Simple Life, Sinful Death

The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life.  The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees.  The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones.  The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes.  Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things.  And so he was contented.  His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.

 And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.

 As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple.  Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night.  He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain.  Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.

 But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders.  He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat.  He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden.  When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging.  He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.

 And his mind began to fail him.  He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned.  Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.

 And then the shadows began to come to him.

 They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer.  They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue.  The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue.  The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth.  The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.

 The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements.  He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes.  He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination.  He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.

 But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling.  They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.

 Simply staring.

 And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form.  They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.

 Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.

 Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself.  He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow.  Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself.  That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead.  It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.

  “You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward?  Aches and pains and old age. ”

 The old monk responded with a level voice.   “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”

 The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity.   “And yet you have not achieved Satori.  So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”

 Again the old monk replied with a level voice.   “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said.   “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”

 The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple.   “We shall see what answers you when given temptations.  Yes!  Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”

 The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng.  It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown.  No, two women!  They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them.  They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight.  They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands.  Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy.  The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.

  “You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said.   “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”

 The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire.  Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.

  “No, ” he said, his voice quivering.   “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”

 Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont.  The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.

 There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly.  Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple.  Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.

  “You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom!  Buy two!  You would live in comfort and . ”

 The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly.  Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.

 Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over.  He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been.  But he felt shame.

  “A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures.  Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap.  Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens.  Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”

 The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon.  The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled.  After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth.  The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.

 Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki.  It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron.  The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen.  Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.

 The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.

  “You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”

 The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know.  His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple.  The monk moaned silently, but did not move.  At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.

  “A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”

 The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously.  Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down.  Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.

  “So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked.   “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”

 He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind.  When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.

  “Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk.   “Choose to indulge or abstain.  It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care.  No one cares, except yourself. ”

 The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha.  With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.

 What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.

      ***

 It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple.  When he arrived he found it deserted.  There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds.  The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment.  The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next.  For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again.  He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor.  Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own.  Whose it was, he did not know.  When he glanced around, he saw no one.  Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.

 For a time.

Cracks

 Cracks

 Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of his mom’s black-and-white television, eating a cup of Frosted Flakes as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.  Tyrone liked Frosted Flakes.  He liked Tony the Tiger because his name was similar to his own, and he liked to think they could go on adventures in their own cartoon together: The Tony and Tyrone Show.  Tyrone wished he could play with Tony like the kids did in the commercials, and he wished he could eat a bowl of cereal just like the kids in the commercial did.  But Tyrone always had to eat his Frosted Flakes without a spoon.

 Most of the time Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of the tv—so he could hear only the tv and not the noises coming from his mom’s bedroom—and he ate his cereal in a cup, the milk and the flakes crashing against his mouth in a mixture of sugary crunch and somewhat spoiled creaminess.  Sometimes he ate Frosted Flakes without any milk at all.  Sometimes he ate nothing all day but Frosted Flakes, and sometimes he ate nothing. Regardless how he ate, Tyrone never ate with a spoon.

 Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on.  Tyrone liked Mr. Rogers.  He was a nice White man.  He wasn’t like the landlord who was always threatening Tyrone’s mom for rent and calling her a “useless nigger”.  Tyrone wished Mr. Rogers owned this apartment building.  Things would have been different if he had. And Tyrone liked Officer Clemmons.  Tyrone sometimes liked to think that Officer Clemmons was his dad and that he would come home any day now.

 Every neighborhood, Tyrone thought, should be like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  There was never a single crack to be seen.  Tyrone hated the cracks that he saw around his neighborhood.  Each one scared him.  They glowed with a white phosphorescence in their jagged fissures, and things writhed within them, like wet snakes or homeless men rummaging through dumpsters, and Tyrone’s mom moaned when the crack in her bedroom writhed.  It was not a moan of pain or pleasure, but both, like she was dying, but was too happy to care about it.

 There were cracks all around the apartment building.  Tyrone saw the first crack in a man’s face.  It was a year ago, late at night, while his mom was asleep.  Tyrone had his window open and he heard a man singing as he came down the street.  Singing like he was drunk.  Singing, “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care” as loud as he could.  Tyrone had gone to his window and saw a man stumbling down the street, his clothes disheveled.

 “Jimmy cracked corn…!”

 The man had glanced up at Tyrone, his black face split with a glowing white crack that did not bleed.

 “What you lookin’ at?” the man shouted.  “First spooks jump me and now I got a nosy little nigger starin’ at me.”  He snorted, and started laughing.  “Hey!  Don’t you go hidin’ from me, boy!  They’ll fix you up right!”

 Tyrone had crouched beneath his window, trembling and praying that the man would go away.

 “Stupid brat,” the man said.

 The man left, but the crack he carried with him remained.  Later Tyrone saw some pale men in black suits standing on the street corner.  They were not like Mr. Rogers.  They wore black hats and black shades, hiding most of their fish-belly white faces.  Where they stood, a crack opened and grew larger, like a spider’s web ensnaring the whole neighborhood.  Soon Tyrone saw it spread in the walls between the apartment buildings, near the alleyways where the burn-outs slept, and along the cars and the streets, from the barbershop to the grocery store, ruining everything.  It crept into the apartment hallway, and the stairwell.  It was on people’s doors, splitting their windows and, soon, it was on every other face, their heads split down the center, or their chests, and so their hearts, and everywhere the crack spread Tyrone heard the tentacles writhing.  At night, as he lay awake in bed, he heard the tenants moaning like his mom.  Their moans reminded him of church hymns— back when his mom used to take him to church—only the words were all wrong, and weird, and frightening.  The gibberish roared in his ears sometimes.  His mom had stopped going to work, and, after a while, she did nothing but stay in her bedroom.  Sometimes a stranger would join her, and the moaning would be louder than before, and then the stranger left, but all the while Tyrone sat so close to the television that his eyes burned and overflowed with tears as Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons smiled on, pitiless in their perfect neighborhood.

 And so Tyrone watched cartoons, and ate Frosted Flakes without using a spoon, and waited until the day his mom would emerge from her bedroom, transformed, head full of burning white cracks, and reaching down to kiss him as her face split open to swallow him forever.

(The above was one of four stories I wrote to submit to The Root’s short story competition in relation to Lovecraft Country. Unfortunately this story 1) was too long by about 80 words, 2) had references to drugs (allusively to the 80’s crack epidemic in the US) and 3) was written by me, a White boy (insomuch as Melungeons are considered White). So, knowing I have been disqualified on three fronts, I decided to put it up here to rot.

Chase The Horizon

The Zen master and the student sat on the steps of the monastery, gazing down the mountainside upon which the monastery sat.  The master’s face was serene, his forehead relaxed above his gray eyebrows.  The student’s brow was wrinkled with frustration, his young face troubled after a long morning of lessons.

“I do not think I can contain so much knowledge,” the young student said.  “It is too much.”

“You need only to broaden your mind,” the Zen master said, placidly.  “Then all knowledge and understanding can be contained.”

The student shook his head doubtfully.  “It is too difficult,” he said.  “There is nothing more difficult.”

The Zen master smiled sadly.  “Ah, but there is something much more difficult.  To broaden one’s heart.”

The young student frowned, perplexed.  “How so?”

“To broaden one’s heart, one must widen it to the edge of the horizon.”

The student shrugged, surveying the landscape that sprawled below the mountain, and stretched out to the forests and mountains beyond.

“That does not seem far,” the student remarked.  “A few miles at most.”

The Zen master chuckled.  “Then chase the horizon, young one, and broaden your heart.”

And, so, the young student did.  He chased the horizon the whole day, and the whole night, and slept the following morning.  Then he began again, following the horizon as it rolled ever closer and ever farther from him.  When he came to the sea, he took a boat, and when he came to another shore he walked once again.  To many places he came and went; many people he met and grew to know.  For three decades he chased the horizon, sometimes in haste, sometimes in leisure, and eventually he found himself returned to the monastery, standing before his much-aged master.

“Master,” he said, “I have returned, but I have not reached the edge of the horizon.  It eludes me even now.”

His master smiled proudly nonetheless.  “But how did your travels go?  Whom did you meet?”

“Many people, master,” the student said.  “People of all colors and customs and beliefs.”  There were tears in his eyes.  “Many friends whom I love as I would any brother or sister.”

“Then you have caught the horizon,” the Zen master said.  “For your heart now reaches from one horizon to the next, enveloping the world as a whole, and not just the small part where you are.”

The Zen master invited his student to sit down and drink tea with him, and to tell him of the people and the places he had come to know.  The student spoke happily all morning, and into the evening.  Other monks in the monastery sat down, too, and listened upon the steps that overlooked the world.

And as they listened to the student recount his travels—-student, now a master in his own right—-they felt their own hearts broadening from horizon to horizon also.

Suicide Is Painless

(Explicit Warning Sexual Themes, Violence, Language)

 

 

 

That suicide is painless

It brings on many changes

And I can take or leave it if I please…

Johnny Mandel

 

 

 The man in the hooded robe escorted Austen through the dark underground corridor of ancient stone, holding aloft a torch that licked at the vaulted ceiling.  The robed man said nothing, nor did Austen say anything.  The latter held his breath in nervous excitement and existential terror, and a little embarrassment.  His dream was about to come true, in a certain fashion.  And then his life would end, but wouldn t it end while he was young and happy, which was more than he could have expected if he lived a long, lonely life?

 A chill breeze wormed through the wet corridor, carrying strange whispers and echoes of times bygone and unguessed.  It smelled of damp earth and old bones and death.  Austen shivered, trembling in his hoodie and putting his hands in his jean pockets, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.  His ears were small, and underdeveloped, and unflattering, much like his chin or so he always thought.  To compensate for these weak features, Austen s nose was overly prominent, long and slightly hooked.  Pale blue eyes world-weary and insomniac stared sadly out from above that bold nose.  In highschool he was called Toucan  because of his nose.  The name stuck and when people thought of him, should they have thought of him at all, thought of him automatically as Toucan .  No one called him by his actual name; not even his teachers.  They did not talk to him at all.

 The stone passageway descended stone stairs.  Austen followed the hooded man until they came to a door.  It was an oddly modern door.  The robed figure beckoned Austen to the door, and so Austen turned the knob, opening of his own free will the door and leaving the ancient, dark corridor behind.  He entered a room bleached with bright white light.  Eyes adjusting as he stepped forward, he heard the door close behind him and went to meet his destiny.

 It was a waiting room, not unlike what he would have expected in a doctor s office or ambulatory care.  There were somewhat-comfortable chairs arranged around a room tiled in gleaming, checkered linoleum.  Some framed photos lined the walls, and paintings, depicting eldritch symbols and locations, such as the Plains of Leng and the tourist town of Dunwich and the Bermuda Triangle, and there were a few potted plants which breathed in the various corners of the room.  To the far wall was a door and beside the door was a large glass window behind which was partitioned the receptionist s desk.  To this Austen went first, unsure of himself (as always) and looking for reassurance.

  Hello,  he said meekly.   I…I m Austen Blackwell.  I have an appointment.

  Sign in,  said the hooded man behind the window.  He was busy doodling eldritch abominations on some scrap paper.  Without looking up he took a clipboard up and handed through the slot in the window.  A large stack of forms was bulging out from under the clip.   Take these and fill them out, signing where marked in green, and return them to me as soon as you are finished.

  Thank you?  Austen said, unsure what his response should have been.

 The hooded receptionist ignored him, focusing instead on drawing tentacles.

 Austen signed in on the arrival sheet, just in case, and then took the clipboard with its bulging stack of forms and went to a corner of the waiting room, taking a seat as far away from the other men in the room as possible.  There were several other men in the waiting room.  They were of various ages and ethnicities, but all of them seemed like they spent too much time stooped over a computer or a cellphone.  Several of them were stooping over their cellphones presently, or filling out the necessary forms.  Some were watching porn.  Austen could hear women moaning and gasping in various volumes while men grunted and groaned.  Others were looking through Facebook for women.

  Rachel Pennington was such a bitch in highschool,  someone said.   I can t wait to fuck her stupid.  Stick my dick down her stuck-up throat and cum till it comes out her nose.  See if she laughs at me then…

 Austen wondered about these men in this waiting room; wondered if he had communicated with any of them on the online forums and 4chan.  Maybe they were the faces for the familiar online names he had come to know on a daily basis.  Rejectotron79.  Incellularzzz.  Chadbitchboy45.  None of them posted photos online except when someone wanted to be roasted, and that was infrequent.  Austen thought about posting his own photo in the forum, just to confirm his own worst fears (that no girl on earth would want to date him, let alone marry him and reproduce with him), but he had chickened out.  He had scoured his own features enough to know, without phrenological debate, that he was a hopeless specimen.  He didn t need strangers to tell him what he had known since he was a child.

 Austen focused on the paperwork.

  Hey,  someone said.   What s yours going to be?

 Austen looked up.  A large man with freckles in a fat face smiled mirthlessly down at him, his glasses white circles of hot light.

  Audrey Hepburn,  Austen said automatically.  He wanted the ginger-haired man of an indeterminate age to go away.

  Classy and classical,  the ginger-haired man said.   But a little too skinny for me.  No tits at all, either.   He plopped down in the chair next to Austen s, pulling out a cellphone.   Look at mine,  he said, grinning slimily.   They re to die for, man.

 Austen humored him, hoping he would go away more quickly.

  See?  the ginger-haired man said.   I got several. You can have several, if you want. I m going to start off with Halle Berry.  Then go to Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and finish with Mariah Carey while she sings You ll Always Be My Baby .  See?  That s how you should do it.  Really go all out.  With a bang.   He smiled a far-off smile.   That s the way to go.  Go big.

  Man, shut up,  said another man in the waiting room.   Your spiel is getting old.   This man had a black beard, likely to cover what Austen suspected to be a weak jawline, and to make him appear older and more mature.   You re so beta you should have been born castrated.  Bragging like that, you probably won t even last past Halle Berry.  You ll cream your pants before you can even stick it in.  Then It will laugh at you, like all of the other girls who ve known you.

  Fuck you,  the ginger-haired man said.   You don t even want to share what yours is.  Probably because you re a pedo wanting to rape Shirley Temple.

  Fuck you, asshole,  the bearded man said.   I m no pedo.  You re just projecting.

 Another man creepier than the other two started chuckling.   I m fucking Veruca Salt,  he volunteered with a slanted grin.  He was in his fifties and bald with a large pate that rose like a hill atop his head.  He was overweight, his body swollen beneath his white T-shirt.   I don t give a shit who knows.  Won t matter afterward anyway.

