What is human grief but rain on stone? Whether long or brief, it dries where strewn without scarring rock, or carving rune— no such stain or pock outlast the moon. The tears always dry and stones remain, the years pass us by: the cosmos reign— they reign, unfeeling, forgetting all, the cold stones wheeling while hot tears fall.
The snake-eyed die is cast, unfurled like the ship’s sail from the creaking oak mast, while the Westward winds wail. The man in the crow’s nest cries out, “Crags down below!” but the waves surge to crest, churning, blow upon blow. The crew shouts to their gods, clinging as the hull slams into reef, and then nods toward the fish and clams. The die is cast—a loss for Man against the Fates; the waves renew and toss, heaving like strong shipmates. The ship tips over, now, as a horse reined to fall, pitching to starboard bow as at the siren’s call. The men abandon ship, leaping from larboard side like die cast with a slip of the hand—they still died.
The tall preacher lays his palm upon the man’s forehead. With his other hand the preacher cradles the man’s nape. All around them the Snake River flows easily, aglitter in the dawn. The preacher speaks loudly, clearly, so that the rest of his followers may hear as they watch from the bank of the river.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The man takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The preacher lowers the man backwards into the gilded water, pausing a moment as the man disappears into the sky on the water, and then raises him, holding him steadily as the man breathes out and blinks rapidly into the bright light of a new day. His white long-johns are soaked through. Droplets of water stud him like diamonds.
“Thank you, preacher,” the man says.
“Thank the Lord, Billy,” the preacher says. His black robe is like a raven perched amidst the river. “Forgiveness is His alone.”
Billy nods and then crosses himself, trudging now to the bank of the river to join with the others, drying in the sun. He sits down, his mousy hair wet and lank. He smiles through his wet beard as if a boy again, and the rest of the followers return his smile with childlike joy.
The preacher looks upon them with the look of a shepherd for his sheep. Then, with a gesture, he invites the next member of his flock forward into the waters to be baptized for the new day of pious devotion.
The sun rises higher and the day grows hotter, dustier. The flock harvests the crops they grow near their settlement of tents and wagons and palisades. Some men go fishing for trout in the river to add to the evening’s meal. The preacher stands solemnly nearby, a bible in his hand and his cool gray eyes watchful of his flock. The sun bakes skin and earth unto a clay. The preacher vows that he will mold the clay as God molded Adam.
Billy approaches the preacher, his breeches and hat dusty with the work of the day. The young man’s eyes squint perpetually, the sun having cracked wrinkles prematurely beneath them. The young man’s bare torso is as gaunt as Christ on a Catholic crucifix.
“Preacher,” Billy says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh?” the preacher says. “There is no need. That is why I baptize you every morning. Your sins are washed away.”
Billy lets his eyes drop to the sagebrush and other shrubs scattered across the expanse between himself and the mountain-hemmed horizon. The preacher seems taller than the mountains themselves, and looms over all things.
“It’s not my sins I’m worried about, preacher. It’s those of…of my wife.”
The preacher gazes toward the womenfolk as they busily pick green beans. Sarah stoops among them, her red hair ablaze in the afternoon sun.
“And how has Sarah trespassed against God?”
“Sarah avoids you, preacher,” Billy says. “She doesn’t take baptism every morning. And for that, I am sorry.”
“She will see the light,” the preacher says. “With time. She will make a goodly wife.”
Billy sighs and looks away. His voice is despondent. “I like to believe so, preacher. But…”
He falls to silence.
“But?” the preacher says.
“But I fear she is going astray,” Billy says, his voice trembling. “She…disappears sometimes. Goes missing. At night…”
“And you believe she is meeting with someone else among my flock?” the preacher says, his gray eyes grim.
“No, no!” Billy says, hastily. “I would never doubt my neighbor. I know we are all Faithful here.”
The preacher turns his gray eyes upon the young man, his gaze burnishing and unblinking; steadfast as the sun itself. “Then what do you suspect?”
Billy looks to his wife kneeling among the green beans, then lets his eyes drift away in defeated silence.
The preacher’s voice is softer.
“Billy? If you suspect something, you must speak it, if not to unburden yourself, then at least to unburden the air. Unspoken suspicions are phantoms that grow in power and darken all that they touch with their shadows.”
“I don’t know, preacher,” Billy says, heavily. “Maybe it is just a phantom in my head.”
The preacher nods. “Do you know what dispels phantoms?”
“What?” Billy says, looking up with expectant hope at the preacher.
