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.

Tears From A Stone Part 1

Dave walked down the city street, the dazzling night noisy with traffic and sirens and the voices of his fellow pedestrians. His date with the ER nurse was over— for him, anyway, since she had to go “meet with some friends at a bar”—and so Dave walked alone among the anonymous thousands along the streets of New York. It was summer and the city was only just beginning to cool after a long, hazy day of reeling shadows made warm by too many bodies. Too many warm bodies, and, more than likely, far too many cold bodies. It was Dave’s one and only day off from work that week. He felt tired. He had only been up for three hours, his graveyard routine habituating him to the hours of late-night party owls, but not the actual habits of partying. He wanted to go home and decompress. The date had been a disaster, but at least it was over now. Now he could return his mind to the ongoing disaster that was human civilization. Dave was the type that liked to wear a belt everywhere he went, even when he didn’t really need it for his jeans. He liked to have a belt just in case he should happen upon a dismemberment. This might sound strange, but Dave was very good at making tourniquets from belts, and so what would otherwise have been a superfluous accessory was always on Dave’s person. He liked to keep lots of things on his person to assist him in his job as a paramedic, even when in his off-hours. Dave also liked to keep a defibrillator with him, and an EpiPen, both in a suitcase full of medical supplies. Currently, he did not carry his suitcase with him, however, because he knew it would have been a turn-off for an ER nurse who was wanting to divide cleanly business from pleasure. Dave liked to be prepared for emergencies. He was a paramedic six days a week officially, but he considered himself a paramedic full-time, all the time. His job was his life, and he often dreamed of his job when he found that he could sleep in the middle of the day, after workhours. It was stressful caring for so many vulnerable people at the border between life and death, and often he was haunted by those he could not save. Even in his dreams the dead clambered after him, gnawing at his heart with guilt. Dave’s coworker, Cindy, had told him multiple times not to worry about the dead; not to tally the losses and let the job get to him. “You win some, you lose some,” she always said after a “zero patient outcome”. “You can’t keep score with the reaper, man. We all lose to him in the end. You gotta’ let it go and keep moving, otherwise you’re going to get burned out.” Cindy had the right attitude, and so did the ER nurse that left Dave for a night at an anonymous bar. Dave knew that he had the wrong attitude. He was not supposed to be Christ and he could not save everyone. That was why the ER nurse left him abruptly. He had talked only about work, and she did not want to hear it. When she attempted to talk about other things—his life beyond work, for instance—he revealed to her, candidly, that he really had no life beyond work. That was the death knell in the end and shortly afterward she went to “tidy up” in the bathroom. Upon her return she informed him that she had to go. Personal emergency. He volunteered to pay for the dinner, but she paid for her half to certify the fact that they would not be seeing each other in the future except in a professional capacity. She wished him a good night and then hurried down the street toward the places where twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings congregated. Dave knew that his inability to live beyond the job had cost him another potential romantic partner. He knew he needed to somehow nix the compulsive obsession if he was ever going to be happy. And yet, even now when he looked up at those towering skyscrapers full of people—and along the teeming streets that brimmed with motorists and pedestrians, and the restaurants and shops crammed with patrons—he knew they were all one fateful crack away from the whole city falling down upon their heads with its sharp glass and heavy steel and unfeeling concrete. The whole world was a death-trap, and he could not stop the instinctive need to care about those who upon which the trap sprung. As if on cue, an ambulance shrieked down the street, its lights flashing across the sidewalk, red and blue at a pace equal to Dave’s hastening heartbeat. He fought the urge to follow it— by taxi, or futilely by foot—and instead continued toward his apartment complex. The pedestrians thinned as he left the blocks of bars and restaurants behind. His apartment complex was not terrible, but it was not great either. He made fairly good money as a paramedic, especially since he worked so many hours a week, and he could have afforded a higher rental property. But he was saving money for retirement. He told himself he wanted to live somewhere away from people—maybe out West, near the mesas and other big stones that reminded him of skyscrapers, but without the potential casualties crammed within them. He had another thirty years before he could retire comfortably; and he did not know if even while living in isolation he would be able to shake the frets of New York city and its millions of people. “Somebody! Help! He needs help!” By instinct Dave ran along the sidewalk, shouldering his way past a circle of stupefied onlookers to find three people kneeling over a large man in a business suit. Surveying the man quickly, Dave saw that he was extremely large. He dwarfed the three people gathered around him, like a rhino would a trio of pygmies. His torso was the size of a trash bin, his business suit stretched to its limits. Meanwhile his head was so big and ugly, and his chin so blocky, and his neck so fat, hat he seemed to possess no neck at all. His skin was gray, and so Dave deduced that he was likely dead. Even so, Dave had to verify the death. The three people kneeling over the man were just as useless as the bystanders grouped around them. A man was checking the large man’s breath with his fingers while the two women were trying to listen to his heartbeat through that massive chest of his. Dave immediately took charge of the situation. “I am a paramedic,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Back away from the victim.” Three would-be medics stood up and joined the other dumbfounded flock around the downed man. Dave pointed at someone random who had their phone out, videotaping the incident. “Call 911,” he commanded. He then assessed the large man, pressing a finger against where he presumed the carotid artery was. The bulging, muscular neck made this difficult. The man’s skin was as hard as leather, too, and the muscles were stones beneath it. Dave felt no pulse. The man’s skin was bluish-gray. A quick assessment told Dave that the man was in cardiac arrest. Angry with himself for not having his medical suitcase and its defibrillator, Dave prepared to give the man CPR. Dave was a tall man, and in good physical shape, and had done CPR hundreds, if not thousands of times. Yet, this was altogether an unequaled feat. The man was simply too big. It was like giving compressions to a walrus, the victim’s chest so thick with fat and muscle. Dave had to stand and stoop over the man rather than kneel for the routine. He did the compressions as fast as he could, but it was like doing pushups with weights on his shoulders. The sternum usually broke after several compressions, but this man’s never did. The bones were like rocks beneath the flab and muscle. After two minutes of compressions the large man stirred briefly. He did not breathe, however, though he did gasp breathlessly, and so Dave moved his compressions from the sternum to the solar plexus, thinking that perhaps the man had been choking on something, and the stress of the suffocation had caused the heart attack. The victim’s ribs were overlarge, and oddly shaped, but Dave did what he could with the compressions. At length, the man coughed, and then threw up. Something like a silver dollar erupted out from amidst the man’s half-digested food. It was not so sterling, however, as a silver dollar, but was rather darker and much less lustrous. The man coughed some more and Dave struggled to roll the man over on his side into the recovery position. “Help me turn him over!” he told the bystanders. Four men stooped and grunted, turning the man over on his right side with all the ease of turning over a Volkswagen Beetle. The large man was breathing raggedly, his eyes closed, drool dripping from his thin, simian lips. He had an underbite that jutted out like a rock shelf. His nostrils were more slits than actual extrusions from his face. Dave attended the man, checking his vitals and trying to speak to him until an ambulance arrived. The man, though seemingly cognizant, said nothing, and never opened his eyes. He seemed to be in a near-catatonic state. The paramedics could not put the man on a stretcher. He was too broad and bulky and heavy. It took Dave and several volunteers from the crowd to help the medics half-lift, half-drag the man into the back of the ambulance. Even so, he did not fit well, and there was no