting for a while. The river ain’t crested yet. Give it time. It’ll be the biggest flood since 1910. This whole valley will be underwater. Well, other than here on this hill. Knock on wood.” He rapped on the wooden counter. “My granddaddy knew what he was doing. He built this diner right here cause he knew all about how that river lounged in the valley. Not a lot of folk did that. No forethought, I guess.”
“Plenty of other folk did the same,” said the trucker in denim coveralls. “Nothing special about knowing to keep your head above water.”
“Some didn’t,” the cook insisted, scowling. “Lots of people gonna’ need to seek higher ground before it’s all said and done.”
They all turned, then, and looked out the windows that lined the counter. Beyond it, you could see the parking lot and its trucks. Beyond the lot lay the trees that marched uphill along the knobs. Several deer moved skittishly through the murk. They were fleet-hoofed phantoms in flight, kicking into leaps as their white tails flashed like little white fires at their rears.
“Look at them deer out there,” the flannel trucker said. “Too bad there ain’t but a coupl’a bucks, and small ones at that.”
“Water’s driving them upland,” said the cook. “There’s something they fear in the water.”
“Yeah,” the flannel trucker said. “The water. It’ll drown ya’.”
The cook shook his head slowly. “I’m tellin’ you that there’s somethin’ in that river they don’t like, and it ain’t just the water.”
“They don’t mind it any other time of the year,” the flannel trucker said. He reeked, I realized, of pigshit. His boots were garnished with it; frosted like a cake.
“Something about the floodwaters scares them,” the cook said. “Something that only comes when the waters rise.”
“Listen to yourself,” the flannel trucker said. “You sound more cuckoo’ed than a white man whose wife just gave birth to a brown baby.”
The cook gave me a shrug of helplessness. The flannel trucker did not care that he made a faux pas. Actually, he seemed pleased with himself.
“Could I have some coffee, please?” I asked, ignoring the trucker’s devilish grin.
“Sure,” said the cook. “How do you want it?”
“Black,” I said.
The cook poured a cup of coffee and handed it to me. “Any creamer or sugar or anything?”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine the way it is.”
“Sure is,” said the flannel trucker. “No need to be mixing it with any creamer. Just ruins ‘em both.”
“That’s enough,” the cook said, reddening. “You keep it up and I’ll throw you out.”
The trucker raised both of his hands in surrender. “I’m just joking,” he said. He smirked in my direction, not unlike Lucifer about to claim a soul. “Truce?”
“I didn’t know we were at war,” I said.
They all laughed, then, and seemed to welcome me into their fold; even the flannel trucker. Not that the flannel trucker would ever have been someone I would have had in a platoon. There was nothing “friendly” about friendly fire, and it happened more than they ever reported on the CBS Evening News.
I was naive about the world before I went into the Army, but there were things I learned before my rude awakening. For instance, I already knew that humans were innately racist. We are. All of us. Whites, Blacks, Asians. It’s basic human nature to be racist, just as it is basic human nature to make fun of kids with big ears or to shun lepers or to mock somebody cheering the opposing football team. That’s not to say it is ever justified; just to acknowledge a basic human inclination. Moreover, anyone who says they are not racist is doubly racist. They’re not “color blind”. They’re only blind to their own racism. What we have to do is just admit the racism and then try to work around it the best we can. That’s what the Army did right. Race did not matter to them. Identity did not matter to them; racial or otherwise. Humanity did not matter to them. You were a tool. You were a weapon. A weapon is to be honed and used. If it is scrutinized at all, then it is to be scrutinized in how well it functions. And race has no bearing on how well a tool funcitons.
That was not to say that there were not racist tools in the Army. There were a bunch of those. They made things worse, sure, but you developed an immunity to it after a while. The only thing you didn’t develop an immunity for was War itself.
“The Army’s good for people,” the cook said, offhandedly, as if he could read my thoughts. “Gives them structure and discipline.”
“Damn straight,” said the flannel trucker. “That’s what’s wrong with your kin in Africa. No structure or discipline. They’re like a bunch of goddamn monkeys throwin’ their shit everywhere.”
“They have militaries in Africa,” I said. “Militaries rule most of Africa. That’s the problem.”
“Yeah, but they’re not White militaries. That’s what’s missing from the equation. Just like in the Middle East. No Whites to lead them. That’s why it’s a chaotic clusterfuck over there. Hell, even the kids kill over there.”
“Kids kill each other here, too,” I said. “Lots of White boys bringing guns to school and mowing kids down.”
“Oh, that’s because their parents are a bunch of drug heads and queers and hippie-dippie libtards.” His scruffy face brightened red. He was becoming angry. “Besides, they ain’t got nothin’ on those colored kids running around with AK’s in the Congo, shooting each other up and rapin’ women.”
“Under orders of the military,” I said.
Miraculously, he reddened even more. His flannel shirt was not half so red. “And what about them kids in the Taliban? Hm? Do you think that’s a military?”
“It’s a militant fundamentalist cult,” I said. “Only one foot farther into the chasm of insanity than any other military.”
“More like a hop, skip, and a jump,” the cook said. “That’s what you mean, right?”
I shrugged indifferently, and sipped my coffee. It was refreshingly bitter.
“You don’t think they’re worse than us, do you?” the flannel trucker asked, eyeing me with ill-concealed spite.
“They get away with more than our military does,” I said, “but if our military could brainwash kids into being killing machines they would. And a lot of those kids do what they’re told because they don’t want their family members to be killed. There are a lot worse things in the world than colored kids just trying to survive. A lot worse.”
The trucker in coveralls grunted. “Why do you care so much? They ain’t your kind anyhow.”
“They are sand niggers,” the flannel trucker said. “All niggers stick together. Until they don’t. As long as they’re blamin’ their problems on Whites they’re happy in their shit holes. The only time a niggers happier is when he’s putting a tire necklace on somebody else. Really makes their faces glow.”
The way the word nigger rolled so easily from his tongue told me that he must have said it all of the time, and in receptive company. I would have liked to hear him say it in downtown Atlanta, or in Fort Meyers military base. I would have liked him to say it in Detroit in the middle of the night, walking down any ghetto street with his head up high and the same arrogance in his eye that gleamed there now.
I did not finish my coffee. I stood up and left the diner. It was a free meal, but it wasn’t worth it. People like that, I thought, would never understand. The problem in the Middle East, and in Africa, and even here in America, was not color or racism or who was on top and who was on the bottom. It was Tribalism. Tribalism of any kind. Black vs white. Red vs blue. Christianity vs Islam. Catholicism vs Protestantism. New York Giants vs. New England Patriots. We didn’t all have to be the same; we just had to abide the differences, if the differences did not make the other person want to go out and kill you just to score points with their petty tribe.
I fetched my rifle and duster from behind the dumpster and went down the road, looking for a place to sleep during the day. I found an old barn that had fallen to disrepair. It had collapsed partially, but was solid enough to stay together and keep out the rain. Wrapping myself up in my duster, I laid down in its shadiest, driest corner, double-checked the things in my backpack, and went to sleep.
Zoya haunted me in my dreams. I saw her, naked in the moonlight, wrapped only in the cold February winds. Her body was a scar of clashing colors. At her feet the luminous worms writhed. Rain fell against her skin and the unnatural whiteness began to glow, like a bioluminescent creature in the oceanic depths. She was now spreadeagled upon the ground, welcoming me with her embrace. Even though the worms writhed around her, I could not resist her. I let her arms enfold me and I nestled my head among her breasts. As I entered her, I saw the quarter moon fall from the sky and descend to the swampy field below. The worms writhed jubilantly and Zoya moaned in ecstacy. Quivering in horror, I felt the coldly burning touch of something alien to the human world slip over the two of us.
I woke in a sweat. The cold February air chilled it to frost. Sitting up, I lit my lighter and warmed myself with its small flame. Breathing rapidly, I tried to calm down. The frigid air burnt my lungs. At least when it was raining the air was warm.
As I huddled around my little lighter I thought again of Zoya. Zebra-striped Zoya. Marbled mistress. Unmixed mulatto. Vitiligo vixen.
Vitiligo. It was a genetic disease. My uncle had it, much to his great consternation. My dad died before it could mark him, too. Some people thought Michael Jackson had it. My uncle thought MJ just wanted to be white and bleached his skin. Uncle Malcom did not like the King of Pop, or white people generally. The irony was that he turned into a white man. He thought them “white devils” and said you could never trust them. I knew better than that. The only people you couldn’t trust were men in suits. The only color that mattered to men in suits was green; green money and green teens. Recruiters were the worst men in suits. Recruiters for religion, for basketball teams, for the Army. The one that circled my school like a buzzard was an Uncle Tom for Uncle Sam. Told me I could get out of the ghetto if I joined the Army. Well, I joined the Army and they took me out of the ghetto, all right, dropping me straight into a war zone. There wasn’t much difference, really, except in longitude, but I still felt duped by the grinning glad-hand.
My uncle was part of the Nation of Islam. They believed some ludicrous shit. I mean, I knew that all religions were bogus, but the Nation of Islam was basically the black KKK. That dumbass trucker in flannel back at the truckstop’s diner was basically just my uncle, except inverted. He spent his life hating things, my uncle. I hated things, too, but after Afghanistan I realized it was sometimes better just to go all Buddha on the world. Not care about anything. Escape through the cracks of society and find peace in the gaps. Become Ellison’s “Invisible Man”—so invisible that you stop existing altogether. Try to go truly invisible, even to yourself. Lose yourself in the apathy inhabiting the shadow of the world’s rigorous dynamo. Find a hole, crawl in, and die. It was when people cared about things that suffering began. Buddha was right about that. When they cared about color, there reigned racism. When they cared about peace, there blossomed war. When they cared about love, there came to be hatred. Caring leads to killing, as sure as rains lead to flooding.
You needed to get a better perspective on things. Perspective was akin to enlightenment. It was a superpower. It was godly. It helped you elevate yourself above the fray and see the big picture, like Martin Luther King could, from up on high. If we couldn’t do that, then the human race was doomed as a species. If we did not reconcile, then something would conquer us, whether it was disease, our own self-destructive belligerence, the environment, or…something else.
But I didn’t care about that. I knew it. A lot of people knew it. A lot of people knew it and did not care, either. They were just trying to survive. All I was trying to do was survive. I thought I might outlive the War while in this wilderness. But the War continued. And the military machine continued. I wished it wouldn’t. I wished it would go AWOL for once. Smoke a blunt and tell the world to fuck off for a while. But there was only one real way to tell the world to fuck off, and to make sure that it did fuck off. I just didn’t have it in me to do that. Not yet. I didn’t have the fight in me to give up the Fight. I battled Death because I was too afraid to battle Life.
And the irony was I could have beaten Life with a single bullet.
Feeling warmed, I put the lighter away and stood up, looking out of the dilapidated barn. It seemed to be afternoon, but the sky was overcast and the earth was dark gray and grim. The black woods surrounded me, heaped toward the sky upon the knobs. A fog drifted like a march of ghosts that had forgotten what they were marching for. I stepped out among them and went for a walk. I needed to move and loosen my joints and tendons. The cold had settled into them, like biting termites, and I needed to shake them with motion. I walked all day— mostly in circles. When I was hungry I sat and ate what remained of the venison I had cooked and bagged at Zoya’s house. The rain fell heavy, in time, and I returned again to the barn. Night fell heavy, too, as did sleep.
After the sniper popped Bo’s chest, the girl had screamed and begun to cry, squatting down and covering her ears with her hands. I froze, unable to move. There was a succession of bullets, one after the other. Most struck the dirty streets and the walls, wisps of dust blooming like dissolving flowers. One struck the girl in the gut, tearing her abdomen apart like a bale of hale pulled into two different directions. Knowing where the sniper was, by deducing the angle of the shots, I ran behind a crumbling wall and took up a position, angling my rifle on the toppled bricks. The sniper was shooting wildly now as the rest of my platoon ran to grab Bo and lay down a suppressive fire. I took my time while they scrambled. I was too focused by shock and adrenaline to feel anything about my own well-being. My attack was methodical and emotionless. I aimed at the glint of the sniper’s scope, spotting it in a window on the fourth storey of a bomb-blasted facade. One shot and the enemy fire ceased. I then hurried to the little girl, forgotten by the rest of my platoon.
She was gurgling blood, her stomach in mutilated disarray. She was too alive to be freed from the pain, and too damaged to be saved. I pointed my rifle at her forehead and fired. I did not know, at that moment, if I cried because I had shot a little girl or because I hated her so much for leading us into a trap. Now, thinking back, I knew it was a little of both. The only ambiguity left was wondering which was the reason I hated myself. Maybe it was both, too.
The medic had already taken Bo and was stripping away his shirt. There was a lot of blood pooling and I thought for certain he was dead. But the medic took off his bullet proof vest and examined the wound. It was blunt trauma, but no puncture wound. The blood was welling on his chest, but there was no deep hemorrhage. There was no damage to his heart.
And yet there was.
The gurgling song of the smaller frogs woke me, as did the fat-throated burping of the bullfrogs. Frogs and crawdads and rabbits and deer were scattered atop the hills and the knobs. The rains were drenching the world again. It was a “gully washer”, as my daddy used to call them. The air was drowning with rain. But I needed to be moving on, or I would have gone mad.
The overflows became as lakes among the laps of the fields between the knobs. These lakes glimmered silently in moonlight, hushed and waiting. It was as if the waters knew something I did not, and kept their secrets in complacent silence. It reminded me of the blank faces of those Afghanis that knew we were going to be attacked, but kept their mouths shut about it.
I had wanted to move on, to continue up the county line, but I couldn’t shake Zoya out of my head. That woman had a hold on me. I tried to forget her, but I couldn’t. The image of her strangely marked face and her pale eyes and sumptuous fertile body followed me among the fog, like a ghost. I turned, and she was there. I looked away, and she was there. I closed my eyes, and she was there. Her pale nipples glowed like lighthouse beacons in the distance. Her cleft glowed, too, calling me to her.
I found a cheap roadside motel strip. Going in, I spoke to the clerk. She was a fat woman with a no-nonsense frown and a ridiculous beehive. Paying her extra for discretion, I rented a room for two nights. I had a plan. I would take Zoya away from that mildewed house, bathe her, and call for an ambulance. When they arrived I would tell them about her parasites and her skin condition and tell them to take her to a hospital for treatment. After they left I would leave, too, wishing Zoya the best and hoping she would come to her senses and leave her neglectful husband— if he existed at all. Maybe he was dead already, or was a figment of her parasitically-induced hallucinogenic imagination. Maybe he had simply gone AWOL from the marriage, leaving her all by her lonesome.
Once I paid for the room I started the long trek to Zoya’s house. As I walked, the clouds parted and the sun shone full over the waterlogged county. I cleaved to the trees for cover, shunning the roads for fear of being spotted and questioned. It was strange to see daylight breech the overcast clouds. Rather than transforming the dreary landscape, it only intensified its dismal gloominess. The trees remained black and twisted, contrasting more crookedly in the bright light. The pools of water were dim with mud and did not gleam within the black forests, but swallowed with their dirty brown depths whatever light touched them between the trees. The grass was sallow and loose, the dark soil beneath it brimming with excess water. Loosened turf and brown rivulets gushed down the sides of knobs like baptismal water down the flanks of shaggy beasts too wild to be tamed. The beast sullied the baptism; the baptism did not cleanse the beast.
The imagery that sprawled around me reminded me of Noah’s flood, which called to mind of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel and the children of Cain. Even religion could not unite the races. Two men could be baptized in the name of Christ and still hate each other for skin color. They could still hate each other for opinions, too, and favorite football teams. That was why I never took too much stock in Faith. My uncle believed in the Nation of Islam, and was crazy, and the cop that shot my cousin Jerome wore a golden crucifix while saying Blacks were the children of Cain. He was crazy, too. I didn’t believe in religion, not because religion made you crazy— people had always been crazy— but because it gave you one more thing to be crazy about.
Bo was a redneck and I was a nigger and it meant precisely fuck-all. Bo thought the same way I did. That’s why he and I got along: not for the things we believed in, but the things we didn’t believe in. Unlike the dumbass rednecks in Basic who were talking about converting Muslims to Christianity, Bo and I talked about the stupidity of the war. The compounded stupidity of it all. Stupidity stacked atop inanity, inanity heaped atop absurdity, and absurdity piled atop insanity. The Army was stupid, the politicians were stupid, the mission was stupid, our fellow soldiers were stupid, and we were stupid for having been conned into that farcical parade of folly that led us from the United States to the “Graveyard of Empires”. The only way for us to deal with the critical mass of stupidity was to laugh about it. We turned folly to jolly.
Or I thought we did, anyway. I didn’t know that Bo had found another coping mechanism.
Bo was like my brother from another mother, even if he was as ginger as Christmas cookies. I had been able to handle Afghanistan pretty well up until I found him in that airport in Atlanta. I had been able to endure the whole misbegotten odyssey until I saw him slumped in the corner of that stall, his arm black-veined and his mouth bubbling froth. It was morbidly comical in its own way, too: that Bo had been shot to death not by a sniper’s bullet, but by a needle. See, every human life was the punchline to some terrible cosmic joke.
The rains ran riot over the sodden earth and no diplomacy could appeal to their kinder nature. It was an insensible excess of violence, its pelting fists but a feint so that it could muster the strength of the river and rally its finishing blow.
Arriving at the swampy field, I noticed first that the worms were nowhere to be seen. As I tromped across the squishy swathe they remained beneath the drowned mud. They must have been nocturnal, I thought.
The house was more derelict and depressing by day than it had been when draped by night. The white siding was gray with mold, and green with water stains. The porch was nearly black with mold. The carcass of the fawn still hung on the porch, preserved by the cold temperatures. I felt guilty about leaving it there, but wondered if there were parasites in it, too.
The animals shunned the field still. No deer, fox, rabbit, or even bird touched its bedraggled expanse, even while the worms were dormant.
“Zoya?” I called. She did not answer. I knocked at the door, but it did not open. I wondered if her husband had returned. He could have been just on the other side of the door, waiting to brain me with a shovel.
Despite my reluctance, I turned the knob and opened the door, cautiously peering into the dank, dark house.
Still no answer. Slowly, with my arms raised, I stepped inside that fetid house, waiting for a gunshot or a blunt instrument to cave my skull in. But the living room was unoccupied and silent and dim. It was as dark now as it had been the night Zoya had invited me inside. I noticed, then, that the ragged curtains blocked every window, darkening the interior against the brightness of the day.
“Zoya?” I repeated, squinting into the murk.
I found her in the bedroom, wrapped in the moldy blankets, sitting in the darkest corner beside the bed. She did not seem to recognize me, her pale eyes devoid of expression.
I pulled her up to her feet. She immediately let the dirty blankets drop, standing before me nakedly and tugging me toward the bed. My loins burned to take her again, and so I did. It was only afterwards, when her unnatural whiteness bloomed with blisters once more, that I hurriedly put on my clothes, wrapped her in my duster, picked her up and carried her out to the living room. When I opened the door, she shrieked and clawed at me like a wild animal. I was so startled by her sudden change that I dropped her. She leapt out of my duster and ran once again into her bedroom. I tried to approach her, as she huddled in the corner, but she hissed and snapped, as if only a beast remained within her pale eyes.
I tried for ten minutes to take her with me. All I got for my efforts were scratches and bites. At one point, her white eyes darkened to brown and she seemed to recognize me.
“My husband will be home tomorrow,” she said. “You have to go. Don’t come back here.”
“You need to go to a hospital,” I said. “You’ve got parasites.”
“They’re my children,” she moaned.
“Come with me,” I said, extending my hand. “You need help.”
“Nothing can help me,” she said. “I am damned.”
Her eyes paled once again and she became that skittish, vicious creature from before.
Not sure if she was a lost cause or not, I left her house and walked toward the diner. I had to talk to someone— anyone— about who she was and what was wrong with her.
The bullet didn’t do that terrible damage to Bo’s heart; the girl did. When she led him away by the finger, and into the crosshairs of a sniper, it destroyed his basic trust in humanity. That was the pain he had to escape with a needle in his veins. That betrayal. It was innocence— hers, and his—that finally caused him to forsake the world.
A hateful downpour came that was heavier with its hammering than any before it. Rivulets ran down the hills among the disheveled grass, baptizing the earth like some wild beast that cared little for ritual or religion. The wind howled in contempt and the pools of water became ponds, the ponds as lakes, their surfaces rising and broadening as they shivered with impatient malice. Was this the warning Noah had received from his god centuries ago? Not a persuasive admonishment, but a malevolent ultimatum? Build your refuge or drown with the rest of my children. Noah’s god was overbearing. The sky was black with his fury. In the desert he was an absentee father. No rains. No angels crying. No wonder the Holy Land was pockmarked with war and mayhem, like some syphilitic whore: god’s children were always brawling over his throne, their petulance intensified by pretenses and weapons of mass destruction, each one wanting to become the “man of the house”.
The parking lot was a choc-a-block maze of tractor trailers. Luckily, everyone seemed to be either inside the diner or inside their cabs. I hid my rifle in my duster behind the dumpster again, then went inside.
The cook saw me come in and motioned me to the counter. Only one seat was available. All o the others were squeaking beneath fat ass truckers scarfing down their lunch.
“I was afraid we ran you off for good,” the cook said.
“I’ve learned to let petty shit slip off my back,” I said.
“Learned that in the Army,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Just from dealing with white people my whole life.”
The cook chuckled. The guy to my right sneered down at his BLT, then bit into it with a vengeance. It reminded me of a hog scrounging for truffles.
“Want a sandwich?” the cook asked. “On the house.”
“Just some coffee,” I said, “and some information.”
The cook nodded and poured me a cup of black, bitter coffee. It was lukewarm and much bitterer than the cup I had early that morning. It must have been sitting for a while. I took a sip of it and did not hide my soured face. I nodded at it, though, because I liked how its god-awful taste woke up my senses.
“What do you need to know about?” he asked.
“Who,” I said. “A woman living by herself down in a valley. Her name’s Zoya.”
“Never heard of her,” he said. “Where she live?”
“In a rundown white house in a field. Muddy drive lane. Muddy house. She’s gone…feral, I think.”
“I think I know which house you’re talking about,” he said. “I didn’t think that house was inhabited. You said her name’s…. what was it?”
“Zoya? She a colored girl?”
“Yes and no,” I said. “She’s albino. Or has Vitiligo.” He gave me a quizzical look. “A skin disease,” I explained. “Turns you white.”
“Like Michael Jackson?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, just to simplify things.
He grinned. “It’s funny to me,” he said. “Us whites are always trying to darken our skin with tanning, and you colors are always trying to lighten your skin with bleaching.”
I gave a noncommital nod.
“The Indians do it now, too,” he said. “Bleach themselves whiter. And I always thought Indian women were the prettiest I’d ever seen. Skin like cinnamon. Why would you go and ruin such pretty skin?”
Again, a noncommital nod.
He did not seem to mind my lack of enthusiasm. “It’s the people who are unhappy with themselves that make it harder for the rest of us to be happy with who we are. Sowing discord. Telling us we oughta’ be a different color. Or we oughta’ love a color more, or hate a color more. Can’t live with themselves happily, so they gotta’ make the rest of us unhappy with what color they are, or aren’t. That was so great about the Army. Made you think beyond yourself. Made you think beyond a lot of different things. No colors matter there except Army Green.”
I couldn’t even muster a noncommital nod.
“But it ain’t ever going to stop for the civilians,” the cook concluded. “No matter who’s yelling at who. It’s like what my momma used to say: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him a Baptist.’”
That much was true, I supposed. And when things did change, they never changed for the right reasons. Flashpoints of change occurred because they were flashy. That was why people seemed to care more about the King of Pop than they did Martin Luther King nowadays. One had more rhinestone luster than the other, and distance and time had made the radiance of one King fade while the other’s ghost was still singing songs on the radio.
I was startled out of these depressing thoughts when I saw the local Sheriff come in, sporting a cowboy hat and wearing sunglasses despite the world outside being darker than sin. Things always became more apparent when the Law was nearby. For instance, I was the only Black man in the entire diner, and since I was the only black man it felt as if the Sheriff’s unseen eyes were fixed on me. In a crowd of white faces, my face was as conspicuous as a raven among a flock of doves
He walked slowly toward me, his cowboy boots click-clopping on the tiled floor. Why this Sheriff was wearing so much cowboy attire, I didn’t know. This was a Heartland state, but it wasn’t the Midwest. The closest prairies were a couple of states Westward.
I couldn’t get up and leave. It would have looked too suspicious. Instead, I asked the cook if I could have that sandwich after all.
“Sure thing,” he said, and immediately made one for me.
While I waited, the Sheriff walked by, then paused.
“Boy,” he said. “You’re sitting in my seat.”
The cook returned just in time with my sandwich.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the sandwich and standing up. I knew better than to fight over a stool with a lawman dressed up like John Wayne. It would have only ended badly for me; either in jail or in a morgue. I took my sandwich and moved to a vacant table.
“Boy,” the Sheriff called after me. I turned and looked at him, not knowing what to expect. “You forgot to pay for your food.”
“It’s on the house, Sheriff,” the cook said.
The Sheriff took off his sunglasses. His blue eyes were compressed between squinty eyelids. “Then he ought to pay for it with gratitude,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, just to expedite this encounter.
“You’re welcome,” the cook said. I could see that he was troubled by the exchange, but he wasn’t going to second-guess the Sheriff too much on my behalf. He brought the Sheriff a sandwich on a plate, and a piece of good ol’ American apple pie. The Sheriff sat down on the stool and took off his hat, revealing thin white hair along a red-tinted neck. He wasn’t the type that tanned; he was the type that burned.
I ate my BLT as quietly as possible, keeping my eyes on the tear-streaked windows, and the darkness that waited beyond them. I did not know what to do about Zoya. She needed help, but I couldn’t help her; not as an AWOL soldier with an arrest warrant out for him in another state. I needed to finish my BLT and then move on. Make my way deeper into the wilderness. Follow the river, like Jim and Huckleberry Finn. I was Jim. My rifle was Huckleberry Finn.
“What’s your name, boy?”
I turned from the window and saw the Sheriff looming over me.