“The sun,” the preacher says. “And honest labor beneath the sun.”
“You’re right, preacher,” Billy says. “I need to work off this restlessness.”
Billy returns to the crops, taking up a hoe and weeding alongside the other members of the flock. The preacher watches him for a long moment, then turns his eyes elsewhere. Like bloated deerflies his black pupils wander about slowly, restlessly, from person to person, coming, at length, to Billy’s wife, Sarah. Her hair is as blood among the beans. She glances up, notices the preacher’s gaze, and turns quickly away.
After dinner—when the long day has settled its ashes on the horizon—the preacher reads to his flock passages from his bible. He stands tall while they sit low before him, wet with the sweat of their labors as if they have only recently emerged from their baptism in the river.
“You will know them by their fruits,” the preacher reads. “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruits…”
Billy listens attentively, but is clearly distressed. His wife is not beside him, nor among the congregation. The preacher notices this, too, but says nothing. He reads until the fire dies out in the West, then wishes his flock a good evening and the sleep of the righteous. His flock scatters to their various concerns; some to chores, others to conversation and innocent pastimes.
As the preacher walks toward his tent he is intercepted by the wife of one of his followers.
“Preacher, that was a fine sermon,” she says.
“The Lord saw fit to make it so,” the preacher says.
She follows him for some time, quietly.
“I was curious,” she says as he reaches his tent. “Why not baptize your flock at dusk, too, preacher? Why let their sins follow them into their dreams?”
The preacher does not face her. His tent is as tall as he is, and is arranged on tall wooden posts. He does not look at the young woman, even as she peers boldly up at him. He parts the flap of his tent, holding it with one hand while he stands erect, tall, like a dark sentinel whose dark hair reaches the darkening sky and its nebulous stars. His eyes do not meet her, even still.
“So you may see the fruits of your sins bloom in the night,” the preacher says. “So you may dream the guilt that you harvest from sins and learn from them the lessons upon waking, otherwise you will waken in the next life not to Heaven, but to the flaming orchard that is Hell.”
She snorts, then leaves. The preacher retires inside his tent.
The moon is pale as a salmon’s belly. The wolves howl in the distant mountains to welcome the moon. The fires die around the settlement and the flock retires to bed.
A voice calls faintly to the preacher from beyond his tent.
“Preacher? Preacher, can I have a word? Please?”
The preacher rises from bed, then goes quickly to the flap.
“Billy?” he says.
“Yes, preacher,” Billy says, glumly. “I am sorry, preacher.”
“Give me a moment, Billy, and I will be out.”
The preacher pulls on his long-johns and then his black robe. He regards his bed for a moment, in regret, then opens the flap and exits his tent. Billy’s face is distraught in the moonlight.
“Sarah has gone missing,” he says. “Preacher, you have to help me convince her to take to the Lord’s path again.”
“She is likely making night-soil,” the preacher says.
“I’d like to believe that, preacher,” Billy says. “But she has been gone for so long now.” His eyes are as wide as a salmon’s with distress. “I’m afraid she is lost to me.”
“You must believe in the Lord’s guidance,” the preacher says, sternly. “In all things His hand works His will.”
Billy hangs his head. “I know, preacher…I know…but…”
“Do not persist in this mistaken belief,” the preacher warns him. “Or it will unmake you and all of the hard work you have done for this refuge of souls.”
“I know…preacher…but Sarah…she’s been acting strange for so long now…”
The preacher’s tone is curt. “Do you not think the Lord capable of changing hearts?”
Tears glisten on Billy’s cheeks. He trembles with indecision and doubt. His voice cracks as he speaks. “I know, preacher, but what if she has turned her back on the Lord?”
“Your doubt in the Lord’s influence is a sin,” the preacher says. He shakes his head angrily, looking from Billy back to his tent. At length, he sighs in resignation. “Come. I will baptize you again. This time, perhaps, you will feel the power of Jesus Christ and, then, the truth of these petty frets will be laid bare before you.”
The preacher leads Billy to the river, his shadowy figure seemingly as tall as an onyx steeple in the moonlight. The preacher steps into the shoals, gesturing for Billy to follow. Billy hesitates but a moment, but then, too, steps into the shoals, feeling the steady flow pull at his sorrow-stricken knees. He stumbles as if burdened beneath a great weight, but the preacher steadies him.
“Billy,” the preacher says. “Doubt in your wife is doubt in the love of the Lord. Do you ask forgiveness for this human failing?”
Billy, sobbing, nods. “Yes. Please, God, I ask for forgiveness!”