place for the paramedic to stay with him in the back of the ambulance. Another ambulance arrived, late to the scene, and a pair of familiar faces emerged from its cab. “Dave, are you ever off the job?” Bobby asked. He, and Dennis, eyed the other paramedics and shrugged as they drove away, their ambulance disappearing swiftly down the street. “Tonight was supposed to be my night off,” Dave said. “But the city never sleeps.” “It’s bad luck, seems to me,” Dennis said, grinning within his beard. “Speaking of bad luck, how’d that date go with Miss Wiggle-butt? She give you good bedside manner or what?” Dave only shook his head. “Bad luck all around for you,” Bobby remarked, not unkindly. “Well, try to get some RNR, man, even if you can’t get some of that RN. You look like shit.” “Yeah,” Dennis said. “Get out more or something. There’s more to life than saving everybody else’s life.” “That’s what Cindy’s been telling me,” Dave confessed. “That dyke know’s what’s what,” Bobby said. “I bet she parties all the time. Those rural dykes always go wild when they come to the city. That’s what happens when you’ve been cooped up in a small town and suddenly you got freedoms you’ve never had before. You go wild, man.” Bobby nodded in agreement with himself, giving Dave a sly smile. Dennis shook his head in faux-impatience. “You just wish she’d go wild on you,” Dennis said, knowingly. “But you are not her type. Definitively not her type.” “A man can dream,” Bobby said. “I’ve swayed a few in my time to act against type.” “Yeah, right,” Dennis scoffed. “You can’t even get the strictly-dickly ones to go steady.” “But I can get them in bed,” Bobby said, never losing his smile. “This city is nothing but a string of one-night-stands for people my age. It’s normal.” Dennis, being older than Bobby by about ten years and being married, rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but it’s not good for you. You stop caring about the women you’re sleeping with. That’s why they don’t stay with you. You just don’t care. It’s bad for them, and it’s bad for you.” “Seems pretty great to me,” Bobby said. “It doesn’t help to care, man. Whether in your professional life or your personal life, don’t give a fuck, or it will fuck you up. I’m telling you, Dave, caring too much is fucking pitfall.” “You’re a goddamn cynic,” Dennis remarked, lightly. “Nah,” Bobby said. “Cynics are people who get burnt out from caring. And then, after they’ve cared too much and have been disappointed too much, they feel betrayed, and they go all bitter from it. I ain’t like that at all. I know better.” “Yeah, you got it all figured out, Senor Suavo,” Dennis jested. “I’ve got enough figured out, yeah,” Bobby said, ignoring the sarcasm. “I know when to start drinking and when to stop. That’s fucking crucial, man.” Dennis’s radio squawked to life, reporting another accident down the street. Car wreck, it seemed. “Well, time to go, Senor Suavo,” Dennis said, heading to their ambulance. “Come on.” He nodded to Dave. “Take it easy, Dave.” “And go find yourself a one-night-stand!” Bobby said, heading to the ambulance. “Otherwise you might as well be another stiff in the morgue.” The siren wailed and the tires burned out as the ambulance sped down the road toward another incident in the city. Dave watched it disappear down the block and almost wished he worked tonight. Perhaps then he would not have had to think of something to do tonight with his free time. But that was the wrong attitude, wasn’t it? To dread the free time that was necessary to retain his sanity was self-defeating. Dave sighed. His heart felt like it might also go into cardiac arrest. The drama now done, the circle of bystanders dispersed around him. He lingered a while longer, reassessing how well he had performed his duty that night. The victim had survived, but he could have easily died. Dave should have known to check for an object blocking the airways. The spittle on the mouth was a tell-tale sign, as was the man’s bluish hue. It could have also been an allergic reaction, and had it have been, Dave did not have an EpiPen. The man could have died from Dave’s unpreparedness, too. His anxiety persisted. It was deadly, this anxiety. Caring too much was deadly. Concern that you might do something wrong could hinder your capacity to dom something at all. The Hippocratic Oath was standard, but if a patient was going to die because Dave’s nerves had rendered him incompetent, then that seemed a violation of the Oath also. Do no harm, they said, and yet not doing anything was also doing harm. Or so it seemed to Dave. Suddenly remembering the oddity that had been expelled from the large businessman’s throat, Dave glanced about the sidewalk, looking for the glint of the silver dollar beneath the glow of the streetlight. He did not see it. Only the man’s half-digested food remained behind, shimmering wetly like mud and dirt clods on the concrete. Dave wondered if a bystander took it, or, perhaps, Dennis. Dennis collected coins, didn’t he? Dave could not remember. Feeling exhausted now— like a man twice his actual age—Dave walked home. Once home, he took a shower, dried off, and brushed his teeth. With little else to do, he turned on the tv, but found nothing on that he wanted to watch. He rarely watched anything anymore, even though he paid a premium for internet tv programs. The street quieted down some beyond his apartment and he gradually relaxed. He thought about the rotund man, and how gargantuan he was, and his bluish-gray skin, and neckless proportions. The man had tested Dave’s CPR skills, and though Dave saved the man, he felt his skills wanting. Guilt accompanied this realization; guilt and a thousand imagined scenarios wherein people died because of his ineptitude. Next time, he thought, he would not be so lucky. Dave did not wait to watch the sunrise as he sometimes did on his day off. With the rising sun came the rising hustle and bustle. He went to bed to hurry the coming night along. *** It was a rough night. Three OD’s and a suicide by rooftop. The third OD overdosed an hour after Dave and Cindy had resuscitated him, while they were busy talking to the cops about the suicide. The OD did not recover from his second death. Afterwards, Cindy wanted to stop at a burger place and get something to eat. She pulled into McDougall’s parking lot and parked. Dave refused to get out. “You coming?” she asked. “I’m not hungry,” he said. “You’re going to make me eat in there by myself?” Cindy said, frowning. “Like a loser? C’mon, man. That’s no way to treat a coworker.” “I’m not hungry,” he insisted. “Then I’ll buy us both a cheeseburger and you can pretend like you’re going to eat it, then let me eat it when we come back out here. Win-win for both of us.” “I don’t want to be in there right now,” Dave said. “Not with all those people and bright lights. Just…just give me a few minutes alone. Please.” “Is this about that suicide or the needle-dipper? Jesus, Dave, you can’t save everybody. Buddy, you gotta’ let this shit go or it’s going to kill you, too.” “I know, I know,” he said. “I just need some silence for a minute.” “In the middle of the city?” she said, incredulously. “Good luck.” Cindy opened her door and got out, leaving Dave to the half-dark of the ambulance cab, slashed with the slanting light from the street and the passing traffic. His mind was a tumult of rushing images. The bloody mess of the young man that had thrown himself from the rooftop. The way the young man tried to speak to Dave as Dave knelt beside him. The bubbles of blood that burst at his lips. The tears streaming down his cheeks, and the regret in his eyes. Dave’s head echoed with inchoate noises, too. Screaming sirens and the charging-thumps of the defibrillator. It was all overwhelming. He felt like he was having a panic attack. Maybe he was. He hung his head over his knees, breathing between his legs and trying to calm the rapid beating of his heart. *** There were two more deaths that night. They were the elderly, which was expected. Even so, the two were added to the pile of failures Dave was keeping track of in his head. He did not think of the four people he helped save, nor the three others without life-threatening illnesses and injuries. All that mattered to him were the deaths. When he went to bad that morning he felt like an OD patient himself. He had not drank any coffee and the weight of the workshift was a boulder on his chest. He did not bother to brush his teeth. He did not bother to eat. He arrived home at eight in the morning and just crashed on the couch. He woke up late in the day, around dinnertime. Eating a bowl of cereal, he turned on the television and tried to “zombie out” until his shift came. Unfortunately, the only thing on tv were either reality tv shows with their endless prattle, the News with its endless catastrophes, and medical dramas with their endless glorification of the job. Dave could not tolerate any of these things, so he flipped through the channels several times, searching for anything to distract him from his job. He came upon a sitcom about several nerds living together in an apartment and let the tv idle on it. Either he could not laugh because he was too depressed