“Jim,” I lied.
“Jim Finn,” I lied.
“I ain’t never seen you around here before,” the Sheriff said, sitting down uninvited at my table. “You new at the wheel?”
“I’m not a trucker,” I said. “I’m on leave.”
“Oh,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, but I could tell that he was not relaxed at all. His posture was distrust and readiness. “So you a soldier?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I should have lied, but the truth came spilling out; just not the whole truth. “Just returned from Afghanistan.”
He crossed his arms. “How many tours?”
“One,” I said. “But I am due back soon.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Going to see some folks,” I said. “Got caught by the river.”
He nodded at this, and his body seemed to relax. “You and everybody else here.” He pushed himself up from the chair, sighing like an old man. “Well, take care, Jim. Thanks for serving this great country of ours. And godspeed.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
He returned to his stool at the counter, and began to eat his apple pie. I ate the rest of my sandwich and discreetly left while the Sheriff was captivated by some whip cream.
I retrieved my rifle and duster from behind the dumpster, then set off toward the river, going behind the truckstop and into the woods, so I could avoid the Sheriff and any other curious eyes.
Through and down I went, the forested knobs recording my footsteps with mud. I walked parallel with the old country roads, glimpsing them occasionally through the black branches and the falling rain. The potholes sloshed with rain, and the cracks were furrowed to trenches as the newborn creeks flowed athwart the roads. I came to a creek that had swollen to a river in its own right and had to cross its narrow bridge to continue on. I let my mind be as a river, flowing in one direction. And yet faces floated up from that river, unbidden, speaking to me, pleading with me, just before sinking again into that torrential flow. I saw Bo, his ginger-headed face convulsing with drugs. I saw the little Afghani girl, her small mouth twisted in ungodly suffering. I saw Zoya, her eyes pale and then dark, pale and then dark, asking me about my rifle and telling me her husband would be coming home soon, just before the luminous squid-worms pulled her into the depths once again. I saw countless other faces rising from that river, and then submerging again, drowning in memories. White, black, brown, yellow, red; faces all agonizing in that river of sorrow. Because what was memory except sorrow? What was remembering things except drowning in the depths of Life instead of just flowing with the sorrows and letting them take you wherever they would? I needed a tourniquet for my memories. I needed something to staunch the flow.
The rain had a musicality to it. It was bellicose, but it was music. War had a musicality to it, too, and it came in swells, dropped to single-note silences, and then chaotically clashed with violent Jazz pitches. It was the music of an arrhythmic heartbeat; one shocked to a stammering hammer-beat just before the heart burst from the stress. The truth was that I hated music, too. I used to listen to Rap, and R&B, Hip-Hop, and even old Soul. No modern shit, though. I didn’t like how modern rappers referred to women as bitches and spoke about nothing but money and partying. I didn’t like the macho grandstanding and the shallow shit stacked tall to give the appearance of depth. But now even the old school Rap and Hip-Hop was too much for me. I couldn’t take the bomb-blasting bass, the confrontational lyrics, the noise of it all. Now I just wanted silence. Utter silence. And not the silence of Afghanistan— the plotting, scheming, antagonistic silence— but the peaceful, unworried silence. The rain was a hushing noise; a uniform cacophony that obliterated its own cadences to create a wall of nothingness. It was a suicidal meaninglessness as the raindrops struck themselves upon the ground, decelerating into the inert puddles. Suicidal. Yes, that was the right word for it. The angels cried and their tears escaped the sorrow by launching themselves along gravity’s pull and crashing themselves into this unfeeling ball of mud and shit. Perhaps I should have antagonized the Sheriff. Perhaps I should have gone back and screamed at him, pull my rifle on him, shot out a window, and let his bullets have had their say. It would have been a small amount of noise to endure before that hushing wall of silence that was Oblivion.
And yet, I could hear Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crooning a song. He was singing “I put a spell on you…because you’re mine” while his crazed carnival music carouseled in the background. It visited me like a macabre hymn in my quietest moments. In Afghanistan it visited me. In the States it visited me. Even now it cycled in my head, competing with the cadence of the rain. Life did put a spell on us. It held onto us tightly and refused to let go. I resented it, and yet his song compelled me. Does a carcass refuse its flies? No, they gradually work their way into its eyes and nose and head and heart. Only a matter of time.
I took the muzzle of my rifle away from my mouth and strapped it again to my shoulder, under my duster. I followed the road until it was overtaken by the river, and then trudged uphill, coming to a field where old cedar posts tottered sideways along the rolling waves of land. Farther ahead I found another barn. This one was newer, and in better shape than the previous one I had spent the night in. Going inside, it smelled of hay and earth. I dried off and used some of the hay to make a fire, sitting down beside it and disassembling my rifle, cleaning it, and putting it back together. The patter of rain on the tin roof made me drowsy. Sleep, paradoxically, was a small suicide we underwent every night so we could live in the morning. I took this suicide willingly enough and slept until nightfall.
I dreamed that I had returned from the war. The airport was full of soldiers, all dressed in desert-dust. They turned as one and looked at me, their accusatory eyes following me as I ran away from them. Running into the woods, I found them there, too, following me like I was an escaped slave, their hounds pulling at their leashes, all snarling and barking at me as I rushed into the woods. I tried to find shadows to hide in, but the sun followed me, too, and it blazed upon me like an eye of condemnation. Coming to a road, I followed it, and found myself once again at the truckstop and its diner. The faces in the diner turned and looked at me, all at once like a bunch of dogs seeing a raccoon enter their yard. They all stood up at once, and I backed away, but it was too late. The doors were completely blocked off, so I ran down the hall and hid in the restroom. I saw Bo slumped in a stall, holding his bleeding heart in his hands.
“None of us ever get away,” he said. “You’ll never be free. Freedom isn’t free, because it doesn’t exist. You’ll always have to do what other people want. Life only gives you one freedom, and that is only if you do it before someone or something takes your own terms away from you. So do it.”
The door to the restroom flung open and the Sheriff and the flannel trucker and countless other flaring faces mobbed me, tying me up and taking me out to the woods where a noose awaited me.
“Die in the desert,” they said, “or die here, nigger.”
The noose was tight as they hauled me up. They were going to take my one and only freedom away from me. The only freedom that actually existed. How I would die…
I awoke to silence. Not the hushed silence of rain; only silence. The silence of a ghost’s scream. The moon was full and shone through the cracks in the barn. I rose and gathered my things. An urgency compelled me. I did not know why. It took hold of me, like a sneeze, and there was no fighting it. I walked outside and followed the sound of the river as it rushed like a titan’s tongue toward its terminal glut.
There was something wrong in the world. On a primordial level, in my deep ancestral blood, I felt something swirling with menace and malice. It wasn’t like sensing a sabertoothed tiger ready to spring; it was like knowing a volcano was going to erupt, and with its eruption there would be no escape. The whole earth would burn with its scream of Death.
But I could not stop running toward it. It was what a soldier did: run toward the danger. It was not something that a civilian could understand. Even in the dark, with the chill of night on my face and the shadows and earth and slick grass betraying me with every step, I ran. Maybe it was something else, too. Maybe it was Zoya calling me back to her. Maybe she was not the only one infected with parasites.
There were no nuances on the front line. Kill or be killed was the only rule that applied. Politicians and pundits and philosophers could heap up rhetoric back in their quiet, peaceful chairs while soldiers heaped up bodies, and were in turn heaped up, ourselves. They should have tried matching the bullet fire with their bullet points and seen, for themselves, which one held the most clout in the exchange. Jesus spoke peace, and said those that lived by the sword would perish by the sword, but it didn’t save him one bit. Not that I didn’t admire him. Sometimes being crucified was not the worst thing that could have happened to me. Maybe I even deserved it.
The moon was riding high when I came across the ridge overlooking the valley where Zoya’s house resided. Beneath the moonlight I could see that the river had rolled into the valley. I walked out upon a long stretch of land that extended into the river like a peninsula. I could see over the line of trees, and saw Zoya glowing in the moonlight.
Naked, Zoya stood on the roof of her house, surrounded by undulating floodwater. I called out to her, but she was transfixed by something beyond the trees. I followed her mesmerized gaze and saw a soft light moving among the flooded trees near the base of a knob. The light was large and soft in its luminosity, not intense like a manmade bulb, but somehow hurting my eyes as if I was staring into the desert sun. Yet, I could not look away. I watched its progress among the backlit trees and felt a primordial fear the likes of which I had never felt, even when bullets rained above my head and bombs exploded through walls to knock dusty bricks against me.
When the creature emerged from the trees, I let out a wavering moan. The pale, luminous thing floated along the water like a giant dead fish limply following the river’s flow. The tentacles along its bloated body undulated with drowsy life as it neared Zoya. Its tentacles reached for her, and she raised her arms to it, welcoming it home. Their luminous offspring swarmed like a school of glowing fish, circling their father like a halo.
I now understood why she had asked me whether my rifle could kill someone in one shot. I raised the rifle and fired. Zoya’s bald head twisted sideways and then she collapsed, her body unresponsive and the white glow dimming to darkness once again. The moon-thing writhed at the report. I shot at it, again and again and it bled but a trickle of glowing blackish ooze. It then turned and floated towards me. I shot again at its bloated flanks, but the bullets were like pin pricks in an elephant’s bulk; they did not deter its progress. I wanted to escape to higher ground in the wooded knobs, but I could not move.
The creature’s long tentacles wove in and around the trees, illuminating them in a mesmerizing light. My body stayed where it was, betraying me as the tentacles rose around me. The glowing pallor of its ropey appendages were like a fish’s belly, or a bloated corpse floating in the water. One tentacle tentatively touched my face. It was so cold that it burned like fire, blinding me with its frigid flesh. It communicated through touch, this needful adaptation evolved in the dark oceans of a planet orbiting a dying star. I saw things no human mind should see. I saw a planet ringed with moons, its surface hilled with water, rising like mountains in other areas as the moons pulled at its watery sphere. The water rose and encircled the moons, creating a web of water. I saw millions of these creatures spiraling around one another in the depths, unable to find bearers for their children, the life in their planet consumed until only they remained. They traveled one of the many long stretches of water to that moon, thickening around it and then spinning as one, unified in their strategy for survival. They had to be unified to survive. Their bodies and the momentum gave the moon greater mass, pulling the hundreds of other moons to it with its gravity, crashing into them and gaining more mass, even as millions of them died in the collision. The moon snowballed, then, engorging on its sister moons. Billions died before their composite planet was large enough to oscillate with enough force to break free of its orbit from the dead planet. It then went spiraling away from its dying star, crashing and scattering across the galaxies for eons, its children spreading as their rogue planet broke apart while pinballing around the galaxy.
Its touch told me to not be afraid— to come into that radiant maw and be one with its unity. It reminded me of the little Afghan girl taking Bo by the finger and leading him to a sniper’s crosshairs. The rage I felt broke the spell.
It didn’t care what color you were, or what religion. Like the Army, it would mark you and use you. It was just trying to survive, just trying to perpetuate its species. It did not belong here on earth. This wasn’t a clash of races. It wasn’t a hostility born of racism. It was a hostility born of mutual incompatibility. One of our species would die if the other was to live. It did not wish to cohabit peacefully. It wished to dominate and supplant. It was worse than racism or slavery; it was prosperity from annihilation.
Desperate to be rid of its touch, my hand sought my bowie knife, but settled on the lighter in my backpack. With a frantic flick of the thumb, I lit the damned tentacle afire. The pale flesh blistered and blackened and bloomed aflame. The creature flailed and shrieked. The fire ate through half the tentacle in a matter of seconds, ringing the limb and rushing toward the bulk. The moon-creature severed the limb like a salamander shedding its tail. The tentacle fell to the ground, the remainder writhing spasmodically before it was completely consumed, melting to a dark bluish ichor that stank. The odor was too overbearing, as was the sting upon my face. I collapsed as the creature lunged toward the safety of the river, floating away between the trees and the hills and the rays of the moon. Its swarm of children followed it out, swimming downstream like glossy strains of lunar gossamers.
I could still feel the cold burn of its touch upon my face, and I could still see its kin spiraling through the galaxy. I could still feel the command of its terrible touch, and the compulsion of its biological drive that had brought it across the dark depths of Space and Time. I watched the creature as it followed the river, disappearing beyond the shadow-palled knobs.
I collapsed upon my knees and waited there until morning. My hand sought a joint, but fumbled them all, dropping them down the side of that hill, all taken by the river. All would be taken by that river, I thought. Eventually.
I awoke an hour or so later. My right eye was blind. My face still stung where the tentacle had touched me. The river was still cresting. Zoya’s body was gone from the roof of her house. Unsteadily, I rose to my feet and picked up my rifle and lighter. My face still stung as if the skin had been burned off. My feet began to race before my mind could, and my heart was runner-up to both. By the time I reached the diner I was sweating as if I had fallen into the river. No doubt I looked like a man recently reborn from drowning in those indifferent waters.
The cook had said there was something in the river. I knew he would believe me. I went into the diner and went straight up to him. He gasped when he saw my face. I told him that Zoya was dead and that her husband had escaped downstream. It was not a lie.
“I was having an affair with her,” I said. “I was returning to try to get her to run away with me, but he got to her before I could save her.”
A trucker said something about “jungle fever”. The cook told him to shut the fuck up.
“You know where he went?” the cook asked me.
“I think so,” I said. “But I need help. And a few other things.”
While the cook called the Sheriff, he let me have the freedom of his kitchen. Scrounging around, I found a kerosene heater in the corner. I took out the cannister and checked it. It was half-full. Rummaging through the drawers, I found a few rags. Atop a shelf I found several empty bottles. I poured the kerosene into three bottles and stuffed their necks with the rags, making molotov cocktails.
The cook saw what I had done and frowned. “The Sheriff won’t let you take the law into your own hands,” he said. “He’s not going to let you burn him alive.”
“I think the Sheriff will want to do worse to him when he sees him,” I said. “Unless he lynches me first.”
“He won’t do that,” the cook said. “I know him. He may not like…well, he may be similar to most other folk around here and think races shouldn’t mix. But he’ll do what’s right by the law.”
“I’m not green,” I said. “I know he doesn’t like blacks.”
“Yeah, you’re green,” the cook said. “Army Green. The Sheriff was a soldier, too. He respects that. He knows a soldier’s worth. Anybody willing to lay down their life for their country has to be a good person.”
“No, they don’t,” I said. “Plenty of Nazis were willing to die for Germany. Plenty were willing to kill, too, based on the color of a man’s skin.”
The cook stroked his gray beard. “That’s true. I can’t deny that. World War II proved white men could be evil. But it also proved we could work together with other colors. The Germans with the Japs. The Brits and Americans with the Arabians and Africans and Latinos. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. My granddaddy fought alongside Brazilians. He was a card-carrying Klan member. But one day a Brazilian saved his life. Kicked a Jap grenade away just before it could explode underneath him. My granddaddy never said nothing bad about anybody after that. Wars can change things for the better, even as things get worse.”
“But what about Vietnam?” I asked, feeling angry. “Vietnam wasn’t a great cause for us. It didn’t bring out the best in the soldiers that went there. It fucked them up.”
The cook seemed stricken, as if he was suffering a stroke. His mouth hung agape and his eyes widened, then he closed his mouth and blinked. “That’s true,” he said haltingly. “I’ve seen some things. I’ve done some things. My Lai wasn’t good for anybody involved. It brought out the worst in us. Mines everywhere. Sprouting up like daisies. What we did was horrible—what I did was horrible— and I don’t offer any justification. Just facts. We changed for the worse. But we also protected each other. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t rat each other out. Only the Lieutenant got sentenced, and he took it like a soldier. Even the Army didn’t like sentencing him. That’s why they gave him such a light sentence. They put us in an impossible situation and then blamed us when shit went wrong. Vietnam didn’t just kill us with land mines in the ground. It put ‘em in our hearts.” He pretended to scratch his cheek, but was really wiping away a tear from his eye. “And let me tell you something. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, we all looked out for each other. We may have hated each other’s guts for thousands of other reasons, but we protected one another.”
I gave a noncommital shrug. War was a temporary watershed for hatred. The resentment and the hatred returned in full flow after the enemy was defeated and there were no more watersheds to lessen its singular direction. The hatred was a river without end, and it brimmed inside every heart.
“It’s like a bridge,” he said. “The timbers hold the bridge up against the wind and the waves, and they don’t care about the color of the timbers beside them.”
I didn’t think he was right about that. Some people would rather the whole of civilization come crashing down upon their heads than watch a black and a white walk down the street together, holding hands. The river would never be truly forded.
The Sheriff brought a posse. There were two officers and a deputy, each armed with shotguns or rifles. All of them had a mean-looking magnum holstered on their hips. They made me nervous, and I wondered what they thought of all of this, especially as they were led by a black man along the river, heading where I had last seen the creature afloat, following the sloshy banks. The sun rose as we went, burning away the shadows of the leafless woods. The river narrowed and thinned as the many watersheds diverted its strength, and I began to wonder if the moon-creature had actually come this way. Where would it hide from the sun? It was too large to shelter in the shallow river now.
“What the hell is that?!” the Sheriff exclaimed.
We found it, its opalescent bulk huddling beneath a bridge to escape the ubiquitous sunlight. It shivered and undulated, spreading its pale tentacles along the underside of the bridge. It could not burrow into the mud like its offspring. It was too large, and the rock too close to the surface in this clay-and-stone land. Perhaps it could not survive without water to keep its large mass from collapsing in upon itself. Perhaps the scant heat in this yet frigid February day was enough to weaken it. To think that it had come thousands of light-years, surviving across the gulfs of space, only to die huddled beneath a bridge like some homeless veteran. I wondered if I would die the same way. Freezing to death under a bridge, or an overpass, or in some other nook of Uncle Sam’s civilization.
The posse panicked when they saw the creature. They fired into its shimmery corpulence with all of their guns, emptying their barrels and chambers in a hellish salvo. The bullets peppered the creature, causing it to trickle blood, but the damage was not lethal.
“It ain’t killin’ it!” a deputy shrieked.
“Keep firin’!” the Sheriff shouted.
Before the posse could reload and fire again, I walked over to the bridge, interrupting their line of sight. The water was little more than a creek here, and the moon-creature was only half-submerged in water. Taking out my lighter, and the two bottles I had prepared, I lit a molotov cocktail and threw it at the creature. The bottle broke upon its body and burst into flames. Its flesh was extremely flammable and the few spread quickly. It tried to flop over— to extinguish the flames in the shallow water— but I lit the other molotov cocktail and threw it, too. It erupted over the creature just like the previous one. It thrashed wildly now, striking the bridge and burning in flames and blistering in the sunlight. It had nowhere to escape to. The posse must have felt it incumbent upon them to claim victory in any way they could, and so unloaded another hail of bullets and slugs upon the creature. The ichor caught fire as it bled from the bullet entry holes, the otherwise negligible wounds carrying the flames into the creature’s flesh along the blue-black runnels. The flames caught within, where no water could reach them, and the creature shrieked and writhed as it burned alive from the inside. Its white flesh burned to a dark putrescence that stained the bridge and the embankments of the creek.
“What the fuck was that?!” the Sheriff demanded, sweating out of every pink pore.
“An invasion,” I said.
I explained what I knew the best way I could. Surprisingly, they were silent the entire time I explained it to them. No interruptions. No “Boy, that ain’t possible” or “You’re a goddamn loony coon”. I told them what I had learned from the creature’s touch. I told them what I had learned by piecing together what it had done to Zoya. that the enemy did not care what color its next wife would be. It did not care what “race”. It was not racist. It was practical. Clinically practical, like the Army itself. It was an invasion machine that did not baulk at method or countermeasure. It wanted to survive. The question was, “Did we want to survive?”
We waited until the fire had run its course, leaving nothing but foul-smelling stains. Then we trekked back to Zoya’s house. The waters had receded now. We found her body in the the crook of a tree, cradled as if she had been crucified. Her bald head had been canoed by the rifle bullet, dribbling the same blackish-blue ichor that had bled from the creature. I climbed the tree to fetch her down and not a single white man below made a jape about a “monkey in a tree”. They were too disturbed to crack jokes.
“What’s wrong with her?” the cook asked, his throat tightening his words to a whisper.
“She has parasites,” I said, setting her limp body upon the ground. “That monster infected her with its offspring.”
When they saw the moon-worms expelling out of Zoya’s dead body, they turned away, nauseated and trembling. They begged me to burn her as quickly as possible. I did. After the flames had extinguished, we gathered her remains and put her bones and ashes in a dufflebag.
“I’ll take the rest of her to the crematorium for a proper burning,” the Sheriff said. “My deputy will take your testimony.”
The Sheriff glanced sidelong at me, then nodded to his deputy, and then his other two officers followed him away from that field; one carrying the dufflebag and the other carrying the guns. They returned uphill, to the road where their squad cars sat. They waited there, their backs turned to us.
I was suffering deja vu of the time I spent taking Bo’s remains to his family. They say you can never step in the same river twice, but the same river sure can drown you endless times. The memories overlapped each other, and the levee broke. I was overcome with grief and horror. I wept for the first time since I found Bo slumped in the restroom stall. I was too overcome to realize that the deputy was eying me sideways. My face stung— with the imprint of the moon creature and with grief— and I did not see him pull his magnum from his holster and raise it, its muzzle aimed at the side of my head. The din of the shot echoed through my skull. I stood motionless, waiting to tumble over. Instead, the deputy fell face forward in the mud. The cook lowered his rifle, then tossed it away, the muzzle still smoking.
“You need to get out of here,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t thank me,” he said, his face pale and sweating. “I’m gonna’ have to tell them you killed him.”
“I know,” I said.
“Go!” he said. “Don’t you stop, neither!”
I went. I followed the river Southbound, keeping with the current. The Sheriff would come for me eventually, assembling a bigger posse— or lynch mob, more than likely—to find me. So I had to get out of the county. I had to get out of the state. There would probably be a manhunt laced with goddamned dragnets, too. They would try to seine me like a minnow. I had to move quickly. I could not afford to dillydally. The hounds of war were after me, as they had always been.
I became sensitive to the sun, and to the heat.
Three days on the run and I began to sense them, too— the wives of the moon creature. I could see them in my blinded eye. They glowed like the moon in that featureless darkness, becoming as beacons for my flight. I went toward them as I left; one and then another. They were marked just like Zoya; just like I was. And like Zoya, their homes were shunned by animals. I went to them, and they welcomed me, and then I gave them what they wanted: I gave them peace.
Now, ever on the run, I hunt the wives of those creatures from another world. I follow the river, and where it floods I look for the women that have been blanched by its cold touch. Because of its touch, I see from two different eyes; one dark brown and the other pale and luminescent. The latter sees in the dark, and detects the infected wives. At times it is difficult to live this life, hunting down the breeding grounds of this alien invasion. I tell myself that I am performing mercy killings for these women; that I am being a good soldier. At other times I feel like I am only a killer, and that I kill because they disgust me so much.
I should have stayed in Afghanistan. There are places in the desert where there are no rivers. There are no rains. I want to bury my head in the sand and forget what I see here— forget everything until all of my thoughts are sand in the recesses of my sun-bleached skull, the world turning me like an hourglass unaware of its own demarcations of Time. I would know nothing but the dry, rainless silence of for all eternity. But I know that I couldn’t survive in the desert now. I would blister and burn up. It changed me, just like the war changed me.
Nowadays I stay away from mirrors. Last time I looked at myself I was well on my way to becoming completely white. But I don’t know if it is vitiligo or that monster’s touch. Who would have thought that turning white in America could be the most ominous thing to happen to a young black man? My uncle, maybe, but not me.
I feel so hot now, and my body needs to be cold. I take off my duster, and my sweater, and my undershirt, and my pants and boots. I wear only my boxers, and feel some relief from the stifling heat as a cold wind sweeps by me, roiling the fog. Sometimes, when I am feeling too hot, I wade into the swollen river. When the clouds lift, I find I cannot tolerate the sunlight. It blisters my skin where it touches me upon my marked face, and so I shun sunlight, staying in caves during the day, and coming out only at night. When I meet my wives along the river, I stay with them, too, in their mildewed homes with their damp, squishy carpets and grimy walls. I sometimes forget who I am and what I am doing. Sometimes I stay with my wives for months on end, looking after our children and awaiting the day when our children will grow large, and take wives of their own. And then I remember who I am, and I kill my wife, and I would kill myself, but then who would be there to fight this war along the riverside? Who would be left upon the front line if I went AWOL from Life one more time?
I shun my own reflection now. It alienates me from myself. It is like when I returned with Bo’s ashes. I saw myself in a mirror at his parents’ home and I was transfixed by how much I had been transformed. There was a collapse around my mouth where a smile could have once been. It was like the destruction of a school or a church or a cinema; the ruin unsalvageable.
War takes a hell of a toll on you.
It was approximately midnight when I heard the scream. I hurried outside and ran toward Virginia’s cottage. The moon was bright, illuminating the treacherous path uphill. I heard a hissing voice hush her, but she would not be silenced. Shadows struggled in the candle-lit interior of her cottage. I rushed forward and the door was thrown open. A figure ran toward me, her long fair hair trailing after her. Behind her came a hobbling figure too slow to overtake her. Within the span of a breath she had cowered behind me, pointing at the hobbling man.
“He is trying to kill me!” she cried.
“I donna’ wanna’ kill her!” Henry said, his knife glinting in the moonlight. “Just her wanderin’ womb! It needs to cease its dreamin’ before it start’s wakin’! Will tol’ me so!”
The man had lost his senses. His eyes were wild with madness.
“Stop, Henry!” I said.
He did not stop, but raised the knife. I rushed to meet him, grabbing the arm with the thirsty blade. His eyes glowed with moonlight, and madness, and his cheeks glistened with tears.
“You donna’ understand!” he cried as we struggled. “I have to silence her screams! I have to silence the blasphemy of her wanderin’ womb!”
His mouth reeked of beer and his words rang with lunacy. “The wanderin’ womb!”.
“Get a grip on yourself!” I said. “Stop this! Drop the knife! William paid you to watch over her, not slay her!”
“You donna’ know the price!” he sobbed. “You donna’ know what he done to satisfy the Pact!”