The preacher puts his large palm upon Billy’s forehead, and cradles his nape gently with his other hand. The preacher pauses, hearing two wolves howl together in the distance. He then continues.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The preacher dips Billy backwards into the river. He waits a moment, says a short prayer, and twists his hands in opposite directions. This done, he trudges back to the bank and—robe weighed down with water—emerges from the river. Returning to his tent, he enters and takes off his wet robe, long-johns, and lays down next to the figure awaiting his return.
A new day dawns and Billy’s limp body is washed away by the river, his arms outspread as he floats along an easy flow mirroring the sky.
They are only phantoms in the brain, data within a computer drive, a song with an echoing refrain, the buzzing bees of a mental hive, a book inscribed with pleasure and pain, the retro slang from yesterday’s jive, apparitions which we clutch in vain, both the ripples and the deep-sea dive, graffiti sprayed on a passing train, the postcards from the place we arrive, a shroud moth-eaten around its stain, the remainders of those once alive.
Inborn conqueror, scepter for his rattle, crawling belligerence, babbling for battle, teething on a monarch’s ring, his ordained bib soaked red in the christening blood of his crib, collecting a toy chest of corpses, piled up, a cool eye as he drinks from a sucky cup that brims with bloodshed, his cherub cheeks swollen with conquests and the coveted spoils stolen from others whose worth is but the vaguest sense hinging on his fickle object permanence.
A monarch of nightmares, a scribe of grotesque tales, searching through limbic lairs and various pits and hells to find the dreamscapes deep in the strange hearts of men, like one who cannot sleep except with eyes open, mapping the world’s shadows with a typewriter’s keys to illuminate those fears, those territories of the soul and the mind which, in ancient times past, spurred men to glance behind, not knowing if, at last, that lurker had now sprung to pounce atop its prey and lick with a cold tongue the spine, without allay, to shiver the great ape, to remind him of his fate, of death without escape and the hour…growing late.
Within the foyer, and sitting prim and proper in a high-backed chair—her spine as straight as a poker and her shadow constant and unwavering in the flickering light of the hearth—was Lady Agnes Ironside, her hair a fiery brand of curls atop an ashen face and her gown black as soot. Her freckles flared like cinders as she spoke.
“Undoubtedly the duke is exceedingly put upon by that presumptuous woman,” she said, her red-lipped smile stiff and sharp. “His patience will fray, given time, and with its unraveling will come the consolidation of his feelings in regard to other persons more deserving of the station and status of his especial acquaintance.”
The other ladies sat to one side of the table, their three shadows trembling among the velvet-and-white wallpaper. They were as ash, too, but were not so constant in countenance; rather, had a window been opened late in that Winter’s night a breeze would have blown them to utter dissolution.
“And, of course, his truer feelings will bear upon him in time,” Lady Ironside said, taking a sip of tea from her teacup. The teacup was smeared with shadows on one side, and gleamed white on the other side, like a heathen’s bone exhumed in an ancient temple. “He will not abandon himself or his truer feelings, nor will he dishonor himself or the more deserving among his considerations by protracting this foolish infatuation. That presumptuous naif cannot dissuade him from his better sensibilities. Society, rank, and expectation shall all prevail.”
The three women shivered in the airy foyer, despite the hearth. Lady Ironside remained unmoved, however. Not one patch of skin betrayed the heat of her conviction with goosebumps or tautness. Winter himself might whisper down her corset and she would melt him with her most languid shrug. Or so she fancied.
“And do not think that I am unaware of his previous attachments,” Lady Ironside said to those shades in her foyer. “Each of you enjoyed his special attentions for a time, and each of you suffered for his capricious nature. Yet, I evince a certain defiance in my own circumstances, for I am—unlike the three of you—peerless in my pedigree and accomplishments. For instance, not one of you were ever sufficient in the art of the piano. I have been regarded as singular pianist distinguished by my interpretations of Mozart. Moreover, I am a soprano that— had necessity in life existed and privilege been absent—I could have sustained a life with the lofty heights of my voice. To these obvious virtues there must be added my natural charms, of course, and my sensibility as a friend and confidante. In all circles of society I flourish with natural acumen, and would do so whether in a small soiree of friends or, indeed, the castle of the Queen Victoria herself. No man would find a superior consort anywhere in all of England for the diversity of societies one encounters here. And, being naturally adaptive, I would be the superior consort anywhere else in the world. I am, if anything, quick to learn and overcome. I am as a fish to water, as you all well know.”