or the sitcom simply wasn’t funny— or both—and so he gave up and turned off the tv. The anticipation was a killer at times. Tonight was one such time. He checked his phone every two minutes, waiting for his time to leave. He felt nervous and already a little panicky. The sun had gone down, plunging New York into the clash of shadow and artificial lights. The latter glared balefully like angry fairies through Dave’s windows. It was nearly time for Dave to leave his apartment that he heard a knock at the door. Never expecting anyone to come to call— since he had no social life—Dave hesitated, thinking the stranger had knocked on his neighbor’s door across the hall. But the knocking came again, and was louder, as if to break the door down with its big-knuckled blows, and so Dave went to the door to answer it. When Dave opened the door he found, much to his dismay, the gigantic businessman whose life he had recently saved. “Yes, it is you,” the large man said in a deep guttural growl not unlike stones grinding together in a dark, echoing cave. He ducked down and stepped into Dave’s small apartment, never asking liberty to do so, and Dave could only step aside, lest he had been bowled over by the man’s unwieldy size. He stood in the middle of Dave’s kitchen and Dave had to stand by the refrigerator. “It is to you that I owe my life,” the man said. “A dubious honor, and so a dubious gift. Ask what you will and I will grant it insomuch as my powers allow.” Dave blinked in confusion. Was the man offering him money for saving his life? Dave had known enough businessmen to be aware that they saw everything as a transaction. He wondered what kind of dollar figure this man would offer for his own life. “I was just doing my job…” Dave began to say. “I am a man of proportions,” the large man said. His breath smelled earthy, and his squinty eyes were white; almost as if he was blind. But there was no doubt that the man could see. “Though I have been billed for your services, what was rendered by your actions was not listed among the charges. And so I will render unto you an equal gift. So choose what you desire.” Dave looked the large man up and down. When unconscious on the ground the man had been big and nearly immovable with his dead weight. Now, standing in front of Dave— and looming over Dave with what could only be described as “hefty height”—the man was just as immovable, but that immobility had been granted a certain menacing aspect of intelligence, and willpower, that was not to be trifled with. Not unlike a giant red cedar tree tottering above some awe-inert hikers. The man was still grayish-blue of tint around his face and the flesh that bulged out from his business suit collar. “What is it you desire?” he repeated impatiently. “I don’t understand,” Dave said. “Are you offering me a tip for saving your life?” “You did not save my life,” the giant man said. “You saved my Death. The iron coin was a poisonous addition to my meal rendered by my enemy. This enemy knew I would not chew my food, for I scarcely ever do when hungry, and so planted the bane of my people deep in my falafel wrap.” Maybe, Dave thought, this man had suffered a stroke along with his heart attack. He hoped the hospital had thought to run a brainscan on him, too, but they may not have. Regardless, Dave thought himself a grossly incompetent paramedic. After all, he should have known the man’s immense size would put strain on his heart and, subsequently, blood flow to his brain, the pressure being abnormal at best. Additionally, the stress of his size would further exacerbate cardiovascular disease. He could even be diabetic, and therefore either low on insulin or suffering low blood-sugar levels. Sometimes paranoid schizophrenia could result from all such conditions. Then again, if he was a businessman he might really have enemies aplenty who wished him dead. But why would any of them try to choke him to death with a coin? It was delusional at best. “Hurry, you fool, and make your wish,” the large man insisted in his gravelly voice. “Simply speak your heart’s desire and I will make it so.” The large man took half a step forward, leaving Dave with little room at all. “I know what it is you desire,” the man said, “but until you speak the words I cannot act. Tell me, now. Tell me you wish to be as unfeeling as stone! Speak and become of my kin, as you so desire!” Dave searched the man’s bluish-gray face; his granite-like features. Dave saw no signs of a medical condition, or drug use. The man’s porcine eyes were not dilated, nor was he sweating or slurring his words. He was just stone-cold crazy. Slowly, Dave stepped around the man, squeezing between him and the refrigerator. He edged his way toward the kitchen counter, where his cellphone was still charging. He knew he was in danger. As tall as Dave was, the man had at least a foot on him, and three hundred pounds. The larger man could have easily smashed Dave just by falling on him. Still, he was a medical professional. “Very well,” the man said. He took a step back and turned, slow-as-a-planet, and headed toward the door. “You may ask for your gift any time you so desire it. I will hear it. And it will come to you. I was once like you, Dave Crenshaw. Unable to handle the burdens of Life, and the consequences of Life’s imperfections. Emotions interfered with my happiness for a long time. And then I helped someone, and they gave me a gift, the same gift I offer to you now.” “Who are you?” Dave asked. “Your benefactor,” the large man said. “Just as you have been my benefactor.” “I…I need time to think on it,” Dave said. “As you wish,” the man said, reaching for the door with sausage-thick fingers. He had to shift his weight left and right to fit his rotund bulk through the door. “When you are ready, your gift is yours. Just give the word.” The large man made a noise, then—a long, guttural sound from deep within his cavernous chest— and then slammed the door behind him. The apartment complex rattled to its bones at the man’s ponderous gait as he descended the stairs to the bottom floor, and then seemingly deeper, as if beneath the apartment itself; beneath the very foundation. It was only as Dave left for work that he realized that the sound the man made had been his empty, hollow laughter. *** It had been another rough shift at work. Dave came home feeling as dead as the OD they found slumped in his bean-bag in a narrow alleyway. He took a hot shower to wash off the memory of the OD. However, he could not wash off the memory of the little boy who had lost his hand to a pitbull while playing in the park. The poor kid was a fan of baseball, and now he would never be able to play again. The sun was still blocked by the skyscrapers by the time Dave climbed into bed. He sighed and tried to push the image of the kid’s stumpy wrist out of his head. Cindy had a condition that was called “aphantasia” where she had zero visual imagery in her head. She knew what things looked like, and could recognize people, but could not voluntarily conjure up images in her mind’s eye. She, therefore, could not see things in her head, even after having seen them with her eyes. It made things easier for her, especially as a paramedic. No PTSD. She was not haunted so easily by the job and its caravan of grotesque tragedies, though she said she sometimes dreamed about the job and could see the dreams vividly. Dave dreamed about the job and was swarmed by the memories while awake. They ate him up like a school of piranhas. He went to bed. Though he had trouble falling asleep, once he fell asleep he remained asleep for hours. It was a deep sleep with deeper dreams. He dreamed of an underground cavern. Within the cavern was a forest of standing stones, dolmens, and menhirs, all arrayed in a strange pattern. Large, stony creatures gathered in the dark depths of the cavern. They were moon-eyed and chanted a song of stones. Their voices were like tectonic plates sliding slowly and grinding together. There was luminescent lichen that glowed coolly upon the stones and the skin of the large, lumbering creatures, and an oculus in the subterranean dome wherein the moon loomed, glowing, shining a milky pillar of light to penetrate the deep, chthonic darkness. One among the large creatures stepped toward Dave. His bluish-gray granite face looked familiar. “Choose your wish, mortal,” the large humanoid creature said. “Say your desire and it shall be yours.” Dave was too frightened to speak. His tongue felt like a cold rock in his mouth and would not move. When he tried to turn to run he saw the little boy holding his bloody wrist. Behind him were other ghosts in the darkness. The dead and the dying had gathered and there was nowhere to go but toward the oculus and its pillar of moonlight. The stone creatures waited for him, watching him with their moon-eyes, and as he approached he felt his body harden, slow, his limbs growing heavy and louder like stones grinding together. Yet, he was at peace with the change. He did not feel duress or pain. He did not feel sadness or guilt. He glanced back at the ghosts— the turning of his head taking, it seemed, ages— and he felt nothing as he looked upon them. He felt nothing at all.