  You re a sick piece of shit,  the bearded man said.

  A real sick piece of shit,  the ginger-haired man agreed.

  We re all sick pieces of shit,  the bald man said, unfazed.   I mean, It s not even human anyway, so you re all a bunch of sick fucks, too.  It s like beastiality.  You re fucking something that isn t human.

 There was an awkward silence in the waiting room.  Austen had tried to focus on his paperwork throughout this exchange, but now he stopped, his hand trembling as it held the pen above a list of check-boxes asking about allergies.  He was having second thoughts, not just about his singular choice of Audrey Hepburn, but the whole appointment.

 A hooded man appeared from within the inner door of the waiting room.

  Appointment #A4b269?  he called.

 A young man with dirty blonde hair rose, quietly, as if he could camouflage himself with silence as he hurried to the door.  He followed the robed man out of the waiting room.  Several of the men watched him go with a mixture of envy and dread.

  He s a hero,  someone joked, breaking the silence.  He whistled Taps for a moment, but lost the melody.

 The bald man resumed his argument from before, leering.

  It s not human,  he said, and so all of you are basically just goat-fuckers as far as I am concerned.  No better than me.

  It s not Shub-Niggurath,  the ginger-haired man said defensively.   Genetically, it can become anything.

  It can mimic anything,  the bearded man said.  He scowled at the bald pedophile.   Luckily for this sick fuck, otherwise I d fucking slit his goddamn pig throat for abusing kids.

 The bald fat man laughed.   Mr White Knight has a problem with me diddling little girls.

  I have a little sister, you asshole!

 The bald man smiled in oleaginous self-satisfaction.   But you re still going to fuck that Shoggoth, aren t you?

 The bearded man went silent.  He stared with a heated hatred at the bald man, but his scruffy jaw could not move in defiance of what he had said.  Austen watched it, rapt, feeling like he should say something on the bearded man s behalf, and on his own behalf, and to wipe that smirk off the bald man s face, but, as always, words failed him, his confidence failed him, and he went back to filling in information and signing his name in the green-markered sections.

  My little sister is not a bitch like most women,  the bearded man said at length.   She s like…what s her name?  Lucy from Narnia.  She s not a real woman yet, and so she s innocent.

  And that s why I like fucking them in the ass,  the bald man said.   Because they re innocent .

 The bearded man leapt up from his seat and dashed across the room, striking the bald man in the face.  His fist was small, and his wrist weak, and the bald man was large.  An audible smack slapped the air, but the bald man s face barely moved.  He stood up and grabbed hold of the bearded man s head within the crook of one arm.

  If I had a picture of your little sister,  the bald man said, I d show it to the Shoggoth and fuck It while It screamed your name.  You little bitch.  I might even show It a picture of you and fuck you in the ass.  You d like that, wouldn t you?  You little faggot.

 The bearded man struggled, red-faced and screaming in frustration and helplessness.  Eventually two robed figures entered the waiting room and separated the two men.  The bald man was relocated to one side of the room smirking with great satisfaction even as a welt rose on his cheek while the bearded man was relocated to the opposite side.  The latter stared in shame and humiliation down at his lap.  The robed men left.

  Hoo boy,  the ginger-haired man sighed.

 The next ten minutes passed in tense silence.  Austen continued filling out the forms.  It seemed like someone was playing a prank on him, so thick was the stack of papers.  He was on the page about deferrals for litigation and class action lawsuits when the inner door opened again.  A hooded figure called the next appointment.

  Appointment # 3R45u21.

 The bald man lurched to his feet, waddling eagerly toward the door.  He was sweating in anticipation.

  Veruca Salt s about to get it,  he said, leering.  He grinned at the bearded man.   I m going to fuck your little sister, too.

 He disappeared through the door.  A shiver of disgust went about the waiting room.

  Should be castrated,  the bearded man said, scowling.

  Pretty much will be,  the ginger-haired man said.   And then some.

  But he ll go out happy,  the bearded man said, which is more than he fucking deserves.

  Don t worry,  the ginger-haired man said after a while.   It s not really anything that can feel, anyway, whatever It s form is.  It s a biological construct.  It s like a Real Doll, but fancier.  More advanced.  A fleshlight made by the Elder Things.  It just…costs more.

  Yeah, an arm and a leg,  someone else said.   And everything else.

 The ginger-haired man nodded, his curly red hair bouncing.  He then shrugged with one shoulder, lazily.   None of us could get with a real woman, anyway,  They re too busy throwing their pussies away to Chads.  Dumb bitches.

  Fucking Nature, man,  another commiserated.   But at least I won t be involuntarily celibate  after today.

  Yeah,  said someone else.   You won t be anything at all, except, maybe, Shoggoth shit.

 Another fearful silence fell over the waiting room.  Austen s pen paused in the middle of a word.  He had forgotten what he was writing, his mind baulking at untold horrors.  The spell was broken all at once.

  I m going to fuck Tinkerbell,  someone volunteered, maliciously.

 The black-bearded man scoffed.   Man, your dick must be the size of a fucking peanut.

  It is,  the other guy said.   That s why no girl wants it.  But I bet Tinkerbell cries when I stick it in.  She better.  I wrote down that I want her to cry while I m fucking her.  And It s gotta do what you write down.”

Austen just so happened to come to the section concerning behavior.  He did not know what to write especially after hearing the guy talk about Tinkerbell so he just wrote Have a good time.

  Well,  someone else said.   I guess if you re going to go, you might as well go for weird freaky shit.  I mean, I m no Furry, but I was thinking about that one blue chick from that Avatar movie.  Ya know?  Or maybe one of the weird looking Star Wars chicks with the tentacles on their heads.

  They are fucking hot,  someone else agreed whole-heartedly.   But they re not Furries.  I mean, they re an alien race.  Not the same.

  There are aliens that are Furries,  someone else argued.   Chewbacca s race is nothing but Furries.

  They re Yorkie sasquatches,  the bearded man said.   So, yeah, they re pretty much Furries.

  But nobody wants to fuck them,  someone added, doubtfully. I hope they don t, at least.

  Oh, I m sure somebody does,  someone else argued.

  I think it s fucking nasty,  the ginger-haired man said.

  Don t kink-shame,  the bearded man said.   Mr. Mariah Carey.

  I m going with anime chicks,  another guy said, happily.   Rei from Neon Genesis.  And Lust from Full Metal Alchemist.

  That s a bit on the nose, isn t it?  the bearded man said.  But he was searching on his phone.   Maybe if I show It a video It can become Lara Croft.  From the old games, I mean.  But not the old, old games.  I don t like triangle tits.

  Yeah, I m going for Cammy, too,  the other guy said.   From Street Fighter.  And Chun Li.  That ass, man!  I ll probably go through the whole roster of Capcom women.

  Street Fighter sucks,  another guy said.   Dead Or Alive all the way.

  Tekken has some pretty hot bitches, too,  another guy said.

  Metal Gear Solid has the best,  a guy in glasses said.

  Jill Valentine!  the ginger-haired guy suddenly exclaimed, slapping his freckled forehead.  He feverishly tapped on his phone.   She s the polygon girl I want!

  Which version?  the bearded man said.

  All of them,  he answered.   Make a Jill sandwich  out of them.

 He waited, expectantly, for someone to laugh at his joke.  No one did.

  Five out of five S.T.A.R.S.,  he added, glancing around with a desperate grin.

 No one laughed.  They were too busy scouring the internet to add to their wish lists.  But Austen remained fixated on one woman and one woman only.  He signed his name several more times, dedicating his life to the Old Ones and waiving all potential legal recourse his family might attempt against the Eldritch Sect.  By the time he made it halfway through the stack, the man who spoke of Tinkerbell was called.  He went eagerly.  The remaining men watched him with a mixture of envy and dread on their faces.

  Oh hell,  the ginger-haired man said.   I might as well add Taylor Swift to the list.  I mean, you only live once, right?  It s not like I have to listen to her sing.  She doesn t have to make any noises at all, if I don t want her to.

  Yeah, the perfect woman,  a new arrival said, taking a seat.   Only talks when you want the bitch to.

  Only, she s not a woman,  the ginger-haired man said, smiling sardonically.  He adjusted his glasses.   Just a biologically engineered simulacrum.  None of us could get a real woman.  That s why we re here.

 Silent nods all around.

 

 Austen finished his paperwork, then turned it in at the receptionist window.  He was given an appointment number on a ticket and told to wait until he was called.  He found another seat in another corner, farther from the gregarious ginger-headed man.  As he passed one man he happened to glance at someone s phone.  The man was scrolling through images of reptilian women and vulpine women and bovine women, all quasi-humanoid and naked and bestial.  He felt embarrassed on the stranger s behalf, btu the stranger did not seem to care who saw.  Even so, it made Austen feel more disgusted with himself.  He sat down and watched clips of Audrey Hepburn and her various movies.  He had a bad taste in his mouth, and throughout his whole being.

 The bearded man was called back, and then the ginger-haired man, and various others.  Refreshments were offered by hooded acolytes, as well as alcohol and drugs to ease the normal nervousness of the appointment.   Austen took no drugs, but he did drink water.  His throat was very dry.  His stomach was full of frenzied butterflies.

 And then the inner door opened, and the hooded acolyte called Austen s ticket number.

  U352j6t?

 Austen found himself frozen in his chair.

  U352j6t?  the hooded man repeated impatiently.

 Austen s body rose stiffly and he went to the door, feeling a strange sense of detachment from himself.  It was not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather the same disembodied feeling he had whenever he had been humiliated in school or rejected by a girl he had asked on a date, his tongue fumbling over the words.

  Me,  was all he could say.

 The acolyte escorted Austen down another stone corridor leading deeper into the earth.  The air became chillier, and the smell of soil stronger.  The walk was long, and the corridor had a few doors along its walls, some open to reveal other hooded men sitting around, smoking and drinking and talking.  Thee corridor and these rooms were illuminated by modern lighting.

 At length, the corridor terminated at a single door.  The acolyte opened this door and, without further ado, beckoned Austen in.  Austen went in, more out of obedience than real desire, and the door shut behind him.  He was alone in the room, or so it seemed.  There were no exits.  It was a dead end.  Dark and cool, it.  No trace of the others that had come before could be seen.  There was a king-sized bed in the middle of the room, and nothing more.

 Except yellow eyes.  They glowed in the shadows of a corner. They reminded him of owl eyes.  They came forward, presenting a perfect facsimile of Audrey Hepburn s slim, petite, and utterly graceful personage.  It smiled  that small, restrained, pixie-sort of smile that Austen had seen in many of her movies and he felt his heart melt within the credence of the illusion.  Her chocolate brown hair was pinned back in a  ponytail, her bangs modest above the bold strokes of her eyebrows, all accenting her lovely forehead and her elfin features.  She wore a simple white blouse, a rippled Midi skirt, and a silk scarf tied around her fawn-like neck, much like on the movie Roman Holiday .

  Hello, Austen,  It said with perfect intonation.   How do you like me?  AmI not simply the most picturesque idol of fancy and form?

  Yes,  was all Austen could say.

 It smiled with Audrey s small, almost-secretive smile.   I love how polite you are,  It said, starting to strip off It s white blouse.   And so well-mannered.

 He had specified It s attitude, It s dress, and her loquaciousness on the forms, but there was a note on the form that said It would respond in realtime to whatever whim or suggestion demanded of It.  And so Austen spoke up.

  Not so fast1″ he said, waving his hands.   Don t…don t undress yet.  I just want to…to talk for a while.

 He took It by the hands, awkwardly, and led It to the bed, sitting It down.

  As you wish, Austen,  It said, smiling that pixie smile that had left him staring idiotically so often when watching Audrey Hepburn s old films.   What would you like to talk about, dear?

 Austen baulked.  This was the same feeling of crisis he had felt whenever he had ever wanted to talk to a girl.  It was like being plunged into the middle of the ocean, and not knowing how to even doggie-paddle.

  What…what do you want to talk about?  he asked, desperately.

 It titled It s head to the side, arching her slender neck like a curious bird.   Oh, but whatever you wish to talk about, dear!  Very much so!

 Again Austen was flummoxed.  He was no Humphrey Bogart.  He had no natural rapport with women, or most people for that matter.. He did not possess the cool, casual ease of conversation that Bogart, and most other Hollywood men, seemed to possess.  He would have rather spoken to a hungry lion than a pretty woman.  Either way, he told himself, he would have been torn to shreds, but at least the lion would seem happy about it, and satisfied.

  How…?  he began.   How do I talk to women?

  Well, that is quite the question!  It remarked, batting its eyes in mock-astonishment.   With your tongue and your mouth and your vocal cords, naturally.

 Austen sighed in frustration.   No, I mean how do I talk to them copesetically?  Competently?  How do I speak to them without feeling all flustered and knotted up inside? And without fucking everything up?

 It s yellow eyes never blinked fully, but It batted It s eyelashes again and reached for his belt buckle, starting to strip off his pants.  Austen pulled away from It, standing up.  Pacing back and forth across the dimly lit room, he stared at the floor.

  Is there any woman that would want me?  he begged the air.   I don t even want to be me.  That s why I m here1″

 The thing imitating Audrey Hepburn silently watched him pace, her head rotating automatically as she followed him with her yellow eyes, like a cat watching a mouse.

  It s so unfair!  he moaned.   There are guys born to look better than me and stronger than me and smarter than me!  I can t even roleplay with you because I am still me!  I don t even want sex!  I just want to have tea with you and maybe dance together!  Maybe kiss.  But I can t dance, and I definitely can t kiss worth a damn!  I ve never kissed anyone before, except my grandma!

 It stood up, then, and took him with a powerful grip by the shoulders, pulling him to It, and kissing him.  He started to cry and tried to push her away, but It was too strong.  It pulled him toward the bed.

  No!  he yelled, yanking himself away from her.   Audrey wasn t like this!   He shook his head, and wiped away the tears in his eyes.   She wouldn t…she wouldn t have liked me at all!

 Anger flashed across his face and he shoved It onto the bed, It s skirt undulating open to reveal pale legs and white panties.

  Maybe I should fuck you!  he snarled.   Maybe I should just bang your brains out and let it end all at once!  No one would miss me!  I wouldn t even miss myself!