I was taller than him, and had two good legs, but his madness lent him strength. Gradually, however, his crippled leg betrayed him, giving way as we both tumbled to the ground, the knife between us. I felt a splash of wetness, and the seaman shook as if suffering from a spasm of the spine. The struggle went out of him and he lay among the gorse, clutching the knife buried in his side. The blood was black by moonlight, like the shadowy cowl of Death himself.
“I meant her no harm,” he sobbed. “Only to free her. To free her from the wanderin’ womb!”
I rose to my feet, breathless and shaken. Virginia clung to me, looking down upon the madman. His breath shallowed, thinning and softening as the dark pall of Death spread wider.
“Ye’ donna’ un’erstand,” he gasped. “It’s an abomination. That…wanderin’…womb…”
They were his final words. He lay still then; dead as the face of the moon.
“Virginia!” I said, turning her away from the corpse. “Did he harm you?” I pulled her toward her cottage. “Come. I must check you for wounds.”
We entered her cottage. A candle burned by the window, but the writing desk was overturned, its contents spilled upon the floor. I used the candle to light an oil lamp, its fiery light further banishing the shadows. Virginia watched me with untroubled eyes, and I wondered, momentarily, if she would relapse into her catatonia. Instead, she let slip her white gown and stood denuded before me, her pale skin immaculate in that livid light. I was beside myself with astonishment.
“You said you would inspect me for wounds,” she said.
“At once!” I said, rallying my faculties against my astounded wonderment. “Of course, of course!”
Immediately, I surveyed her body most closely, holding the oil lamp near to reveal any lacerations or bruises that might need tending. Finding none, I told Virginia she was most fortunate and that she could clothe herself once again. She did not. Instead, she sat down upon her bed and stared at me— or perhaps stared at something beyond me. At length, she spoke.
“My husband assigned him to me,” she said plainly.
“Yes,” I said. “But certainly not to harm you. William would never…”
She tossed her fair hair impassively.
“What would you say if I told you that I almost welcomed his blade? What would you say if I told you I am tempted, even now, to withdraw that knife and thrust it into my heart? In truth, I am not even sure why I screamed. An old, animal instinct, perhaps.”
“You are suffering from your illness,” I told her. “You just need more treatment and more time to recover.”
She scoffed. “Time? Time is exactly what I do not need, nor have.” She smirked at the door. “That man was not so wicked as you might conjecture,” she said. “He refused to use his knife unless I absolved him of the sin with my forgiveness. Is that madness? I wonder…”
“Religiosity is a certain madness,” I said, trying to keep my eyes upon her face.
She appeared amused. “Have you ever been touched by a god, Dr. Grace?”
“By a god, Mrs. Worthington?” I said, not understanding. “Do you mean touched by God? As in a religious conversion?”
“By either, then,” she said, sardonically crossing her bare arms across her bare breasts.
“I am not of a religious inclination, Mrs. Worthington.”
She laughed softly, and I feared that this latest encounter had indeed damaged her wits. No sane woman would be inclined toward mirth after nearly dying.
“I would have suspected not,” she said. “No, once you are touched by a god, everything changes. You are awakened in ways you cannot comprehend, and so, to reconcile yourself, you become as if asleep to the rest of the world. Turned off, like an oil lamp.”
I turned off the oil lamp, thinking she was implying a need for greater privacy from the light. Her nakedness glowed within the room with its lunar luminescence.
“I am speaking of my catatonia,” she said. “I may have appeared unresponsive, but that was because I was like a wagon overburdened with weight. Too much upon my mind and so I could not budge beneath those panoramic revelations. Or were they pandemonic?” She reached out her hand and touched mine, ever so lightly. “But you fetched me back from those overwhelming sensations. With this hand. This hand beckoned me away from the pandemonium. I was too awake, Robert. I was catatonic because I was too awake.”
Without thinking, I clasped her hand in mine.
“What truly ails you, Mrs. Worthington?” I asked. “Please help me to understand. I feel as if I have been groping in darkness since first I saw you.”
She slipped her hand from mine and stood up, walking past me and looking out her cottage window. Her pale hip brushed against me and I quivered involuntarily.
“I am ever upon a bridge of sighs,” she said, “and I know not which way to go. Left or right. Up or down. Perhaps down, then up.” She shook her head. “No, no. Someone such as myself would not ascend. Too great a sin weighs upon me, ever growing, and I know not how I can expunge it without committing yet another sin in its stead.”
I needed to leave her cottage. I realized this with much affright, for I felt myself drawn to her as she stood, steeped starkly in the luminosity of her nakedness, and feared I might breach that gulf between patient and doctor.
“I need to fetch some men to remove the body,” I said. “You should rest. If you have difficulties sleeping I will bring some wine…”
She turned upon me, pressing against me with her belly and breasts. She kissed me, and her kiss dispelled all thoughts from my head.
“I will be fine,” she said as she withdrew. “Good night, doctor.”
She lay down to bed and I— in my bewilderment— fumbled with the door. Stumbling out into the night, I walked as if a somnambulist in want of smelling salts. So overtaken was I that I tripped over the dead seaman’s body as I stumbled through the moonlight. The tumble roused me to my senses, reminding me of the cliffs always hemming the moors, and so I picked myself up and, with a sober mind, I woke a few Cornish men, including George Friggs, and we saw to the disposal of the body.
I had thought we would bury the man, but George infromed me that the Cornish earth was not kind to shovels nor to the backs using them. Instead, they chose to wrap him in cloth and weigh him down with rocks. They then took him in a small boat and dropped him into the Celtic Sea.
“Is a proper sailor’s burial anyhow,” George reassured me. “The bastard might have been mad, but he will find his peace in the hereafter.”
It was the only prayer uttered that night. Everyone was eager to return to bed. Yet, I lingered upon the shore, listening to the hiss and hush of the tides. My mind went, naturally, to Virginia, but I turned it aside and thought instead of Henry O’ Toole. He had not seemed a violent man. He was mad, to be sure. The glint of flint in his eyes must have soon given itself to a great fire upon the brain. Yet, I had not believed him capable of violence. He seemed a reluctant assassin prompted by as much concern for Virginia as for the world. And Virginia’s account cautioned an overly violent characterization. True, he wished to harm her, but it seemed an act of fear or desperation rather than wrath or lust or any other such fiery emotion. He had ultimately begged for forgiveness, she said, and that, more than likely, was what bought her chance at escape.
I recalled his final words, too, for a clue. He had spoken of a “wanderin’ womb”. The phrase struck me as familiar, though I could not place its reference. Thinking upon it, I returned to my cottage. Once there, I sought my books. Throughout the witching hours I read by oil lamp the various passages I had marked concerning ancient beliefs concerning the womb. It was as the rosy blush of dawn came stealing out of the East that I found a relevant passage concerning the womb. It was in Plato’s works, of all people’s, and that imbecile had, as usual, much of nothing to say about anything that struck his fancy. He believed the womb to be a wandering creature that moved about in the woman’s body. I could not think that Henry O’ Toole was familiar with Plato, nor such antiquated notions as the womb being a separate creature living within Woman. So, what was it that the hobbled seaman actually meant? Surely there was reason in his madness, however disproportional.
It was a mystery, and I was too exhausted for mysteries. As I lay myself to bed my fatigued mind went wandering itself. I remembered what my father had said to me about my plans to become a doctor focused primarily upon women. He had been chagrined, and moreover, furious.
“My own son a degenerate!” he had exclaimed. “It should not surprise me that others should follow this Age of Reason with such abandon, but my own flesh and blood?! You must understand, boy! They are epicureans, one and all! Hedonists with intellectual pretenses. They feed themselves with libraries full of absurd immoralities to justify their perversions. Man’s sinfulness will inevitably corrupt every human enterprise, including Medicine. You will be damned, my son!”
“Knowledge is a blessing, father,” I told him. “And there is no happier knowledge than that of the creatures with whom Man is so intimately entwined.”
“I have lived with women enough to know the faults of them,” my father said. “And there is no remedying them, anymore than remedying a single man’s soul. Think back to when Adam sought to remedy Eve’s discontent and know the fruit of humanity’s sins. That is why they suffer in childbirth. That is why the bed holds no pleasures for them. Original Sin.”
“Certain women of Asia have enjoyed the marriage bed for centuries,” I had said. “There is no reason why they should be the only ones. And to understand women would be to improve their health. Is that not what we should aspire to do as doctors? So much could be learned in conjunction with women. Imagine what I could learn if I were to travel to the Orient. Perhaps I could even learn the means for safer birthing…”
“So you learn to practice Medicine from women now, do you?” my father had countered. “And savages at that.” He had scoffed. “But I suppose Asian savages are vogue in London. Perhaps you should import some into your service. Why bother with midwives of the English stock when you might have more exotic flavors at your disposal?”
“Father,” I said patiently, “what is it that you are implying of me?”
“That you have always had a keen interest in women,” he said. “Which I would normally encourage if the woman was of means and breeding. But to have a keen interest in all women…well, I am sure it is lucrative, but it is affords others much in the way of gossip.”
“I do not care for gossip,” I said. “It impoverishes our species. I only wish to elucidate what is sorely lacking in human knowledge. Women are yet a mystery to us. Half the world is in shadow. We need to know more about them so we can properly treat them for their maladies. And I believe that much of their suffering is from extraneous inhibitions and needless oppression. Why not work to eliminate the causes of these hysteria symptoms? For instance, if husbands would only tend to their wives’ needs in the marriage bed…”
“A woman’s pleasure in the marriage bed comes in her husband’s pleasure!” my father snapped. “Nothing more within it. Her personal pleasures lie beyond it, in her children and in the upkeep of the household. There is no personal pleasure in the marriage bed for proper ladies, as every married man in England can attest.”
“I contest it,” I had said vehemently. “It cannot be so. If you could only see how transformed these women are after a proper treatment…”
“Enough!” my father had said, nearly screaming. “What would your mother say? What would she say, having given her life so that you might live? And for what? To seek the bestial pleasures of these…these…bacchantes?! There is only one treatment for women: to read the Bible and forsake all other indulgences. Even chocolate is a thing of diabolic design.”
“Father, how can you say such things?” I said. “You have been a doctor your whole life. You have been a man of Science and Natural remedy!”
“And what has it given me? A son dedicating his life to perversions, like all among his ignoble generation. You seek to not only eat of the Forbidden Fruit, but to plant its seeds and make an Eden of your own; a manmade blasphemous thing that is a blight to the eyes of God.”
“We are only helping our fellow people,” I said.
“Helping your fellow people at the cost of the Master that made you,” he said. “Goodly works of God are being reduced to Natural trivialities, like ancient mountains mined for gold. This is the price of so-called Progress.”
“We must learn, though,” I argued. “Regardless of what it does to the superstitions that we hold dear, and indeed because of what it does to those superstitions. We must yoke ourselves to Progress.”
My father had shaken his head slowly, ruefully. “But you will not like what you find, son. It will be like gutting a flower to see how its petals bloom. All you will be left with is rot.”
Ignorance, for me, was a blasphemy. And I had no use for gods of any kind. My own birth had slain my mother. What sort of god demanded such a terrible price with so much infinite power and wisdom at his disposal? To me, if there was a god then he was a cruel tyrant, for his very breath was a great storm at sea that sank ships and widowed women and orphaned children upon his unfeeling whim. He was an elemental creature beyond Reason, and so beyond Empathy for the creations he had forged through eons of bloody Natural Selection. His very breath soured the world.
And I vowed I would dedicate my whole life to casting just a sliver of light upon his shadowy depths, if only so he had less darkness wherein to dwell, unseen, like the monster that he was.
Now, of course, I truly regret glimpsing god, for it is one of many of the horrors I must take with me to the grave, burdened as I am with hideous revelations.
My ghosts clung stubbornly to me throughout the night. Their cumbrous, clammy touch inspired frets and fatigue without relief. My father’s ghost bickered and demeaned me while the faceless ghost of my mother blamed me for her death. When I attempted to speak— to apologize to my mother and tell her my intention to atone for murdering her with my birth into this world— I had no tongue. I had no voice. I had no breath. The ghosts of my parents sat upon my chest and I could only roll my head about, powerless against their condemnations.
I woke late in the afternoon the next day. Charlotte had asssumed liberty in sitting next to my bed, in a ladderback chair.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“You were sleepin’ awfully long, sir,” she said. “I feared you might be sick.”
“I could not sleep well,” I said. “There was an incident last night, of which I should like to inform you and your sisters. It may affect Mrs. Worthington’s convalescence here.”
“As you say, sir,” she said, rising from the chair. She lingered by the bedside, her face a silent seal of concern and apprehension. Her presence vexed me.
“Is there anything else, Charlotte?” I asked impatiently.
“No, sir,” she said, curtsying. She hesitated. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I only wondered if there were anything I might do for you.”
“Yes,” I said, with admittedly waspish irritation. “Your chores. That is what I pay you for.”
She curtsied once again and left to join her sisters. I was suffering too much from a headache to be pestered at that moment by Cornish girls with their silly peculiarities. I rose from bed, groggily, and prepared myself for another day. As I often did upon rising, I searched for the velvet pouch with which William had secured his wife’s safekeeping. Its heft of wealth was reassuring. There were enough jewels, pearls, and gold to buy a manor house further inland and live the rest of my days in comfort. And perhaps I would do that. Perhaps, I fancied, I would invite the Worthingtons to winter there.
Perhaps William would be too preoccupied with business and Mrs. Worthington would come alone.
It was an ignoble fancy, but it gave haste to my movements despite my fatigue. I hurried to don my clothes and to start the day, heading directly to Virginia’s cottage. She was already upon the moor, walking through the gorse. Her whitely golden hair streamed in the briny breeze— tumbling with the shamelessness of a Greek nymph. She turned to me, as if expecting me, and smiled.
“It is high time you had risen,” she said in her husky, yet melodic, voice. “I was beginning to fear that the madman had not been so dead as thought and had taken you with him.”
“He cannot harm you now,” I said, “nor anyone.”
“Thanks to you,” she said, smiling openly as the sea winds blew her long fair hair about her face. She looked like an elfin queen behind that wilderness of flaxen hair. My heart leapt in anticipation of becoming lost in its caress. I was quite lost in such unbecoming fancies. “You are my knight now,” she said. “I shall dub thee Lancelot, though I dare say it is an ill-omened title.”
“I would gladly be your Lancelot,” I said.
She took my hands in her own. “And would you kill a dragon for me, if I asked it of you?”
“Anything you wished,” I said, grinning at what seemed a childish jest.
“And if the dragon was a part of me,” she said, “and would mean my own death to free me, would you do it?”
All mirth vanished in the instant, blown away by the faint stench of rot upon the winds.
“I do not like this conjecture,” I said.
She smiled and let go of my hands. “It is just a fancy of mine, is all,” she said. “Come now. Let us walk away this angst. Give our demons a jaunt, as a kettle master would his dogs.”
We walked for much of the day upon the moors and the heathland. The sun was radiant and the flowers further inland were ebullient with its light. It was an idyllic stroll. We said little except to comment upon a certain flower, or the refreshing air, or the sparkle of the sea. Eventually we came to a granite outcropping near an old ruin of a building. Well-worn ruts formed a crude road leading away to a shore nearby shore. I had never been so far from my clinic. It was exhilarating in its own way, and keenly I was pleased with having Virginia by my side. Nor did I fail to understand the scandalous nature of my emotions. I was dancing upon a steep and slippery precipice.
“This must have been a mine once upon a time,” I remarked. “Copper or tin, I should think. Maybe even iron. I do not know.”
“It contrasts greatly with the heath,” Virginia said. “Indeed, it is most foul in appearance, like a ruin where once it was likely beautiful.”
“Pardon me,” I said, “but did not your family’s fortune come from mines?”
“Yes,” she said. “But they have been barren for a long time.”
“And so you married William,” I said, the implications distasteful. “I presume to understand that his newfound wealth has been a result of mines in America.” I thought again of the strange creamy white gold and oddly coloured jewels that resided in the velvet pouch in my bedcamber. “Gold mines, if I am not mistaken. Is that so?”
“He has found wealth in America,” she said quietly.
“So,” I said, hoping that I did not inquire too clumsily into this rather personal business, “how did he acquire such opportunities? Did he buy a teat off that Golden Calf? What has he traded for such wealth?”
Virginia was quiet a very long time. “Something not so near and dear to his heart as gold,” she said, her long fair hair blowing around her like an aureola.
“I see,” I said, not at all seeing what she meant.
Virginia continued to gaze at the plundered earth with its open wounds of blasted turf and rent rock. There was a wrathfulness in her countenance. Combined with her beauty, it made her appear like an avenging angel.
“What a creature Man is,” she said. “When Man looks upon something, he must either control it or destroy it. Whether it be animals or land or Woman, he must control or destroy it. But soon there will come things that Man cannot control; things which he will despair of ever destroying. It will be as a new hell for Man, then; one that Man will not be capable of reconciling himself with, but like a fly against a window pane he will slam himself again and again in the futile effort to break free. Whereas Woman…well, Woman has learned to deal with such hells since her creation and will, through her strength, endure yet another glass cage no different than the one before.”
She trembled as she spoke, but whether wroth or ill I could not tell. I know now that her tremors were born of simultaneous sources.
“Are you well, Virginia?” I asked, touching her wrist.
She drew away from me, and there came a momentary flare of hatred in her eyes. But she shook her head and sighed. “I am sorry, Robert,” she said, warily. “It has been a long walk and I should like to return to the cottage.”
“As you wish,” I said. “Let us go.”
We returned to the village. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were in the field, affecting to pick flowers. When I approached the three sisters, only Anne and Emily hailed us. Charlotte turned away, as if lost in her own thoughts.
“It is good to see you out of bed, sir,” Anne said. She eyed Virginia with a sidelong glance that I disliked. “And our one and only patient is doing well, too, it seems.”
“Yes,” I said, “though the ruffian I dispatched last night merely had her in his grasp.”
The sisters’ demeanors changed upon the instant from smoldering resentment to startled apoplexy.
“Indeed, Dr. Grace?!” Emily said, her mouth a moue of surprise. “What happened?”
“It does not matter,” I said, wanting to spare Virginia the recollection. “It is enough to know that I have slain the deluded fool with his own blade. Now you no longer need fear any trespassers.”
The revelation overawed the three sisters and I, to my great shame, took pride in being a hero of my own story, especially since it involved saving the life of the beautiful Virginia Worthington. I exulted in it, truly, and blinded myself to my own folly.
I sent the three sisters home early once again, after they had made an early supper for Virginia, and then I set myself down to the tavern once again, hoping to speak to George about last night’s bloody business. In truth, I wanted to regale the Cornish men— to whom I was considered little more than a London dandy— with my heroic encounter with violence the night before.
As Fate would have it, I would not be able to confer upon the Cornish flock my grand tale of valor. Instead, I greeted George at the bar to order another modest meal of mutton and potatoes and was served, instead, with a sobering bit of news.
“Dr. Grace,” he said, “I received a letter today from a lad working a merchant ship. We were to deliver it to you at once, but your midwives said you were resting. Later, they said you had gone for a stroll. I am sorry for the tardiness of its delivery, but here it is, swift as bad luck could have it.”
He handed to me an envelope with William’s seal upon it. I sat down, then, next to a candle and opened the letter, reading its contents. It had not been written by William, nor did it claim to be. Rather, it was written by the captain of his trade ship. It reported—in a succinct, clinical hand—that William had taken his own life in the captain’s quarters. My childhood friend left no testimony behind, and gave no forewarning to his self-destructive state of mind. The captain had sent the letter ashore with the lad and then continued North, having too much cargo to tarry for formalities. Since I was Virginia’s caretaker it was incumbent upon me to inform her of the tragedy. In the meantime, the captain would oversee William’s trade ventures, as had been a contractual stipulation previously agreed upon in the event of misfortune.
I was shocked. William had been a lifelong friend, and now his life was at an end. Simultaneously, I felt a quickening rush of relief and, moreover, joy. Virginia was now a widow, and as such was available to court. True, there had to be a sufficient period of mourning, but afterwards she would yet remain in my care and, so, be free to wed me as she undoubtedly desired. Yes, fool as I was— and, moreover, a repugnant opportunist, it seemed—I had no doubts as to her attachment to me; no more doubts than as to my attachment to her.
I thanked George and left the tavern, walking uphill toward the seaside moor. The moon was full as I approached Virginia’s cottage. I rapped at the door once, and it at once opened.
“Robert?” she said. “Is something the matter?”
“I am afraid so,” I said, affecting proper solemnity for the message. “Please, be seated. This will come as quite the shock.”
She did not sit, but stood by the window, turning away from me. Her petticoats seemed swollen with an errant wind through the window. She did not turn away from the window, but stared out at sea. I wondered, perhaps, if she was looking for William somewhere beyond the horizon, or if she was looking for something else.
“I have terrible news,” I said.
“Did William kill an Albatross?” she asked, her voice flippant.
“No,” I said. “It saddens me to say it, but it appears he has…taken his own life.”
I expected female frailty, and so rushed to her should she be faint. But in the stead of a swooning woman I found an unmoved statue of icy scorn.
“A coward’s end, then,” she remarked. “I knew he had not the stomach to endure what he had begotten upon the world. Begotten with his scheming and conniving. How ironic that I should have the stomach to see it through to the end.” She turned away from the window, then, and I saw how beautifully icy her blue eyes were. “Tell me, doctor, since you have the privilege of being both a man and a doctor that treats women, what do you think of that trite epithet, ‘the fairer sex’?”
I knew not how to answer her, for I knew not the purpose in such a question. Before I could stammer a response, she took my hand and led me toward her bed. The lunar luminescence of her face outshone the moon itself, her skin seemingly glowing in the shadows.
“I am ready for another treatment, Robert,” she said. “For I wish to be reminded of how a woman should feel before it is too late to feel anything human. But I do not want you to treat me as you would any other patient. I do not wish for you to treat me as a doctor should. Rather, I want you to rut upon me as a man would a woman, naturally, without these pretenses of Medicine. Be as a beast upon me, and let me be as a beast upon you.”
Whether it was dread or exultation that silenced me, I do not know. But I did as she commanded.
She undid her petticoats and stepped out from that frilled garment, slick with her nudity. Her belly was protuberant and hung upon her solidly, and yet it did not repulse me. Her breasts, too, were swollen, and her nipples dark and engorged, the tips damp already with excited milk. I will not omit that I did take her, then, as she wished it, and she took me, in turns, straddling me as her milk trickled upon me. The excitement I felt was as a new awakening, very much akin to those that I gave to my patients in the clinic. For who was I to fool myself into believing that what I practiced was clinical medicine? What I did for my female patients was as Hedonistic as my father avowed, and was all the more therapeutic because of its Natural basis in human pleasures. It was simply animal instinct sanctified by the pretense of Medicine.
And yet, even in the euphoria of our mutual paroxysm, I felt dawn a fear akin to religious terror. As my hands cupped her breasts and I gazed up at her, I saw the climactic triumph in her eyes, and yet I was drawn in my attentions to the rotund swell of her belly and the strange, overabundant movement that writhed there, deep in the mysterious womb of Woman.
What was it that lured my heart to these iniquities? Idleness, perhaps, and indolence, too. Perhaps it was the idle hours that tempted my mind ever toward my singular patient. Singular, also, was the vice, for had I more patients in my care such fixations would not have diverted and vexed me so strongly within the lecherous lap of so much leisure. Indeed, idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and I had idle hands in want of work. Wanting work, I exercised them, and my heart, upon the newly widowed Virginia Worthington. It was a passionate, shameless enterprise.
We dropped all pretenses as to doctor and patient. Instead, the treatment cottage became as a rutting grot of amorous delights. The sisters inquired after us only once, happening upon us in our mutual pleasures, and they fled in appalled fright. This encroachment only catalyzed our passions. Seeing Charlotte’s heart break awoke in me a Sadist I had never known. This demonic twin reveled in debauchery and its gremlin familiar, gossip.
Again and again Virginia and I sought each other’s flesh. Moreover, we walked like husband and wife through town. The Cornish people were aghast at our impropriety. Yet, it delighted us to no end. We relished our shared flesh and shared sin. We took our supper in the tavern, much to George’s horror, and that he did not refuse my coin only made it the more enjoyable experience. For weeks we cleaved to one another. It was not Love, nor was it wholly Lust. Indeed, it was more of an act of ruination upon society, and civilization. Like animals we were, slighting the conventions of modern civilization by savaging ourselves with every bedroom taboo that willed itself upon us in our ardour. We were as unashamed as Adam and Eve, and as corrupt as the Serpent, yet no one dared to burn our Garden down.
But a certain melancholia would clutch Virginia intermittently, like a hawk upon a hare, and she would turn wan and swoon away after the paroxysms had at last left her. In these moments of lethargy she would beg me, with a wanton’s sincerity, to end her life.
“You do not know the agonies I know,” she said. “You do not know the horrors visited upon me by the shadows of this world.”
I explained to her the absurdity of this fixation and vowed that I was forbidden from harming another. I had taken the Hippocratic oath, and the first vow was to do no harm. Yet, even then I knew I was deluding myself. By refusing to end her life, and thus aborting the creature growing within her womb, I had done unto the world a greater harm beyond all reckoning.
Gradually, Virginia’s belly swelled all the more with child, and yet my desire for her only increased. My mind turned ever toward her, even as I slept at night, lost in the nightmares that visited me in my vulnerable hours of sleep. I saw, yet again, the Great Flood that subsumed the continents. I stood upon the ridged spine of the earth, surrounded by endless ocean to either side. I saw the island rise with its terrible countenance. I saw the dark, indifferent eyes and the maw thrashing its ropy appendages upon the water. I saw Virginia entwined within its writhing tendrils.
When I heard her screams, I did not know if they were screams of joy or of agony. Perhaps they were both.
The sisters never returned to my employment. The Cornish people avoided me, except whenever wealth held sway, and even then they acknowledged me with a begrudging taciturnity. I pondered the notion of selling the cottages and taking the jewels and gold and gems that William had given me and moving inland. Thinking it would please Virginia, I told her of my plans while abed in the aftermath of our passions. Contrary to my expectations, she succumbed to a rage.