Lady Ironside did not flush in embarrassment as she proclaimed her attributes, but sipped between each trait as if outlining the basic facts of a ledger’s contents. The three shades nodded sympathetically, but said nothing.
“The Duke will see the error in his estimation soon enough,” she continued. “With more temperate reflection he will come to understand that he has taken to a lowly, common oil lamp to illuminate his nights while the fires of Mt. Olympus await him here. With me. What warmth is there among the common hearths of England compared to the hearths of Hera and Aphrodite combined? He is chilled in her company, I assure you. Absolutely chilled.”
Lady Ironside sipped again from her teacup, coolly eyeing the three women before her. A door opened within her manor, and with it came the tendrils of a cool night breeze. The three pale shades quivered and then dissipated like ash into shadow. Lady Ironside sat alone, untouched by the coldness. There was a sharply needled fire in her heart, and atop the head of this needle danced fallen angels all afire with the host of the Inferno, burning with all of its hope and hurt and betrayal and embittered love.
“That must be William returning,” Lady Ironside announced. She set her teacup aside and crossed her hands, one atop the other, in her lap. She listened for the footsteps of her messenger as they approached. They seemed slow; reluctant.
At length, his figure appeared in the door, bringing with it the smells of horses and sweat and the countryside. He cleared his throat.
“Come in, William,” she said. “Report to me at once.”
“As you wish, Miss Ironside,” he said. He hesitated nonetheless, clearing his throat once again, and then stepped into the foyer. He was a lean, middle-aged man in a rider’s coat with long tails. He stood before her with his hands behind his back and his eyes averted into the fire of the hearth. “The Duke...” he began to say, but hesitated.
“Come, come, William,” the lady said. “Do not vex my nerves with suspense.”
“He is to be married to the young maiden,” William said. He looked as a dog awaiting a strike upon the nose. Instead, to his astonishment, his ear was struck with something ever the more unsettling than a spiteful hand. Lady Ironside giggled.
“She is no maiden,” Lady Ironside said, wry amusement playing about her lips. “No more than any of my guests here.” She gestured to the empty couch.
William did not glance at the empty couch, but kept his eyes in the fire.
“Do you not agree, ladies?” Lady Ironside said. “All of you were fooled by your own complacency. The Duke would not have kept to his word for any of you, for you gave away your honor so easily.”
William went to the hearth and used the iron poker to stir the fire to a greater flame. The night’s ride had been a frigid one.
“The Duke will abandon his newest tart as he has these three tarts past,” Lady Ironside said, her tongue prodding the air more sharply than the poker in William’s hand. “And then he will apply to my sympathies. Naturally, I will forgive him with majestic magnanimity, and we will be married, but there will be an interim when he must offer his pride in sincere totality to me. I am not a hard woman, but my passions are to be cloyed for the rigors they have endured during these three weeks of cold distance. I am not simply another shade in exile on the River Styx. I am Aphrodite and Hera. I am Diana and Athena. I am not some common crumpet with a disproportional sense of self. My vanity is meted accordingly and my virtue remains intact and intractable, regardless of what some circles may claim.” Her lips quivered in a sneer for a moment, and her whole being was aglow with the cinders of resentment. “There is no doubting the incumbency placed upon his good will, nor the inducement I provoke in him toward his own honor as a gentleman of noble station. My three friends here could not have, in good faith, expected any reciprocation of obligation in regard to the Duke and their own improprieties. No, indeed, they were grand fools to think otherwise. I am no such fool.”
William cleared his throat in the silence, and stirred the fire in the hearth. Lady Ironside’s shadow loomed large in the foyer, and did not flicker or flag as the flames swayed with the intrusion of the poker.
“William,” she said, her voice suddenly tremulous. “When can I expect the Duke’s arrival?”
William paused in his labor, dumbfounded as the light from the hearth flared and subsided as if rallying for its own death throes. His mouth gawped, the words needed for the moment escaping amorphously from between his floundering lips. Silence was master of the household, then, and his decree was brutal. The moment of his reign passed, however, as did the tremor in Lady Ironside’s voice as she resumed.
“In a fortnight, naturally,” she said with her habitual confidence. “That will be more than sufficient time to travel the short distance in comfort of his carriage. Yet, I fear dispensing with the tart will require more time, and so a fortnight will suffice exceedingly well. Though a tart, she should be afforded an honorable discharge from his company, as he condescended to do for the other three ladies here gathered. The Duke is a considerate gentleman and must placate such sensitive situations, however inconvenient they may be to the superior affections between the two of us.”