 His anger dissolved into self-pity and sobs as he staggered back, leaning against a wall. He did not even see It take off It s panties and lay back, gyrating It s hips gratuitously.  Austen glanced at the intimacy revealed in all its falsity and turned away.

 Still crying, Austen headed to the door.  The acolyte was surprised to see him.

  Sir, you cannot leave without…   He saw Austen s tears and snorted.   What a beta.  Go, then, you little simp.

 Austen headed down the long corridor, weeping as he went.  He came again to the waiting room.  Opening the door, he saw new faces through his tears.  They sniggered, cruelly, and mocked him.

  Little limp-dick.

  Baby.

  Beta bitch.

  Simp.

  Couldn t even go through with it.

  Go suck Chad s giant dick, you fag.

Austen left through the long, stone corridor eventually emerging into a moonlit night.  He walked slowly, staring over his hooked nose at his penguin-shuffling feet.  His belt was still unbuckled and jingled as he walked.  He was too sad to care.

 

      ***

 

 Austen met Becky one day while at the public library.  They were looking through the Graphic Novels at the same time, and by a strange chance struck up a conversation.  Neither could remember who spoke first, but they found the conversation easy and addictive.  Becky was tall, and a little chubby, and had a round face with flat lips.  But her smile was pretty and she was nice to him.  She did not mind his hooked nose or his scrawny arms.  She liked his voice, she said, and his eyes.  She looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn, and Austen was all the happier for it.

Green Star

The green star still shone in the sky as Greg walked out into the parking lot that sprawled emptily in front of the Bocacubrir Industries office building.  His black Charger was the only car illuminated by the lightposts gridded out among the parking spaces, other than the vehicles belonging to Security, the latter huddled near the Security office.

Greg stared at the green star for a while.  Even with the crescent moon overhead the green star dominated his attention with its strange green corona.  It was a color he associated with green slime that he played with when he was a kid —green slime he made with the Mad Scientist lab set he had received for his eighth birthday.  Now he was a numbers man, an accountant, and in his eyes floated all of the numbers for that quarter which he had been crunching in voluntary overtime that evening, while everyone else went home to celebrate the weekend.

Greg would be going home soon, too.  He unlocked his car door, loosened his tie, and swung himself into the Charger with a great sigh of relief.  He set his cell phone in the passenger seat and started his car.  Rain had fallen earlier that day, before sunset, and now a mist rose into the muggy July night.  Greg lit his high beams and started to leave.  Then he stopped.  With a disgruntled growl he removed his N95 mask that was hanging uselessly from his rearview mirror.  It was always in his way.  He had been meaning to throw it away.

The mask now beside his cell phone, he drove toward home.

It was official Bocacobrir policy that everyone wear a mask while at work.  Yet, no one enforced it.  At first everyone obliged.  Then, gradually, one person stopped wearing his, and then another stopped wearing his.  And then another stopped wearing hers, and another stopped wearing hers also.  Now only Security wore their masks, and everyone pretty much disrespected them for it.  Greg heard the other guys in the office crack jokes about the “Rent-a-Cops ” and laugh.  It was a commonplace and everyday pastime.

The highway toward home was dark and foggy.  Mist from the evaporating rain and fog from the river made the dark night seem like a groggy dream.  Or perhaps it was Greg ’s grogginess that made it so.  He had been suffering from fatigue lately, and breathlessness.  Regardless, the green star shone clear through the fog, even while the moon dissolved in it like a skull in a witch ’s cauldron.  It was as if the green star was not among the stars at all, but was closer to the earth than the moon itself.

Greg ’s cell phone rang.

“Hello? ” he answered.

“Hey, Greggy-poo! ” Alison chimed.   “You coming to the bar or not? ”

“Or not, ” Greg said.   “I ’m feeling pretty tired. ”

“Oh poo on you, Greggy-poo! ” Alison puffed.  He could hear the pout on her lips as she spoke.   “But everybody ’s here!  Can ’t you just stop by for a while?  You don ’t even have to drink.  You can be my ride home… ”  Her voice fell to a whisper that was louder than she likely realized.   “…if you know what I mean. ”

“How much have you had to drink? ” Greg asked suspiciously.

“Too much, ” she admitted at once.   “And Paul keeps offering to take me home.  It ’s starting to get creepy as fuuuuuu… ”

Her voice broke with static, and the sounds of music and the cacophony of overlapping voices.

“Please? ” she said, once the static had passed.   “Pretty please, with my cherry on top?  You know I like to be on top.  You like it, too. ”

“I do, ” Greg admitted, though reluctantly.   “Is it smart for everybody to be at a bar right now?  I mean, with everything that is happening? ”

“Don ’t be a stick in the mud, Greg, ” Alison said.   “Get your fine ass over here. ”

“Okay, okay, ” Greg said, slowing his car and turning off into some random driveway.   “Where are you all at? ”

“Shenanigans, of course! ” she exclaimed happily.   “Now, you better hurry, Greggy-leggy.  Don ’t make me beggy. ”

She laughed and the signal distorted her laughter into digital mania.  Greg ’s phone dropped the signal.

Sighing, Greg reversed out of the driveway —just as the front porch light came on —and headed out onto the highway in the opposite direction.  Southbound toward the city, he could see the faint tinge of light pollution on the dark, fog-cobwebbed horizon of darkness.

“Should be safe by now, ” he said to himself.   “They wouldn ’t have reopened the bars unless it was safe. ”

The highway was not very safe.  Greg slowed as the fog and mist thickened.  There were only a few cars on the road as he drove.  A few went slow; a few went fast.    Most disappeared at intersections and subdivisions.  Lampposts along the highway were wanly white or sickly yellow.  Greg had to turn off his high beams, the bright haloes refracting diffusely among the thick vapors and therefore obfuscating rather than illuminating the road.  It was easier to see with low beams.  He turned his windshield wipers on to clear away the condensation.  Afte ra while he turned on the radio, though he was in no mood for music.  Many of the stations were eaten with static. As he flipped through them he became restless.  A station cut clear through the static infecting the others, and his hand paused a moment at a News station.

“…surging through the Southern states while Northern states are seeing a spike of their own… ”

Instinctively he changed the station, flipping through a while longer until another station cut clean through the static to a song that was in the middle of its chorus, the singer ’s obnoxious voice pealing with a yo-yoing yodel.

“…we are young.  So we set the world on fi-yer.  We can burn bri-y-ihter than the sun… ”

Greg hit the power button and welcomed the humming silence of the benighted highway.  Taking a deep breath — and feeling a little pinch in his ribs —he sighed.  Glancing up at the sky he saw the green star reigning high in the foggy, black sky.  Was it larger now?  Perhaps it was just his imagination.

His cell phone rang again.  He answered.

“Greggy-leggy-poo, ” Alsion said in her singsong drunkenness.   “Where are you? ”

“I ’m on my way, ” he said.  He added, “Are you sure it ’s safe there?  No one ’s coughing are they? ”  He asked because he could hear coughing among the music and the voices.

“Just the smokers, Greggy, ” she said.   “Don ’t be such a scaredy cat. ”

“Aren ’t you worried about catching it? ” he asked.

“I ’ve had the flu before, Greggy-poo, ” she said.   “It ’s no big deal.  You gotta ’ live while you can, Greggy-leggy. ”

He heard a familiar voice in the background.  The creaking-oak voice was avuncular in its proclamations.

“When you get to be my age you see these ‘pandemics ’ come and go.  Yeah, the media drones on and on about it as if the sky is falling, but it never does.  They ’re just trying to ‘make it rain ’.  Money, I mean. ”

“Is that Jerry? ” Greg asked.

“Yeah, ” Alison said happily.   “Jerry ’s here too! ”

“He has a heart condition, ” Greg said.

“Two beers won ’t hurt him, Greggy-poo, ” she cooed.

“That ’s not what I meant, ” Greg said, resentful of her flippancy.   “He could contract the… ”

“Woooo, Jerry! ” Alison exclaimed.   “Chug that beer, you old fart! ”

Several people cheered as Jerry exhaled in triumphant satisfaction.

“Let me tell you somethin ’ else, ” Jerry slurred.   “They want to control you.  That ’s what ’s it ’s all about!  Take a little freedom here.  Take a little freedom there.  Bit by bit.  Before you know it, you are living in a Communist country! ”

“Preach it, Jerry! ” someone said.  Probably Thomas.

“Besides, masks don ’t do anything anyway.  I mean, wearing underwear and jeans don ’t keep a fart from leaking out, do they?  How ’s a mask do anything?  I ’m not no vir…virile…ventriloquist or whatever, but even I know that. ”

A waspish swarm of static swelled and the phone dropped the call.  Greg hesitated to put the phone down, and almost dialed Alison ’s number.  But he kept hearing her comment “scaredy cat ” and refrained.  He drove on through the fog and the shadows.

He hated the console light.  It reminded him of the green star.  It was unnatural.  Artificial.  Synthetic.  Unreal.  Looking toward the South, and the city, he saw that the light pollution seemed tinged green, too.  He wished to see the sun, but the sun had been blacked out all day by the rainclouds.  Now that the clouds were gone, the night had come, and with it this oppressive fog.

“Paranoid, ” he told himself.   “The fog ’s distorting it. ”

He continued Southbound.  He continued rationalizing away his fears while suburbia faded in and out of the fog on either side of the highway.  The homes were like haunted houses dimmed darkly in the fog, or else phantasms with pale porchlights that were eaten up with distance and shadow and mist.  He was a numbers man; an accountant.  He knew about percentages and rates and interest and such, and he told himself that numbers were nothing to fear when they at 1%.  Even so, watching the houses lurch out of, and dissolve back into, darkness made him uneasy.  So many houses.  So many people.  How many people would accept the odds of dying from something when the reward for the wager was merely the status quo?  It was a death sentence everyone agreed to pass on someone randomly; someone they may never see or know in their lifetime.

Then again, he knew that odds were strange things that made allowances for aberrations at unpredictable rates.  Various circumstances could exponentially increase the odds of something happening within sectors and conditions.  To concentrate numbers, and decrease distance while increasing time, were to multiply the odds that the unlikely scenario would play out.  Pascal ’s wager, in other words, was not such a longshot in a universe of infinite possibilities.  And besides, odds could also tilt drastically against someone — such as someone attending a church —and suddenly the odds disadvantage all the people in that church because of circumstances and conditions being ripe for such over-leveraging of occurrences.  In other words, by risking the odds an individual invites the possibility of maximum loss, even with minimal waging.

Greg thought about what Jerry had said.  The problem was that the danger seemed like it was far away, over and beyond the horizon; happening somewhere else, if it was happening at all.  There was a delayed sense of impending peril.  Like an asteroid in the Milky Way that was supposed to hit earth as it looped around, year after year, but no one could calculate when.  And so days go by, and months, and years, and people forget about it.  Or stop believing in it.  Then, one night, they are looking up at the stars, thinking about the lives they have been habituated to, and all at once a star falls to earth, only it is not a star —it is the asteroid —and they have been staring at it all along, but not recognizing it until, at long last, it comes crashing down upon their complacent heads.

Chicken Little is vindicated, but not in a way that will bring any satisfaction to himself or anyone else.

“The sky is falling, ” Greg said.   “Isn ’t it? ”

He frowned down at the N95 mask.  He did not know what to think.

His cell phone rang.  He answered it.

“Please join us, soon, ” Alison pleaded.   “Hurry.  Paul is being weird.  So is Mikey..  He is very handsy.  Won ’t keep his distance. ”

“Alison, ” he said seriously, “stay away from them.  Do you hear me?  Where ’s Rachel?  You and Rachel need to look out for each other until I get there. ”

He tried to accelerate his Charger, but the fog was too thick and he almost hit a opossum crossing the road.  He swerved, then slowed.  Alison was speaking like a child.  It was quiet behind her, except for a knocking noise.

“Rachel is with the others, ” she said.   “I ’m in the restroom.  By myself.  I locked the door.  People are banging on it.  Paul and Mikey won ’t leave me alone. ”

“Alison, do you have your mask? ”

There was a long pause.   “No, ” she said, her voice cracking tearfully.   “I left it in my car.  Or I threw it away.  I don ’t remember. ”

“Just…just stay in the restroom, ” Greg said.   “And don ’t open it unless it ’s me talking to you.  Okay? ”

“Okay, ” she whimpered.  There was another long pause.   “Greg…I ’m scared… ”

The static swarmed and the signal dropped.  Greg ’s heart hammered upon his aching rib cage.  He had known Alison for two years now.  They had made out once at a company function —while both were serving as bartenders.  Nothing else came of it except casual flirtation and friendly conversations.  Until recently Greg had been engaged to a young woman he had dated in college.  Partying together through college had convinced them that they were a good match.  A month of lockdown spent together in the same apartment for 24 hours proved otherwise.  When lockdown ended, Greg and his former fiancee bid each other adieu in colorful, uncompromising fashion.  It was for the best, in the end.  They were not a good couple without other people to distract one another from each others ’ incompatibilities.

When he told Alison about the fallout, she quickly began to pull him in her own direction, culminating in a recent night of bedtime gymnastics.

“She said she gets paranoid when she ’s drunk, ” he reassured himself.   “Or when she smokes pot.  She probably did a little of both tonight.  Just to celebrate the first month free from the lockdown.  A lot of people are indulging right now.  Going wild. ”

He glanced, irresistibly, up at the green star.  He tried to speak aloud again —some trite rationalization involving numbers and odds and such —but his voice died in his throat.

The dilapidated strip malls slowly unfurled out of the fog, and the old fast-food restaurants, the dive bars, and then the newer strip malls, and the newer fast-food restaurants, and then the hipster stores, and wholesale foods, and niche shops.  More streetlights bleared sleepily through the fog and mist.  The buildings crowded closer together, occasionally giving way to a block of townhouses, a sushi restaurant, a records store.  Then the more eccentric bars, and the dance clubs, and lounges, and music halls.  Greg told himself that the green tinge to the fog was a result of all of the neon signs for food and beer, and the green traffic lights strung over the roadways, as well as the cars passing by more frequently now, speeding as if they could outstrip Death himself.

But Greg could not ignore the people standing on the sidewalks, and in front of the clubs, and near the outdoor dining areas.  They all stared at him through the fog as he passed, their mouths gaping open to spew the fog from within the greenly glowing recesses of their open throats.  Slack-jawed, they gaped and spewed.  Idiotically they gawped, spreading the fog thickly throughout the city.  Greg ’s hand fumbled for his N95 mask, then quickly secured it over his nose and mouth.  The green glow of their eyes followed his Charger as he hurried toward Shenanigans.