“And I suppose you think I will leave with you?!” she cried. “You suppose you and I will live happily ever after, growing old together like true loves in a ridiculous French novel? That is absurd, Robert, and you know it!”
“What is errant in the idea?” I demanded, becoming angry. “Do you not wish to escape to some private place where we might live in happiness? An estate in the country, perhaps? Or do you wish to return to London? I would be willing to live in London, but you must know that there will be gossip. Gossip of which we would be powerless to silence.”
She sat up in bed, her belly swollen to a full rotundness and her breasts almost always trickling milk now— so much so that it ruined the sheets, though I had long foregone frets upon such things. Even the unnatural writhing of her womb did not give me pause or halt my breath with terror. She looked upon me with her blue-eyed scorn, and it both withered me and excited me. I loved when she so loathed me with a single look.
“Powerless?” she said, her hysteria taking hold of her. “Powerless? Is that what you fear? Well, perhaps you should. Man has never known the powerlessness inherent in being born Woman. Man does not know the rough indifference of a rutting beast mounting him against his protestations, being taken body and soul by the indifferent whim of another. But he will know it. That time will come soon enough.”
“I only wish that we live as husband and wife,” I said, feeling an angry possessiveness overtake me. Her hysterical fits always provoked me, for I still understood little of their nature. “I am your doctor, after all, and I know what is best for you.”
She stood up, quivering with rage. She did not bother to don her clothes, but left her cottage without clothes or shame. I hastened to clothe myself and follow her, lest great anger would lead to great folly.
There were no sane men or women out of doors that night in Cornwall. A tempest was blowing in upon the Celtic Sea, like a raging dragon crashing aground in its wrath. The sea-borne gales blew and bellowed, as if the Atlantic itself was warring with the continents. I could not walk long without nearly toppling over with their belligerent wails. It was a black night illuminated only in flashes of lightning. All was hidden and revealed in spasmodic intervals, light and darkness frenetic in their struggle. Fearing that Virginia would lose herself in such a night, I called for her and hastened my own tentative tread, all the while frightened of the treacherous cliffs that dropped dizzily toward the throe-thrown sea.
I found Virginia soon enough. She swayed at the edge of the cliff. Jagged rocks gaped like a maw below her, as if she was a worm upon a hook. I called to her, pleading that she come away from that airy threshold. The winds howled in elemental rage, and the lightning flashed.
“I will never be powerless again!” she screamed beneath the tumult of the winds. “Neither Man nor God nor Devil will own me!”
I pleaded with her to step away from the cliff. I begged and shouted and sobbed for her return.
“If I am to die,” she cried, “then I shall decide when and how! No Man or Devil or God will decide it so! Only myself! I was not allowed to choose my life, but I will choose my death! I will have autonomy with my final breath!”
“Virginia!” I shouted, rushing toward her.
A wink of darkness and then a flash of lightning and she was no longer upon the cliff. I ran to the place of her disappearance and gazed down below at the terrible crags. There, sprawled limply, as if she had only recently been treated by hysterical paroxysm, Virginia Worthington lay broken and bloodied upon the teeth of the sea. I stared on in horror as the rain fell. Lightning flashed and crackled in triumph, its epileptic illumination brightening her body. I saw, then, that her belly undulated as if in unnatural contractions. Uncertain of my own eyes, I watched as there expelled from her body a mass neither human nor animal. It glistened, as if with scales, and crawled in agony with webbed fingers and coiling tendrils. Soon it slipped into the crashing surf and was carried out to the depths as if within a foamy cradle. Another flash and my eyes beheld something gigantic within the sea; something my mind could not comprehend and so merely blurred its form with a rush of panic. I staggered back from the cliff and ran headlong down the hill toward the village; toward any manmade dwelling wherein I could escape that terrible image and the maddening elements.
I proposed to Charlotte the next day, bitter with tears and fears and steeped in my own folly. She was repulsed and she vehemently declined my offer. In time she would marry a Cornish tradesman of relatively good financial standing and has never answered any of the letters I have sent her, nor have her sisters answered to my ink. Unable to abide the sea since that tragic night, I moved further inland, relocating to London. I never married and instead directed my life to plying my profession. I was therefore separate from Woman even as I treated Woman for her hysterical maladies. I became as a device used to exorcize excessive sexual retention. I later read the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the other psychoanalysts who pioneered the strange realm of Woman in all of its exotic terrors. It elucidated no more for me than the anatomical reactions evident in my patients. But perhaps it was willful misunderstanding on my part that led me to my continuing mystification in that realm. To dare true enlightenment seemed to me to be not unlike flinging myself from a cliff headlong into unknown crags and indifferent tides. Woman’s sexuality is as frightening, if not more so, than anything else the Sciences might reveal. Indeed, I thought of Freud as some pagan shaman summoning disturbing creatures from the depths of the psyche, and so, after a time, cloyed of his works, turning my attention solely to the pragmatic applications of my profession rather than extrapolating an overarching theory or revelations from collated findings. The latter was the road to madness, I realized, as was any memory associated with Virginia.
I still read literature from women in the East. Despite the insistence by so many in the West that they were barbarians, I could not help admiring their honesty and the pure, personal romanticism of their stories. It seemed to me that their view on Woman’s sexuality was both healthy and practical. Indeed, I never read once a translation indicating that they ever suffered from hysteria. Then again, had such a perspective been adopted by the West I would not have had a vocation nor have been steeped as I was in such lucrative petticoats.
Yet, as all things do, even this vocation came to an end. Nor did it end from retirement or the needfulness of my wanting health. In truth, I could have retired when returning from Cornwall, such were my finances. Yet, I remained devoted to Medicine because it gave to me a sense of purpose, and justified contact with Woman. And I walways wished to be of service to the fairer sex. It eased my soul knowing I helped Woman after Woman died birthing me.
But then a day came when a nervous husband brought his wife to the clinic, seeking la titillation du clitoris. She was no beauty, nor was she homely, yet there was in her complexion a familiar luminescence that staggered me with its lambency. I treated her for her catatonia, with some effort, and wished to think her glow an illusion of my failing eyes. Then came another woman, escorted to my clinic while suffering the same stupor and lunar luminescence. And another. And yet another. With each new patient my health waned and my mind became haunted with the same images that rose again and again within the realm of sleep. At last I could suffer it no longer and told these distraught husbands to bring their wives to someone else. I did not care whom, even if Dr. Severan was still practicing his butchery. I would have no part in it, either way. I merely wanted peace and solitude away from Man, Woman, God, Devil, and Sea.
And so now, as Death readies himself for his final visit, I only wish to unburden myself of what I have come to know, and what is soon to come. I do not believe the tide can be turned about, nor the infestation stymied. There is no cure for the Wandering Womb.
“Then when Lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it bring forth death.” (James 1:14)
Testimonial of Dr. Robert Grace. March 8th, 1908
The tired adage stating that youth is impulsive and lacks discretion is, I have found, contrary to reality insomuch as material gain is concerned, and indeed, youth restrains itself in matters potentially detrimental to an enterprise if the consequences are sufficient to foil the ambitions therein proffered. This is why I have, to my great shame, kept this abominable secret hidden for decades, clutching its monstrous revelations to my bosom until old age has rendered all other considerations irrelevant as I stand eye to eye with Death at long last. Having retired from my medical practice, I need not fear the incredulity which this account will invariably afford and which, regardless of the solemnity with which it is presented, will lend ridicule unto my previous practice and, ultimately, discredit my woefully sound mind. And I assure you my mind is sound. It is the world that is mad, though I fear it is too late to rectify it in any meaningful manner.
The Worthington family had always prided themselves on their breeding. All the English gentry do, of course, but the Worthingtons have always been of extraordinary descent. As a consequence, their long line practiced rigorous exclusivity of admittance until its final termination. When considering, then, the privilege of my family’s acquaintance with their illustrious family, I must admit privilege of social acquaintance. Not all can claim a social circle boasting their radius. Indeed, Johnathan Worthington employed my father as his physician throughout the entirety of his long life, as did his father my grandfather, and so our families had been allies against sickness for generations. Naturally, his son William had sought my medical advice concerning his wife and her illness those many decades ago. Of course, I must state that he had not sought my advice in the past, for I was not considered as respectable in my medical practice as my father and grandfather were, for I was a doctor that even they thought of dismissively, and, indeed, they so vehemently opposed in my chosen field of study that my father refused to speak to me even unto his death. I suppose it is ironic, then, that I feared so much the reification of medical business since it was, in the eyes of most British citizenry, a farcical field of medicine, even if it was lucrative.
I was, in short, a doctor dedicated to treating hysteria in women.
As I stated, it was very lucrative and I soon established myself in a rather large clinic in a seaside village in beautiful Cornwall. This clinic was more of a rambling assortment of thatch-and-stone cottages built long before my arrival. Using the money I acquired in London from my burgeoning practice, I moved thereto and renovated and repurposed those buildings. They were inexpensive to purchase, when compared to similar dwellings on the rural outskirts of London, and so I gladly claimed them.
Since we were so far South on the tip of Britain, many of our patients came and stayed with us for months. Their stay benefitted them not only with treatments, but with scenery and the fresh seaside air. Wealthy widows even wintered there, so greatly did the la titillation improve their physical and spiritual health during those frigid, snowy months. I was delighted by my work, of course, not withstanding the drudgery of it, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the betterment of my patients, which was ofttimes amply evident within the first treatment. Japes and snide remarks aside, I was very contented in that seaside village and would, in my free hours, go walking about the beaches and moors for exercise and to clear my mind. My life seemed idyllic, insomuch as a mortal man’s might be.
I was enjoying one such walk when I saw a ship with a familiar flag gently rocking toward the narrow beach. It dropped anchor soon enough and a small boat cast off from its bosom, carrying three figures which I could not discern at the distance. They rowed toward the beach up from which the seaside village was strewn among its shrub greenery, shouldered on either side by the rising hills. Realizing that the flag belonged to none other than the Worthington family, I set off at once downhill, hurrying through the winding streets of the village and down onto the beach. My attentions were rewarded by the grave smile of my childhood friend, William, as he and a servant unloaded the boat of its belongings, including his beautiful, yet strangely catatonic, wife, Virginia.
I hailed him and immediately lent my assistance in unburdening the small craft. We spoke as we carried the luggage ashore.
“This is fortuitous, Will,” I said, “to be here to greet you upon your arrival.”
“Fortuitous, indeed,” he replied, “even if in unfortunate circumstances.”
“What ails?” I asked, unable to prevent my eyes from wandering to his unresponsive wife. “Does the trade go well in the Americas?”
“Very well,” William said. “Dickens was wise to milk the Golden Calf. Following his example, I have gold enough now to profit in even a back-alley enterprise.”
“Does the Gold Rush persist, then?” I asked, having read in a newspaper an article chronicling the American obsession with gold in California. They swarmed that region, it seemed, like ants to honey, and many found themselves therein stuck.
“It is a Gold Rush of a different kind,” he said, bleakly, “and of a different coast. But, yes, I have struck gold, so to speak, and the enterprise turns more profit than I could dare dream of. Yet, I did not come to Cornwall to speak of base material things. Rather, I came to seek your assistance in a personal matter.”
“I shall help in any way I may,” I said.
“I hope so,” he said.
We had finished unloading the boat, except for its silent passenger.
William climbed aboard and gently raised his wife to her feet, guiding her from the boat as the servant and I steadied the boat athwart the puckish waves of the sea. The married couple stepped down onto the sand and William held his wife’s unfeeling hand. He turned to me.
“My wife, Virginia, is stricken with some unknown malady. I have gone to every creditable London doctor I could find, yet none prevailed in effecting a cure. Remembering your modest clinic here, at the tip of England, I thought it wise to seek your aid.”
“Perhaps you ought to have taken her to the Ivory Coast,” I jested. “My practice is in such ill repute that witch doctors are said to offer better counsel.”
William did not laugh, nor even smile. I realized, for the first time, that my friend was considerably pale and gaunt. I attributed this, at the time, to sea sickness. Yet, even so, I could not help but notice how ashen his face was and how hollow his eyes. Even his mustache was grayed, as if he had aged ten years in the two since I had last spoken to him. Moreover, he was balding, the spate of his head opening like the tonsure of a monk. His remaining brown hair had lost its composure and seemed to be unraveling in the Atlantic wind.
His wife, too, was pale, but it seemed that she was so pale that she had a glow about her, not unlike the Cornwall moon as it steered close to the Celtic Sea. What her blue eyes saw, in their vacant expression, I could not guess, but it was not the cliff-walled coastline or the green hills or the sloped beach, nor any personage within her immediate scope.
“Come,” I said. “Let me take you to my clinic. If your manservant will remain, I will send some of my employees down to help fetch the luggage.”
“Excellent idea,” William said.
We walked up the shore, its sand gradually giving way to shingle and rock and finally scrab grass, then to the heath that covered most of the hills and moors with its gorse and flowers. I was anxious that I take my friend and his wife to one of my cottages as quickly as possible. I feared they might require rest, for they both appeared so sickly. I obliged Mrs. Worthington, and William, in aiding her in the ascent to the village, thus unburdening one sickly personage of another. Contrary to her vacant expression and ill pallor, I could feel warmth emanating from Mrs. Worthington where I had expected to discover pneumatic clamminess. Indeed, the glow upon her was as much a trick of sensation as much as of light. Women often complained of being chilled, often owing to their fairer natures, yet I had known during the course of administering treatments that a woman’s temperature could easily rise to such ferocities as any overworked farmer in his field. And so it seemed now that Mrs. Worthington was ever in such a heat as those goatish labourers.
“I fear it will rain soon,” I said. “But that is bound to happen in Cornwall at some time or other.”
As expected, Mrs. Worthington said nothing in reply, her emptied eyes surveying the cobbled streets and cottages with as much recognition as they did the seaside cliffs. William, on the other hand, seemed to grow anxious.
“I fear a squall is to come,” he said. Then, more to himself than to me, he muttered, “It will likely chase us toward America once again. Or will it remain here in Cornwall? It knows all. Of course it will remain.”
Before I could inquire as to his particular reference, I saw three of my midwives carrying various supplies back to the house. They had went to see the baker, the butcher, and the local farmers. A consequence of so many boarders was a great need of food. Being that my patients paid well for their stay, I always granted my diligent employees the liberties of indulging in victuals if they were so compelled and the prices were reasonable. Since I deferred to their womanly instinct for fair prices, I had saved tremendously in terms of scatch-of-straw savings, and it inspirited them with affable usefulness. I hailed them as we crossed paths.
“Emily, Charlotte, Ann. If you are not otherwise preoccupied, please deliver what you must to the clinic and then hasten to the shore. There you will find a manservant with sizeable luggage in need of relocation to the unoccupied cottage.”
“Of course, Dr. Grace,” they said as one.
The three midwives curtsied and did as I bade them, joining my escort to the clinic and then returning downhill toward the shore to see to Lady Worthington’s effects.
Newly arrived at the clinic, I guided William and Lady Worthington to her personal cottage among the cluster. It was, I must say, much like the other cottages, albeit nearer to the sea cliff than the others. It was modest and cozy, warm and comfortable. There was a bed in one corner, a writing desk, various papers and a quill for inking such correspondence as might be needed, and an oil lamp. The hearth was not aflame, as it was midsummer and no want of fire was evident in the sea-blown winds. The windows were open, rather, and afforded a wonderful view of the greenish-blue hued ocean as it sang its lovely song across the moors.
“Are these accommodations adequate?” I asked.
“They are quite adequate,” William said with little more than a glance across the interior.
“Should I close the windows?” I asked. “I never know the preference of a lady, but I suppose neither do such ladies until they have been here long enough to appreciate the briny breath of the sea.”
“Opened. Closed. You are the doctor” My friend’s attitude was impatience bordering upon petulance. He seemed quite ready to leave. “I must away soon,” he said, stroking his mustache as if in vexation. “I should like to view a treatment, however, before I consign Virginia to your care.”
“As you wish,” I said. “But I must first inquire as to whether the lady has imbibed sufficiently today.”
“Water? Wine? Does it matter?” he said, growing perceivably agitated.
“Water would be preferable,” I said. “The treatment can tax a woman’s bodily fluids.”
“She has enough water in her,” William said. “Now. Please. Treat her.”
I acquiesced to his hasty request, thinking it would possibly reassure William and thus restore his health alongside his wife’s. I took him and his wife to the most isolated cottage among those I owned— my treatment cottage. By then, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily had returned and I requested that they prepare his wife. I always used this most isolated cottage for treatments because it was farthest from any neighbor whose sensibilities might be upset by the conclusion of a treatment. Indeed, one never knew how clamorous a treatment might be, especially in newly arrived patients whose reactions have not been properly gauged.
While William and I waited for the midwife to prepare his wife, I casually queried him about his wife’s condition and her former behavior prior to her current symptoms.
“Normally Virginia is a very prominent member of London society,” he said, trembling as he spoke. “She is a darling of many a drawing room and the heartbeat of every soiree she attends. I have heard many a well-bred lady remark that without Virginia in attendance a ball is a dead affair without a pulse. She has always had ample energies to pursue whatever aim was her intent, and she turned this innate vivacity toward endeavors beyond what was strictly a woman’s sphere. Often, whenever I would leave home to tend to business she would accompany me. The most recent adventure, however, brought us to America. Though it was a long, arduous journey, Virginia committed to it in earnest and soldiered through it rather impressively. But gradually the business itself debilitated her and soon she succumbed to her current quiescence. At first, it was mere ‘vapours’ and lethargy. The American doctors, while brutes in their manners, used the available London treatments as well as they could. Smelling salts. Bleedings. Opium and other various medications which I cannot recall. The same treatments achieved no better in London. Soon her fatigue gave over to malaise and then lassitude. Finally, she vacated herself and has been hollow ever since. She eats but little and does not respond to speech.”
I nodded to my friend’s concise history on his wife’s deterioration. “While some of these symptoms are certainly signposts for hysteria, I must administer a treatment and measure the results of the reaction to verify such a diagnosis.
“Thank you, Robert,” he said. “I only ask that you cure my wife, and do so with discretion.”
“Discretion is crucial, indeed,” I agreed. “In hearts, arts, and professions.”
It should be said that this cottage on the outskirts of the village was of a unique discretion in and of itself. To afford my patients privacy during our sessions the windows were covered by heavy drapes that allowed neither sunlight nor the scrutiny of curious eyes to penetrate the inner secrecy of the cottage. In place of natural light I employed candlelight which, even then, glowed in subdued illumination as Mrs. Worthington was denuded. My patients’ seemed to prefer this ambiance. It contributed positively to their therapies. Having inquired as to whether they might prefer more natural light, my patients all confirmed that the dim haloes of candlelight was more than sufficient and, verily, increased the effectiveness of their treatments. The only deviancy in fondness for this methodology was that my patients occasionally requested a nightly administration with the windows open, should the stars and the moon be bright enough in their illuminations so that the darkness not hinder my capacity to work.
The midwife aided Mrs. Worthington in donning the patient gown that all of my patients wore during their treatments. It was a thin white linen garment spun seemingly of gossamers. Its touch, I had been informed by my patients, was very pleasing and conducive to their treatment and subsequent rehabilitation.
It must be said that I often delegated the more menial labours of the treatment to the many midwives I employed. Yet, since this was my friend’s wife, and since he was present to observe the treatment, I felt it incumbent upon myself to reassure him of the treatment’s efficacy, as well as my professional pursuance of proper procedure and diligent care in regard to the patient. Thus, once Virginia had been laid comfortably upon the medical bed, I directed her legs apart and applied an olive oil from Greece—which had no known negative reactions—and, in occupational manner similar to the hundreds of other female patients I had serviced through the years, stimulated the petaled womb.
The reaction was immediate. Virginia’s breathing increased in rapidity and depth. Her eyes regained focus, her attention returning once again to her immediate surroundings and, in particular, her body. There even seemed to appear, in the corners of her lips, a smile that evoked not only presence of mind, but intense cognizance. Had I the boastfulness unknown to my character, I might have complimented myself on the change being akin to Lazarus waking from death.
Despite my attentive care and the positive reaction from Mrs. Worthingon, William turned away and refused to watch the remainder of the treatment. It upset him, I supposed, as it likely did all British husbands who viewed their wives as composed matriarchs of the household. The moans and the groans that accompanied such treatments were, for such men, irreconcilable with the notion of an angelic female presence premised to be of heavenly spheres. I had never been so susceptible to such prejudices myself, even in the beginnings of my journey into medicine. Rather, I assumed what was good for the Gander was good for the Goose, and, so, such so-called “secret pollutions” needed to be conducted so as to retain the sanity and the dignity of the matriarch in question.
At length, I brought Virginia to the culmination of her hysterical paroxysm— or as the French deem it, du titillation du clitoris—and she underwent the usual strong reaction, albeit much stronger than the usual patient. So strong were these spasms that she nearly threw herself from the bed. Anne and Charlotte had to restrain her until her gyrations and flailing subsided. When the spasms had ceased, she lay panting upon the medical bed, staring up at me with an expression of not only awareness, but of extreme gratitude.
And yet, like the tides at full moon, she gradually ebbed away, her presence retreating into.dormancy and unresponsiveness.
“It may take several treatments,” I confided to my friend.
“I suspected as much,” William said gruffly. “That is why I brought her things. She is to stay here with you while I am away in America. My business ventures are too important to neglect, even for the sake of my wife.”
William’s words seemed not only callous, but his tone was gruff and terse, as if he was suffering a moment of lockjaw. His mustache seemed to bristle with each word.
“You said you took her to several doctors?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “They tried bleeding, tonics, elixirs, laudanum, cocaine, and even sunshine. To no avail. If this…treatment…does not yield results then I shall have to seek a surgeon to exact the change. There is a surgeon in London who does such work. Dr. David Severan. Perhaps you have heard of him?”
I had indeed heard of Dr. Severan. He was a butcher of women. A savage with a knife. He believed that to cure hysteria, the female genitals needed to be removed. In particular, the clitoris. The barbarian had savaged many a lady, and yet, not surprisingly, he was held in high esteem among the medical practitioners of London, whereas I, in my minimal reputation, was largely derided as a charlatan and witch doctor. Much of this criticism seemed to me to be resentment toward not only the efficacy of my methods, but the affluence of my clinic. My patients enthusiastically endorsed my clinic among their confidential circles, so whereas my reputation was singularly repudiation among my colleagues, it burgeoned prosperously among my patients.
“It is best that you do not seek his…treatment,” I said, carefully. “Virginia has a greater chance of recovery here. More importantly, she has a greater chance of recovery intact.”
“I hope you are right,” he said. “There are some pioneers that would say that sacrifice is all that can attain certain results.”
I did not wish to imagine Virginia’s moans of relief rising to screams of agony as there passed along her womanhood not a warm, nudging hand, but a cold, cruel blade.
“Now,” William said, “your pay.”
Before I could protest, William brusquely shoved a rather hefty pouch into my hand. It was the size of a human heart and astonishingly heavy.
“It is not a conventional payment,” he told me. “But it is copious. This I assure you.” Without a further word, he headed toward the door as if he was in dire need of fresh air. He opened the door and stepped out of the dark cottage and into the blanching sunlight. His face was all sneering agony as he shielded his eyes. I followed after him, wanting to ask him a few more questions regarding Virginia’s condition.
“William!” I called. “Wait a moment!”
But by the time I had exited the cottage he had disappeared down a cobbled path around the cottages. His stride had been fiercely adamant and I had no doubt that he had heard me, but was willfully affecting ignorance. Discouraged, I let him go upon his way, turning my attention instead to the pouch still clutched in my hand. The pouch itself was of a rich velvet that glistened in the midday sun, like newly pressed veldt. Pulling at the drawstring, the pouch opened its mouth to reveal uncanny marvels and curios that astounded me. I do not write this lightly, for I had been party to many transactions that profited me greatly and which afforded me the keyhole to the vaults of some of the wealthiest Brits in the world. Yet, the contents of this pouch outshone all previous payments. There were opalescent pearls glinting within a clutter of strange green jewels neither like emeralds or diamonds, but hued as if like green ice. Looking at the former, I bethought to see bubbles frozen within that solidified liquid. Stranger than this were the ingots of gold. The ingots were strange of shape, spiraled and smooth like stems of coral, and their golden gleam was milky white, like honeyed cream rather than yellow yolk. A cursory glance revealed this, and I quickly drew the drawstring tight once again, suddenly suspecting my Cornish neighbors of covetous treachery.
Returning indoors, I found Anne and Charlotte were helping Virginia to stand from the bed. Emily was preparing Virginia’s bath. I was pleased to see some colour visible in Virginia’s face now, even in the dim candlelight, and thanked my midwives for what was, I thought to have been, an excellent treatment. This done, I went to my own private cottage to put away so much exotic wealth that had been so unceremoniously thrust into my possession.
After the midwives had dried and dressed Virginia, I took her to her room and sat her down on her bed.
“Rest, if you like,” I told her. “I will have Anne or Charlotte bring some food and water for you very soon. Later, you will dine with me and the rest of my patients this evening.”
Remembering William’s request for discretion, and realizing that several of my other patients were doubtlessly inclined toward gossip, I corrected my error.
“To the contrary,” I said. “Perhaps it would be best if you dined in your cottage tonight. Gossip is an infectious disease for which there is no cure.”
I turned toward the door, but heard what seemed a muttered word among the cooing wind. Glancing back to Virginia, I observed that she seemed to be watching me— that she seemed to see me for the first time— but just as soon as this recognition appeared, it left her, and what was left were the most beautiful blue eyes devoid of soul that I had ever seen.
Coming again to the treatment cottage, I overheard my midwives feeding the air with their gossip.
“And his eyes never blinked!” Anne said. “Not e’en once!”
“Aye’ and what a stink he had to ‘im,” Charlotte said. “Like a mackerel left out all day in the sun.”
“His skin was what chilled me most to me bones,” Emily remarked. “No man should glisten green in daylight like that.”
“And the bulges of his neck!” Anne remarked. “Like he swallowed a chicken halfway down and it was tryin’ to climb out!”