The Offering

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I have smiled at him, but my sweet Nie has not smiled back. He has eyes only for pretty little Uba, that Ganguro slut with her blonde wig, caramel tan, and sparkling pearlescent eyeshadow. What can my plain lips do against her glittering white lips? And those scintillating stars at the corners of her eyes? Those long black eyelashes that would make a horse wince in envy? Oh, my sweet Nie! You belong to me, not to that painted-up whore. But do I even have a chance?
“Do you like the lanterns?” Uba asks him.
“Yes,” Nie says, but he cannot see the lanterns as they line the streets. He is too dazzled by her red eyes. The orange lanterns hang all around the town. It is the lantern festival, the Obon time of the year when a young man’s heart is at its fullest and can be stolen from his true love by a devilish yama from the mountains.
“Do you want to hold my hand?” Uba asks him.
He chokes on the word “Yes” and holds his hand out as if he is touching a sacred shrine. She takes his hand, and takes his heart, and they walk farther along the lantern-lit streets. The glow around them that turns the starry night into a lurid dusk. I follow, for he is my Nie, not hers, and I will not let her take my Nie for herself.
“I like to hold your hand, my Golden Boy,” she says.
He blushes and I feel my hair rustle with anger. It tingles all the way to the beads and barbs.
“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she says. She slips her overly tanned arm around his waist. Her fake fingernails are gaudy with glued-on jewelry; a kitschy coral reef capping every fingertip.
Can he not see how fake she is? She is but a wile—a glamor and guise in complexion and bearing and fashion. Whereas I am traditional; very traditional. Pale-skinned, raven-haired, and wearing a respectful kimono for this festival, as is only proper. My sweet, sweet Nie! Please look at me and see me smiling! Please smile back! That is all I ask.
They stop by a charm shrine. Nie buys a silver ofuda amulet and tries to give it to Uba. Ah ha! You stupid hussy, what will you do now? She turns away and my poor Nie is crestfallen. He does not understand. Of course not! How could he? I see my opportunity and wave to him. He sees me, sees my smile, but turns away, following that Ganguro slut as she slips away— never far away from him, but always in sight among the throngs of people lining this street. Dear Nie! Do not follow her! It is but a game, and she will lead you on and on.
He has dropped the amulet. I dare not pick it up. It is meant for Uba, and I will never accept secondhand gifts.
But I will accept you, Nie!
Beneath the spherical lanterns Uba and my Nie reconcile. They stand in front of a Niomon, the two wooden warriors standing guard before the shrine. The warriors’ expressions are fierce, unflinching, and Nie wants to go inside to pay respects to his dead. Again, she drifts away, aloof, pretending at upset. He follows her like a forlorn puppy— follows her golden thighs and hot pink skirt and flower-blasted tanktop. It is an illusion, Nie! It is all an illusion!
They slip farther away from the shrine, and the center of town, nearing the outskirts. Here the lanterns are like full moons along the streets, hanging from the eaves of shops and shrines and restaurants. Nie and Uba move through the throngs of people as if they are moving through figures of mist, whereas I am caught in the torrential flow. Too many charms here. Too many ofudas. I am snagged on every little bauble, my hair unruly and my barbs and beads tingling with panic and terror and excitement. Tonight was supposed to be our night, Nie. How could you abandon me for that gaudy Ganguro slut?
A woman approaches me, blocking my view of Nie and Uba. She smiles widely— a jagged-lipped smile that is too wide.
“Do I look pretty?” she asks.
“Get out of my way, slut.”
I shove past her. I don’t have time for silly games. My Nie is escaping me, and the night is fleeting.
The woman stoops to pick up her scissors, but they are lost in the crowd.
I am distraught. I cannot see my Nie! My hair is disheveled, and quivering. Nie! My scalp tingles for you! This lantern festival was supposed to be ours to share!