His cell phone range.  He picked it up and answered.  The line was digitally fragmented.

“…Greggy-poo…hurry…come to us… ”

The call dropped and he found that he had a hard time breathing.  His lungs ached.  They had been aching all along.

Shenanigans was overflowing with people.  They all stared at Greg as he parked his car down the street.  They all spewed the green fog.

Keeping one hand on his mask, Greg walked toward the bar, its bright neon sign dimmed in the fog.  Directly overhead the green star glowed bright and sickly.  It was bigger than before.  Greg tried not to look at it, or the other people crowding the street.  He focused on the door.

The crowd parted as he passed.  Their green eyes followed, and they never stopped spewing the green fog, but they did not impede him.  He soon saw why.

Alison greeted Greg at the door.  She was wearing a Summer skirt and a green tanktop.  Her blonde hair was permed into lively curls.  When she spoke the green fog sputtered from her mouth.

“Join us, ” she said, her voice distorted with static.   “There is nothing to fear.  Do not live in fear.  Do not fall prey to their control. ”

Greg backed away, holding his mask tight to his face, but the crowd closed in around him, blocking his retreat.

“Alison, ” he begged.   “Please…you need help.  All of you need help…  You are infected. ”

“Do not fear, ” Alison said, her voice a digital drone.   “Do not live in fear.  Live in liberty.  Do not be controlled.  Think for yourself.  Join us. ”

The crowd enclosed her.

“THINK FOR YOURSELF.  JOIN US.  BE FREE.  BE UNAFRAID. ”

The green fog swirled thickly around Greg.  He had nowhere to go.  The green star reigned above him and beyond him.  It grew larger, coming closer, and what was a star became as a sun, its corona making the night as if a day bright with a pestilent color.  The green light burned brighter than the sun.  His lungs ached.  He could not breathe.  An iron maiden clamped upon his brain.  The mask could do nothing.

He had already been infected.

Gaslight Essence: Flesh And Blood

Through the drifting gray fog off the Thames the figure strode idly.  He was a few bold strokes of charcoal with a couple of white notches of white chalk at the end of his sleeves and a patch of white chalk between collar and stovepipe hat.  The face was pleasant enough, with its crooked, but well-meaning smile, and perhaps handsome, if a little anemic in its complexion.  Pale blue eyes and pale blue lips and an easy how-do-you-do-this-chill-evening bearing.  He was what might be best described as lackadaisically stoic, and of an indeterminate age.  What was more, he was on his way to a murder investigation.

“Evening, constable,” the tall, anemic man said as he approached the other man upon the street corner.  “Chilly night, isn’t it?”

“Always chilly where murder’s bloody as this is, sir,” the constable rejoined, his flaring mustache a pale white bird beneath his long, red nose.  “Too chill for these old bones, I dare say.”

The constable held his arms tight to his large body, as if huddling around himself for warmth.  The lamppost’s gaslight carved in harsh light the cobbled sidewalk and the brick facades, impressing upon any passerby the oppressive reality of their countenance, which was as stern as the constable’s grim expression.  Yet, the gaslight rendered the other gentleman almost translucent as the fog itself; as if the light would burn him away utterly were it just a little starker on the monotone block of moonlight and shadows.  A ghost made flesh, he followed the constable to the nearby edifice.

“This way, detective,” the constable said, opening the door for him.

Women were weeping within the building.  They sat together upon faux-posh couches of red satin, their mascara running down their pockmarked faces.  What they wore would have been scandalous in any other sphere of London, but suited the alluring interior of the establishment itself.  The anemic fellow tipped his hat to the madame—a lady in her forties, likely, with a weave too fair for her dark eyebrows—but the constable shooed her away before she could address the former gentleman.  The constable led his guest up the stairs, with their wobbly bannister and dank carpet, and down the hall.  Several doors were closed along this hall, on either side, and were silent, their trade postponed for that evening.  Candelabrum lit the way, presuming more prestige for the purpose of that place than what would have been allowed by the estimation of higher social circles.  Touches of feminine grace adorned the hallway here and there, however, despite the pretense of that establishment: potted flowers of hale vibrancy, watercolour paintings undertaken by a keen eye, and even needlework wherein sharp steel rendered delicate conceits of colour and form.  The anemic gentleman noted all such things with the same phantasmal smile as he followed the constable.  There was a pretense of taste at the establishment, despite the aim of that establishment.

At length, they came to an open door.  The constable stroked his mustache once, as if to calm it lest it should fly away in fright.

“This way, sir,” he said.

The pale gentleman entered the bedroom.

The woman’s neck had been cut, ear to ear, her bodice and gown and blonde hair all soaked through with her own blood.  Her eyes stared vacantly as she sprawled upon the bed in parody of a model to some Bohemian artist in want of scandal.  Her face was drained of colour, excepting her lips, which were blue, and yet she was not so pale as the pale gentleman who surveyed her leisurely at a glance.  His crooked smile was immutable.

The room itself was lit well enough with candles, though shadows still clung here and there to the walls like spiders, devouring flowery wallpaper with their black gossamers.  Strangely, despite the body of the prostitute, the room was rather tidy.  The bed was tidy.  The prostitute herself was tidy, except for her blood.  It was as if the room had not been used at all that night.

A watchman wobbled to attention beside the bed as the constable and the gentleman entered.  He looked groggy and irritable, squinting sternly.  He snorted once, then spoke.

“The Magdalens raised a right fuss all over the street,” he said.  “So I came runnin’ and found this here whore laid out just as you see here.  I told the rest of ‘em to stop botherin’ the fine folks round here, but they been cryin’ evah since and won’t quiet themsel’es ah tall.  How can a man piece together the puzzle when he can’t ‘ear ‘imself think?”

“Did you happen upon anyone in flight hereabouts?” the pale gentleman asked, patiently.

“No sir,” the watchman said.  He wobbled a bit in his long coat, either from sleepiness or drink or both.  “When I come up ‘ere the lady of the house— if you can call ‘er that—shown me up ‘ere directly.  And here I stayed, sir, exceptin’ to send someone to fetch the constable.”

“And so I, in turn, requested you, sir,” the constable said.  “For it bears all the signs of our industrious Jack.”

“Indeed?” the pale gentleman said, dubiously.  “I wonder…”

The pale gentleman looked upon the bloodied corpse of the prostitute with his pale blue eyes.  His smile never wavered, but was pleasant as ever, though it still remained crooked and pale.

“Such a waste of warm blood,” he said.  “The chill London air has squandered it all.”

The constable cleared his throat.  “We have a witness, sir,” he said.

“Then let them testify to their truth,” the pale gentleman said.

The constable frowned in confusion, then nodded to the watchman.  The watchman left the room, venturing down the hall.  A door opened, then the watchman’s rough voice said, “C’mon, then.”

A young woman— too young by many standards— entered the room.  Her hair was light brown and loose about her shoulders, the natural curls like ripples on the brown surface of the Thames.  She wore only a white shift and had a countryside tint of sun to her skin.

“Hello, young lady,” the pale gentleman said.

“Hello, sir,” she said tremulously, not looking at the corpse upon the bed.

“And what is your name?”

“Emma, sir,” she said.

“Emma,” he said courteously.  “A lovely name.  And what do you do here?”

“I am…an apprentice, sir,” she said.

The constable was agog with disbelief.  “An apprentice?  Is that what you would call it?”

“I’m not of age yet, sir, to be of…purpose,” she said.  “Madame says I have not yet bloomed to it, sir.”

The constable shook his head pityingly.  “Such sins would shame Babylon.”

The pale man ignored the constable and addressed the young woman.  “What did you see, young lady?”

She stammered.  “A man…a big man…hairy…thin.  But strong.  Tall.  But not too tall.  Everyone is tall to me, sir.  I am so short, you see?”

“Do you happen to know the reasoning for this…barbarism?”

“He did not like how Madeline…how Madeline looked,” she said uncertainly.  “And how she spoke.  He took a knife and…and…”

She burst into tears.

The pale man waited patiently, his crooked smile unmoving; his pale blue eyes unblinking.

“And where did he go?” he asked after a moment.

“Out…the window…” the young lady said, sobbing.

The constable and the watchman exchanged uneasy looks.

“A man might go out the window,” the constable said, “but not run away at a sprint.  He’d be hobbling, if he could walk at all.”

The pale man went to the window.  The curtains were drawn aside, but the window was not open.  After a moment’s thought, he about-faced with a smooth motion, as if a wooden figurine in a Dutch clock.

“I should like to speak to the young lady alone,” the pale gentleman said.  “Please, Emma, show me to your quarters.”

He followed the young lady down the hall.  She led him to a room with three beds laying nearly side to side to side.  Colorful dresses hung within an open wardrobe, alongside more mundane clothing, and the window was covered with a curtain.

“Ah,” he said, entering the room.  “Quite…cozy.”

“I share it with Lacy and Madeline,” Emma said.

“And where were they?”

“Seeing to…business, sir.”

“Ah,” he said again, nodding once.

The pale gentleman walked toward the window and the young lady became deathly silent.  He drew back the curtain to reveal the view of a brick wall belonging to the neighboring building.  The window’s frame was peeling, scabrous, and a few red streaks were the only paint it would ever see for years to come.  The pale man noted these red streaks, then covered the window once again with the curtain.  He turned back to the young lady.  She was sitting on the bed, her feet dangling laxly while she wept into her hands and trembled.  The pale man’s smile faltered for but a moment, replaced with something akin to pity.

“And I suppose he fled out the window?”

The young lady only nodded, but did not look up.

“As I thought,” he said.

Emma said something, but he left the room as if had not heard her.

 

The madame of that house was quite unnerved as she stood before the constable and the pale gentleman.  They were upon the street now, in the garish glow of the gaslight lamps.

“Not one among your other employees saw the culprit in question?” the pale gentleman asked her.

“No, sir,” she said.  “Most of my girls were…entertaining customers.  Those that were not were in their rooms, seeing to other arrangements.”

“And they did not hear anything afore the incident?  No sounds of struggle?  Of a scuffle?  Did the victim scream before her death?”

“No, sir,” she said, her lips aquiver with a dread as she looked into the pale blue eyes of the gentleman.

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” the pale gentleman remarked lightly.  “And when did Emma make known the murder had been committed?”

“Well, sir, she wasn’t the one who made it known,” the madame said.  “Angela was walking by and saw it.  She screamed, and then we all came runnin’ in haste.”

“And where was Emma at this time?”

“In her room, sir, useless as a knife without a blade.  She was crying awfully hard and rocking to and fro like one of them lunatics in the asylums.  I had to slap her good to wake her to.”

The pale gentleman had not blinked once that entire evening, and did not blink now.  “And her roommates?”

“Lacy was entertaining,” she said.  “The dead girl…Madeline…was her other one.”

“And she, of course, was predisposed,” the pale gentleman said.  He said it as a matter of fact, neutrally, and yet it slipped into the air with a sense of morbid flippancy.

The constable rose on his toes and shook his head in consternation, coming back on his heels.  This seemed quite a feat for a man as portly as he.  “Her roommate dead and Emma could only tend to her own feelings?  What is it with this generation nowadays?  Soppy-minded and with waxen spines, I think.”

“Perhaps she has more sense than we realize,” the pale gentleman said.  “She is an ‘apprentice’, after all.”

“Emma lacks sense,” the madam said hurriedly.  “Emma’s naught but a servant in the house.  Truly.  For cleaning and cooking and such.  Everybody knows whores don’t have ‘apprentices’.”

“Indeed,” the pale gentleman said, his smile still pleasant, and crooked.  “And why, my lady, did you not see the culprit in question?  Before he ventured upstairs with Madeline?  ”

“I do not attend to every…transaction,” she said, defensively.  She swayed a bit, her eyes bloodshot in the gaslight.  “I have other things to do, it just so happens.  The girls are grown enough to see to the business themselves.  So long as they don’t allow thrift, I won’t complain of it too much.”

“Indeed,” the pale gentleman said again.  He said no more, but narrowed his eyes at the fumes of alcohol he smelled on her breath.  He still did not blink.

“And so no one knows the man’s name?” the constable almost exclaimed with anger.  His mustache seemed ready to fly about with fury.

“It is better that we not know our clients’ names,” the madame said, simply.  “Could lead to more trouble than it is worth, sir.”

“I’ve no doubt,” the pale gentleman said, “that the victim knew the murderer’s name.  But what good is that now?  Poor little Emma cannot tell who the murderer was.  And, so, we have yet another clue hinting at nothing but what we already know.”  He waved away the madame.  “Good night, madam.  See to your girls with greater care in the future, please.”

The madame merely laughed shortly, humorlessly, and returned inside the brothel.

“We shall never catch him!” the constable growled.  “‘Jack’, indeed.  He is a jackdaw, more like.  Cheeky as he taunts us as stupid countryfolk lost in the barley!”

“Jack is not difficult to discern,” the pale gentleman said quietly.

The constable’s bushy eyebrows leapt in surprise.  “How do you mean, sir?”

“Our mutual friend, Jack,” he said, “is London itself.”

“I don’t understand, sir,” the constable said, incredulous.  “Do you mean to say he is the run-of-the-mill sort?  I cannot fathom it.  He is an animal.  A beast.  Even our worst criminals do not commit themselves to such a frenzy of sin.  He is absolutely diabolical.  Nothing in it, if you pardon my boldness, sir, is so common in Jack’s wicked exploits.”

“I must disagree, my dear constable,” the pale gentleman said.  “Such brutality is quite common here.  It is definitive.  Essential.  And why should it not be?  We do not propose that a lion is wicked in its nature to hunger for flesh and blood, nor should we condemn it as it satisfies such hungers.  It is his habit.  So why, pray tell, should we expect a city such as London to live as a lamb when it, like all such large cities, grew upon a surfeit of flesh and blood?  Show me a lion who became the lamb and I will show you a corpse feeding the grass.  London thrives as a beast ever on the prowl.”

“We are not lions, sir,” the constable said.  “We are Christians.”

The pale man’s smile never left off at all, but lounged crookedly upon his face.  “As you say,” he said.  “But the notion of a Christian seems to me a more fabulous notion than a lion becoming a lamb.  Even in the notion, too, the blood is the life.”

The two gentlemen agreed to resume the case in the morning.  They bid each other adieu and a good night.