They giggled like silly geese, but upon my opening the door they immediately tightened their tongues and went about changing the sheets of the bed and lighting incense to cleanse the air. No amount of incense could ever cleanse air tainted by mean words, as they well knew. I had had to lecture them many times on the needful discretion of my practice. They were industrious girls, much to their credit, but I have heard that siblings have always been loose of lips amongst themselves. Being a single child I would not know from personal experience, though, as I have said, William and I were as brothers when children.
“Of whom are you speaking?” I demanded, eyeing them all in turn. “It is most uncharitable, this characterization.”
“Pardon us, Dr. Grace,” Anne said. “It’s just that we dinna’ think it nat’ral is all. That man of his.”
“Mr. Worthington?” I asked, sternly.
“No, sir!” Emily exclaimed with a rolling sigh. “We mean only his manservant. He was a strange one, if e’er there were!”
“Speak no more of it,” I said. “William has been a friend of mine since childhood. Our families have been interwoven throughout history. If he has hired a manservant of strange aspect, then it is due to the generosity of his heart, and not because of whatever it is you are implying.”
“We meant nothing scandalous, sir!” Charlotte said. “And we’re sorry to offend. It just that he seemed strange, is all.”
“Is all!” agreed Anne.
I had no informed opinion on the matter, frankly, for I paid little attention to William’s manservant. Yet, if William employed him, then he must have been a man of some integrity and virtue, therefore I would not have him bandied about by the vicious winds of womanly gossip.
“Charlotte,” I said. “Prepare some small meal for Mrs. Worthington. Cheese and bread and some vegetables, perhaps. And bring her water. I doubt she has had enough liquids to compensate for the treatment.”
Charlotte curtsied and went to see to Virginia. Anne and Emily remained behind, preparing the treatment cottage for the next patient.
That evening was windy and warm and so I suspected a storm later in the night. Presently, I had already taken my seat at the dinner table and Anne and Charlotte were serving the food they had prepared. It is something to be said that while my midwives suffered from a vice of chattiness, they were possessed of other virtues that distinguished them brightly from the normal rabble of Cornish laymen. They were as diligent as the others, but they also knew how to please women of higher rank, whether it was their talents for cooking, their deferential manners, or their adroitness in applying my techniques during therapy sessions. Much to my satisfaction, there were some patients that preferred Anne, Emily, or Charlotte to administer their treatments. Charlotte, being the most youthful of expression—as well as years—and the prettiest among the three sisters, was a particular favorite among these discerning patients. I often compensated the three of them in generous measure, which assured their continued service to my clinic.
I had, at that time, four patients in my keeping, including Mrs. Worthington. Three of them joined me for dinner, whereas I sent Charlotte to bring Virginia’s dinner to her cottage and remain there, feeding her as much as she might. Earlier, when she had brought that poor woman’s food and water she said that the unfortunate patient had not eaten much, though she had drank when the cup was proffered to her lips. Her appetite was, thus, wanting.
It was, therefore, a great surprise when— as my three patients and I began our supper—that we heard a door open and the hurried rush of steps into the dining room. There appeared Charlotte, looking flustered. Behind her, Virginia followed, stepping in from the threshold’s shadows.
“Mrs. Worthington is feeling much better,” Charlotte said by way of explanation, “and should like to join you for dinner.”
“Excellent!” I nearly cried, rising from the table in my eagerness to make measure of her transformation. “Excellent! Prepare for her a place at the table at once!”
Charlotte guided Virginia to an open place at the table, next to the Widow Carter and across from Lady Falswell. I watched Virginia take her seat, studying her with a doctor’s meticulous eye. There had indeed been a remarkable transformation in her presence. Her walk, her gaze, her every movement was marked with cognizant deliberation. No longer was she an empty doll guided about by a changing escort; now she was inhabiting herself with volition and intention. It was marvelous and gratifying to me as both a doctor and as the lifelong friend of her husband.
Yet, there seemed to be in Mrs. Worthington a certain presence of self that was out of measure with the modest reserve of most women of her rank. How can I circumscribe my meaning when it is, by its very nature, beyond articulation by either word or image? She seemed a wine goblet brimming overmuch. She was a pagan vision. Her fair hair was loose upon her shoulders, unkempt like a farmer’s daughter, and she wore only a simple gown that belied her husband’s apparent fortune. While Mrs. Carter and Ms. Atwood tolerated Mrs. Worthington’s remiss sense of etiquette, Lady Falswell was quite obviously displeased, for not only had she gone through great strains to prepare herself for dinner, but having gone through such great strains proved futile in the struggle with Virginia’s natural beauty, however slovenly and negligent in aspect and presentation.
“Mrs. Worthington,” I said, resuming my seat, “it is a delight to see such a stark change. And after your first treatment!”
“It is as if I have woken from a dream,” she said, her voice a husky cadence that was not at all displeasing. It reminded me of an opera singer I had once heard in London whose notes did not so much twitter, but bloomed resonant and full in the ear.
“We must talk about it at length after dinner,” I said, “if it is not too taxing on you.”
“Of course,” she said, “but I doubt much revelation will come of it. I remember little after arriving in America. It seems like ages ago, and, if not for your kind Charlotte, I would have likely suffered an acute attack of the nerves upon coming to myself.”
Charlotte had, at the moment, been laying Mrs. Worthington’s plate before her, and she smiled obligingly. I resolved in that moment that I should increase Charlotte’s wages. I paid all three sisters well for their work, but I knew, by light of Virginia’s praise, that they deserved yet more than had been their recompense.
“It is no wonder your nerves should suffer,” Mrs. Carter remarked. “Such far travel would wreck my soul. Why, my journey from London nearly jostled me unto a frayed spool. I liked to have thought my seams had come undone! I could only imagine the hourly frights upon a vessel tossed by the capricious sea.”
“It was a frightening journey,” Virginia said. “We had thought ourselves taken by storms on more than one occasion. That we do not people the bottom of the sea is a miracle, I suppose.”
“I would have rather sunk to the bottom of the sea,” Mrs. Falswell opined, “than set foot in that barbarian land of Yankees. Who knows what setting foot upon such a savage shore could do to your soul? Would very likely work an uncouthness upon you and render you a savage yourself.” She eyed Mrs. Worthington’s long hair and minimal dress as she thus spoke. As tight as Mrs. Falswell’s braids were— pulling her high forehead yet higher—her frown was yet tighter with displeasure and disapproval.
“Pardon my saying so,” Virginia said casually, “but however uncouth I might be, I certainly know the etiquette of prayer and its preference to pugnacity. Indeed, it is particularly important at the dinner table where we have spread before us so much for which we should show our appreciation. Even the barbarians of America enjoy this insight.”
“And how do you pray, Mrs. Worthington?” Mrs. Falwell said, her scorn as evident as the wrinkles ringing her eyes.
“In like manner to yourself,” Virginia said. “As you pray in your innermost heart while having your treatments. For that is why you are here, too, is it not? Because you cannot pray. Because the thrill of speaking your Lord’s name in Church is not half so exuberant as when your loins are being manipulated . How many times do you call your god then? I should think the quantity of invocation and the quality are drastically superior in one situation rather than the other.”
Mrs. Falswell blushed deeply, her mouth and eyes gaping as if struck dumb. She balefully eyed Virginia throughout the remainder of dinner. Mrs. Carter and Ms. Atwood remained silent also, their eyes affixed sheepishly to their plates as they ate, daring not even a wayward glance in Virginia’s direction. As a doctor I was mortified to witness so much strife and trauma among my patients, but as a man I was so taken with Virginia’s refreshing candour that I could not but exhilarate in the combative exchange. It was quite promising, if not invigorating.
After dinner, the patients retired to their cottages. I took it upon myself to personally escort Mrs. Worthington to her cottage so that I might ensure that her recovery was lasting. I would have been aghast had she fell to a swoon as the rest of us blithely retired to bed, leaving the poor woman abandoned to the elements. The sun had nearly sunk into the sea and the moon rode high, proclaiming its dominion in the darkening sky. A ring around the moon prophesied rain.
“I enjoy nightly walks,” Virginia remarked. “Often I will take several turns about the courtyard when at home. Alone. Beneath the starry vaults of heaven.”
“Oh yes,” I said, remembering fondly the courtyard at the Worthington estate. William and I had learned archery within its columns “It is a lovely expanse of gardens.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Ideal for solitary moonlit walks.”
“I would suggest not taking such moonlit walks here,” I said. “For the land and the sea become as bandits at night, laying in wait to ambush any unwary perambulator. They can easily trick the eye, given sufficient shadows. The cliffs are particularly treacherous. There was a boy who went running out at night to seek an escaped goat, and the misbegotten venture resulted in tragedy. He fell from one of the highest cliffs. It took days before the family found his body.”
“A tragedy, surely,” Virginia said, “but I wonder if the boy did not feel like he was flying in that fleeting moment of suspension. Had he no point of reference, it must have been as if he had been taken suddenly from the ground and ascended into the dark chasm of night. That would have been a strange thrill. Do you not think so?”
“A thrill, perhaps,” I allowed, “until the fall reached its conclusion.”
“Yes, but the death must have been upon the instant, which means there was no lingering life with which agony might rake its talons. Pure oblivion ensued. He was freed from the suffering of this world at the moment of contact with the ground, like a sleeper upon a pillow. It is similar to your treatments, I should think, or so near as my limited knowledge might compare. There is an acute acceleration of sensation, culminating in a terminal catharsis, and then an obliterating cessation of all residual life. What remains is a hollow husk freed from its own nerves.”
“There is no thrill in plummeting to one’s death,” I said firmly, even as I admired Virginia’s eloquence. “Nor was it a ‘thrill’ for his parents to have to fetch his remains upon the shoreline and bury him in his terrible state.”
“Of course, of course,” Mrs. Worthington said. “As you say. But it cannot be denied that there is pleasure in it. Much more pleasure than in living a full life as someone else’s resource and means. And after oblivion…well, who knows? A new life? The afterlife? Is that where I am now? This afterlife without William or his infernal machinations…”
“I do not understand,” I said.
“Of course not,” she said. “You are of Man. I am of Woman. It is impossible for you to understand.”
“And what of the consequences?” I pressed on. “The boy is dead. The family grieves.”
“Are you saying my husband will grieve me because of these treatments? Does the worm mourn the apple?”
“Your metaphors are too enigmatic for me,” I confessed.
“What I will say,” she said, pausing at her cottage door, “and what will become more apparent as weeks pass and you achieve a certain clarity— and a certain prominence, as will I— is that the consequences of doing what one likes and doing what someone else likes are drastically different. But I suppose if I had done what I preferred, I would have never married William, and thus would never have been at the mercy of what he most wanted.”
This riddle given, Mrs. Worthington bid me good night and retired to her cottage. The admission shames me, but I lingered by her door for some time before finally retiring to my own bed. That night I could see nothing in my dreams but her bright blue eyes.
The coming days were filled with treatments. All four of my patients prospered. In particular, Mrs. Worthington improved considerably, though there were times when she seemed quite listless and I found her standing near the cliffs, gazing vacantly out to sea. She remained pale, and retained what I deemed to be her “lunar luminescence”, even when flush with her treatments. Occasionally, I had to employ the midwives in keeping Mrs. Worthington and Lady Falswell apart, for any interactions between the two would unerringly result in conflict. Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Atwood found no fault in Mrs. Worthington, but I did notice their reluctance to converse with her. I attributed this to Mrs. Worthington’s general aloofness, and occasional forthrightness.
The other patients never deigned to dine with me again, not so long as Virginia was afforded a place at the table. I could not understand it well, then, and dimissed it as feminine envy since she was the prettiest among all of the patients. Indeed, at times I wondered if she was not the prettiest woman in all of Cornwall. My present opinion on the matter, however, is that the other patients, being women, understood more keenly than I could what was so terribly wrong with Virginia, and so they shunned her; not in protest to her presence, but in abhorrence to her presence. Virginia seemed to take pleasure in the abhorrence she garnered about her person, and I wondered if what she said was true or was merely to achieve such a response.
She engaged me quite willingly in conversation, which I thought only natural since I was her husband’s friend. It was pleasant to converse with her, for she was a wit, truly, and a flavourful change from the common Cornish stock. Her blue eyes were beguiling as she spoke and I found myself quite carried away by her presence and personality. She was well-read, and opinionated in a very agreeable manner, even when she was being disagreeable.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” she said quietly, after a treatment, “how jaded Man is concerning his own sexual capacities, and yet how bewildered he can be at the slightest glimpse into Woman’s capacities for carnal pleasures.”
“I am not one of those men,” I said, checking her heart rate for any stumbling rhythms. “I pride myself on my extensive library and its works by Woman.”
“Such as?” she said.
“Scheherazade’s tales captivate me,” I said, “not for their fantastical elements, but for their revelations about Woman. And, indeed, Sei Shonagon pleases me, too, with her brief confessions, as does Murasaki Shikibu’s extended tale of her beloved ‘shining lord’. To be perfectly honest, I prefer to read works written by Woman to better understand Woman and what she most cherishes. For, it seems to me, that when a writer sets pen to paper, she is sacrificing life itself— moment to moment— to impart upon a feeble sheet so easily destroyed by rain, fire, or even a careless hand, and so, knowing this, she commits her most cherished thoughts, feelings, and revelations.”
“Do you believe writing to be a means of therapy?” she asked.
“Many do,” I said. “It is how Man, and Woman, copes with chaotic life.”
“And so you would think that poetry is a rein upon the world?”
“Or upon the heart to keep it from bucking wildly.”
“From horror,” she said. It was not a question, and her tone broached no argument.
Unlike the other patients, Virginia took treatment every day, sometimes twice a day. Nor did she ever seem to suffer the menstruations that prevented my other patients from taking treatments every one week in four. Virginia seemed such an immaculate creature in the this regard, and in many other aspects, that I marveled that she should be so untouched by the crucibles of Womanhood.
“I would prefer you administered my treatments,” she said, her pink lips curling ever so slightly upwards. “As I do believe you would prefer it, as well.”
Not many weeks passed until, one by one, my other patients departed unexpectantly from Cornwall, claiming to have had regained themselves miraculously from their bout of hysteria. At that time I was dumbfounded as to their precipitous exodus. On the other hand, I am ashamed to confess my pride complicit in dismissing their departures as a result of my improving methodology, for I was enamored of my own skills and deluded myself with my own efficacy.
I fancied no complaint when they left. The truth was that William had given to surfeit in his payment and could have likely bought my exclusive services for years to come, and the whole village itself. This situation also allowed my total divestment of all concerns except his lovely wife. This proved both enlightening and problematic, for she was a strange creature and had notions wildly divergent from most London ladies.
And yet the storms brewed on, even in the absence of my previous patients. Soon my midwives, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily all conspired to suggest something disagreeable about Mrs. Worthington.
“There’s something strange in her airs,” Emily said to me one day, while I was overseeing their chores around the cottages, “and I donna’ mean how freely she wags her tongue. Most uppity ladies speak to impress, even if it means being salacious, but she’s not speakin’ for sake of twistin’ knickers. She jus donna’ care a’ tall!”
To my chagrin, I must admit that I was more concerned with studying the widwives at that moment than I was their insinuations. Nor was my attentiveness in any way obscene or lecherous. The truth was that I was having another epiphany concerning the world of Woman. You see, I had always suspected that the corset, and indeed all such fashion, had much to do with the “vapours” that had hitherto beset the ladies of high society. The poor never seemed to suffer these noble illnesses inherent in the female sex, or else they abided it in silence as they did all other burdens they had been born to. Perhaps, then, it had as much to do with attire as it did with gentle breeding.
“Dr. Grace?” Charlotte said.
I realized that I had been studying the unencumbered bent in her abdomen as she stooped over the wash basin and cleaned some undergarments upon the washboard. Had she a corset she would have been too constricted and breathless to perform such strenuous labours.
“I am sorry, Charlotte,” I said. “I was lost in thought.”
Emily whispered something to Anne, upon which the latter giggled. Charlotte smiled broadly at me and I could not help thinking that I was the center of some jest. But Cornish women have always been given to delighting in jests.
“Perhaps you ought to assist Charlotte in her work,” Emily said, snickering.
“Hush, Emily!” Charlotte hissed.
“Aye,” said Anne, “she is getting her dress all wet! Dr. Grace could hold back her bloom!”
Anne and Emily burst into laughter and Charlotte brightened red, swearing worse than a Yankee sailor.
“Do you need additional assistance, Charlotte?” I asked. “I could afford to hire another midwife, if necessary. Perhaps you have a cousin in need of work?”
The three sisters became silent and wide-eyed upon the instant, but soon all three gave over to laughter again, leaving me feeling quite confused. I must confess that, even now, having aged with lifelong study, Woman is an enigma beyond my understanding.
I left them to their chores, their laughter growing louder as I closed the door. I heard Charlotte swear at her two sisters, and so I lingered by the window, listening to them speak.
“We know he knows what to do already,” Emily said. “Or as much as we know what to do. Why donna’ you see if he knows the rest?”
“He’s our employer,” Charlotte said. “And it would be improper. He’s a doctor, besides, and what would he want with a low working girl like me self?”
“You are too harsh on yourself,” Anne said. “He looks on you fondly enough, I think.”
“Not so often enough now,” Charlotte said, her tone suddenly reluctant. “Not so since she arrived.”
“Ack!” retorted Emily. “She’s no matter to mind. She’s married, anyhow, and so is no fair game. The strange witch.”
“You got to make ‘im see you more, Charlotte,” Anne said. “Donna’ let ‘im forget how pretty you are, too.”
Charlotte sighed sadly. “I donna’ know how.”
At that moment I saw Virginia walking along the heath. She wore nothing but her white undergarments. They billowed about her body as the wind blew around her. She seemed to pause in her wandering, and cast a distant look at me. Divining that she wished me to accompany her, I went to her forthwith.
“A beautiful day,” I said.
“It is,” she said.
“Are you in need of a treatment today?”
“Later,” she said. “Perhaps after dinner.”
“The sisters will be too preoccupied to assist me, then,” I said.
“I do not doubt that you can handle the treatment alone,” she said. “And the truth is I would rather they not be in the room when I am receiving my treatments. That Charlotte girl carries a petulant expression throughout, and it only distracts me from enjoying the treatment.”
“If it is your request, then I will happily oblige,” I said. “As a doctor I must ensure that my patients are at ease if it is to work. I did fancy observing a reluctance in your previous treatments. If such conditions advance the efficacy, then I submit to them full heartedly.”
She looked out upon the sea, her hair fair like cirrus clouds touched by dawn. The wind caused it to stir and ripple around her, glinting in sunlight like an aureole.
“I think I am a poet,” she said. “Like Sappho, but not in her affections for her fellow Woman.”
“I deduced that from your having married William,” I said.
Her smile was thin and wry with amusement. “Nor do I speak of William, or of Man. But that is neither here nor there. Your treatments have helped me, but they will not save me. It is no matter. All true poets live short lives. Keats. Shelley. I shall live a lifetime’s worth of feeling within the span of a year.”
I did not understand what she meant, nor did she give me time enough to ponder it. She walked straight toward the cliff and I feared, momentarily, that she should fall into the sea below. I rushed to seize her, but she paused and she stood at the brink, staring out at the glimmering green-blue sea. She then recited some small fragment of poetry:
“When fruit hangs before Woman’s eyes
and a snake slithers toward her budding thighs,
the restless fangs are both sharp and sweet,
clutching forbidden fruit to eat.”
This spoken, she turned toward me. “Do you know who wrote that?” she asked, her blue eyes mirthless even while her rosebud lips smiled.
“I am unfamiliar with it,” I said.
“What do you think of it? Enlighten me as to your opinion.”
I scratched my head in a look of abject incomprehension, and she laughed.
“Did you not like it?” she pressed me.
“Oh, it has imagery,” I said. “It is just so…suggestive. I am unaccustomed to such poetry.”
“Indeed,” she said, “and to think it was composed by a woman. Who would have thought a woman could be so suggestive?”
“When was it written?” I inquired.
“Just now,” she said. “In the light of a new sun.” She smiled again, and there was a genuine sparkle of mirth in her eyes now. “Are you surprised?”
“It is quite evocative,” I said.
“No more than what you do,” she said. “And much less shameful than what most men do when they believe no one else is looking.”
Her smile disappeared and she headed toward her cottage. I tarried a moment longer, unsure how I should feel about Virginia’s “poetry”. She was a strange, marvelous creature, and reminded me of the Oriental women whose literature I had read to better understand the myriad minds of Woman. Yet, she was of decidedly British stock, replete with fair hair and blue eyes. What a strange dichotomy! She did not conform to the dominant paradigm. She was a singular variable among the great British experiment, and she fascinated my analytical mind.
This baffled me, however. Why would William abandon such a woman? I gazed out upon the vast sea and wondered where on earth he might have been and what was so urgent that he was forced to put the Atlantic between himself and his intriguing wife?
I was turning away from the cliff when my eye chanced upon something unusual in the sea. Even in the warm Summer air I felt a chill take hold in my bones. Momentarily, my heart seized upon itself. Squinting, I peered down at the rippling green expanse, attempting to discern what had so unsettled me. Seastacks rose from among tossing waves like the granite pillars of some forgotten kingdom. As my eyes lingered upon them I thought I beheld a great appendage encircling one of the rock pillars. It was in semblance similar to the boneless limb of a Kraken or some other infernal creature of the depths. The entwining limb had to be massive, for the seastack it encoiled was of a titan’s height.
Fearing for my sanity, I rubbed my eyes forcibly to clear away the ostensible illusion. When I glanced again, shielding my eyes from the misleading sun, I saw but granite stone jutting as a primordial pillar—ancient, silent, and glistening with a fetid slime.
The Cornish village offered much of Nature’s delights, yet it was bereft of Man’s conveniences. There were no modern accommodations— no plumbing nor that fanciful novelty, electricity— yet my patients bore these comparatively barbarian conditions without complaint. As for myself, so long as I had my work, and my library, I was contented. Gladly did I enjoy Cornwall’s natural splendor as well, and the quietude offered by its walks. Walks in London had always proven stressful to me, for it was a fetid place of squalor and crowded unease among its cluttered streets. Nor did I care to happen upon colleagues, for it inevitably led to conversations that always proved contentious in spirit, even if they appeared outwardly cordial and courteous. I was, in the medical circles, something of a pariah.
Virginia’s health improved greatly in the coming weeks. I noticed that she gained a healthy fullness to her figure and her “lunar luminescence” intensified in such a complimentary way that that I doubted there was ever a debutante in soiree, ball, or court that glowed so radiantly. Her odd aloofness remained, and when she was not talking to me or being treated, she wrote copious poetry which she insisted I read. Gladly did I read her works, for they elucidated much for me upon two fronts: one as a doctor ever needing to understand his patients, and one as a man exulting in the ever-surprising mysteries of Woman’s inner depths. If only my father could have read Virginia’s poetry. It might have dissuaded him, and the rest of England, from their antiquated notions concerning female sexuality. I suspected that she wished me to somehow promote her works— perhaps with a former academic friend that I knew in London who was involved in a newspaper—but I did not think that such rapid bursts of creativity were signs of any stress deriving from sickness. Rather, Cornwall seemed to me to be the perfect location for those moody aeshetes whose genius thrived upon atmosphere.
It was as I was enjoying an early morning walk that I heard Emily’s scream. I rushed toward the direction of her issuance, the echoes of it deceptive in the strange acoustics of the bluff-valley Cornish coast. My sense of direction has always been wanting, but fortunately she found me and fetched me toward Mrs. Worthington’s cottage.
“It was a man peepin’ in on Mrs. Worthington!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide to the whites. “When he saw me, he went hobblin’ away! I thought him a seaman, for he limped so!”
We hurried to Virginia’s cottage, finding it absent of any suspicious men. Virginia had emerged by then, roused by the ruckus, yet she did not appear agitated. Rather, she looked almost amused.
“Virginia!” I called. “Have you been harmed?”
“Of course not, Dr. Grace,” she said, an easy smile upon her face. “The ruffian only fancied a glance, and I accommodated him.”
Emily’s astonishment gave way to fury. “A most improper vixen, you are! Where is yer sense of decency? I’ve known coquettes with better sense for modesty!”
“Emily, that is quite enough!” I said, firmly. “Return to your sisters. I am sure there are chores to be done.”
Emily did as I bid her, though she cast a dark scowl in Virginia’s direction.
“You will have to excuse Emily,” I said, turning to Virginia. “It is just that you do not seem upset about the occurrence.” Indeed, I seemed more upset than Virginia had.
“A man wanted a glimpse,” she said, casually. “Why does it matter? What is Woman’s flesh, after all, but gift to Man?”
I went to her, taking her hand and entwining her waist with my arm. I escorted her toward the treatment cottage. “I believe your sense of self-preservation has been addled,” I said. “You must take treatment.”
“As you say,” she remarked. “Perhaps that man would care for a peek into that secrecy as well.”
As we went to the treatment cottage I could not help casting my eyes about the village, the moor, the cliffs, and the sea. I saw no trace of that hobbled man that had encroached upon Virginia’s privacy, but I swore to exact punishment if I should ever spot him.
The treatment went well and Virginia’s hysteria was once again purged through my pragmatic methods. As I worked the treatment upon her, however, I could not help noticing that, beneath her treatment gown, Virginia’s belly had swollen to a pronounced protuberance. At first I mistook this protuberance for a healthy appetite. Yet, I deemed it of medical interest and so dared trespass my hand upon that swell, finding it firmer than most fatty tissues tended to be.
“Virginia,” I said, “are you with child?”
Virginia luxuriated upon the treatment bed, her eyes like the eyes of a cat having satisfied itself upon cream.
“Of course, Dr. Grace,” she said. “Why do you think William abandoned me here?”
I was taken aback, yet felt I had to reassure her to the contrary. “He has not abandoned you, Mrs. Worthington. He would not do that to his wife, or to his child.”
Virginia’s smile reigned laxly upon her face, but her blue eyes were mirthless in the candlelight. “And why, pray tell, did you conclude it to be his child?”
I was so disturbed by her question, and its implication, that I could only gawk like an imbecile. She remained upon the treatment bed, reclined gently in her self-righteous obscenity. She seemed all the more beautiful through her self-deprecation; like Aphrodite steeped in the foamy wash of her father’s loins. She savored my stunned silence for some time before speaking once again.