I spot Nie and Uba down the street. Relieved, I slip closer and follow. Nie is walking toward a vendor of sweets.
“Want some mochi?” he asks Uba.
No, my Nie, neither of her mouths eat sweets.
“Yes, please!” Uba says, chiming like a bell. Her voice is sweeter than any ball of sugar and gelatinous rice and red bean paste could ever be. But it is a wile. It is as false as a demon’s bell of summoning.
Sweet Nie buys a large mochi so they can share. Uba pretends to eat it, but does not truly swallow. When they continue down the street her other mouth spits it out from beneath her blonde wig. Oh my naive Nie! You are not meant for her! She is a thief aglitter with gold and stars and pearlescent makeup all stolen. It is an artifice! Do not trust her smile, either! It is falser than a Noh mask of lacquered wood! But my smile, Nie, is genuine, and it is meant only for you. See my smile, Nie, and smile back.

As I follow them I can feel the thunderous drumbeat of drummers down the street. They beat their drums like a storm and I fain think it might rain. But the night is clear, the moon is bright, and the stars sparkle lustrously; far more beautifully than those painted-on stars adorning Uba’s rounded cheeks. It is Obon season and the air is warm as if it, too, is celebrating the lantern festival. But I only feel cold. A chilly fear consumes me. Nie, please! Come back to me! I only wish to see you smile.
A handsome man in a tuxedo steps in front of me, grinning. I do not like grins, especially those with sharp teeth. I like smiles, but only Nie’s smiles.
“Hello beautiful,” he says. “Are you lonely tonight?”
“Shut up, dog-face,” I say.
His grin slides into a frown. He has his black hair oiled backwards into a pompadour. He is dashing, or at least he is to some women. To sluts.
“I am not a dog,” he says.
“No, but you’re not my Nie, either,” I say.
He nods, considering me up and down. “Very true,” he says. “Nor would I wish to be.”
“Your tails are showing,” I say.
When he twists around to look behind himself I shove him into a group of schoolgirls that happen to be passing by. He falls down upon one, groping for purchase like a clumsy idiot.
“Pervert!” they scream as he scrambles to get off of their friend. The handsome man tries to apologize as he rises, but grabs one of the standing schoolgirls by the skirt to try to pull himself up. He instead pulls down her skirt.
“Help!” the girls scream.
Several men and women come rushing, striking at the man in the tuxedo. He has so many tails, and yet is still a fool. I walk away. He is not a pervert, but he is desperate. We are all desperate in Obon season Even so, he deserves to be ran out of town, if only for lack of tact. He could have at least followed tradition by wearing a kimono, like me. But he is too conspicuous. Just like Uba, that slutty hag. They are cheating. Breaking the rules. It makes my hair stand on end, like a cat’s. It is quivering in disarray atop my head, trailing down my shoulders and covering part of my face in perpetual shadow. Those people who see me are dismayed and move out of my way.
But not my Nie. He will be able to see my smile, if he would only look. And then he will smile back and all will be well.

I have lost sight of Nie because of the tuxedo fool. I stop by a vendor serving strange meats on sticks. He has a big smile, but not the smile I am looking for. His smile is a mask.
“I am looking for my Nie,” I tell him. “Have you seen him?”
The vendor never blinks, and his smile never falters. His lips never move when he speaks. “Nie, you say?”
“Yes,” I say. “He was with Uba.”
“Lots of young men are with Uba,” the vendor says. He holds up a stick of pork-like meat to emphasize what he means. He does not sweat, even though his food stand is as hot as the underworld itself.
“He is not with her yet,” I say. “That is why I am looking for him.”
“I see,” the vendor says. “Does he look like this?”
He wipes his long kimono sleeve across his face, removing his eyes and nose and mouth. His face is as blank as an egg.
“No,” I say. “Don’t be stupid.”
If the vendor had looks, he would look disappointed.
I walk on, searching for my Nie.
There are two lions loose near the temple. They have silly faces, but they will kill me if I go near them. So I go around the long way, hiding behind a group of children holding a large lantern of Pikachu. The lions do not pay attention to the children.
“Komainu,” I hear someone mutter beside me. I turn and see a bald, turtle-faced man wearing a straw hat over his head. He looks green, like he might throw up at any moment. He swoons now and again, water trickling down his face. “I should have never ventured so far from the water,” he says.
Feeling irritated at his presumptuousness, I shove him out toward the lions. The water under his straw hat spills out almost completely upon the street as he tumbles to the road, frozen in a paroxysm of helplessness. He pleads for help, but people ignore him. The lions circle him and then pounce, tearing him apart. No one tries to help him. Why would they?
While the grimacing lions are preoccupied I go further down the street, looking for my Nie among the countless celebrants. I happen upon a group of children. They are wearing lanterns on their heads— all except one. He is in the middle of them, his head covered with green leaves. He beats a drum. Or at least I think it is a drum at first. Then I realize it is not. He is not even a child. And he has no sense of shame. He leads the children in a crude song:
“Tan-Tan-Tanuki’s balls. No winds ever blowing, but still they go swing-swing-swing!”
The chorus leader beats his hairy drums with a mischievous gleam in his dark-ringed eyes. He thinks he is so funny.
I see my Nie and the slut Uba watching a Bon dance down the street. The dancers are little girls all dressed alike in kimonos colored like pomegranates. My Nie smiles widely, waving to a little girl among the dancers. She smiles back at him.
“She is my sister,” he tells Uba. “She has been practicing the dance for weeks. She wants to do it perfectly.”
“She does it so perfectly!” Uba chimes, smiling widely. Her red eyes sparkle. “Such a sweet little treat she is!”
My Nie nods innocently, not understanding what she means.
“Come, my Golden Boy,” she says. “Let’s go someplace more private.”
Angry now, my hair tingles and twists, tress against tress. I must stop her! He is my Nie!
A trio of priests wade through the crowd. One is dressed in red and the other two in white. They see Uba and Nie walking together. Good! Perhaps they will repel her back into the mountains. They are looking at me now? No! Go after Uba! She is the monster! She must have put a spell on them. I must flee them into the crowds near the sea, then into the trees. And so I do just that. Kneeling down in the undergrowth, I watch the priests. They look around, then stick charms upon the torii gates leading into town. They leave. I weep because I do not see my Nie. Where has he gone? Where has that star-cheeked slut taken him now?