Yet, the pale gentleman did not leave.  Rather, he ventured into the alley between the brothel and its neighboring building.  There he found a knife amidst the rubbish and the secretive shadows.  A little farther way off he found a dress streaked with blood.  These things he found easily, though the alley was pitch black.  His eyes could see easily in the dark.  Conversely, the gaslight haloes that punctuated nocturnal London that made it difficult to see sometimes, garishly rebuffing the darkness with an inventiveness and arrogance only the pride of Man could conjure; like little artifices of suns luridly lit, obliviously unaware of their folly.  London thought such lights the haloes of a saintly city, whereas the garish glow was a whore’s suggestive leer as she would fain entice a king with her debased bed.  So proud, she was, and so obliviously imbecilic.  So grotesque in her gaslight essence.  Yet, innocent too.  As innocent as Eve within Eden.

Or perhaps as Lilith in exile.

Looking up, he saw the window belonging to the room where Emma resided.  The pale man went to her window, as easily as anyone might walk down the street.  Easier, in fact, for it required no locomotion at all as he floated above the pitted darkness of the alley.  Coming to the window, he peered within.  Lacy was asleep.  Emma pretended to be so, but the pale gentleman knew she was not.  Gently, he tapped on the window.  Lacy did not stir.  Emma did.  She sat up in the dark, blind to the figure at the window.  He tapped again.  Slowly, Emma walked to the window.  She squinted through the glass, but could not see him, so dark was it.  She turned, as if to go to bed, and the pale gentleman raised the window.  Before she could turn again, he grasped her, gently but firmly, his hand over her mouth.  In one silent motion, he spirited her away from that room, that brothel, that street corner, taking her atop a building where no eyes could see them.

Setting her down, but keeping a hand upon her mouth, he spoke to her.

“Emma,” he said, “it is time for the truth.  Do not scream, or it will go badly for you.  Tell me what happened.  Do not shrink from the facts, however bloody they may be…or iniquitous your own dealing in them.”

He removed his hand.  It was a cold hand, and long-fingered.  She moaned.

“Are you the Devil, sir, come to take me away?” she asked.

“The facts, Emma,” he said sternly.  “Or you will know something of the Devil tonight.”

“God Almighty!” she exclaimed in her girlish voice.  “I did not want to do it!  I truly didn’t!  But the madame said I would be entertaining soon!  And I dreaded that!  My apprenticeship was almost up and I did not want to do it!”

“So you killed Madeline to avoid your…progression?” he said.

“I thought it might put it off for a time!” she cried, weeping and clutching at herself in the chill, misty dark.  “And Madeline was so cruel to me…so hateful in what she was teaching me.  I loathed her, and feared becoming like her, and she liked that I feared it, and so taunted me, and so made my life a Hell.  And now I am off to Hell, aren’t I?  I am going to Hell for taking a life!”

She fell to her knees and wept in fright and guilt and anguish.

The pale gentleman was unmoved, at least insomuch as her feelings were of importance.

“And there was no man at all in the room?” he asked.

Emma was too taken away with her tears to answer him.  His crooked smile never vacating his face, he snatched her up with a hand by the arm.

“Was there no man in the room?” he demanded, his voice transformed.  It was no longer soft and amiable, but edged as hoarfrost upon Westminster Bridge.

“There had been,” she said, sobered at once.  Her eyes were agog in the dark, and twinkled with tears, the moonlight through the parting clouds making stars of them.  “Madeline had made me sit and watch as she…entertained him.  All the time she would do something she would say, ‘You’re a right one for this soon!’ or ‘She’ll be a keen learner of that!’ and then she would laugh, and the man would grin, and they were like a witch come to Sabbath afore the Devil!  I couldn’t take it, sir!  When she had finished, and the man had left, she continued to taunt me!  I told myself I would endure anything for the debts of my family, but the closer I came to the true work of that Godless house the more frightened I became.  The more I told myself I wouldn’t do it.  Whenever I was frightened by it, I would take my mind off it with stitchin’.  So I started stitchin’, making pretty flowers as I used to in the countryside, before my family moved to London and lost it all to our debts.  But Madeline resented me my stitchin’.  ‘You think you’re so clever with that needlework, do you?’ she said.  And then she stole it away from me.  And so…I took the knife I use for my stitchin’ thread and I…I unspooled, her!”

The tears had stopped.  She looked vacant, but also vindicated.  The guilt ebbed away from her eyes as her lifeblood ebbed away from her throat and into the mouth of the pale gentleman.  He drank deeply of her warm, young blood, draining her slender neck until she swooned and fell into his arms.  Her eyes fluttered and then the lids hung heavy, as if she were to fall asleep forever.  Before she did, he took the knife with which she had slain Madeline and he cut his own pale wrist, forcing it to Emma’s lips.

“Drink,” he commanded in his beastly voice.

The blood dribbled at her lax mouth for a moment, but then the lips awakened tautly and she sucked at the wrist proffered.  The sinews of her neck tightened with hunger, with Life, and she clenched upon him with her arms, not unlike a cat upon its prey.  After a time, she released and swooned, her head lolling with a surfeited ecstacy.  He held her until her willowy body grew rigid with newfound strength.  She stood now, steeped in a new life.  She could see all of the London through the dark and the moonlight.  She saw the gaslight glow of the lamps, and she hated them.

“Master,” she said in a voice that was girlish, but also bestial.

The pale gentleman’s crooked smile was lined in crimson stitchery.

“Now, Emma,” he said, “your true apprenticeship begins.”

 

Decoys

The high-bourne clouds reigned gloomily over the estate grounds, the rains shimmering as they struck the lake and the trees, shrouding the rotunda with a gray veil.

“I think it ’s what ’s called a decoy, Miss, ” Sara said, squinting into the wobbling waves of the lake.  The servant girl stood just beneath the dome of the rotunda, her frock splattered with wayward raindrops.   “What ’s used for gettin ’ more ducks down so they can be gotten with ‘em rifles. ”

“Indeed, ” Miss Woodward said, absently strumming her harp with a flurry of fingertips.  The musical notes joined the downpour like a small silver bell tinkling amongst a waterfall.  Not even the harpist could hear them well.   “No doubt Thomas requested it from a carpenter in town.  Gamekeepers are always such ingenious fellows.  In their own way.  It bears a wondrous resemblance to a true mallard.  At least insomuch as distance abets the deception. ”

“Yes, Miss, ” Lara said, her voice rougher than her daughter ’s.  She was much frayed with age, like linen too familiar with the washboard.   “I ’ve seen ‘em bag ten ducks in short order with a couple of those decoys. ”

“I ’ve always fancied having me one, ” Sara said wistfully.   “Not so I might shoot any of the poor creatures, but as they might all come nestin ’ near me.  Like I was a fairytale princess. ”

Sara ’s mother scolded her.   “Lot o ’ good you have usin ’ that head of yours for dreamin ’ such prattle!  It ’d be better employed in your knittin ’ and weavin ’.  You haven ’t learned half the knots I ’d known at half your age.  Always swimmin ’ in the clouds when work ’s to be done. ”

Lara shook her wizened head ruefully, but Sara was too lost in fancies to mind.  Meanwhile, Miss Woodward sighed.  She had heard Lara scold Sara many a time, and so she had their intercourse put to mind as fixed as any chiseled stone.  So she turned her attention elsewhere in the rain —away from Lara and Sara and the decoy duck being hammered on the lake by the deluge.  She had requested Sara and Lara carry her harp out here to the rotunda so she might fancy herself a few daydreams in seclusion.  Unfortunately, the rain hastened on, swifter than portended and now she had to share her cloister with the most quarrelsome among her father ’s servants.

Lara raised her voice, her hands on her aproned hips.   “Were I wiser I would ’ve hardened your head against fancies with a few right wallops, ” she said.  She shook a rheumatic fist.   “Or maybe softened it, ‘cause you aren ’t but hard-headed as a goat in tulips! ”

“I do my work right and proper like, ” Sara rejoined, raising her nose and turning it away from her mother…lest the latter snatch the complacent ornament between finger and thumb as long ago when she was yet a child, and not so tall or pretty.   “What difference is ought that I should like to think up things better than they are?  There ’s no harm in thinkin ’ than there is in singin ’ while I work.  It ’s just to pretty things up a bit. And that ’s what we do in the house, isn ’t it?  Pretty it up? ”

“Thinkin ’ leads to wantin ’, ” her mother said.   “And wantin ’ leads to wishin ’.  And wishin ’ leads to wastin ’ for naught but what never was nor will be.  It ’s the most serious of self-harm one might do other than a willful march through the valley of the shadow of Death, and what ’s more it can be just such a march if wishin ’ gets to be strong enough! ”

Miss Woodward sighed and strummed a few trickling notes on her harp; like raindrops cascading down the dome of the rotunda itself.  The mother and daughter stood on the other side of the rotunda, and yet even at the distance and with the rain condescending the earth it was as if they waged their little war on either side of their mistress.  Hearing Lara ’s trite commonfolk wisdom bored Miss Woodward immensely.  She despised such pretentious peasant pedantry.  She would rather be lectured by a boor, or a boar for that matter.  She utterly detested the lowborn for their artlessness and lack of cultivation.  They were a rough-spun frock when she indulged only silken petticoats.  And they were superstitious and stupid about many matters, whether sublunar or supernal.  Some still believed in pagan nonsense.  Sprites and spirits and whatnot.  Fairies dancing in the forests on brightly moonlit Summer nights.  Indeed, Miss Woodward loathed them, and in particular Sara and Lara.  The crudely-aged Lara would not leave off the presumptuous lessons of the young, pretty Sara.  Admittedly, Sara was a pretty sort of lowborn girl, with auburn hair and skin browned by days spent labouring in the sun, but being a lowborn girl was no good recommendation, however pretty in most people ’s estimation.

Miss Woodward wondered how her late mother would have handled such bellicose behavior between servants bound by blood.  She knew how her father handled such things: he retreated to his study to drink wine and make as to read, letting the servants run amok among his ancestral home.  Lord Woodward was too negligent a Master to enforce discipline among his servants, and Miss Woodward resented him for it.  From what she had gathered from those who knew her mother, Lady Woodward was a strict disciplinarian among the operations of the household, and tolerated no such liberties of the tongue as was presumed by Lara and Sara presently.  But mother had been dead fifteen years past, having passed in the vain attempt to deliver to the world Miss Woodward ’s younger sister.  Miss Woodward had been but three and, so, remembered her mother in snatches of imagery and instances.  But nothing more.  Consequently, Miss Woodward vowed to never bear children, for it seemed a futile endeavour imperiled by catastrophes all too common. And, of course, were she to successfully bear a child who was to know if her darling might not be a contrary predilection, fraught in disposition with a disobedience and recalcitrance, contriving at every corner of life to conduct mischief wherever the darling pursued her divergence?  Succinctly put, Miss Woodward feared an arrangement akin to Sara and Lara, for it seemed dreadfully tedious, diverting, and disagreeable.

“You would do better in a textile mill, ” Lara declared to her daughter.   “Working sunup to sundown with bleedin ’ fingers for your reward. ”

“I would just have a fairy weave straw into gold, ” Sara said with petulant sarcasm, “since I am so besot with fancies! ”

“Aye, and here we have your soft-headed fancies in full force again, as to a puddin ’ of pixies!  One would think you had spun around the fairy ring thrice too many times, dizzyin ’ yourself and topplin ’ your head down on a hard stump! ”

The rain refused to subside, as did mother and daughter.  Miss Woodward plucked at her harp plaintively, no muse but frustration and impatience inspiring the melody.  She was so wroth that she nearly tore the strings for a garroter ’s tools to reconcile the two servants to silence.

Yet, her eye alighted upon movement in a nearby orchard.  There seemed, in her periphery, as if a young man was watching from among the falling rain and green foliage.  When she turned to look upon him more directly, the curious figure had moved yet to her periphery once more.

“If you donna ’ come off your cloud, ” Lara said, “I ’ll knock you off quick! ”

Thunder grumbled above the rotunda, silencing the mother and daughter.  As if remembering themselves for the first time that day they looked to their young Mistress.  Her stool was empty, the harp standing alone and bereft like a large swan wing of mahogany and catgut.

“Miss Woodward? ” Lara asked, extinguished of her former fire.

“She ’s lost her senses! ” Sara exclaimed, pointing at the figure fleeing through the veil of rain, her petticoats soaked and clinging to her frenzied figure.  Beside the lake she ran, the waves tossing with the wind and the rain.  Toward the woods she went, and Lara ’s eyes followed.   “There ’s someone in the woods.  Someone…so…beautiful… ”

Sara made as to go directly, but her mother clasped her by the wrist.

“Avert your eyes! ” her mother said, averting her own eyes, for she felt, too, her too-long fallow sex stir anew at the sight of the young man.   “Their ’s is not make or manner Man was meant to look upon! ”

Her daughter again attempted to rush thitherto, but her mother ’s grip was as a washerwoman wringing the linen.

“Stay you, girl, ” Lara demanded.   “Man is not the only creature what ’s employs decoys for its purposes! ”

“I know, momma, ” Sara said.   “I ’m not so flighty as to go chasing such spirits in a daze. ”

Yet, even as Sara spoke such sensible words, her body attempted to follow, her arm extended at full length while her body leaned in the young man ’s direction.

“I will be a goodly daughter, ” Sara said quietly.   “You are hurting my arm, mother.  Please let me go.  I promise to remain here, with you. ”

The man ’s pale white face was as snow, and the smile just as beautifully cold.  The rain did not touch him as it cascaded down the canopies of the trees.  Lara gripped her daughter with both hands, for despite her innocently voiced promise, there was trickery in her smile that matched the face of porcelain within the woods.

“Poor Miss Woodward, ” Lara said.   “There will be a reckoning of it, to be sure.  Certain as willows by the waterside there will be. ”

 

***

 

The birthing pangs were terrible indeed.  Miss Woodward ’s screams resounded throughout the manorhouse.  The doctor and the midwife were the only ones in attendance tot he birthing.  Lord Woodward had retreated to his study as he always did when confronted by things over which not even kings commanded influence, for all their power.  He had tiredly chastised Lara and Sara for hiding from him his daughter ’s condition.  Sara had attempted to explain that she had only been in such a condition for a week — no more —but her mother silenced her.  Lord Woodward uncorked his bottles and erstwhile sealed himself up in the wine ’s stead.

Lara and Sara heard the pangs as they dusted the parlour.