“I must intimate something to you,” she said. “My family has become very much like the Cornish mines they own,” she said. “Barren of yield after too many eons of mining. Do you know who I was before marrying William? My maiden name is Harlow. My family was once very prosperous here in Cornwall. But sooner or later, as all things do, it went to rot. The copper mines ceased producing and we had only our ancestral name to boast of. But since a family cannot sup on name alone, it was decided that I should marry a wealthy Londoner, and so I was spirited away to London to hunt for a husband. Your friend proved amicable, if a little trite, and I proved accommodating to his presence in the laudable circles of London, if not ingratiating. I had always possessed a natural knack for endearing myself to dull people, if need be. And so I embosomed myself in your friend’s esteem. It was more of a business transaction, our marriage, as most are, and we found it a largely agreeable arrangement. I was his guiding angel in society, and I was his mare in the breeding stables. Yet, he did not ride me so often as you might have thought. William never has been an attentive husband. Whether in society, the household, or the marriage bed. He was utterly negligent and indifferent to me. Oh, I tried to sway him, but it was for nought. Business was all that mattered to him, whether it was business in America or business in the plebeian alleyways of London.”
“You do not mean that he…?” I could not bring myself to say it.
“The business of working women has always had his heart,” she said, a wry smile upon her face. “And the truth is that though I was young when we first wed I was not so young as he often desires when he walks those dirty alleys in search of comfort. His passions are quite particular, my dear Robert.”
I wished to muster the words in defense of my friend, but Virginia’s eyes arrested me with their openness and their candour. All I could say was an offhand remark pertaining to William’s business affairs. Even as I spoke I knew it was from cowardice. I wished only to steer this conversation in some other direction; a direction of less sordid roads. Virginia, being so shrewd, and yet being quite tactful, observed and allowed this course change, though the mockery in her husky voice lost none of its sardonic edge.
“Despite William’s obsession with business,” she said. “He is not possessed of the acumen for business. His fleet of trade ships are impressive, but without cargo they were like a revered name without means: materially meaningless.”
“He eventually gained substantive trade, though,” I said. “Did he not?”
“He did,” she allowed. “Though I doubt he, as a self-proclaimed gentleman, would ever admit to trade of such a detestable nature.”
“Detestable?” I was utterly shocked. “Do you mean to imply an illegal trade? To what degree illegal?”
“To the degree of illegality as determined by most prevailing laws except, perhaps, by those of Hell.”
I could not deduce what trade she might be implying, nor could I bring myself to ask of its particulars. I could only look away from her, lest her gaze entrap me within the tethers of my own complex being.
She seemed pleased by my agitation. “Imagine the irony of seeking wealth in London only for it to bring me round again to the poverty of Cornwall. Life is a slippery staircase which you climb only to slip and fall down again. The higher you climb, the farther you fall.”
“But your husband is prospering,” I said, recalling the strange gems and jewels and gold hidden away in my bedchamber. “And he will return for you. I have known William throughout our childhood. He is the same honorable person he has always been.”
A wry smile played again upon her lips. She sat up, at last, and stretched toward me, raising her pale hand and cupping my cheek. She drew me to look at her, eye to eye; unguarded.
“You knew William when he was yet wealthy,” she said. “You did not know him wracked by financial strains. He was a different person. Or perhaps he had always been that person, but was too appeased by wealth to free his ignoble creature from its cage.”
Her hand slipped from my face, and I was ashamed to think how pleasant a thing to have it placed there once more.
“It is difficult for me to accept this characterization,” I said, with some strain to foster my thoughts as a cohesive whole.
“Of course it is,” she said, laying back once again in a suggestive sprawl upon the bed. “Every person upon this earthly sphere has a creature upon his or her peripheries, and we fight to prevent ourselves from seeing it in others lest we see it, too, within ourselves. Man and Woman rarely indulge it, but when they do it can overtake them.”
“I believe your condition has rendered you melancholic,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Only philosophic. Even you, my dear doctor, are not immune to the inheritance of Man, or his inner beast. There is a part of you, I am certain that delights in this occupation, and not solely for the sake of your patients.”
“What do you mean to imply, Mrs. Worthington?” I asked, warily.
“That you are a man of Man, and so surely take interest in Woman that is not purely of a medical nature.”
“My profession is the only Mistress I court,” I said, alarmed by Virginia’s insinuations. “She is a demanding Mistress with many faces. And as for other ‘beasts’, I am sufficient with techniques to tame them.”
“But there is no especial face among the multitude you fancy?” she said. “Is there not a young woman’s heart you have been hunting?” She smiled slyly, knowingly. “That envy-eyed Charlotte, perhaps?”
“No,” I said. “I am afraid that apart from my patients and my employees there are no women I interact with enough to intimate myself into their acquaintance without a proper distance of professionalism between us.”
“And yet women are your expertise,” she remarked with a coy smile. “And your world, it would seem.”
“True,” I said. “But of personal relationships with women, I have none. Nor have I many friends in men, either. My mother died in the birthing process, and my father considers me dead since I took up my present profession.”
She rolled to one side, luxuriating in my embarrassment.
“Is there something wrong with Cornwall that prevents you from acquiring acquaintances?”
“It is less varied in its personages than London, to be sure, but I find these seaside people to be rather agreeable. True, they lack the refinement of their city superiors, but they compensate for this with open-heartedness and serene countenances. There is nothing like hard work to inspire gratitude and joviality in life. Of course, I am sure the lovely landscape aids their moods and tempers considerably. It has bettered my own.”
She sat up and leaned forward, her hands clasped together and her elbows resting on the bedside table. I was embarrassed to find that her bosom exposed itself from within the hanging fabric of her gown, and had she not been a well-bred, innocent lady I would have presumed the display of a licentious intention. Truth be told, her coquettish smile undermined my presumptions of her innocence.
“I cannot help but think that your other patients should become smitten with you,” she said. “A handsome doctor with good breeding and ample means would be the talk of many a lady’s boudoir, and a comforting dream on the pillow of every cold marriage bed.”
I cleared my throat, and my chagrin, with a discreet cough.
“That is the rub, Mrs. Worthington,” I said, once I had cleared my throat.. “That the majority of my patients are married, or have been widowed. True, they frequent my clinic often in pursuit of my treatments, but it is purely in the intention of remedying their prevailing maladies. It is of no personal affection toward myself.”
“And so none of your clients have confessed any secret attachment in regard to your person?”
I became anxious. This was not a conversation that was appropriate for a doctor and his patient, and indeed it was unpleasant to me, as it should have been to any decent lady of breeding. Yet, Mrs. Worthington’s blue eyes sparkled with curiosity and intrigue and, despite my loathing the topic, I admitted to some repercussions from the treatments that smacked woefully of emotional attachment. Even as I was chagrined by my confession, and indeed horrified at the rupture of patient confidentiality, I was too taken by her eyes to restrain myself.
“There was a widow whose attachment to my treatment succumbed to emotional investment,” I confessed. “She was of a considerable age, but handsome enough in her own right, and not so deteriorated by age to not be a viable wife for any man seeking a wife among his peers. When she was roughly your age she had married a man of means who was of disproportionate years. Though such gossip displeases me, I must confess knowing that she had married him for his wealth and his age, thinking that the latter would grant her rapid access to the former. Yet, he lived much longer than her designs presupposed, and so by the time he had passed on, she had progressed in age to an extent that she would likely remain a widow for the remainder of her life. This did not fret her as much as spinsters half her age, for she had inherited a comfortable life with freedom to pursue any lover she desired. These lovers, however, were of the kind that knew how to hunt the societies of London, and knew how to dress down what they succeeded in trapping for themselves. Game was theirs for the taking, yet, as with real hunters, there was no pleasure to be had in it for the prey themselves.”
It shames me to admit it now, but I rather prided myself on this play of words, and particularly delighted in Mrs. Worthington’s approving giggle.
“Thus, she suffered her own form of hysteria, like so many women at her age, and found herself restless and irritable and desirous of what could not be named nor accepted in the minds of so many doctors among the Empire. She came here every two or three months, seeking treatment. Truthfully, I worried that she was spending all of her means in treating her hysteria. Then one day, after a particularly enthusiastic treatment, she begged me to marry her. This I could not do. It was inappropriate enough that she refused to allow any of the midwives to perform the ministrations, always insisting that I be personally involved in the procedure, but then she began to insist on further improprieties.”
“And what were those?” Mrs. Worthington asked, her mouth a perky moue of expectation.
I took a deep breath and silently debated whether I should indulge the account further. “She wished that I should kiss her. And touch her elsewhere, beyond the region of customary stimulation.”
Virginia’s expression was vulpine. “Such as?”
I hesitated, but her eyes, and her bosom, propelled me onward. “Her breasts,” I said. “And her anus. These things I refused, telling her that I would not mock my profession with perversions. She left the next day, sobbing, and has not returned for treatment since.”
“You sound as if in remorse,” she remarked.
“I regret only that she was a patient that needed aid,” I said, “but because of her confused emotions and personal traumas she had to forego that which rectified her illness.”
“Why do you believe she wished you to touch her breasts and anus?” Virginia asked.
To hear such words uttered by a lady like Mrs. Worthington not only baffled me, but horrified me. I immediately stammered some clinical response about a neurosis in the older woman, stating the predominat medical beliefs in regard to the breasts and the anus: that they were purely functional and of no secondary purposes— such as a means of carnal catharsis.
“You do not really believe that,” she stated, leaning away from the table and letting her gown shelter her bosom more conservatively. “Have you Men never thought to question what areas of a body pleases a Woman?”
“I only relate what I have read and implemented,” I said, deferentially.
“But you do not believe it,” she said firmly, “do you?”
I fancied a glance at the clock. “I believe it is time that I should have my tea,” I said. “If you will pardon me, Mrs. Worthington.” I stood up, bowed, and headed toward the door.
She called to me as I opened the door. I turned and she stood, the sunset flaring across the gossamers of her gown, her body silhouetted within the fabric.
“Sleep well, tonight,” she said. “Say a prayer for me. You will be in mine, comforting my pillow.”
That night I was visited by a nightmare. I had never before then been a man at the mercy of his dreams, though I have since then spent many restless nights comforting my haunted imagination with laudanum and insipid mantras of Reason.
I dreamt of a great flood in Cornwall. The rivers brimmed and broke over the land, and yet the rain continued to fall, drowning whatever land lay left except for the highest cliffs of the Cornish Coast. These, too, were steeped in the rising sea. I stood there, upon that drowned ridge, the waters hemming me in on all sides. It seemed that all the continents of the earth should be drowned in the rising tides. The moon was full in the night sky and ten times its reasonable size, like the great skull of a dead god leering garishly over the submerged earth. Soon only the ridge upon which I stood remained. The rest of Cornwall, and seemingly the world, had submerged in the gluttonous sea.
Beneath the moon, where its light glossed waxenly upon the turbulent waters, I saw a vast surge of water, as if something cresting along the Celtic Sea. A terrible fetor subsumed the salty air, and it reeked of stagnant life and profuse death. The thing that rose was as broad and high as Carn Marth rising from the Cornish countryside. I trembled to behold it and, as its ghastly head emerged, I screamed for the mercy of silence and oblivion and death. And though I wished to wake, I remained upon the crooked spine of a drown world.
I awoke with a start, sitting up in bed and drenched in sweat. The moon shone through the window, its roundish face half-concealed. It was not so large as it had been in my dream, but its illumination was ghostly within my bedchamber. I stood, then, and walked about the room, attempting to becalm my thunderous heart. Sweat, and tears, too, had taken to my face, and these I wiped scornfully upon my sleeve.
I did not return to sleep that night, and it was well into the morning before I banished the image of that island-sized head rising from the brine. It was fortunate that I had only one patient to treat, for I was too exhausted and haunted throughout the day to adequately treat any others. Nor was I the only victim of a stormy-headed night. The three sisters appeared taxed by restless nights. Even the pretty-faced Charlotte was pale and trembling throughout the day.
“Charlotte,” I said. “Are you and your sisters not feeling well?”
Her eyes darted about the treatment cottage as she and her sisters cleaned it after another treatment for Mrs. Worthington. Charlotte, and her two sisters, looked about them as if expecting demons to come clambering out of every shadow-pooled corner.
“Pardon my saying so, Dr. Grace,” she said, “but we donna’ feel ya’ shou’ ‘av taken that woman in.”
Whenever the sisters were under great duress, their accents became emboldened. I had attempted to correct such failings, but I was helpless to rectify it under present circumstances.
“You have a problem with Mrs. Worthington?” I asked.
Charlotte looked to her sisters, all of whom were as flighty in expression as bewildered does.
“Yes, doctor,” she said, casting her eyes upon the floor. “There’s some’ing terrible wrong ‘bout her, sir. She’s chased away yer oth’r patients ‘n put in ‘heir stead terrible dreams.”
“And she’s no’ right!” Emily said, coming forward to support her sister. “The winds donna’ sound the same since she come! The waves move strangely. Even the clouds are all wrong!”
“And the dogs bark at night!” Anne said. “They but rarely did afore, but now ‘ey bark all night as if keepin’ the Devil ah’ bay! An ill wind passes wit’ ‘er.”
“And ‘he dreams!” Emily said, rallying with great feeling. “We all ‘ave ‘he same wicke’ dream come flown to us from ‘cross an evil land! The Great Flood, wit’ Noah on its crest, and somethin’ risin’ from out o’ the waters! Leviathan perhaps!”
“Or Satan ‘imself!” Charlotte said. “Come new ‘pon the world!”
I did not care to hear my own fears voiced in plaintive, womanly notes, nor the plainly superstitious absurdity of it in my ear, particularly since it renewed resonant feelings from the night before. My susceptibility to their panic infuriated me.
“All of you come here,” I commanded. “Come and abide me a while, for I fear I must lecture this nonsense away lest it grow more beyond measure.”
I waited for the three of them to line up in front of me, their heads bowed, and their hands crossed before them, as if covering their Eden nakedness beneath their humble gowns.
“Mrs. Worthington is our patient,” I said, reproachfully. “She is to be treated with kindness, civility, and all of the attentiveness that conforms to the professionalism of our work. You are not to speak of her in belittling tones, nor through gossip, nor even salacious suggestion. Our work depends upon utter confidentiality. A wayward wag of the tongue could destroy the whole enterprise.” I took a deep breath and calmed myself, softening my tone. “You are each an excellent worker that I am proud to have in my service, but if you persist in feeding each other’s fears with whatever fancies take hold in your heads, I will have to reconsider your employment. Do you understand?”
“Yes, doctor,” they said together, their tone a collapse of dejection.
“Now,” I continued. “Finish cleaning and then retire home early to clear your heads and rest. Tomorrow I expect you to return without such fanciful shadows clinging to your eyes.”
Their accents lessened, reassuming genteel annunciations.
“And supper, sir?”
“There is food left enough for Mrs. Worthington from today’s lunch,” I said, “and I shall seek the tavern for a meal. It has been a long time since I attempted to acquaint myself with my Cornish neighbors. It seems as fit an occasion to condescend as any.”
Virginia requested another treatment before taking her supper. I acquiesced, knowing the sisters would return early next morning to clean. As for myself and retaining my own cleanliness, I had methods and tools available that minimized my own involvement in such treatments and their untidiness. To spare my hands menial labour, and subsequent cramps, I not only employed the three midwives regularly in treating patients, but also various devices that quickened the conclusion of a treatment while also sparing my hand. The truth was that after a lady’s hysterical paroxysm, I found that my hands were rather soiled with the natural scents of the lady. Not in all cases was this undesirable, for the brimming tides that came with the excitation were not altogether unpleasant, but there were those select women from whom the odors were rather displeasing and, moreover, clung long after a treatment, despite repeated ablutions. Thus, I employed the phalllic constructions depicted in the more obscure ancient Greek relics of art, and more recently in Oriental cultures. Had I the modern conveniences of plumbing I would have used douches as well, for I had read about their widespread use in France and it seemed not only beneficial to the patients, but to the doctors. Streaming water would have spared my hands and meanwhile cleansed a lady of her impurities.
“An excellent treatment, Dr. Grace,” Virginia said, panting as she lay sprawled upon the treatment bed. “That is a curious device you have created. I have no doubt that you modeled it after the natural design.”
“Indeed,” I said, “but I cannot take credit for its creation. It has existed for many centuries prior in the Orient.”
“Then I must say that Oriental women are more fortunate than Occidental women.” Her smile was small in measure, but large in suggestion. “I wonder, however, why you do not simply forego such medical pretenses and utilize what Nature has given you.”
“I am afraid I do not apprehend your meaning,” I said, wiping the device clean with alcohol and then setting it upon a shelf to dry.
“It is no matter,” she said. “Those naturally inclined will surrender in time.”
Only Mrs. Worthington could be provocative even as she demurred on a subject.
“How are you enjoying our accommodations?” I asked, hoping she approved. “Are they adequate?”
“Completely contenting,” she said, remaining sprawled about the bed. She gave no indication that she was ready to leave the treatment cottage.
“Do you miss London? It’s society? I have come to understand that you were a personage as respected as the queen herself within certain circles.”
“I was,” she said, “but I do not believe I could endure crowds now.” Her gown was still spread apart most immodestly and I wondered if she was quite conscious as to her unladylike position. Granted, most women seemed to forget propriety after a successful paroxysm, but they gradually realized their lapse in bearing and remedied it quickly. Virginia seemed quite aware and yet unconcerned. “And you? Do you miss the peopled streets and the breathless air?”
“Even while I lived there I tended to avoid crowds,” I said, turning away from her. “I prefer quiet contemplation and solitude, such as is afforded here in this village.”
“You enjoy being steeped in yourself,” she said, “like Narcissus at his pool, transfixed by his own reflection.”
I could not help but laugh. “Indeed? And who is my Echo, abandoned and forlorn?”
“Charlotte, of course,” she said, standing up from the bed. “You pay her no mind at all except in how she tends to me. That poor girl longs to please you.”
“If I am Narcissus, “I said, “and Charlotte is Echo, then whom might you be?”
Her smile withered like a rosebud in hoarfrost. “Of my twin there are many,” she said. “Galatea, Leda, Ariadne. Countless others, I am sure.”
“All women with unhappy fates,” I remarked grimly.
“Because all women have unhappy fates,” she said. “There is nothing unique or aberrant in such stories for women. Rather, the story of Woman has always been one with an unhappy fate.”
“To be mortal, you mean?”
“Partly,” she said. “But mostly by simply being of Woman. By being bearers of the wombs of the world.”
She did not bother to don her clothes, but returned to her cottage wearing only the treatment gown. The indecency of the action did not seem to bother her in the least. I escorted her to her cottage, fearing that some rake might observe her unconcern for propriety as an invitation toward mischief. When I asked if she should desire her supper, she asked only for a wheel of cheese. I inquired how much and she said, quite decidedly that she desired the entire wheel. I acquiesced to her request, fetching a wheel of cheese, but I also took the liberty of bringing a half-loaf of bread and two apples. These she graciously accepted and bid me a good night.
The sun was setting into the sea, gilding the green waves and blending shadows across the moorland. Fearful that I might miss my supper, I hurried downhill toward the tavern where many of the local Cornish men gathered to drink and talk after a long day of work. The tavern was a stalwart building with a thatched roof, its walls constructed of solidly stacked stone. It was the only building made of stone in the village that I had not purchased for my medical practice. Besides the church, of course. The majority of the other houses were wattle and daub.
I entered the dim establishment and went immediately to the owner manning the bar. George Friggs was the man’s name and he was as portly as he was friendly, especially to paying customers.
“What might a man hope to eat this evening?” I asked him.
“The best tasting mutton this side of the Celtic Sea,” George said. “And some potatoes, if you should care for them.”
“I shall have that with whatever your best drink happens to be,” I said.
“Just a stout, Dr. Grace,” he said. “Unless you thirst for an Irish or Scottish Whisky. We also have rum, though I donna’ think you would like it much. Better for those already swaying upon the sea. We landlubbers are too accustomed to the flat earth, I should think.”
“Give me a stout, then,” I said. I paid him for the food and the drink, then slipped him another coin and leaned over the bar, my back to the rest of the men in the tavern. “Perhaps you have heard of a seaman lost at sea. Or, rather, lost from the sea. He has a hobble and two eyes that roam where they should not.”
George rubbed his bald pate, thinking. “There are many sailors that come and go here, Dr. Grace. But if you’re talkin’ about one who’s got word out about him, then I would suggest you wait a while here and watch that corner over there.” He pointed to an empty table in the corner near the window. No candles were lit there, and it was farthest from the heat of the hearth, so only moonlight through the window lit its murky spaces. “I’ll get me wife to make you a plate. In the meantime, here’s your drink. Wait a while and you’ll see a man that sure is jumpy as if he been lookin’ where he was’n supposed to.”
I took my mug of beer, thanked George and waited by the bar, watching the door for the agitated seaman to appear. George knew his business: many sailors frequented his bar. It was the only place for miles where they might drink their sorrows and sea sickness away. Many men came and went, sharing drinks and stories and smiles and scowls. There was a bout of fisticuffs at one point and the two warring men were thrown out by their own compatriots. Blood may have been thicker than wine, but it was not so thick as warm beer spilt upon a wasteful floor.
It was as I had finished eating my meal that the lowly seaman came staggering in. I knew at once that it was he, for his unkempt beard and agitated eyes bespoke of mischief. He was a bedraggled specimen of knave. I could discern by his hobble that he was a seaman. He had the bowed hobble of a man that had spent more of his life on a tottering deck than on the still land.
Having witnessed the previous two men being thrown out, I knew better than to engage the man in a physical struggle. Nor was I a man predisposed to brutish means. That said, I could have easily handled him, however, since he was so much smaller than myself and was, moreover, crippled in one leg. His gait was so contorted by his pained leg that I wondered how he was managing to walk at all. A grimace of pain betrayed his hindrance with every step.
“Ale,” he said to George. “Your strongest.” George poured the man his ale, and had the sense of mind not to look to me until after the seaman had retired to his dark, solitary corner.
“That the man?” I whispered.
George only nodded.
I slid another coin across the bar, which disappeared in George’s large hand. Thereafter, the empty plate disappeared and I ordered two more ales, both of which I held, one to a hand, as I approached the seaman in the corner. They say that it is easier to catch flies with honey, and so I followed that adage toward whatever wisdom it might deign to offer me.
“Hello,” I said to the man. “Do you mind if I join you?”
The man looked up at me shrewdly, his eyes darting from my face to the beers in my hands.
“If one of those drinks is mine, you can join me twice,” the seaman said. He took the mug I handed to him, and watched me in amusement as I sat down. His amusement became a smile as I slid the other ale to him. I had decided that more honey could not hurt. “You must be wantin’ to loosen my tongue,” he said. “There hasn’t been a man handin’ out unsolicited drinks lest he wanted to cure a case of the lockjaw in his fellow man. What do the gentlemen say? In vino veritas?”
I was taken aback by his keen perception of me. Clearly he was no fool, even if he was a knavish cripple. Having no pretense to shield me, I decided toward candour to cope for this disastrous encounter.
“Yes, I suppose I am seeking truth from wine,” I said.
He grinned and took a swig of his mug, sighing in a contrite fashion. “Then it is a good thing I am only drinking ale. I do not believe you would want the truth you are seekin’. No, I believe you would come to lament it, as I certainly do.”
“Why were you peeking on my patient?” I demanded. “Why were you looking in through the window?”
I expected him to deny it, or to grow furious and threaten me, but my expectations were promptly dismantled by this strange seaman.
“I am a man of the Crow’s Nest,” he said. “On account of me bad leg, you see? Can’t be tying no nautical knots or mopping the deck when your leg’s all sideways. It may seem like an easy duty, but watchin’ out for the storms loomin’ on the horizon is always more difficult than most realize. Every crew member dreads the Crow’s Nest. It swings you about like a child her doll. Being such as it is, it’s the job no one wants, and being a cripple that no one really needs, I am the one told to climb myself up there and look out for trouble. All these years of it and my stomach still sloshes back and forth upon steady land, so used to the sickening sway of the sea.”
He rolled his shrewd eyes through the memories, his eyebrows eventually lifting as if in surprise at having found himself here.
“Even now I do no different,” he said, draining his mug. “I’m on the lookout for a storm. But this storm is already ashore. It’s made landfall and we are all in the middle of it. I promise you.”
“I do not understand,” I said. “Are you to be a lighthouse keeper?”
He appraised me with a frown, obviously unimpressed with my ability to follow his ranting. “I know who you are, Dr. Grace,” he said. “I know you have been lookin’ after Virginia Worthington. There’s no need for for alarm, though. What we are doin’ is the same. I’m lookin’ after her, too, as William asked me to.”
“You are one of William’s men?” I said, astonished.
“Yessir,” he said. “Name’s Henry O’ Toole. William asked me to make sure Virginia was seen to. I told him I may be a crooked man, but I’m no crook. I’ll see to what needs doin’, when the time’s right. Better than being stuck up in that Crow’s Nest for another season.”
“What is it that you are supposed to do?” I asked. “And why did William not tell me of your presence?”
“William did’n want to worry you,” Henry said. “He wanted you to put your time and effort into makin’ Virginia feel comfortable. Before he returns.”
I had expected a confrontation. I had expected a man of perversions in need of punishment. Yet, this antagonist that had provoked Charlotte’s scream seemed to be charged with a similar duty as myself. Nonetheless, his nervous mannerisms disturbed me. He appeared a man beset with his own neurosis. I rationalized it as a consequence of his occupation in the Crow’s Nest and his debilitation.
“What is this ‘storm’ that you speak of?” I demanded. “What has it to do with Virginia and Will? Can you not speak more frankly?”
Henry O’Toole leveled his eyes at me, even while his shoulders rocked slowly side to side with seaward memories.