There are people on the seaside, setting their lanterns in the water. The lanterns glow to lead spirits away, or to reconcile ancestors, or to help find young people love, or whatever it is humans think the lanterns do. What it really means is to make an offering. But where is my offering? Where has he gone?
A presumptuous woman waves to me. She is carrying a red peony lantern.
“Hello, Hari,” she says. “Any offerings yet?”
“Uba has my Nie!” I confess to her.
She nods sympathetically. She is pretty, but only in a certain light.
“Then you should let her have him,” she says. “And find another. Anyone would be delusional to think they could take anyone from Uba.”
“You are delusional!” I cry, shoving her aside. She almost drops her lantern. I do not care. I would not care if she turned into a pile of bones in front of all the celebrants.
I walk along the shore, feeling very upset. The sea is serene, but my heart is a tempest. Where has my Nie gone?
I fall to my knees, steeped in bitterness like an overripe tea. What more can I do? My Nie forsakes me. I could have done what Uba has done— I could have painted myself up like a whore. But if he does not want me for me alone, then so be it! I will not even carry a peony lantern to falsify my beauty. Love me, as I am, Nie, or let me rot!
I sit upon the shore, and look out at the languid waves. It is a black sea, but calm. I realize there are two moons in the sky. Gazing indifferently, I sigh. The two moons move closer to the shore, riding a mountainous surge of dark water that rises over me as if it will crash upon the shore. It does not crash, however, but lingers, its two luminous eyes glowing sullenly from within dark torrents. Its shadow engulfs the beach.
“Go away, monk,” I say. “I am in no mood for company.”
The gigantic wave does not leave. It lingers, watching me with its large, luminous eyes. I stand to leave, and the head from the abyss follows me along the shore, its eyes unblinking like an apoplectic pervert. I stop and shout at him.
“Leave me alone!”
“Do you have a ladle?” he asks. His voice gurgles like a drowning man’s, and vibrates like a storm at sea. Otherwise there is silence. Even the wind is as still as a dead thing.
“No!” I say.
“I have a ladle,” he says. “I used it to sink a ship for my offering. The sailors made sweet music as they sank into the sea.”
“I do not care!” I shout. “I only want my Nie!”
The giant head turns left and right, its eyes searching the shoals. “Does he like to swim at night? Take him for a swim tonight and I will show him beautiful wonders at the bottom of the sea.”
I ignore him, leaving the shore behind. I feel upset and lost, for my Nie is lost from me. Oh, how I hate stupid monks!

I walk for a while, feeling dejected. Moaning, I glance up at the forested mountains. There are lights floating in among the trees, like lanterns in the middle of town. They are onibi; lights from souls. A few flare here and there, white and yellow and blue. They remind me that time is fleeting and I must hurry to save my dear Nie from that Gungaro slut. The lights lead the way, trailing up the mountains. They might lead someone else astray, but they will not fool me. They know better.
An onibi moves to block my way— flaming large, like an orb of fury—but when I walk through it, it dissipates and extinguishes like a snuffed cigarette butt. It had likely been a man in its former life; a man both dramatic and ostentatious and empty. Unlike my dear Nie. Nie is not shallow. He has depth to his whole being.
And I yearn to explore those depths.
There she is! I could see that gaudy glow from the other side of Japan. She glows among the shadowy forest path, eclipsed here and there by trees, but unmistakable. She is heading up the mountain with my Nie. If she takes him up to the craggy summit then he will be lost from me forever. All will be over. All will be wasted in this world, and the next.
I hurry to follow them. Passing under the torii gate, I creep up the path, staying far enough away that they cannot see me.
“It is much more beautiful at the top of the mountain,” Uba says. “The stars are closer and the moon brighter. We will be able to see the fireworks much better. It will be so kawaii.”
Her voice chimes again, like the daintiest prayer bell. I want to shove a giant bonsho down her throat and hear what her voice sounds like then.
Toro are on either side of the mountain path, their stone angles gray and green with moss. They are lit, but not by human hands. They burn with the light of the onibi. Farther ahead I see a procession of men and women carrying lanterns up the mountain. They are only kimono phantoms to me, but they all turn to watch that slut Uba with her gilded face and her meretricious getup. They speak to each other like the rustling of leaves. Stupid gossips. Their heads are as empty as their eye sockets. I push my way through their throng. They part like mists, and then become as a mist girdling the mountain. Their lanterns flare off and on like fireflies. What airy-headed fools!
The mountain is high, like a stairway to the stars. I do not know when I can rescue my poor Nie, but it is not right now. I must free him from Uba when she is most distracted, otherwise all will go wrong for me and my Nie.
I pass an abandoned shrine crouching within the woods. Its wooden eaves are covered in lichen and moss and fungus. Its eyes are hollow and dark. Faces— barely discernible from the darkness—stare out from the scrolled eaves of the shrine.
Suddenly, a monk appears out of the mountain mist, grinning.
“Hello, lovely,” he says. “Would you care to…”
“I see past you,” I tell him absently.
He cranes his long, slender neck up, up, up, grimacing, but does not bother me, walking by on his footless stumps. I am so tired of monks today!
Trailing behind Uba and Nie, I listen to their idle chatter.
“I want to go to Tokyo University,” Nie says. “Become a physician. Help people who need it. That is my dream.”
“Wow!” Uba says, her voice like a koto string plucked, its notes lingering on and on. “Cool!”
“You think so?” he asks.
Uba nods emphatically.
You have such a big heart, my Nie. But you waste it on Uba. Give it to me. Please. One smile, my dear Nie. One smile and you will open your heart to me! My hair quivers at the thought of it!
“What do you want to do?” Nie asks the false-faced slut.
Uba pouts. “Oh, I do not know,” she says in a melancholic tone that is still too bright and cheery. “I’m not as smart as you are, my Golden Boy.”
“Sure you are,” he says, rending my heart. “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.”
“I really just want to be a mother,” she says, batting those paste-on eyelashes. They flap like bat wings. “Raise a Golden Boy of my own.”
My dear Nie laughs nervously. She keeps her arm around his waist, holding him close to her lest something take him away from her. But she has taken him from me! The thief! I will win him back, though! She will not have you, my Nie!
A bothersome badger walks in front of me, grinning. Before he can say anything I kick him off the path. The fat little busybody wails as he rolls down a fern-cluttered ravine. I hope he gets stuck and cannot transform himself a way out of it. So many nuisances today! I almost lose Nie and Uba in the woods. I follow fast, but stay silent. I do not want Uba to know I am following her.
My dear Nie. I love you. I yearn for you. No woman can desire you as this heart desires you. Your dark hair and your warm brown eyes—warm as sesame oil over a flame— are mine. Your flesh, though not so pale as mine, is mine, and so delicious in its tone. Come with me! Forsake Uba and her golden makeup! I need you.
I am not so out of touch to know that young Japanese men are jaded now. Black hair and pale skin do not attract like they once did. Such features were once enough to lure a monk from the Path with a wink and a smile. But now? So jaded. So spoiled. They wish for blondes. They wish for fashionistas. No one cares for a drab traditionalist like myself. But Nie…my sweet, sweet Nie…you were supposed to be different. Why do you follow her faux-glow around like an apprentice monk enthralled to a kitsune? You are special to me. Can you not see? Uba is not worthy of you. But I am. You belong to me.
A hairy man leaning on a crutch approaches from down the mountain. He is very old and has only one eye. Perhaps he fought in the War.
“Help me down the mountain, child?” he asks.
I help him down the mountain by kicking his only leg out from beneath him, sending him tumbling to join the badger in the ravine. I have no patience for mischief-makers, especially not on this beautiful Obon night.
Even so, I am squandering my Obon night. This is the night I was supposed to spend with my Nie. I am becoming tired. I am becoming disheartened. Like the moth among the heavy smoke, I grow heavy-headed and drowsy as the bonfires burn on. I will return to sleep soon, but I cannot let that happen until my Nie is mine.
“You could come with me to Tokyo,” my Nie says. “My parents have connections. You could live well in my apartment while I go to school. Would you like that?”
“I like you, my Golden Boy,” Uba says, her elated voice like a clanging bell amidst the silence of the mountain. “What you want, I want.”
“That is wonderful!” Nie says, mincing my heart with the happiness in his voice. “Of course, I can’t let my mother and father know. What would they think? We must keep it a secret for a while. Maybe a year, and then I can let them know we are dating.”
“Whatever you wish, my Golden Boy,” Uba says.
That manipulative slut! She teases him too much, and is unworthy of him. Kabuki harlot! It is all a show to her. But Nie’s feelings are real, and I want him to feel my adoration and know that it is not false like hers. His heart is important to me.
They continue the ascent, and I continue shadowing them. The night grows chilly and Uba holds Nie even more tightly against her. I wish to cry out. To shriek. To rage. But I must not.
I become more disheartened and start to fall behind. Dispirited, I walk more slowly up the mountain, trudging dejectedly beneath all the weight of my languid hair. It no longer tingles. It no longer floats buoyantly. My head hangs low with the weight of it and I stare down at my bare feet as I walk the path with a slowing pace.
Sensing something nearby, I look up. The moon is caught in a web spun wide and vast between two trees. It looks like a large wispy cluster of eggs. A voluptuous woman hangs down from the tree to my right, her breasts falling out of her black kimono.
“What do you do here?” she asks.
“I am fetching my Nie back to me,” I say.
“Oh really?” she says, licking her lips. “Is he handsome? Is he…delicious?”
“He is mine, you slut,” I say. I grab her by her cobwebbed hair and tug her down to the ground. She lands on her head, collapsing into a spasmodic sprawl of many legs. I kick her fat, hairy butt before she can right herself up on her many legs, then I continue through the forest. I have no time for a spinner of lies. She reminds me of Uba, that bitch that has stolen my Nie.
Uba, I may not be able to overpower you, but I will not let you take my Nie. But why would you want him? You are older than me and could have anyone as your Golden Boy. It is sad. It is pathetic. You are always trying to reinvent yourself now. For modern Japan. Whereas I am true to tradition. You have prostituted yourself out with blonde wigs and fake nails and glued-on glitter like some Barbie doll tramp. And you will not steal my Nie. My hair tingles and writhes at the thought of it!