“It will go ill, Lara told her daughter.   “All signs point to a sad crossroads of lives.  One will go on where two have met, and the other will turn aside forever.  Neither will walk this world again. ”

“It is very sad, ” Sara said, reaching with her feather duster to send a shower of cobwebs off a corbel in the wainscoting.  The corbel was of a leaf-crowned man with a leering face.   “A tragedy as like a bard could sing of. ”

“It would be a foolish song, ” her mother retorted.   “But all such songs beginning in foolishness end the same. ”  She sat down all at once in a chair that belonged to Lady Woodward.  Presumptuous as it was, no one was there to reprimand her.   “It ’s what comes of dealings with the highborn fairies.  Mind you, Brownies are useful in their own way —for the cost o ’ a saucer o ’ milk, no less —but dalliance with ‘em high lords of Faerie lead to naught but mischief and sorrow. ”

 

“We common folk have to be practical of such things.  When such visitations transpire we are wiser for not presuming too much interest, but treatin ’  ‘em as one would the lordly folk of this world.  We canna ’ afford the luxuries o ’  ‘em highborn.  They ’re too costly.  It ’s much like lessons in Art and Music and the froggy tongue of the French.  And we ’ve too many chores to be done. ”

Another scream resounded through the house, as if to crack it.

“Truth be told, the cost o ’  ‘em Fae folk is a kingly sum that no king can afford.  Maybe Solomon might, but it is a cost of wisdom more than anything.  And you ought to pay it afore the cost comes callin ’. ”

A terrible silence suddenly reigned in the vast manorhouse.  A moment later the nurse screamed —or perhaps the doctor.  There was a rush of frenzied feet, a door flinging open, and then the nurse came with a tripping sort of haste down the stairs, staggering to the vestibule.  Sickly green, she halted but a moment to gawp at Sara and Lara.

“Unnatural, ” she croaked, then charged down the hall, out the door and away from the house.  Her smock had been smeared with blood and mud and leaves.

After a moment, Lara gave a knowing look to her daughter.   “The child must take after its true father, ” she said.   “Likely stillborn as a plank of wood, then.  The real child cries elsewhere. ”

The manorhouse had grown silent again.  No infant cried.  At length, the doctor shuffled downstairs, dazed.  He was an old man, and had seen much with the faded blue eyes behind his spectacles.  Now he seemed to see naught at all, but what he had recently seen.  He walked past the two women, as if blind to them, then paused.

“Please endeavour to tell Lord Woodward that neither mother nor child survived, ” he said hollowly.   “As for why, say whatever comes to mind. ”

In his arms he carried a bundled mass, the cloth stained red and brown and green.  He went into the vestibule and left, not minding to close the door after him.

Lara shut the door presently, then returned to the parlour, shaking her head.

“Doctors, for all their learnin ’, know so little.  I would claim, in front of St. Peter ‘imself, that doctors and such are as beholden in their highborn learnin ’ to fancies and daydreams as much as any nannerin ’ old crone lost to the horde of her cats.  A donkey kick to the head could ’na ’ wrong their thinkin ’ no more than what their learnin ’ has. ”

“Poor Miss Woodward! ” Sara said, at last overcome with everything.  She wept.   “Poor child, and her child, too! ”

Lara made as if to give her daughter a knuckled knock.

“Have you not been mindin ’ me, you deaf ninny?  That child is but a part of what will ’ve been born on the other side o ’ the rain!  That thing of crude Nature is the afterbirth.  Count yourself fortunate you cannot see the trueborn of the conception!  And count yourself luckier I was present enough of sense to catch you ‘fore the people of the rainy woods could catch you! ”

Her daughter went on weeping, and Lara got her fist ready to bring it down upon her pretty daughter ’s head.  But another thought overtook that one, and so Lara sat down again in the Lady Woodward ’s chair.  She rather liked that chair.  It was comfortable.  It helped her stiff old back relax into its soft cushions.  Sitting there, in the highborn comforts of the parlour, she thought she would rather sit there until Death came to sweep her away from her hard life.  Affixed in such thought, she looked at her daughter, and knew she was of a pretty make, especially when overcome with woe.

“Ah, my pretty daughter, ” she said.   “This could be a ripe ol ’ chance to recompense on the favour.  Lord Woodward fancies you —I ’ve no doubt on it —and there ’s much that a young pretty woman can make of herself to a sad man yearning for his dead wife and dead daughter. ”

Sara sobered almost at once, looking up through fresh tears with a look not nearly so innocent.   “He must have himself a princess, ” she said, understanding at once.

Lara smiled — a smile of pride, for she had never thought her daughter so swift on such understanding — and she gestured for her to come to her.  Sara went to her mother, and her mother took her hand in her own.

“Nay, my duckling, ” she said.   “A queen of a vast kingdom, if you should like.  All this yours!  And mine.  But we must act, and act as only practical common folk can!”  She rose quickly from the chair, knowing now that she might return to it at her leisure.   “I will inform his Lordship of the tragic news.  It will, naturally, break him, and then you, my dear little duckling, will swoop in and take him underwing and comfort him as only a wife and a daughter could!  Get ready your tears, dear!  I am the gamekeeper and you the trap! ”

 

***

 

The lowborn earth took the tears of the high-bourne clouds in the coming seasons, and made goodly Springs of them, and better Summers

Still Life

Still Life

 

I first met Antonio Petras when I was twenty-eight years old.  I had been one among the premier sculptors in Rome for four years prior, yet had not to produce a work of skill sufficient to elicit appreciation from his discerning tastes.  One does not know the name Antonio Petras unless he wants one to know it.  Moreover, he was known on a first name basis only with Cardinals and Mafia dons, and no one— including his own mother, may she rest in peace—called him Tony.

Instead, everyone called him Padre, for he was the Father of the Mediterranean.

I still remember vividly our first meeting.  I had been informed that my sculpture, “Ganymede Spirited Away” had been purchased for a lordly sum, and that the buyer expected to meet me.  I informed his agent that, for the lordly sum rendered, I would bear such an honor with delight.

“Yes,” he said solemnly.  “You should be honored.”

Yet, I did not meet my mysterious patron until two weeks later.  I was taken— by private boat— to a privately owned island in the Mediterranean.  Padre’s primary residence, as I came to know it, was a palace of marble columns and mosaic tiles.  It was all white and cerulean, like the Mediterranean itself, lounging lazily beyond the verandah.  To complete this anachronistic Romance, all servants who personally obliged Antonio Petras customarily wore himations and robes.  The overall effect was that the palace existed in a bubble apart from Time.  Nor were there any electronics or modern light fixtures throughout the palace.  All was illuminated by the Mediterranean sun or by brazier; nought else.  And the silence of that place!  The tides swept about and hushed the beach, breathing salty through the open-columned passages of the palace.  It was as if the palace resounded with the lullaby of the sea.  Wherever one walked, the sights and the sounds of the womb of Hellenic Greece were ubiquitous.

Of course, as breathtaking as the natural seascape was, nothing compared to the collection to which my work had been added.  My work— though the best I had ever produced as yet—was humbled among that collection.  Indeed, I do not doubt that Padre was putting me in my place by having my work positioned in the back area of his massive gallery, whereas the best sculptures I had ever seen were positioned to the fore.  It was not a matter of cruelty, either, this humbling arrangement, but rather Padre’s strict observance of rank and privilege, which I no doubt know was intended to inspire competition for the talents involved, and thus betterment of the exclusive gallery as a whole.

But what of the man?  Well, people called the Pope “Padre”, but they only called Padre “God”.  Upon initial glance, however, he reminded me of Urban II: a weary old man in his chair, his wispy white beard straggling from his withered face.  Due to his rheumatism he shook, always, and otherwise moved slowly.  But his thoughts were swift; swifter than Zeus absconding with Ganymede.  I still do not know where his vast wealth originated, but I know he was well-read on a surprising number of topics.  Science, Music, Literature, Religion.  He was a Renaissance Man.  But his one single most powerful passion was Art, and of the Arts he— like Michelangelo—prized sculpture above all other mediums.

“In sculpture even the infirm may appear powerful,” he told me.  “Made of marble, Man may withstand the tides of Time.”

This was his introductory greeting as he walked stiffly to meet me in his gallery.

“Even the statue of a withered old man like myself might stand forever, untouched by God’s forgetfulness.”

He abided no servants while he spoke to his artists.  We were alone in his gallery.  All I could hear was his dry voice, and the pendulous rush-and-retreat of the sea.  We sipped wine— rare vintage, naturally—and he escorted me through his collection, praising some, faulting others, but discrediting none more than my own.

“You must improve much before you gain my true respect,” he told me.  “Make living flesh from stone.  Only the artist that can transcribe every imperfection perfectly may be esteemed in my judgement.”

We arrived, by now, at my statue.  It was the largest I had ever sculpted, and it towered above us.

“Your feathers are wanting,” he said, referencing the eagle clutching at Ganymede’s hips.  “You must make them light and airy.  They must appear as if they can flap and lift with the wind, rising in defiance of their heavy stone.  Do not meant lift and rise despite their clay mold?  So must you transpose your art that it may endeavor Sublimity in its realizations.”

I took no offense.  How could I?  He had paid me handsomely. Moreover, he belittled works that were, to my eyes, superior in every way to my own.

I surveyed all of his sculptures as we walked and talked and sipped wine.  He did not discriminate of size or subject, just the skill of rendition.  There were nudes, of course—men and women of splendid proportions realized by a meticulous craft, their bodies such as would tempt the Olympians down from their mountain in amorous haste—and there were robed figures, their stone cloth rendered so smoothly that the eye should have doubted the hand’s report.  There were animals, too, from powerful tigers to delicately limbed birds, flamingoes and herons and a spoonbill preening itself.  There were busts of famous people, and of nameless models.  These, too, ranged wildly in every respect except the skill required to render them.  Witnessing so many talents, my pride crumbled even as my Ganymede soared in immodest grandeur.

I noticed, though, that Padre possessed no old works from masters past.  This, he confided to me, was quite a matter of intention rather than means.

“The old masters were too polluted by Greek ideals,” he said.  “Donatello and Michelangelo.  I would not offer a soured wine for either of their ‘masterpieces’.  Realism is what matters.  Capturing life, exactly, is what matters to me.”

There were sculptures certainly never to be confused with Greek ideals.  A fat whore was rendered in all her ugly minutiae, her pock-marked face seemingly ready to offer herself for a pocketful of Euros.  Other models were less than ideal, also, yet more esteemed within his collection, dominating the fore of his gallery by that sighing sea.

And then we came to a sculpture which no human hand or eye or discipline could produce.  This, I swear without caveat.  It was beautiful, odd, and terrifying.  Seeing the look on my face, Padre leered.

“Exquisite, isn’t he?  Unequaled, too, I promise you.  And the cost?  A human soul could fetch as much.”

It was a man staring in perplexity, bordering on horror.  He was nude, but his body was neither idealized or abstracted.  It was wholly realistic.  Too realistic.  More than any of the rest, this sculpture of a pudgy middle-aged man made me feel keenly the crudity in my own abilities.

“Who made this?” was all I could mutter.

“A woman I found in Crete,” he said, slightly amused.  “She has a gift…or a curse…depending on how you look at such things.”

“It must have taken years for her just to refine the skin,” I said, passing my eye over every smooth surface and creased wrinkle.  “The veins are extraordinary.  Please tell me how long this took.”

“She accomplished this in….what is the American saying? ‘In a flash’?  Yes.  That is how long it took.”

I did not understand his sense of humor, but he seemed amused by some private joke.

“Enough, my son,” he said.  “Now we will discuss your next work you will do for me.”

“You will be my patron?” I said, delighted— and overwhelmed—by the prospect.

“If you prove yourself more capable than your previous effort.”

Again, I took no umbrage in his condescension.  Rather, I took his money and promised to deliver something as profoundly realistic as anything in his gallery.  Anything in his gallery, excepting the nude man that this mysterious woman made “in a flash”.  Even as elated and inspired as I was, I entertained no delusions of surpassing such a piece, nor ever truly equaling it.

 

***

 

Fourteen frenzied months later I sent photographs to Padre’s agent.  He rejected my work outright.  I was upset.  I was at a loss.  After all, the piece was superior to my Ganymede piece.  The only word I received in answer was “Artificial”.  I had labored upon it with my daemon undiverted.  How could it not belong among his gallery?  I spent four more months refining it, smoothing the skin and softening the flesh of Icarus until he might well have melted alongside his wings.  Again I sent photos from my studio.  This time I received a longer letter— one sentence—and a single photo.

“Improving,” the letter read, “but nowhere near as good as this.”

The photo enclosed in the envelope was not, as is often said, “worth a thousand words”.  It was ineffable.  The subject matter was unremarkable—a nude woman, again with the same quizzical fear upon her face—but the execution!  I despaired that I should ever approach such mastery.

Still, I was yet determined to prove my own meager powers, if only above all others except this mystery mistress of chisel and hammer.

 

***

 

When next I heard word from Padre, he informed me— in his antiquated longhand—that he wished for my presence on his island.  This was an abrupt honor, and I wondered if he desired my statue.  He did not, for the same letter informed me that he would only command an afternoon of my presence, after which I would be returned to the mainland and expected to resume my work.  Frustrated, but also curious, I met one of his servants at a port, just before sunrise, and was taken to his island forthwith.

Watching the waves part from the boat put me in a mind of Ancient Greece: of Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and the beautiful Siren call of Greek tragedy.  Could I ever aspire to render from marble the white froth that turned over and collapsed in upon itself?  Could I ever capture the liquidity of life, of flowing forms, in the defiant marble that stubbornly stood in its myriad forms amongst perpetuity?  How might I capture the sands of the beach in unyielding stone?  How might I dare to capture Cronos himself in static manifestations?  Meditations in marble were things of sweat and tears and curses and sighs.  The marble sculpted the sculptor as much as the sculptor revealed the figure within the marble.

A wise artist never endeavors to understand the business of his patrons, particularly those like Antonio Petras.  That said, I had my suspicions.  Banking.  Drugs.  Human trafficking.  Religion, which concerned all the previous and more, no doubt.  To see his island palace was to see but a fraction of his wealth and power.  It was to see a favored nook in the large expanse of affluence and influence that he wielded around the world.

And yet, in the end, such things amounted to nothing.

Arriving upon the island, I was taken again to Padre’s gallery whereupon I was given wine and instructed to wait at the leisure of my patron.  He arrived shortly after, walking more slowly than before, his body betraying the enfeebling effects of age even while bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.