“I’ve been a sailor me whole life,” he said. “Seen many strange things in the sea, but nothing so startlin’ as what was on land. Often we were allowed freedom of the cities we visited when we did trade. But Mr. Worthington did not let us stretch our legs too much in America. Least not when we were some of those more questionable docks. Not that I’d of wanted to. Strange noises you could hear at night there. Like a bunch of bloated frogs and fish splashin’ ‘bout in the water. We are hardy men, and never you mind how mean, but even we kept our breath shallow when he heard ‘em things roamin’ about the ship. Devil’s Reef is not place for a Lady. I couldna’ understand why Mr. Worthington brought his pretty wife there, but when he returned you could see the mischief it had worked on her. Silent as the grave, that wretched woman was. You’ve done her some good, it may as much seem, but I wonder for how long. And I wonder if she might’n’ ought been better off with her soul closed in a clamshell rather than brought to the ravin’ light.”
He perplexed me to no end. “Elaborate. Please. I cannot follow your meaning.” I slipped another coin across the table. It disappeared as a cloud passed over the moon, darkening the table for an instant with its doubt. The seaman sighed heavily. He took a swig of beer and snorted.
“While we huddled and shivered in our quarters, Mrs. Worthington accompanied her husband ashore on a night of a great tempest.” His eyes jittered in his sunken sockets, flitting here and there like nervous flies. “Such screams we heard amidst that storm. But whether in agony or joy I could not rightly say. Perhaps it were both.” He took a deep breath, and a deeper drink, his hand trembling and spilling the pungent liqour down his beard. “I hear those screams in my dreams at times, and I wish them to cease. Sometimes I wonder if they will ever be silent so long as that bedeviled womb stirs in its sleep.”
“Womb?” I said. The word struck me eerily and I felt the world slipping beneath amniotic waters. “What does that mean?”
“I can’t knowingly say,” he stuttered, trembling all over. “It’s just such a thing that no man can rightly understand. Like the sea itself. We can read the signs, but that don’t mean she isn’t plotting our destruction below the waves, or far out over the horizon. She’s a perilous lover. You make no mistake.”
I left the tavern feeling estranged from the earth. My adoptive motherland, Cornwall, menaced me with moonlight and shadows and countless mysteries whispered upon the leaf-tongued winds. It was an affliction of frayed nerves and a frenzy of half-fancied phantoms. There crouched in every nook and nestled within every root of a tree a thing best left unseen. Behind the moon and beneath the Atlantic waves there lurked what would undo me to witness its existence.
Returning to my living quarters, I wondered at the gulfs of ignorance surrounded Man, and in the immeasurable bosom of that darkness the horrors. Perhaps the seaman’s madness had caught in me. He had brains addled by too many storms at sea, and I had too many beers and too little sleep to fend off the apparitions of another man’s mind. So, hurrying home, I retired to bed and let the aqueous realm of sleep carry me whichever way their waves willed.
“I swear this couch eats my change,” he said, digging his hands into the seats of the sofa. “And then it disappears and I can’t ever find it again.”
Little Tommy watched his father shove his hands into the recesses of the cushions of the living room couch. Tommy was an impressionable toddler— which was a description he would have agreed with if he had any idea of its actual meaning. If someone had impressed the term upon him, however, he would have sworn to it as his central trait, just as he believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jesus, and God because they had been impressed upon him from an early age.
“How many pens have I lost to it?” his father exclaimed. “How many socks? It eats them! The damn thing is bound to.”
“I know what you mean,” answered Tommy’s mother from the kitchen. “I’ve lost so many hair ties in it that I believe it is planning on opening a hair salon.”
“With the money it’s eaten it could!” he replied.
Tommy was certain of it: the couch was eating things. It was eating coins and pretzels and socks and hair ties and pens because it wanted to grow stronger, and it wanted to grow stronger so it could eat bigger things.
The family dog, Weinee, did not trust the couch either. It barked at the couch all throughout the day and night.
“Damn it, Weinee!” Tommy’s father griped. “Shut up!”
Weinee was a Dachshund. He had stubby little legs and an overlong body. He looked ridiculous as he hopped around the couch, barking and growling.
“Must be a mouse underneath the couch,” Tommy’s father said. “Guess I better put another glue trap out.”
He went into the kitchen, his footsteps booming thunderously around Tommy. When he returned he had a glue trap with a peanutbutter cracker stuck to it. Kneeling down, he slipped it in between the couch and the living room wall. He walked away and Tommy watched the glue trap disappear beneath the couch. It made Tommy sad. He wanted to eat the peanutbutter cracker.
Tommy’s parents had to put Weinee into Tommy’s room at night, otherwise the silly dog barked all night at the couch. Tommy liked having Weinee in his bedroom. The dog always laid at the foot of his bed, curled up and quiet. It reassured Tommy, especially when he heard his mother and father making noises. The noises frightened Tommy. Sometimes he dreamt that his father was turning into a Wolf-Man and attacking his mother. He often woke up crying, but then would reach down and pet the Dachshund and feel better. Even though Tommy was a toddler, he knew dreams weren’t real. They could not harm you.
The couch, however, could.
Late at night Tommy sometimes heard the couch moving in the living room, too. He knew it wasn’t the squeaky sound of his mother and father moving their bed. It was the scraping sound of the couch moving through the living room. Weinee often heard it, too, and would run to Tommy’s door, trying to stick his long, narrow snout under it, growling and barking. Weinee would have probably ran into the living room if Tommy’s door wasn’t closed. In the morning Tommy’s parents would ask Tommy what he was doing at night. Tommy could not articulate anything that satisfied them, since he was still a toddler, and so they assumed it was their son playing with his toys in the middle of the night.
“You need to go to sleep when it’s nighttime, Tommy,” his mother said, making a bowl of cereal for him.
His father sat at the kitchen table, eating waffles. “He’ll be fine. As long as he’s not having nightmares…or bothering us.”
“But he looks tired,” Tommy’s mother said.
“Doesn’t look tired to me,” his father said. “I wish I had half so much energy.”
Tommy’s mother put the bowl of cereal in front of Tommy and handed him a spoon. She then ran her fingers through his blonde wisps of hair.
“If you are scared you can come and sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed, okay?” she said.
Tommy’s father nearly choked on his waffles. Coughing, he shook his head ruefully. Tommy feared he might turn into a Wolf-Man. “No, Christina. No. He’s old enough to sleep on his own. If you make it a habit for him then he’ll never be able to sleep alone. He’ll be a sissy.”
Tommy’s mother had one of those looks in her eyes— the look that made Tommy want to cry.
“Eric, that’s not what you’re afraid of,” she said. “You just want…me time all of the time.” She picked up his empty plate and took it to the sink, rinsing the maple syrup off the ceramic. For a moment Tommy did not know if it was the faucet or his mother that hissed so loudly. She turned back to her husband, the morning light through the kitchen window burning in her blonde hair. “Eric, you’re just being selfish. And, quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be in the mood tonight. Not if you keep acting this way.”
Tommy’s father stood up and went to his mother. “Come on, Christina. Don’t be like that.” He slipped his arms around her hips and pulled her to him. They kissed and he grinned. “Are you sure you won’t be in the mood?”
She shrugged a little, then began tightening his tie. “Maybe,” she said. “Depends on how you behave yourself when you come home later.”
He kissed her one more time, but she pushed him away.
“It’s almost time for you to go,” she said.
Tommy’s father checked his cellphone. “Damn. You’re right.” He stole one more kiss, then headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He left for work shortly thereafter.
“Come on, Tommy,” his mother said. “Eat your cereal so you can grow up big and strong like your daddy.”
Weinee was in the living room, running around the couch and growling at it. Tommy’s mother set Tommy on the carpet in front of the television. She turned it on, the black screen exploding with bright colors from the early morning cartoons. She was about to leave the living room, but paused in the hallway and glanced over her shoulder at Weinee’s antics.
“You really are a silly dog,” she said. She went down the hall into the kitchen.
Tommy watched cartoons. He liked cartoons. He liked the colors and the noises and the characters as they bounced around inside the television screen. He also liked the commercials showing other kids playing with toys. Even with Weinee growling and running around the couch, Tommy could not look away from the television.
And then he heard Weinee yelp. It was a startling sound. Tommy had only ever heard Weinee make it once, weeks ago when Tommy tried to pick Weinee up, but accidentally dropped him.
Alarmed, Tommy looked away from the television and toward the couch. He did not see Weinee anywhere. He knew this was not right. Rolling over onto his hands, he gradually pushed himself up onto his feet and toddled closer to the couch. He did not get too close to it, however. He knew it was not to be trusted.
His mother came into the living room a few minutes later, sitting on the couch to read a book. Tommy tried to tell her that Weinee was gone.
“Momma,” he said.
“Yes, baby?” she said, looking at him from over her Harlequin Romance novel.
He pointed at the couch. “Doggie,” he said.
“No, baby, it’s called a ‘couch’.”
Tommy frowned and tried to babble some more.
“I see you, Tom-Tom,” his mother assured him. “Now sit down and watch your cartoons while mommy rests. In a little while I have to make supper.”
His mother was now wholly engrossed in her book, and while Tommy was only a toddler, he knew enough about his mother to know that unless he was wailing she would not pay attention to him for some time. Babbling to himself, he sat back down and thought about Weinee for a while. It made him feel sad. But then his favorite cartoon came on and he forgot all about the couch and Weinee and his own bad feelings.
The couch was bigger than Tommy. Tommy knew his mother and father were large, too, since they towered over him and could easily pick him up. But he knew the couch did not care how big they were. All that mattered to it was its hunger. And the dark. When sunlight reached into the living room during the day the couch remained dormant. Sunlight hurt it. That was why it moved around at night, looking for things to eat. That was why Tommy never went to use the restroom at night, no matter how much it hurt to hold it.
The next morning Tommy woke up to a wet bed and wet clothes.
“Tommy!” his mother exclaimed, picking him up and taking him into the bathroom. “You peed the bed again!”
She stripped him down and seated him in the bath, filling it with foamy water up to his waist. While he played in the water and foam she pulled all of his blankets and sheets off his bed and washed them in the utility room’s washer. She then took Tommy out, dried him, put him in fresh, clean clothes, and set him on his way.
“You know how to use the potty, Tommy!” she said.
Tommy’s mother smoked. When she went for a smoke she did so outside, on the backporch. Nonetheless, Tommy had watched her from the kitchen many times. He knew what a lighter did. It created fire. Tommy also knew what fire was. It burned. It hurt. That was why he thought he could use the lighter to hurt the couch.
When his mother went to the bathroom, Tommy waddled into the kitchen. He climbed a chair and then climbed on top of the table. He grabbed the lighter and then carefully climbed down. When he tried to climb down from the chair, however, he lost his balance as his feet touched the kitchen tile. He tumbled over and bopped his head on the floor. He started to cry, without meaning to, but his mother was now taking a shower and could not hear him. Still crying, Tommy toddled into the living room with the lighter in his chubby, little fingers.
Coming to the couch, Tommy fumbled with the lighter for a while, trying to get the flame to stick its tongue out. He turned it upside down, shook it, babbled at it, and rubbed it against the couch. But the lighter never lit. He heard the shower cut off and his mother emerged, coming into the living room. She wore a robe and had a towel wrapped around her head. When she saw Tommy holding the lighter, she snatched it away from him.
“That is not a plaything, Tom-Tom,” she warned him. She sat on the couch and crossed her legs, sighing as if exhausted. “I need a vacation.”
By the time Tommy’s father came home later that evening, Tommy’s mother had changed into jogging pants and a T-shirt and had cooked dinner. They all sat down at the kitchen table and ate together.
“More overtime?” his mother said.
His father had not even taken off his suit yet. “More portfolios to look over. The economy is up, so interest in investments is up, too.” He shook his head. “I hate that pun. Simon says it at the office all the damn time. I could throttle him.”
Tommy wanted to be heard, too, so he babbled a few sounds. His mother wiped the mashed peas off his chin.
“Eat your food, Tom-Tom,” she said. “Stop playing in it.”
Tommy’s father sawed off some gristle from the edge of his steak. He pinched it between his fingers and held it under the table. After a moment of waiting a look of confusion crossed his face.
“What’s wrong?” his wife asked.
He glanced around the kitchen. “Where’d Weinee go?”
They spent the last hours of daylight looking for Weinee. Tommy tried to tell them what had happened, but he only confused them. When they returned inside, his mother printed out Lost posters with Weinee’s picture on them. She vowed to canvas the whole neighborhood tomorrow.
The next morning, Tommy and his parents ate breakfast in the kitchen. His father was in a playful mood. He pinched his wife’s butt as she bent over to pick up a fork that fell on the floor. She stood straight up with a jump and a gasp. She smacked her husband’s arm, grinning.
“Your libido is incorrigible,” she said.
He grinned. “Tonight we should go dancing.”
She crossed her arms and tossed her head lightly left and right, weighing the idea. “Maybe.”
“Come on,” he said. “We haven’t gone out on a Friday night in forever.”
“We’ve had other things to worry about,” she said. She glanced at Tommy, but her husband rushed up and hugged her from behind.
“Which is why we should go,” he said. “I have a clubfoot that is just itching to bust a groove.”
His wife laughed. “That’s not what a ‘clubfoot’ is,” she said.
“Then what is it?” he asked.
“It’s when your foot is abnormally shaped,” she said. “Like Lord Byron.”
“Oh ho,” he said. “Lord Byron, huh? Is that one of your lovers in your Romance novels?”
She sighed yearningly—melodramatically— and gazed up at the ceiling as if lost in passionate daydreams. “I wish,” she said.
“You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?” he said. He tickled her until she laughed. She struggled against him, pulling away, then coming forward to hug him, face to face.
“You’re a ne’er-do-well,” she said, beaming up at him.
They kissed. Tommy began to cry. His father went to him.
“Now none of that, Mister,” his father said. “You’re king of the house while I’m gone, so you have to man up.” He picked Tommy up, and Tommy cried even louder. His father looked crestfallen. “He never likes me picking him up,” he complained.
Tommy reached toward his mother, bawling. She took him from his father and Tommy immediately stopped crying.
“All little boys prefer their mommies,” she said. “Isn’t that right, Tom-Tom?”
Tommy nestled against his mother’s neck.
“Maybe Freud was right,” his father said.
“That’s not funny, Eric,” she said. “And don’t be jealous. You’re always at work. I have to spend more time with him.”
“Yeah, but you like being a a stay-at-home mom.”
“Stay-at-home parent,” she said, a little snappishly.
Her husband looked confused. “You are a mom and you stay at home,” he said. “So you are a stay-at-home mom.”
“That is patriarchal bullshit,” she said, her former humor hardening into anger. “The connotations are demeaning.”
“Well excuse me,” he said, his own expression hardening. “I didn’t take any Gender Studies classes to know the difference. I was too busy taking Business classes. You know, so you wouldn’t have to go find a job with your Gender Studies degree.”
His wife’s face reddened, her eyes gaping in incredulous fury.
“Just leave for work already,” she said, coldly. “Get out of here before I take Tommy and go to my parents and never come back.”
Tommy’s father opened his mouth as if to say something else. Instead, he sighed angrily and went to the door. The door slammed behind him. Tommy could hear the minivan roar to life and leave down the street. His mother set Tommy back in his chair, then went to the corner of the kitchen to grab the broom. She began to sweep the floor, then threw the broom down, startling Tommy. She went back to Tommy and picked him up. She tried to smile at him, but there were tears in her eyes.
Toward lunchtime Tommy’s mother took Tommy outside. They went up and down the street, taping the print-outs of Weinee on telephone poles and lampposts. Occasionally she said hello to a neighbor she knew. Tommy became tired and his mother had to carry him, which in turn made her tired.
“That’s enough for today,” she said, hauling her son back to their house.
When Tommy’s father returned home that evening he had a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. Tommy’s mother took them reluctantly, setting them down on the couch. The two of them then went into the bedroom, leaving Tommy alone on the living room floor. While they talked, Tommy watched as a long tongue emerged from the cushions of the couch, dragging the flowers and the chocolates down into the cracks between cushions.
Tommy’s parents returned a few minutes later. They seemed to have forgotten about the flowers and chocolates. His mother bent over Tommy, forcing herself to smile.
“Tommy,” she said, “your daddy and I are going out to dinner. Madison is coming over to watch you. I want you to be good for her, okay?” She brushed her fingers through the wisps of his blonde hair. “We’ll be back soon.” She looked up at her husband. “No dancing tonight.”
Her husband nodded stiffly. His grimly gray suit was happier looking than his humorless face.
Tommy’s mother went to their bedroom to get ready. Tommy’s father sat down beside Tommy on the living room floor. He tried to play with Tommy, rolling a red rubber ball to his son. But Tommy was disinterested in his father. The ball bounced off his chubby knees and he let it go wherever it wanted.
“Come on, Tom-Tom,” Tommy’s father said. “Try to give me a chance.” He fetched the ball himself, then rolled it toward his son again. It was a futile gesture. His son did not pay it any mind as it bounced once more off his indifferent knee. Instead, Tommy tottered up to his feet and started toddling toward the bedroom. His father scooped him up. “Your mom is getting dressed,” he said. “You have to give her space. And time. We both do.”
Tommy began to wail. His father set him down on the living room carpet once again, sighing in defeat.
“Maybe I’m not cut out for being a dad,” he said.
Madison arrived shortly thereafter. She wore a skirt and a tanktop with a football varsity jacket over her bare shoulders. It was dark blue with white sleeves. Tommy’s father frowned at it as he opened the door to let her in.
“You a fan of the Quakers now?” he asked.
She smiled sheepishly. “My boyfriend is. He’s part of the team.”
“He goes to the University of Pennsylvania?” he remarked with disbelief. “Aren’t you still in highschool?”
It was Madison’s turn to frown. Instead of answering his insinuation, she walked over to Tommy and kneeled down beside him. “Hey, Tom-Tom!” she said. “Look how tall you are now! Wow!” She smiled up at his father. “He’s going to be tall and handsome, just like his dad. I know it.”
Tommy’s father closed the door and pretended not to hear that.
A few minutes later Tommy’s mother emerged from the bedroom, glittering darkly in a black dress with sequins. Her black stilettos clicked sharply on the hallway tile.
“That’s a pretty dress,” Madison observed.
Tommy’s mother pulled at the dress, smoothing it out over her hips. She grimaced and fidgeted awkwardly. “I haven’t worn this in over a year,” she said. “Does it really look good on me?”
“You look beautiful,” her husband said.
“Yeah,” Madison said. “You can’t even tell that you were ever pregnant. I mean, not if you didn’t know already.”
Tommy’s mother eyed the younger woman coolly. “Thank you, Madison.”
The couple gave Madison instructions and phone numbers, in the event of an emergency. They paid her, too, in advance, and then headed out to dinner. Madison watched them leave from the living room window. When their taillights had disappeared down the darkening streets she called her boyfriend, Dave, on her cellphone. He appeared at the door a little while later. He glanced around nervously as they went inside.
“Why didn’t you drive?” she asked him.
“I did,” he said. “But I parked down the street so no one would know I was here.”
“You worry too much,” she said.
“Are you sure they won’t be coming back for a while?” he asked. “What if they forgot something?”
“Don’t be such a baby, Dave,” Madison said, flippantly. “Even if they do come back, they won’t really care. Not really.”
“I’m not worried about them,” Dave said. “I’m worried about your dad. And why are you wearing my jacket? I told you to keep it a secret!”
Madison pouted, taking his jacket off slowly, playfully. “Boo hoo,” she said. She let the jacket fall to the floor, then pressed herself against him. She kissed him on the lips—a long, lingering kiss. “Don’t worry so much. You’ll give yourself hemorrhoids.”
Dave seemed to perk up a little. He plopped down on the couch and smiled nervously at Tommy. “Hey, little bro. How’s it going?”
Tommy made a cooing sound of uncertainty, then stared at the couch. Dave was taller and bigger than Tommy’s father, but Tommy wondered if the monster would be afraid of Dave. Looking out the living room window, he saw that daylight was draining quickly from the neighborhood. It would be dark soon.
Madison plopped down beside Dave. They clung to each other for the next couple of hours, watching television as the sun went down. At length, the last wink of dusk flashed through the window and the embers settled to cool ash. Madison took Tommy to the potty one final time, then put him to bed.
“Good night, Tom-Tom,” she said. She pecked his forehead with a kiss. “Sweet dreams.” She turned on his nightlight and turned off the overhead light. As she closed the door she wondered aloud where Weinee was. “I like that silly dog…”
Tommy laid in bed for an hour, listening. It was not long before he heard Madison and Dave making noises in the living room. They were the same noises his mother and father made in their bedroom at night. He did not like hearing those sounds. They made him think of werewolves and beasts and other creatures snorting and growling and prowling the darkness.
“Hey, watch where you’re sticking it!” Madison warned. “I don’t like it that way.”
“I haven’t even put a condom on yet,” Dave said.
“Then why are you trying to do that?” she demanded.
“I’m not,” he exclaimed.
Tommy could hear them struggling to rearrange themselves on the couch, and then their gasps of confusion. Then he heard their screams. Their screams were soon muffled, and abruptly silenced.
The sand was golden as the Atlantic ocean lapped at its curving slopes, the sun dazzling on the rippling water like the golden navel jewelry of a belly dancer. Andy walked behind his three cousins, following them down to their parents’ private beach. Tiffany led the way: tall, lithe, golden brown like the shore, her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail that trailed all the way down to her pink bikini bottom. She was carrying a basket in one hand— holding sunscreen, her beach towel, and her cell-phone—and her free hand was slapping her upper thigh as she walked. Andy was carrying her beach parasol, which he wanted to do, despite how long, heavy, and unwieldy it was. He would have done anything for her. She was the most beautiful thirteen year old he had ever seen.
A sudden tug on the parasol and Andy almost fell backward. Startled, he glanced behind himself and saw, to his irritation, his youngest cousin, Seth, grinning devilishly.
“Watch out, Mary Poppins!” Seth said. “Those winds are strong.”
Seth was tanned brown, like his eldest sister, and sandy blonde. He was eleven years old— one year younger than Andy— and it was, so far as Andy reckoned, because Seth was younger that Seth deliberately irritated Andy so much. He constantly badgered him, and mocked him, and slugged his arm, and acted like they were buddies while also submitting Andy to bullying antics that bordered on controlling. Andy tried to let his irritation subside since he was staying with his cousins for the rest of the Summer. Or at least until his mother and father called him back to Georgia. He was at the mercy of his aunt and uncle until then, and they played favorites. In fact, if they had had a pet worm it would have probably been more favored than Andy was.
Seth pulled on the parasol again, making Andy wobble, lose his balance, and nearly fall.
“Don’t drop the umbrella,” Samantha snapped.
“Seth keeps pulling on it,” Andy said, defensively.
“Then you need to be more careful,” Samantha countered. She was red-faced from sunburn and anger. Andy did not know why Samantha was so spiteful toward him. Was it because she had a sunburn and he didn’t? Well, her siblings did not have sunburns, either, and were tanned. On the other hand, Andy had darker skin than all of them, and not because he played in the sun all of the time. It was hard to play outside in the trailer park back in Georgia; there were too many broken glass bottles and rusty detritus that required tetanus shots. Then again, just about anyone’s skin was darker than Samantha’s. She was as pale as a peeled apple and freckled like a cinnamon bun, taking after her father rather than her mother. Nor did she have blonde hair. Her hair was a drab mousy brown that always seemed to spiral spitefully in natural curls.
“You should know better than blaming other people for your mistakes,” Samantha continued. “I know that, and we’re the same age.”
Andy ignored her, just like Seth and Tiffany and her parents ignored her. It seemed to be the best option for her middle-child tantrums and outbursts. She was sensitive about everything, and that sensitivity was more than skin-deep.
“Put the parasol here,” Tiffany said, pointing to a slope of sand.
Andy unwrapped the parasol, letting its radial ribs expand, the blue-and-white striped bloom blossoming wide. He nearly lost his balance with the unwieldy canopy, wobbling left and right. He then impaled its shaft into the middle of the sandy bank.
“No, not there!” Tiffany said. “There!”
She pointed at roughly the same place, so Andy uprooted the shaft and thrust it into the slope a few inches higher, where her finger pointed.
“Ugh!” Tiffany exhaled in disgust. “You are useless.” She stooped down and uprooted the parasol and carried it farther up the slope, then impaled its shaft into the crest of the slope and angled it downward. “This is where I wanted it,” she chided him.
It was nowhere near where she pointed, but Andy did not say so. He watched her as she crouched and unrolled her towel beneath that little pool of shade in that otherwise starkly bright stretch of sand. He watched her in fascination, not knowig why he was so entranced by her long legs. Until this Summer he had never met his cousins before. For some reason, of which he did not understand, there was some “family drama” that kept his mother and his aunt apart. In fact, they had been estranged his entire life, so coming to stay with them was, for Andy, like staying at a stranger’s house. Somehow, though, he thought a stranger would have been more friendly to him than they were. They treated him like not only an inconvenience, but like something they were ashamed of being seen with in public. They never let him leave their private house, and only agreed to let him accompany his cousins down to the beach because it was their private section of the beach. No humiliating eyes.
“Don’t let anyone see you with him,” his aunt admonished his cousins. “If any of our neighbors happen by, tell them he just showed up and you don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”
If his aunt and uncle spoke to Andy at all it was in commands, like he was a dog. Generally, however, they spoke around him rather than at him. Sometimes he felt like he was in the hospital, on the sickbed, while adults spoke about his condition while not speaking directly to him.
Seth ran into the white surf, shouting. Tiffany called after him.
“You need sunscreen, idiot!”
“I’m letting Samantha have it all,” he said. “She needs all the sunscreen she can get.”
“Shut up!” Samantha yelled, even as she begrudgingly lathered herself up in the stinky white lotion. “I’m getting a tan. It’s just taking time.”
Andy waited for his turn for the sunscreen. Tiffany frowned at him, almost as if in disgust.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Sunscreen,” Andy said.
Tiffany almost laughed— a mirthless laugh of cool disbelief. She shook her head, making her long hair play peek-a-boo on either side of her hips. “You don’t need sunscreen.”
Andy was confused. “Why?”
“Because it would be a waste!” she said. “I mean, you people are made for being in the sun all day.”
Andy did not understand, but since Tiffany was the one that said this, he accepted it as a truth, and walked across the burning sand, glad when the warm surf crashed over his feet. No sooner had he waded waist deep then up popped Seth beside him, pouncing on him and wrapping his arms around his neck, trying to piggy-back on him.