My hair drags behind me, collecting twigs and grass and rocks in its tresses. It is more disheveled than ever now. I feel no hope for it or for my Nie. Obon is ruined! The festival is nearly over!
It is at the summit, beneath a solitary Cherry Blossom tree, that I find my Nie and the Ganguro slut. She sits down upon a flat rock, not unlike a bench. Her pink skirt shrinks away to reveal more of her smooth, caramel-tanned thighs. The conniving harlot!
“Kneel before me, my Golden Boy,” she tells my Nie.
Dutifully, my Nie kneels in front of her. She spreads her knees, drawing my Nie to her with one hand while her other hand pulls her flower-blasted tanktop up, a large breast plopping out. The slut is not wearing a bra.
“Suckle from me, my Golden Boy,” she says, her voice sweet with cheery cadences.
No! My Nie! Don’t! You break my heart! That slut! That harlot! That disgusting bitch.
I circle around the Cherry Blossom tree, entering its shadow to conceal me from the bright moon. Uba is too enthralled with my Nie to notice me. Quietly, I sneak behind her. I am as silent as the unmoving wind. Only my hair makes a sound, and even that is but a soft sibilance unheard beneath the distant music of the lantern festival.
I wait but a moment, steeling myself, and then I leap forward, snatching Uba’s blonde wig away from her hoary head. She gasps and tries to clutch it back, but I hold onto it triumphantly. Her makeup melts off her face like molten gold, revealing her withered old face. Her breast shrivels in Nie’s mouth, along with her thighs and her whole body, until only her true self remains—an ugly old mountain hag.
Nie cries out in terror, flinging himself away from her. I go to his side, helping him stand. His sesame oil eyes are agog and all he can do is point and tremble. Sputtering, he says only one word.
“Yamauba!”
Uba sneers at me as if she will bury me beneath her mountain. Then she looks at Nie and, smiling shamelessly— the old, stubborn crone!—she holds a hand out toward him while with the other she offers him her saggy, pendulous breast.
“My sweet Golden Boy,” she says, her voice now a harsh wind skirling through mountain crags. “Please be my Golden Boy. Please watch the fireworks with me tonight…”
My Nie staggers backwards in horror, gasping. “No!” He turns toward me for strength, and I embrace him and soothe him, scowling at Uba through my lank black hair.
Uba realizes she has lost. I can see it in her red eyes. Glaring balefully, she turns away, leaping down into the nearest ravine, caterwauling wildly while her second mouth atop her head screams in hungry rage from within her scraggly white hair. The valley below echoes with her screams and laughter.
My Nie begins to sob as the fireworks bloom in the night air around us. He sniffles, then wipes his sesame oil eyes dry. He looks at me now, and the fireworks sparkle in his eyes.
“Thank you so much for saving my life,” he says. “My name is Eichi. I owe you…owe you everything!”
He weeps again, his whole body rattling with sobbing terror. My poor Nie!
I wipe his tears away with my sleeves and caress his face. From up above, in amidst the pink-and-white glory of the Cherry Blossom tree, I hear the caw of a crow. It is like the laughter of a tengu. Encouraged, I smile at my Nie with the fullness of my devoted heart. At long last he smiles back.

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My heart hammers in my chest, brimming, and my hair tingles all over my head, now at last fully alive. Nie! My one and only Nie! I want you so much. I want all of you.
My black tresses flail wildly and entwine him, lifting him into the air above me. His screams are lost beneath the thunder of the fireworks. I open my mouth, smiling, and it finally rains as my sweet Nie opens his heart to me.

 

(This story features a lot of Japanese myths and I wrote it as my own “Nie” or “offering” before I stop posting. Blogging encourages me to write, but have I really made any headway as an established writer? Not really. I am once again going to brave the yokai of the traditional publishing world and see if I can submit something a legitimate publisher will want to publish. I have had very bad experiences in the past when attempting to publish anything and, being somewhat thin-skinned, I chafed at the criticisms (sexist against women and men, really?) Anyhow, no more poems or short stories or art. I am disillusioned. Maybe I will post in the future when I gain more traction. Maybe not.