“I do not know if I should appreciate your obedience,” he said, wryly.  “Had you been more preoccupied with refining your statue you might have disregarded the summons and remained behind to concentrate on excelling among my gallery here.”

I disregarded the insult, knowing that men of his position and power could afford to insult the gods themselves.  For all his power, however, there was no concealing the infirmity of his body, nor the anguished grimace upon his withered face.

He suddenly called out to a servant.  “Bring me the mirror!”

Motioning me to follow him, we left his columned art gallery and came to the verandah that faced the sea.  The mosaic tiles glittered in the sun.  He went to a bench shaded beneath a rotunda of columns with a dome.  Astride the dome lounged a mermaid of some kind, but Padre suffered her to lounge there headless.  It seemed a strange choice for a man with so much wealth.  He could have easily procured something less damaged for his fine palace.

Sitting down, Padre gestured that I join him.  I did so.  It was an idyllic vista, the expanse of shore and sea spreading out beyond the shade of the dome like the cradle of the gods.

“Such a pity, the Pieta,” he said absently.  “The proportions are cartoonish.  Mary is a Philistine giant, whereas her son is but a doll crumpled in her colossal lap.”

I deferred to his opinion, naturally.

“Yet, the Pieta will last and last,” he said.  “Such are the injustices of this world.  Unfair and innumerable.”

Again, I deferred to his opinion.  Suddenly, a great paroxysm betook him to sit up straight, as if struck with lightning, or, as it were, some zealous monomania.

“Cronos is the most high God,” Padre said.  “And I intend to defy him.  I intend that you defy him.  Defy him and all of the gods.  I had chosen you because you are yet young, and ripening with potential.  But I am overripe, and running out of time.  Cronos seeks to detain me, and unmake me, before I may exact my defiance.  Even now his pendulous scythe seeks me, slicing away at my bones and my nerves and my mind.  I hear it, like the ticking of the clock, or the ebb and flow of the sea.  He devours all his children, you know?  Whether god or human, he devours us all.  And you must keep his gluttonous mouth from me.  As a stone I shall defy him, as did Zeus his father.”

“I am honored, Padre,” I said.

He dismissed such obsequiousness with an impatient wave of his hand.

“I have sufficient capital for as many such sculptures, and sculptors, as I desire,” he said.  “All have attempted my dream.  All have failed.  Save for her, of course.  She works expediently.  She works…unnaturally.”

He spoke as if he had said a joke, smiling through his pain.  What the joke was, I did not understand.

“Then why hire any other artist?” I said, feeling irritated.  “Why not let this…this…Protean woman people your gallery with all the statues that you desire?”

He smiled mirthlessly; that wry smile that seemed embittered despite all outward appearance of joy.  Like a colorful fruit with an alluring rind, sour to its pulpy core.

“Because I push human limitations,” he said.  “Why shouldn’t we equal the powers of the gods?  I want another artist to succeed as she has done.  Not with so much ease, naturally, but with perseverance and discipline, as is the needful habit of Man.  Then I should hire such a man, or woman, to sculpt my own likeness.  And to them I would give all my riches, just for such a grand satisfaction.”

“All of your riches?” I said, disbelieving him.

“This island,” he said, “is but a small corner of my empire.  And you should have it all, should you accomplish such a feat.  Pygmalion may have done such a thing once, though that conniving goddess interfered from pure vanity to stamp her own miracles upon his work.  I should like my present flesh rendered steadfast in ageless stone.”  He coughed into a trembling, mottled fist.  He smiled sardonically through the pain.  “Frailties and all.”

Presently a servant girl in a himation arrived, her black hair curling like an Ionic capital.  One breast was bare.  She handed a small, circular shield to Padre.  It was rimmed with copper and in its center was a mirror.  Its glass was as immaculate and clear as air itself.

“This is my aegis,” Padre said.  “Though it has not always belonged to me.”  He held it up, with some effort, and looked into it, grimly.  A moment later, he handed it to me.  “Look into the glass and tell me what you see.”

I took the mirrored shield in both hands and gazed into its looking-glass.  What I saw was a truer reflection of myself than any other mirror had hitherto given.  It revealed as much as reflected, its soul-gazing glass more genuine than what eyes might see unaided.  The mirror was scrutiny itself; it concentrated the essence of the gazer and revealed what they dare not seek to know of themselves.

Trembling, I almost dropped the aegis.  So unsettled was I that I did not notice the dry, dusty chuckling of the old man beside me until he took the mirror from me.

“The aegis has that effect on men,” he said, “and women, too.”

“I thought…I thought it was supposed to have a gorgon’s head in the center,” I said after collecting myself.

“And so it does,” he said.  “Every gorgon is revealed when someone peers into its glass.  It was made by the gods, you know.  Athena herself, supposedly.  That is why it does not age.  That is why it is untarnished after so many millennia.”

He motioned for a servant, and the dark-haired woman returned, taking away the aegis.  Padre regarded me with one of his knowing looks of wry amusement.

“Which would you prefer, a painting of yourself or a photograph?”

“A painting,” I said, “if the painter be worthy of the oils used.”

“And why is that?  Is it because of the labor rendered to us by another human being?  Is it the skill?  The interpretive talent?  Or is it the sacrifice of the venture?  Is it the Time involved in capturing your likeness and bringing it to life on lifeless canvas?”

“All of those reasons,” I said.  “A deft hand and a deft eye are invaluable.  Why not indulge one’s vanity”

“And yet you cannot, as they say, ‘take it with you’ when you die.  So who is the painting really for?”

“For my posthumous pride,” I said.  “For the ages.”

“Perhaps,” he said.  “Vanity, in its ultimate form, is the desire to live forever, isn’t it?  Or at least to be remembered forever.  But that is not the reason I seek a worthy visionary to reproduce me in stone.  No, it is war.  It is revenge.  Revenge against Cronos and his insatiable appetite.  I entertain no delusions as to live forever.  I am not yet senile enough in my old age to believe fallacious half-hopes.  I only want to avenge myself.  And, by extension, humanity.  That is my intention.  That is the raison d’être.”

He became silent.  Pensive.  Gloomy.  Like a storm distant at sea, he brooded, not yet breaking toward the mainland.

“Painting was changed by the advent of photography,” he said quietly.  “Only a meager handful may paint so realistically that their brush strokes are indistinguishable from a photograph, and even that is discernible at nearer distances.  Conversely, anyone with hands may take a photograph.  Therein between lays a vast gap of deficiency.”

“It is good that I am a sculptor, then,” I said, lightly.

Upon his weathered, withered face was a galvanized intensity that struck dead like a thunderbolt all the flippancy I formerly felt.

“Unless there was a thing to take photos in 3-dimensional space.  Yes?  Unless there could be rendered, in a moment— as if an insight drawn out directly from the sculptor’s mind—the very idea that had been buried in thought as thick as granite rock.”

I frowned.  I knew of computer programs with which Hollywood men might take photographs and feed them into a computer, the computer thereafter fabricating a 3D model with algorithms and such technobabble to generate a digital model from the various photos.  They could even— from what my limited knowledge provided on the subject—use large machines to “print out” 3D sculptures of the model recorded in vertices and polygons and the like.  But that was not the same as carving out of marble a sculpture.  Perhaps they might someday undertake to use a computer to render from marble a sculpture such as Michelangelo could praise, but it would not be the same as a sculpture born with careful hands and keen eyes and the labors of a soul possessed.

Then again, was that not the very same argument made on behalf of painters in the past when confronted with the fiend of photography?

Padre suddenly raised his hand above his head, snapping his fingers aloft.  A servant came hurrying over, nearly tripping over his white robe.  With outstretched arms he held in his hands a leather satchel which, by his manner and his fearful expression, might well have contained explosives ready to detonate at any moment.  He very gently handed this satchel to Padre, then hurried away.

Padre cradled the satchel in his arms, letting it rest on his lap.  The satchel moved as it lay there, a sibilance sounding suggestively from within.  It was as if angry coils slithered about, tangled inchoately in an inextricable knot.

“You hear them?” he asked.  “In the beginning, before Cronos and his ilk, there was merely Ophion and the dancing maiden on the primordial waters.  Time did not exist. Neither life nor death existed.  Only a moment existed, eternally. A moment existed, and that was all, and that moment was Maiden and Ophion copulating upon the waters of Chaos.  What is Chaos but timelessness?  It is the calming of the waters.  The ceasing of the waves.  Lest we forget, when Cronos was castrated by his own scythe his genitals fell among the waters, causing waves to crash against the sands of Time.”

 

As I left that day, I glanced back again at the great palace beckoning to me; taunting me with its grandeur.  Seeing again the domed rotunda of columns, I scrutinized the headless mermaid upon the dome.  In the bright Mediterranean sun I saw that it was no fishtail with which she luxuriated, nor was the repose with which she reclined one of ease. Her tail spiraled in serpentine coils.  Her posture was of defeat and death.

 

***

 

I had not heard from Padre or his servants in some time.  Months passed.  I feared he might have lost patience with me, or worse, confidence, and so presumed to send a letter.  I was informed, at the passage of a fortnight, that Padre had suffered a fall and was now confined to a wheelchair, recuperating however he could.  The letter did not indulge much else for elaboration.  All that was said was that I would be contacted when Padre was ready to receive my new work.  Furthermore, I was informed to improve upon it in the meantime.  This I did resentfully, for I thought it already the most eminent of my works.  Simultaneously, I also acknowledged that while it very well would have been gladly displayed in the Louvre, it was yet worthy of a place amongst the forefront statues of Padre’s exclusive gallery.

And so, unsure whether my patron would live to see what I had achieved for him, I threw myself into meticulous refinement of my Icarus piece.  Begrudgingly, I had to admit that I had, in time, vastly improved the feathers and the overall realism of the work.  To make stone so airy and soft was my obsession for a time and I do not believe I oversell myself by stating that aspiration was equally met by talent.

It was the following year that I received a letter from Padre’s servants.  They had arranged that my work would be shipped to the island within a month’s time.  This was highly unexpected and so I prepared for the date in a nervous hustle.  When the time came, I went with the servants, escorting my piece from studio to port to island.  I was given a room in the palace while the piece was moved into the gallery.  Padre did not present himself and I suspected that he may not have been on the island.  This suspicion was fed by a week of isolation on the island.  Meals were made for me, and I was given clothes— white robes like the rest of the island’s inhabitants—and I lived in a paradisaical state of luxury.  I enjoyed long walks on the beach, swimming in the sea, and the satisfaction of two years’ work.  I shunned the gallery for fear of growing doubts in my mind.   Already they gnawed at me and the need to know Padre’s opinion on my magnum opus grew in my mind like restless insects.

Then one day, while out on a walk, I was summoned to the gallery.  While I waited I stared out through the colonnade, toward the sea, ignoring the other statues in the gallery.  I did not even wish to look at my own work.

A servant wheeled Padre beside me as we traversed his gallery.  He did not say anything. He only pointed toward my statue, and so we went.  We came to my magnum opus and he sent the servant away.  He stared at the piece, and I stared at him.  He was frailer now, shrunken in upon himself.  Were it not for the wheelchair holding him, I would have thought he would crumble to dust at that very moment.  His scraggly white beard had thinned.  His sallow cheeks sagged.  However, the same fiery light of intelligence blazed within the shadowy sockets.

At first Padre seemed pleased— eager, even, to devour with his eyes the work I had accomplished.  But the longer he surveyed the wings the more quickly did the luster of his hopeful gaze fade into jaded dimness.  The more he scrutinized the smooth flesh, the less pleased he was with the want of wrinkles.

“It is a fair piece,” he said flatly.  “But it yet aspires beyond its reach.”

“I am sorry,” I said, too much in shock to mutter anything else.

He shook his head.  “No, it is I who am sorry.  Had I another ten years you might achieve the skill I require.  There is so much potential in you, and that was why I chose you.  So young and so much potential.  But not enough time.  He taunts me even now, you see?  Cronos will have the last laugh after all.”

“But what of your woman?” I said, trying not to sound bitter.  “What of her superior skills?  Why even bother with me if you have someone at your disposal who could achieve more and with lesser effort?”

“She…she is a last recourse,” Padre said.  “Her talent is too…dreadful to surrender to as of now.  Even in my crippled condition I am not so desperate for such an…irreversible option.”

He groaned and struck his fists against the wheelchair.  It was the most explicit expression of frustration, or any emotion, I had seen him allow himself.

“I am but crumbling clay when I should be timeless marble!  Had I only more time!”

The intense light in his eyes suddenly extinguished, like blown-out candles in the dark wells of his sockets, and his face grew lax as melted wax.  I feared he was having a stroke and made ready to fetch for his servants.  But it was a momentary disintegration and he soon gathered up himself into a grim sneer, the baleful light returning to his eyes.

“What now, little one?” he mumbled.  “Aspire still?  What hope have you?  You, who are as a maggot gnawing at the heel of the gods as they press you down into the filth of your birthplace?”

I did not know if such scorn was for me, or if it was rather for himself.  He said no more, except to summon his servants to have me boated off his island.

 

***

 

I did not hear word from Padre or his servants again.  I should have let such matters go, knowing I had failed to achieve what he had desired I achieve, but my pride ached.  And it was an angry ache; an ache of frustration and rage, of disappointment and resentment and action.  I restrained myself for a time, but the ache grew too severe, resounding awfully, and so spurred me to at last dare Padre’s wrath.

I rented a boat and sailed on my own to Padre’s island.  It was an insolent, presumptuous impulse, and I should have paid for it with my life.  Yet I did not.  Coming to the island, I found it abandoned.  There were no servants.  No signs of life.  No one lived there or stirred within that paradise.  It was as the tomb of a Minoan king, silenced with forgetful dust.

I did not inspect Padre’s gallery until after I had checked the various rooms and quarters for guests and servants.  Perhaps I felt that entering the gallery unaccompanied, and uninvited, was too intrusive.  Perhaps it was a creeping feeling of surreal fear that restrained me from entering it.  Whatever the reason, I soon found I had nowhere else to investigate.  So I entered that columned forum while the waves of the Mediterranean crashed amongst the silence.

No life stirred there.  The many statues remained inert, no matter how lifelike their visages and their manner of bearing.  My Icarus fell for eternity near the middle of the expansive forum, and while this was a more enviable position than my Ganymede, I yet felt bitterness at its middling placement.