Lady Ironside lifted her teacup again to her lips, sipped, and set the teacup down. The porcelain trembled as it touched the plate.
“And this interval of separation shall only stoke the love between us. Absence makes the heart fonder, and my Duke is beyond fond of me now.” She suddenly paused and turned to look at William’s shadowy figure stooping in front of the fire. “Pray, in what spirit did you find the Duke?”
William mechanically stirred the kindling. “Pleasant,” he said. “Most pleasant, I presume. I was not granted an audience, but I was assured by his butler that the Duke was in high spirits. His household was bustling with preparations for a ball.”
“Indeed?” Lady Ironside said, a confusion in her green eyes. “A ball?” She sighed, and her freckles seemed to flare across her cheeks and bosom. “To amuse himself in light of my absence, no doubt. He feels it keenly and must exact extravagant distractions to diverge his forlorn disposition. Whereas those other tarts amounted to little more than a seasonal romance—no, a holiday of fickle distraction finished before evening Mass might begin—his affection for me is a lodestar without which he would be adrift and aimless.”
William stifled a cough as the hearth’s fire belched smoke and cinder into his face.
“Miss Ironside,” he said, “should you not be retiring to bed? The hour grows late...and cold.”
“I feel no coldness, William,” she said. “I am a pillar of flame against such natural caprices.”
“Even so,” William said, hesitantly, “it is not good for a lady’s constitution to linger so late in the Wintertime.”
“The Spring will be here soon enough,” she said.
William grimaced at his own words. “Not afore a fortnight, my lady. Nor, I fear, thereafter.”
Her mouth twisted—but with the strain of anger or despair, he could not discern—and she rose from her high-backed chair. She did not bid her servant a good night, nor the three guests haunting her with their pitiful expressions. Instead, she turned and retreated from the foyer with a torpid stride. Her voice quavered in the hall.
“This house is too hot. I should like to winter someplace cooler.”
Later that night, in the depths of the witching hour, William coughed, startling himself awake. Sighing, he sat up in his bed and blinked into the uniform darkness of his quarters. The fire in his hearth was nothing but smoldering embers. He found himself drawn to the singular window serving the room with its prospect. Pulling his robe about him, he attended the window with bleary eyes that smeared the orange moon along the cataracts of the window. A few blinks and the cold moonlit landscape crystallized. The garden sprawled below, its hedges buried with the supple powder of the year’s first snow. The gazebo was as a white beehive. The latticework of the arbor was bereft of its vines and flowers. This was all to be expected, and yet he felt a revelation soon to be at hand. For a moment he stared, not knowing what had drawn him from bed. He was turning back to bed when he glimpsed a figure dancing in the snow. The figure’s nakedness burned with flecks of cinders beneath her fiery red tresses. He was reminded of the old tales his Irish grandmother once told him of the Leanan Sidhe, that monstrous fairy that would lure unwary men to their deaths. Or was the figure a Bean Sidhe, portending death in the Ironside estate?
William shivered, blinked, and then saw the figure no more. Thinking the figure a conjuration of drink, dreaminess, and his own desires, William staggered back to bed, surrendering the vision to the darkness of sleep.
Upon the morning the housekeeper set about the manor to rekindle the hearths. She found Lady Ironside laying in bed, a pallor snuffing out her freckles. Her fiery red hair had gone gray as ash and lay as lax as soot. Though heavily laden with blankets, and having a hearth that had never extinguished throughout the night, the once radiant mistress was now cold and clammy and colorless. Before the close of the morning she had given over the ghost from her frigid vessel.
The Duke, it must be said, married the fifth woman to have enkindled his fancy, and was no more put out by the news of the death of the fourth than news of the third, second, or first.
The Halcyon birds rile and fly away while the Nereids flee upon froth and wave, floating over shipwrecks from yesterday smashed by vengeful boulders thrown by the slave; the slave: sentinel cast in giant bronze, a titan overlooking his dear isle, standing tall and steadfast through dusks and dawns to defend his Crete paradise erstwhile, but now, stricken, his strength bleeds out his heel, and though his essence is molten passion the colossus collapses, made to feel the agonies of his mortal fashion. Howling, he recalls the small, subtle hand that twisted the vitals from the weak spot, a lithe, little hand whose soft command could not be resisted once it had caught the crux, the crank, the crucial clutch that turned to empty his veins of his sole vigor and then strolled along the beach where love burned— a great ruin, and her distant figure.