“Let go!” Andy tried to shout, half-choked.
“Getty up!” Seth cried.
Andy peeled Seth’s arms from around his neck and let him drop, floundering, into the water. Coughing, Andy rubbed his throat, wondering if he would have a bruise there tomorrow. It had felt like he had been hung with a noose. He walked away, putting some distance between himself and Seth. In doing so, he accidentally bumped into Samantha, who was standing nearby.
“Watch where you’re going!” she snapped. She pushed him, but since she was so scrawny she could not budge him. Still, he obliged her by stepping away from her. She obliged him by stepping toward him. “You’re really clumsy!”
“Okay,” was all he said.
She did not relent, but seemed provoked at his neutral response. “I thought you were supposed to be athletic and stuff.”
This confused Andy, too, because he had never played any sports. He never watched sports, either. He spent his time reading and helping his mother around the trailer, making dinner, cleaning, and repairing things. His mother had taught him how to stitch.
Thinking he should stay away from both of his cousins, Andy walked a little farther out into the ocean. It swelled up to his collarbone. He felt nervous being out this far. He knew how to swim, but as he gazed upon the expanse of the Atlantic he felt like the ocean surrounded him. It dwarfed him— dwarfed the sun in the sky— and made him feel small and insignificant in the saltwater wash of the world. What mysteries lurked there in those silent waters? What monsters?
Fearing the ocean, Andy turned toward the beach. He saw Tiffany walking toward the water; tall and slender and long-legged. She walked with a poise that was so mature and ladylike, similar to the way fashion runway models walked. She dove into the shoals and then emerged, glistening and golden like a bronze statue. Andy was transfixed; so much so that he did not see Seth wading toward him until it was too late. Seth leapt on him again, this time on his head, and, with his whole weight, his cousin shoved Andy down into the saltwater. Andy had been so taken by surprise that he had not had the chance to breathe in any air, and in fact gasped, thinking a shark had clamped him in its jaws.
Andy struggled to throw his cousin off. The pressure in his vacant lungs was too much. His chest ached. His nostrils and eyes burned in the saltwater. He panicked and felt the strength go out of his limbs. Seth had entwined his arms and legs around Andy too securely to be broken or even loosened. As a last chance effort—before his lungs should explode—Andy turned his head and bit Seth’s arm as hard as he could. Seth instantly released him and Andy burst up through the water, coughing and choking and trying to regain his breath. Blindly, he walked toward the shore.
“He bit me!” Seth yelled. “He bit me on my arm! Dad was right. He is an animal.”
Andy was too grateful for air to take umbrage at what his uncle may have said. He trudged toward the shore until he came to the frothy edge of the ocean, then collapsed on his butt, coughing and wheezing, the surf lapping against him as if the ocean’s bosom, too, was trying to regain its breath with every painful contraction.
“Hey!” Seth said. “You bit me! Apologize or I’m telling dad!”
“You almost drowned me,” Andy said between ragged breaths. “You wouldn’t let go.”
“You bit me,” Seth said, again. “Apologize.”
“You better apologize,” Tiffany said, with a tone of distinterest, “or dad will just send you back home.”
Andy was bewildered by the water glistening on the flat of her chest, above her heart. In that moment he would have said anything she told him to.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You better be sorry,” Samantha said, revving up for one of her outbursts. “If you’re not sorry you will be, because we don’t tolerate things like that in our household!”
“Give it a break,” Seth told his sister. “He said he was sorry. I’m not worried about it.”
Samantha was so off-balanced by her brother’s sudden change in mood that she could only gawp like a pale-faced fish. “But…but…”
Tiffany turned away, not interested in anything other than taking selfies with her selfie-stick. Seth had lost interest and was chasing a pelican that had landed a few yards down the way, the big bird somewhat indifferent to the rowdy child. Only Samantha remained next to Andy, outraged that no one else was outraged anymore. Andy stared at the lapping water, trying to ignore Samantha’s lingering scowl. She tarried a bit longer, her shadow draping itself over his legs, before hesitantly turning away from him and shuffling back into the shoals.
Andy did not know how to please any of them. It seemed that Tiffany wished him to simply disappear until something needed to be carried. Meanwhile Seth wished Andy to be a toy that did what he wanted, regardless of how painful or humiliating. Samantha just wished to…chastise him. His uncle and aunt wanted him to go home. They had said as much the other night, when he was laying on the couch in the living room and they were in the kitchen, drinking.
Andy was surprised to hear Tiffany say his name.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at that tall girl with the long hair and longer legs.
“Why don’t you go pick some seashells for me?”
Seeing her in the bright sunlight, with the sand glowing around her and the water glistening on her slender arms, Andy would have done anything for her, including diving into the deepest part of the ocean as sharks spiraled around him.
Well, maybe not with sharks.
“What kind of seashells do you want?” he asked, knowing the difference between a conch and an auger and a scallop and such.
“The type that come from the sea,” she said with a shrug. “Put them in my basket.”
Andy immediately leapt up and began picking up the seashells that had washed ashore with the tides. There were countless shells cluttering the beach; some brilliantly colored with red stripes and yellow hues and burnished brown, and some blanched white with the kiss of the saltwater and the gaze of the sun. Tritons and mitres and cones and bonnets, figs and frogs and harps and spindles: he collected what he could. Yet, while the more simplistic shells were whole, the more elaborate conchs and spindles were shattered, some looking more like spiral bits of bone rather than shells. The lunatic tides were merciless in their anxious tossing and smashing of shells. They broke the more elaborate shells like a passionate woman breaking plates after news of her sailor husband being lost at sea. Only the plainer, more solid shells survived her passions.
The sun beat upon the children’s backs as it rose toward its midday peak. Tiffany retreated under the shade of the parasol. Samantha began to pick up shells, too.
“That one’s mine,” she would tell Andy when he was stooping to pick up a shell. Invariably, however, she would forget about the previous one and then claim the next one he was stooping to pick up. “That one’s mine too.”
She shadowed him throughout his hunt, her pale legs always nearby; her little freckled feet in his periphery as he picked up shells. Sometimes she would put her shells in Tiffany’s basket as Andy carried it around, since she had nowhere else to put them.
“You better not mix up my shells with Tiffany’s,” she said, tossing her shells in carelessly.
Somehow Andy knew he would be blamed for their inevitable squabbling later, when it came time to divvy the shells amongst the two sisters. This fret so overwhelmed him that when Seth nearly tore the basket out of his hand, Andy almost punched his cousin in the face.
“Stop it!” Andy said.
“You can’t tell me with to do,” Seth said with a smirk. He pulled at the basket again and Andy stepped away, trying to put distance between the two of them. Seth stepped forward, a look of mischief in his blue eyes. Everything was a game to him. “I’m going to get it,” he said, gleefully.
Samantha grabbed her brother by the wrist. “Quit it, Seth. You’ll break my shells!”
Seth shoved his sister and she went sprawling on the sand. Tiffany, overhearing the fight, stopped taking selfies and emerged from under her parasol.
“Stop fighting!” she said. “Or I’ll tell dad!”
Seth just grinned and ran into the surf again, undaunted by the threat. Samantha was sniffling, and trying not to cry. Andy helped her stand up, but she shoved him once she regained her feet.
“Don’t touch me!” she snapped. Still sniffling, she stormed up the beach and into the shade of the palm trees, her back to the ocean so no one could see her face. Andy knew she was crying. He thought about going to talk to her, but Tiffany called to him and he forgot all about Samantha.
“Let me see my seashells,” she said.
Tiffanys voice was musical in its chiming cadences, like a lullaby, and Andy immediately obeyed. When he reached her, he held the basket up in both hands. She rummaged through its hoard with a finicky, fastidious eye. Her small delicate fingers danced through the shells like a sea creature scuttling across a mound of underwater treasures. Andy felt her fingertips tickling him along the inside of his belly.
“They’re not bad,” she said. “But a lot of them are broken and small. You can get better shells in the water if you dig around for them.”
Andy nodded without hesitation, set the basket down, and went out into the water.
“In the deeper water!” Tiffany shouted after him.
Andy could not resist her siren song and so he went further into the ocean. He was up to his waist when he took a deep breath and submerged to the bottom, digging around in the drowned sand for whatever his hands might lay upon. His fingers found nothing and he emerged, his vision blurred with saltwater and his lungs chugging air. He glanced around blearily, making certain that Seth was nowhere near him, and then he took another deep breath and dropped himself into the water, searching once again. He did this several times in several different locations. Meanwhile, he thought about his mother and his father and his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He drowned in his own thoughts and frets.
Tiffany, Samantha, and Seth weren’t Andy’s real cousins; not by blood, anyway. Their father had divorced their mother in order to marry Andy’s aunt. The drama of it all happened over a decade ago. Andy had never met his “cousin’s” birth mother. Whenever Andy’s mother had spoken about it to his father she said that her brother–in-law wanted a smaller sized baby bed to play in— whatever that meant. Consequently, his three cousins rarely saw their mother since their father “out-lawyered” her in court. It was much the same as with Andy and his father. He rarely ever saw the man that had given him his name and his face and his skin. Like the seashells scattered beneath the sun, there were many things broken in this world.
Andy rose again from the water, snorting saltwater through his nose. He sneezed it out, but it burned in his sinuses. He hated the thought of drowning in the ocean. He had read somewhere that saltwater took a very long time to drown you. It could take up to half an hour, which seemed cruel to Andy. But at least the ocean did not hate you. It might drown you, or smash you with a tidal wave or capsize your boat; but it did not do it because it hated you. He knew only people could hate other people. They might help you live; they might provide you food and shelter and a place at the table, but if they hated you while they were doing it then it was like they were drowning you; drowning you for days, weeks, months, even years. And that was even crueller than what the ocean did to you.
Steeling his nerves— and remembering how beautiful Tiffany was as she emerged from the water—Andy dove down into the water once more, digging into the sand with his feverish fingers. To his surprise, his hand happened upon something big, heavy, thorny, and hard. It felt like a large crown. Emerging, he lifted the shell out of the water and looked at it with his blurry eyes. It looked like a large murex shell, or something similar enough to be labeled one. In the blinking, blurry moment that Andy held it he saw that it was large, with great heft to it, and its thorny back gave it an elaborate Poseidon crown-like appearance. It was an impressive shell, and his heart leapt at the prospect of Tiffany’s delight.
But before he could stare long at it, Andy was startled when a slimy black appendage darted out of the shell’s serrated mouth. With a cry, he dropped the shell and it plunged back into the water. But before it could be lost to the depths forever, Seth— who had been sneaking up on Andy—dove for the shell and grabbed it, hauling it out of the water and up above his head, the black appendage flailing wildly toward the sky.
“You scaredy cat,” Seth exclaimed. “It’s just a shell snail!”
Before Andy could say anything, Seth ran ashore, shouting in triumph about his prize.
“Look at my shell!” he shouted. “It’s the best shell and it’s all mine!”
Naturally, his two sisters wanted to claim it for themselves. Before they could, though, Seth ran off toward the house. Tiffany stomped after him. Samantha paused, looking at Andy.
“You better pick up everything,” she said. “Especially my shells!”
She then ran after her sister and brother. Andy watched her go, coming ashore once again. He picked up the basket, and collapsed the parasol, and folded the beach towel. But even as he did these mundane things he could not shake the image out of his head. It was disturbing, and Any wondered if he had only imagined it; if the saltwater and the sun and the gleam of the slimy thing within the shell had deceived his eyes.
What Seth had not noticed, and what Andy had seen in that blinking flash of a moment, was that the appendage inside the shell was attached to a body, and that body had a face with features not unlike that of a baby’s.
The walk back to the house was hard on Andy. He had to carry not only the parasol, the beach towel, and the sunscreen lotion bottle, but also the basket full of seashells. Everything was so heavy and cumbrous. He walked at a slug’s pace, the clutter in his arms making him teeter and tremble. Eventually, and with great effort, Andy arrived at his cousins’ beach house.
His cousins’ beach house was like a mansion, and not just because Andy had lived the majority of his life in a trailer park. It was larger than most of the houses he saw around his hometown in Georgia. It had two storeys, a large wraparound porch with awnings jutting here and there over the chairs, large windows letting the sun in, and the whole estate was surrounded by a low fence to keep the alligators out of the grassy lawn. Toward the back of the house, facing away from the ocean, was the beginning of the mangroves. Floating among them, in the deeper waters, were manatees, those gentle giants with the mysterious eyes.
It should have been a paradise. Yet, Andy always had to be on his guard; always watchful of his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He was in a strange world and at the mercy of their merest caprice, and so felt like a newly hatched seaturtle besieged by seabirds on all sides. They reminded him, nearly ever hour, that he did not belong there. He was a whim away from being besieged on all sides by thunderously loud, fault-finding factions.
And yet, when Andy opened the sliding door to step into the kitchen, he found that it was the shell, and not himself, that was embattled at that moment. All three of his cousins were fighting over it. Seth ran around the island in the kitchen while Samantha chased after him. Tiffany stood by, scowling and demanding that she be given the shell since Andy had been the one to first find it and so, by extension, she had greatest claim to it.
“And I’m the oldest,” she said. “So I get to choose.”
“No way,” Seth said. “It’s mine, fair and square. The scaredy-cat dropped it in the ocean. Finders keepers.”
Samantha, meanwhile, tried to wrestle the shell from her brother’s hands.
“I never get a good shell, ever!” Samantha moaned.
But when she saw the black appendage emerge from the conch, she yelped and sprang backwards, crashing into Andy as he came into the kitchen.
“Yuck!” she cried, bouncing off of Andy. “You keep it! I don’t want the nasty thing!”
Seeing the snail’s appendage once again startled Andy. It was black, but also mottled brown and had bright luminescent yellow stripes that looked like they probably glowed in the dark. It still looked vaguely like an infant’s arm, and even had tiny stalks that undulated like fingers at its end. Yet, unlike sea hares or sea slugs, there were four such stalks, and were strangely prehensile in their weird array.
“Yeah, I don’t want that thing,” Tiffany said, having a change of heart. “It’s too gross. I only want the shell.”
Still, the two sisters remained, watching Seth as he held it aloft as if bearing the Olympic torch. After a few moments of his parading, the sisters turned their attention to the basket of seashells that Andy had brought in with him. Tiffany pointed to the kitchen’s island and Andy obediently hoisted the basket—with a grunt—and set it there. He fumbled the rest of the things in his arms— the parasol and towel—and they tumbled to the floor.
“At least I have all of these shells,” Tiffany said.
“They’re not all yours,” Samantha said. “Mine are in there, too.”
“Do you actually know which ones are yours?” Tiffany retorted.
“I…” Samantha faltered. “I’ll know them when I see them,” she said.
“No you won’t,” Tiffany said. She looked at Andy. “Do you remember which ones are mine and which ones are hers?”
Andy felt like a cornered cricket, and that any chirp he might give would earn him the bottom of someone’s shoe. He shrugged one shoulder meekly.
“Great,” remarked Tiffany. “Well, there is only one way to know. I will go through them and take whichever ones I want, and then you can have the rest.”
“But that’s not fair!” Samantha cried.
“Then you shouldn’t have mixed yours in with mine. You should have brought your own basket.”
Tiffany took the basket and walked upstairs, disappearing into her room.
Samantha turned on Andy, her brown eyes twinkling with tears. “This is all your fault!” She ran upstairs, too, slamming the door to her room.
Meanwhile, Seth was lording over his prize, grinning with great satisfaction as he watched the strange arm-like tentacle writhe out of its wickedly thorny shell.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Ain’t it?”
Andy did not know what to say, other than it was a hideous creature. He kept his silence, which Seth mistook for envy.
“You’re just like my sisters,” Seth said. “Jealous of what I found.”
Andy could have corrected Seth, and recalled the fact that he was the one that found the shell, but he thought that argument too meaningless to pursue. Moreover, he was too overcome with a sense of foreboding from the shell. Seeing it in the kitchen made him feel uneasy for the entire house.
“It’s the best shell I’ve ever seen,” Seth said, watching the snail sway. “Just got to get rid of the snail.”
Standing aside, Andy watched as Seth searched around the kitchen. Seth found a saltshaker in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. It was a large saltshaker; the kind that you twisted to grind up its pink salt crystals in order to season food. He held it over the shell and began grinding the salt, showering the snail, the shell, and the island. He made a mess.
“It sure as hell doesn’t like that!” Seth exclaimed with a laugh.
The snail instantly lost its black luster and began to shrivel and withdraw into the shell. There was no refuge for it, however, even within its own home. The salt dried out its slimy, liver-colored flesh until it looked like a black banana left out in the sun. Seth took the shell to the trash can and, using a spork he found in a drawer, began prodding and scraping and scooping the snail out.
“That is one weird looking snail,” he observed as it began to slip out of the shell.
Andy was mesmerized and appalled by the ghastly thing. To him it looked less like some tubular snail and more like a small, lumpy, shriveled infant. There even seemed to be a face where the head should be, wizened by the ravages of the salt that dusted its viscous flesh.
Seth cussed as he scraped
“Damn, it doesn’t want to come out!”
Andy stared at that shriveled head, and thought he saw a luminescent eye open. Before he could gasp in fright, the petal-lipped mouth parted like a flower and a long tube slithered its way out, tapered at the end with a sharp black barb. It darted out wildly and struck Seth in the arm just as he had dislodged the snail from the shell.
“Ow!” he cried. He dropped the shell on the island. He clutched his arm with his other hand. “Ow! Shit! It burns! It burns!”
Seth’s voice heightened, as if he might begin to wail at any moment. Andy ushered him to the sink and ran cold water over the puncture point. It was small, like a spider bite, and had a swollen whelp that was red. Seth cringed as the water ran over the mark. He breathed through clenched teeth, his face wrung in pain.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Andy said, panicking at the thought of Seth dying from a venomous sting and his aunt and uncle blaming him for it.
“No,” Seth said, trying to put on a brave face. “The pain’s going away. It’s feeling better.” After a minute of washing the wound with cold water, Seth left the sink and went over to the island, reclaiming his shell with a gleam in his eye. “Now I just have to boil it to get that stink out.”
The snail itself was nothing but a dried-out husk reeking in the trash can.
Over the next ten minutes Seth boiled the shell in a large pot on the stovetop. Andy sat at the island, watching Seth for any telltale signs of fatigue or lethargy. The whelp on his cousin’s arm was darkening.
“You should go to the hospital,” Andy said.
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Seth said. He had a pair of tongs and was turning the shell around inside the boiling pot. He seemed to do this out of boredom and restlessness rather than purpose. “It’s just a bruise.”
Andy was not so sure. The whelp had blackened, and appeared to be “sweating”. That was the only term he could think of for the dark bump’s wet shimmer.
“Hey, why don’t you get me a glass of water?” Seth said. “I’m thirsty.”
Andy would have pointed out that Seth was next to the cabinet with the glasses and right next to the refrigerator with the water purifier, and so Seth could have gotten his own water, but he knew Seth was stubborn and would not have gotten his own water, especially if challenged on it, and besides Seth looked peaked, the dark circles under his eyes deepening in his strangely gaunt face. In short, Andy fetched a glass of water for his willful cousin.
“Here,” Andy said.
Seth tipped his head back and gulped the entire glass down in one go. This was impressive considering he was only eleven and the glass that Andy had filled was a glass intended for an adult.
Seth immediately handed the glass back to Andy. “Some more.”
Andy filled the glass once again, and once again Seth drained it with one extended tip of the head. Seth’s Adam’s apple was like an oversized hamster racing up and down a narrow water hose. His body began to sweat all over, from his forehead to his feet.
“More,” he said.
Andy obliged him, all the while eyeing his cousin with alarm.
After downing the third glass, Seth retched and ran to the sink. He threw up, expelling all of the water he had recently drank.
“I’m calling the ambulance,” Andy said, heading into the living room. He glanced around the living room, his eyes wandering upstairs, past the rails and from door to door on the second floor. He remembered that there was no house phone. Tiffany was the only one, besides her father and stepmother, that had a cell phone. So, Andy ran upstairs and knocked on her door. Her voice cut through the door, and through Andy’s heart, like a sword.
“Seth’s sick!” Andy said.
Another door opened down the hall, Samantha stepping out in shorts and a tanktop. Her eyes were rimmed red and her brown hair was matted to her imprinted forehead. She had been laying in bed, crying.
“What’s going on?” Samantha said, somewhat warily.
“Seth’s sick,” Andy repeated.
“So what?” came Tiffany’s reply.
“Really sick,” Andy said.
He heard Tiffany sigh, and the creaking of her box springs as she got up from bed. When the door opened she stood before him with her hair wrapped up in a towel and a long white shirt on, and seemingly nothing else except underwear. Andy glanced at the interior of her room, and saw that it was cerulean trimmed and white-walled and had a large seashell-shaped mirror in one corner, the vanity table crowded with makeup and brushes and jewelry. It was a mermaid’s bedroom.
“He better be dying,” Tiffany said. Huffing irritably, she went downstairs. Andy followed her, and Samantha followed him.
When they came into the kitchen, Seth looked at them in surprise. They looked at him in surprise, too.
“What?” he said.
He looked completely normal. He was no longer sweating; no longer retching. Even the whelp on his arm had lightened and shallowed.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tiffany demanded.
“Wrong with me?” Seth said, scoffing. “Nothing’s wrong. What’s wrong with you?”
Tiffany turned on Andy, her hands on her hips and her arms akimbo.
“Are you trying to annoy me?” she demanded.
Andy was too baffled by Seth’s miraculous recovery, and the swells beneath Tiffany’s shirt, to offer a coherent explanation. He stammered for a few moments before Tiffany, in a hissy-huff, stormed upstairs and disappeared once again into her mermaid bedroom.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on us,” Samantha said, having recovered enough from her previous defeat to feel aggrieved at this new turn of events. “It’s not funny.”
“I didn’t ask you to come downstairs,” Andy retorted, too overcome by the bizarreness of the situation to be diplomatic.
Samantha’s face turned bright red, her eyes a tempest of fury and tears. She stormed upstairs once again and slammed her door shut.
“My sisters are drama queens,” Seth said, still stirring the shell around in the steaming pot. “It’s all melodrama with them.”
Andy opened his mouth to ask whether Seth really was okay, but hesitated. He wondered if he had imagined the situation as being worse than it actually was. Perhaps, he thought, he had succumbed to his own alarmist melodrama.
But then his eye caught something peculiar in the kitchen; something that he could not rightly account for. The saltshaker was on the island, where Seth had left it, but it was now nearly empty. Where did all of the salt go?
Ladderback Jack was as tall as a lamppost,
his spine reticulated, sharp, and longer than most,
his arms apish, hanging lax with lank hands
and fingers overlong from overactive glands,
his legs slender and knotted with knobby knees
while his greasy hair lay limp in any breeze.
He had a pale complexion, Jack did, like boiled tallow,
the whites of his eyes dull, waxen and sallow,
and he walked with his back hunched, bent double over
as if always looking for a rare four-leaf clover—
and Jack needed all of the luck he could get,
being an ungainly, gangly, graceless half-wit;
so much so that people said he was of the fairy folk,
born of a dimwit mother, herself a town-wide joke.
No one knew who Jack’s father could have been,
though they joked that it was Oberon, or some such kin.
As for his nickname, that was easily explained,
and once explained, that nickname remained:
when Jack sat down to relax in a ladderback chair
and then stood up, the chair would hang there,
hooked on his protruding vertebral pegs
as he pulled himself up onto his long legs,
and, so, crook-backed, overstretched, slack-jawed,
he was thought an entertainment as he shambled and hawed,
muttering to himself about finding his father in the sky
where the cloud castles, Fata Morgana, resided nearby.
“Jack, your father’s just a will o’ the wisp,” they’d laugh,
“so go look for him in the black bogs of a Kilt Gaff.”
Yet, though townsfolk laughed at him most days
they grew ever uneasy as he became set in his ways.
And then, one day, Jack asked to take for himself a bride—
the mayor’s daughter, Saoirse, her father’s pride.
Jack asked during the town’s Midsummer Fair
and thus everyone in and out of town was there.
The town laughed and laughed, whereas the mayor meanwhile
took umbrage at Jack’s presumption, commanding exile,
but even as Jack left amidst mean-spirited laughter
he vowed, in his quiet way, to have the last laugh hereafter.
“My father is both the Gate and the Key,” Jack said,
“and he will see that his line is hereby finely bred.”
The town returned to normal after the exile of Jack
and everyone forgot about Jack’s promise to come back
until one night when lights were seen in the midnight sky—
lights above the hills, each swirling like a firefly.
Jack came into town the next day, grinning ear to ear,
and walking, bold as brass, without any fear
up to Saoirse, holding a ring of strange onyx metal
and asking her to give to him, in return, her maiden petal.
Saoirse was ready to call him an imbecilic cur,
but was suddenly transfixed by the ring held out to her.
Her father interceded, as did many of the local men,
and they beat Jack black, then blue, then black again.
“Go back to the hills, among the inbred Fae,”
the Mayor said. “Or you will hang from the gallows today!”
But Ladderback Jack was not of the fairy race,
nor was his father, that thing beyond Time and Space.
“My father,” Jack muttered, “is the Gate and the Key.
He is beyond the outer darkness, the stars, of all forms that be.”
And so the sky blackened in the middle of the day,
the villagers trembling to see the noonlight fray
as their town was pulled into a pocket of void, a world
unknown to Man, a place where madness unfurled.
Waiting for them there was a nebulous cloud of spheres
to which Jack pointed and declared, in worshipful tears,
“Behold! My father! The Lurker at the Threshold!
Behold what was, what is, and what will be! As foretold!”
The primordial sludge of luminous orbs and oculi
looked upon the people of that town, letting them see
in the fullness of its depths the endless cosmic chasms,
bathing their brains in luminous gulfs, the neural spasms
softening the meat of their minds unto a viscous pudding
and releasing them only after revelation could bring
them to confront the meaninglessness of their being
of which, ever thereafter, there was no unseeing…
To this day that village still remains, quiet and quaint,
all of the villagers vacant-eyed, imbecilic with its taint—
all serving silently, reverently, the bloodline spawned
from Ladderback Jack, that avatar-son of the Beyond.