I saw a leather satchel upon the tiled floor.  Recalling it from a previous visit, I wondered at its careless disposal.  Nearing it, I found it open and empty.  A brief thought of Pandora’s opened box— or amphora— flitted through my mind, though I knew such a fancy ridiculously born of my fear.

I heard rustling amongst the farthest shadows, near the back of the gallery.

“Padre?” I said.

Padre was pale, his countenance one of fearful confusion.  I asked him what was the matter.  He did not answer and I feared he had finally suffered a stroke in his old age.  As I approached him I realized my error.

It was not Padre, but a statue such as I could never have hoped to equal.  He stood half in shadows, looking into the deeper shadows of the corner of his gallery, where the sun did but faintly touch with its light.  Nothing sounded within that tomblike silence of his gallery except the waves throwing themselves to and fro.  And something else.  A sibilant sound emerged, nearer to me than the waves.  The hissing of many tongues, and the groaning of a woman.

The sun was setting and the gallery darkened.  I had an uncanny feeling that eyes were watching me. Pleading eyes frozen forever in place.  As I turned to leave I heard a muffled moan.  I hesitated only a moment, then fled from that place, running blindly through the gallery.  By the time the tides splashed my feet I was bruised and bloodied from my blind flight.  I went to my boat and left as quickly as I could.  I never returned to that island.

 

He still remains there, a part of his gallery.  Protected from Cronos, and entrapped by Cronos.  Forever, gazing among the waves breaking leisurely against the sands of Time.

The Highwayman

The stagecoach had been overturned on its side, laying like a dead beast with its gut split open at the door. The driver lay dead, next to the yet-dying horses. Hopping down from his own horse, the Highwayman approached the dying horses on foot, noting the whinnying and the spittle on their mottled lips. Their legs had been broken from the crash, and maybe even their backs. He lowered the muzzle of his revolver to one horse’s head, just above the bulging eye. The gunshot cracked the sky, echoing up through the ravine. That sandy depression was strewn with the garments and suitcases that had been bucked and battered in the chase and the ensuant crash. The horse was silenced at once. He did the same for the other horse, and the ravine was a dead quiet thereafter.
“Ain’t nothin’ I hate more than creatures sufferin’,” the Highwayman said. His eyes were shaded by his black cowboy hat, eclipsing the hot Nevada sun, yet the perpetual squint never left his gaze. As a consequence, the Highwayman always appeared angry, or in pain, his dark eyebrows like black wisps of fire beneath his crinkled brow.
He turned his attention, now, to the dusty cab. Its single occupant had not yet emerged. So, taking both revolvers from their holsters, the Highwayman approached the cab slowly, guns raised. He should have known he had nothing to fear, for his horse was absently grazing on some patchy tufts of grass. And the piebald never relaxed so much when there was danger lurking nearby. She had an instinct for such things.
Looking over the stagecoach, and peering over the sights of his revolver, the Highwayman saw a young woman crumpled in among the cab like a baby in its broken crib. She was a fair-haired comely little thing in a blue dress, flecked here and there with blood. A golden cross lay upon her chest, the latter of which rose and fell with her breath. So she was still alive; only scraped and bruised. He put the revolver to her gashed forehead and readied to pull the trigger.
Her eyes flashed open, full of terror. He withdrew his gun.
“Get yourself on up outta’ there,” he told her.
The woman glanced around, her eyes scuttling every which way as if they meant to flee from their sockets. Otherwise, she did not move.
“Come on, now,” the Highwayman said, not unkindly. “Get yourself out.”
Grimacing, the young woman tried to rise, and then gasped in pain.
“I believe my arm is broken,” she said. Her voice was high, and not only from the pain. Had she been a singer, she would have been tenor. It was more a girl’s voice than the voice of a woman more mature in worldly matters.
“All right then,” the Highwayman said.
He holstered his revolvers, then climbed atop the stagecoach, standing with his boots to either side of the open door, stooping down to offer her his hand. She took his leather glove with a blue satin glove. He groaned, and she winced and gasped, but gradually he pulled her to her feet within the toppled compartment. He then lifted her out, carrying her as a groom would his bride across the threshold. He set her under a bristlecone pine tree, the twisted specimen offering some shade with its smoky clouds of green needles. He then pillaged the body of the coachman and gathered up whatever things he thought worth saving from the disarrayed contents of the young woman’s suitcases. There were silken gowns and makeup bottles and various jewelry of silver and gems. When he returned to her, he demanded her earrings and the coins in her purse. He did not take the golden cross hanging from her neck.
Meanwhile, she stared at him hatefully with her blue eyes.
“You’ve killed a good man,” she said.
“You’ve a city accent,” he returned. “New England, I’ll bet.”
“You’ve killed a good man and robbed a woman who has never harmed you,” she said.
“God giveth and taketh away,” he said, crouching down in the shade next to her. She shifted uncomfortably, and winced when she attempted to lean on her arm. He shook his head.
“It ain’t broken,” he said. “You just banged it good.”
The young woman looked away, toward the piebald. The Highwayman followed her gaze, and snorted, or laughed, or both.
“You were going to kill me,” she said, warily. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you were sufferin’,” he said. “Like ‘em poor creatures over there.” He tipped his head toward the dead horses.
“Suffering is a part of life,” she said, absently clasping her cross. “But you seek it out for others. This is not right, sir.” She scowled at him beneath her crumpled bonnet. “This is not becoming of a Christian!”
“Well then,” he said, standing. “That’s how it oughta’ be.”
He went to his horse and took a sack from aside the saddle, returning to the shade of the bristlecone. It was well into the evening, and the shade was stretching across the ravine like a dark hand.
Opening the sack, the Highwayman began to stuff all of the woman’s belongings into its gaping burlap mouth. When he had finished, he tied the sack tightly with twine and set it beside the twisted trunk of the tree.
“Are you now satisfied, sir?” the young woman asked bitterly.
The Highwayman regarded her now silently, his eyes dead in the shade of his leather-brimmed hat. He slipped his rifle off his back, doffed his leather duster, and then took off his holstered revolvers. Putting them aside, he approached the woman as she shrank against the tree.
“What do you want?” she gasped, her blue eyes agog with terror.
He said nothing, but knelt down in front of her. She pressed herself against the tree, turning her face away and trembling, holding her one good arm out against his chest. His denim shirt was unbuttoned to the navel.
“Are you not a Christian man?” she wept. Her arm bent and buckled beneath his urgent weight.
He paused, staring at her cross grimly.
“What good would that be?” he asked. “It ain’t of any good to you, is it? Not now. Not ever. I could take you as I want and nobody’d do anything to stop me. How’s it any good, then?”
She began to sob. “God will protect my soul, if nothing else.”
The Highwayman snorted in contempt, then sat down beside her, leaning against the tree.
“He’s a helluva devil, ain’t he?” he said. “Making us the way we are and then blaming us for it.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What do you mean?” she said between sobs.
“The Engineer,” he said. “That’s what he is, ain’t he? I mean, when you got yourself a locomotive and it runs off the tracks, you could blame the tracks or you could blame the workers in the locomotive. But only sometimes. Sometimes there’s something wrong with the locomotive itself. Wrong from the get-go. Innate’s the word. And then you gotta’ wonder why nobody’s blamin’ the Engineer. He’s the one that designed the locomotive. And sometimes the only thing that goes wrong started long before the train was ever put to tracks.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Course you don’t,” he said, appraising her balefully. “You never stopped to think none about it. Like this trip of yours through hostile territory. Somebody told you everything would be just fine, and then it weren’t, and now you can’t believe that it’s gone all awry on you.” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “But things have been goin’ wrong since forever.”
“You are speaking like a soul willfully damned,” she said. She traded her tears for anger. “And I bet you blame God for everything wrong in your life. But look at you! You kill innocent men and threaten innocent women! Steal and kill and your bounty is an eternity in the Lake of Fire!”
Again, the Highwayman snorted, or laughed, or both. It was a contemptuous sound. He took off his hat, revealing hair that was as black as an Apache’s.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about you sheep,” he said. “You’re always blind to the knife that’s comin’ for you. That’s how you die happy. It’s the only way you can die happy. Bein’ blind. Me, I can see. I see it all.”
His eyes squinted more tightly, as if he was suffering a great hatred, or pain.
“I had me a brother long ago. Fifteen years dead now, I think. Back then, when Daniel was alive, he was like you, Ma’am. Believed in God and Angels and Devils and Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. He went to church every Sunday, prayed in the morning and at night before bed, and never spoke a cross word against nobody, no matter how much they might of deserved it. And daddy, well he deserved a cross word or two. Hell, I knocked some of his teeth out before I left home forever. He was a mean ol’ drunk and he’d beat us something fierce when he was divin’ in the bottle. But Daniel only ever prayed for daddy’s soul, and mine, and momma’s, whose death came shortly after Daniel’s birth. Anyhow, Daniel’d get these fits sometimes. Like the Holy Spirit ragin’ through him. Like a Holy Roller, you know? Just dropped to the floor and would shake all over as if struck by lightning. He liked to think it was God humblin’ him, or givin’ him visions, or whatever which way he liked to fancy it. Me, I thought it was something wrong in his brains. He was a good boy, and a kind boy, but he wasn’t the smartest of boys. Met a man who was, by all accounts, a decent man till he took a donkey’s hoof to the head. Afterwards he was a cruel sonnabitch. The brains are the key, I think, and we don’t really have no say-so in how they’re made. That’s up to the Engineer, see?”
He nodded at his own words when she refused to, then placed his hat atop his head again.
“Well, one day Daniel was out mindin’ the chickens, just like he was supposed to. Daddy and I was digging a hole for a new shitter. Pardon my language, ma’am, but that’s what we was doin’. What happened was Daniel was doin’ as he should and the next thing you know he went all limp and fell down with one of his fits. It happened once a week, mind, so it shouldn’t have been such a bother, but the problem was when he fell down, shakin’ and talkin’ in tongues, he struck his head on a rock. Now, this was through no fault of his own. The Engineer had seen it fit to give him a jolt, and that jolt did him in. He weren’t the same after that. He was lazy, and tired all the time, and was downright mean. Like he was drunk, though he never drank nothin’. Daddy got tired of it quick, bein’ now more alike than ever they was, and so daddy beat the piss out of Daniel. I beat the piss out of daddy, then took off with Daniel, lookin’ for a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with ‘im. But I was told was I already suspected. Daniel was gone. Only the shade remained, cold and without substance. And so I ended his sufferin’, too. Sent that shade on ward into whatever dawn might await it.”
The Highwayman was silent now, staring inwardly at some far-flung shadows that the young woman could not see except in the black pupils of his eyes.
“But the Lord gave us Free Will,” she said. “He let’s us choose for ourselves if we are Good or Evil.”
“Did you not hear a damn word I just said?” he snapped. “Daniel never got to choose nothin’! Got knocked over because of something wrong in his head, and then knocked his head worse than before. He didn’t choose none of ‘em things!” He struck at the tree with a fist. “No more than this here tree chose to be planted here. The Engineer designs, if he designs at all, and when things go off the tracks…well, you are the mess that’s left over afterwards. And so I thought to myself, ‘Well Hell, what good’s there in bein’ Good if it just gets you dead or worse anyhow?’ None of it matters. Not you. Not me. Nothin’. We ain’t got no say-so in anything.”
“But you can choose to be Good,” the young woman said, pleadingly.
“No more than the train can choose its own tracks,” the Highwayman said. “Or this here tree can choose to go plant itself somewhere else. Ain’t that somethin’, though? To know that you got as much freedom of choice as a goddamn tree?”
“You’re crazy,” she said, clutching at her cross again.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I know it. But knowin’ it don’t change nothin’.”
He began to look at her again in that intense, urgent way, and leaned toward her.
“But what about Christ?!” she shrieked. “He died for our sins! He made a choice to save us!”
He tilted his head to the side, bemused. “Yes, ma’am, I once was a Christian, too. But then I reckoned that the Christian faith was just another one of the Engineer’s jokes. He is a notorious jokester, ya know? Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another. High and low, everything in this world is contrary to the Word. I saw it in his dealings with Daniel, and I see it every day in his dealings with the world. The hare is taken up by the eagle. The mouse is eaten by the snake. Ain’t no mercy or love in it, except if it happens to be a swift death. And even that’s a matter of chance.”
“But you can choose better!” she said, as if to convince herself as much as himself. “You can! Please! Let me go!”
The Highwayman considered her for a long time, his gaze steady and unblinking. At length, he stood up and put on his holstered guns, his duster, and his rifle. He gazed to the West, where the sun was setting, stretching the shadow from the lip of the ravine over the hollow groove below it. He and she were standing in what was once a river, now long dried to dust. The Highwayman grumbled to himself for a few moments, as if thinking aloud,. He then addressed the young woman.
“If you go five miles South from here,” he said, “then you might make it to a small military outpost by sundown. They’ll take good care of you. They’re gentlemen there. Christian men. They’ll see that you get food and will tend to your hurts.”
The young woman stood up with her blue eyes gleaming brighter than the rarest of diamonds. She clasped the golden cross as if in prayer.
“Oh thank you, sir!” she said. “God bless you! I knew you couldn’t be too eager a Devil’s foreman!”
“You can take my horse,” he said, nodding toward the piebald. “She’s a good-tempered thing. She never bucks, even when bullets are flyin’ like gadflies.”
The young woman nodded, then hurried toward the horse. She could not get up in the saddle by herself, her arm too injured. The Highwayman helped her up, then, and then led the horse out of the ravine. Dusk flared beyond the ravine. It was an apocalyptic war of red fire and dark clouds beyond the horizon. The mesas looked like the gigantic headstones of dead gods long forgotten.
“Keep goin’ South,” the Highwayman said. “And you will find your Salvation.”
“Bless you, sir!” she said again, weeping with joy. “Bless you, and may you find peace and Christ in this life!”
He wacked the piebald on her rump, sending her in an easy gallop across the wasteland. After a few moments, he unslung his Remington rifle from his back. He aimed with a slow, aquiline regard at the blue figure on horseback.
“Let her die with hope in her heart,” he muttered. “It’s all any of us can aspire to.”
The aim of his eye, like the aim of his mind, was given to him by his Engineer, and it never hit amiss of its mark. He pulled the trigger and the crackling was as of lightning promising rains for the desert. And it was not a false promise. The Highwayman returned to the bristlecone tree for his burlap sack. He then went to fetch his horse back to him.