Venom Pies Part 12

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Hand-in-hand they followed the mysterious woman. Iadne, the Lady of Lorwynne, Edea, her many grandchildren, and her three daughters behind them— they formed a long throng that trailed the radiant woman. She brought them safely through Beggar’s Bog along a path made of mossy flagstones which shimmered like will o’ the wisps. Creatures swarmed hungrily around them, but scattered at the radiance with which the mysterious woman lit their way. She was as a spirit through the darkness, and they cleaved closely to her.
“Where are you taking us?” Iadne asked.
“Unto a tower beyond ages,” she said, “which is mine withal in the present age. ‘Twas built in times of old, before memory of Man, and will remain thus long after Man be no more memory than furrow upon field long neglected.”
The answer did not ease Iadne’s mind, but she had no choice and so resigned herself to whatever lay ahead. Beside her, hand-in-hand, the Lady of Lorwynne trembled and wept. She had, by now, realized that her son was not following their throng.
The swamp gurgled and growled and gibbered menacingly. The children cowered and huddled close to their mothers as the trees crowded them, hung heavily with moss and shadows. In time, however, the stone path led to a stone door in the base of a rounded tower whose height loomed inestimable above. The radiant woman touched this stone door with a pale hand. The door creaked, and screeched, scraping stone upon stone as it opened inward to allow the throng to pass into its inner mysteries. Pausing only to glance back once— as if she, too, hoped that Eseus would suddenly appear from down the path—Iadne led the Lady of Lorwynne within, followed by Edea and her children and grandchildren.
There was no fire in the tower; no hearth or candles for light. Yet, the tower was warm, holding off the chill fog of the swamp. Its air was clear of the miasma that choked with the foul breath of the decaying swamp. The circular stone interior was also illuminated pervasively, though from no visible source. Light simply existed in its vertical tunnel. A staircase spiraled up the flanks of the tower, ascending to the height of the edifice. There were no other rooms or floors—only the bottom floor and the balcony at the uttermost height. The base level had a chair, and a flowery carpet to soften the stone floor. A bed lay in the corner, simple and unadorned, and a table afar from it, burdened with books and scrolls and inkwells. A rack of spices stood near the table, a few iron-cast pans hung from its wooden beams. Last, but certainly not least, was a large cauldron that stood upon squat legs over a pit where ash smouldered. In the pit of the cauldron’s fat black belly there was a liquid that smelled of ginger and lemongrass. The cauldron was large enough for a man to easily boil inside it.
“Verily must I apologize for my meager furnishings,” the radiant woman said. “This tower ‘twas not meant for humanly habitation, nor accommodated by necessity hitherto. Indeed, this tower ‘twas root and stem but an instrument to channel powers beyond Man’s reckoning, now derelict and abandoned by slumbrous minds wherefrom such means were forged.”
The newcomers stared in awe at the edifice looming up around them. Iadne directed Eseus’s mother toward the only chair, easing the weeping woman into the soft leatherback. The Lady of Lorwynne still trembled and wept, and held onto Iadne’s hand, unwilling to let go.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Iadne said to the radiant woman. “My friend is harrowed with woe.”
“Thou be welcome to all hospitality thou seem fittest,” the woman said. “Thy suffering be vast, and aspireth vaster still afore thy fates be consummate.”
“Thank you,” was all Iadne could say to that, for she had difficulty understanding the meaning of the woman’s antiquated words.
“Hither warmth resideth,” the woman said, walking toward the cauldron. She stirred it with a ladle, and the liquid steamed faintly. Raising the ladle to her lips she sipped from the liquid, then gestured for her guests. “Soon thou will sup, yet at present moment refresh thy hearts and health with mine simple brew.”
Edea stepped forward, the first among the guests. She did not seem distrustful of their hostess, and, indeed, approached quite willingly.
“I doubt it is so strong a brew as Spidergrass beer,” she said, “but I will be thankful for any drink to comfort a soul beset with loss.”
Edea sipped from the ladle proffered, and nodded; pleased with the brew. “A goodly tea,” she said. She waved her children and grandchildren over. “Come. Do not be rude. It will chase the chill from your bones, if nothing else.”
Her children and grandchildren formed a line and, in turn, drank from the cauldron. Iadne, too, took her turn, bringing the ladle carefully to the Lady of Lorwynne. The bereft matron drank reluctantly, and her sobs subsided enough that she might speak.
“Thank you for your kindness,” Eseus’s mother said to their hostess. She said nothing else, but leaned back upon the chair, closing her eyes and seemingly falling asleep. Tears still streamed down her cheeks.
“She is the Lady of Lorwynne,” Iadne said. “She has suffered much.”
“I, too, was once the Lady of Lorwynne,” the radiant woman said. “Long ago. Now thou may simply call me Lady Mourningstar.”
Iadne glanced about the tower, then stared at the sole inhabitant of it. This woman— Lady Mourningstar—shined even here, beyond the darkness of the swamp. But Iadne still wondered if it was the shine of a will o’ the wisp leading victims astray.
“We are all grateful for helping us escape our captors,” she said, “but I must know who you are and why you live alone.”
“Alike thy friend I am but a wretched widow in the waning years,” Lady Mourningstar said. “Mine husband long ago lost himself to those greatest of dragons which lurk and hunt and prey upon mischief. Ambition. Pride. Power. Afore him I was contented with my Sisters. Yet fallen I have become, through Love’s bewitching wiles, and hence serve penitence as becometh the All Ways.”
Iadne stared at the radiant lady, and doubted that she could be any older than herself. She was tall and stately and beautiful, her face faulted by no blemish or crease or wrinkle earned by years gone by.
“Momma, I am hungry!” one of Edea’s grandchildren complained.
She was a little girl with her grandmother’s shrewd eyes, and her grandfather’s wild eyebrows. She could have used a brush for her lovely hair, or those eyebrows. The girl’s mother— Edea’s eldest daughter— attempted to hush her, but Lady Mourningstar only smiled and beckoned the child follow her to the stone door.
Lady Mourningstar opened the stone door, without even a touch, and gestured toward the swamp. Soon enough there came frogs and footed fish and lizards and such in a strange throng, hopping into the tower— to the amazement of all, and the suspicion of Iadne—and then further they hopped in a throng very much like the refugees’ own throng had been when coming to the tower. They hopped up into the cauldron and lounged in that herbal broth while the flames were stoked with unseen hands. The broth roiled gradually, simmering at first, then, as the fish and frogs and whatnot succumbed, the broth bubbled to a riotous boil. Lady Mourningstar added fragrant spices— some of which not even Idane or Edea knew the origins of— and stirred the cauldron. The little beasts all died contentedly, it seemed.
Iadne was beset with a fear that such a fate would befall them, too, in this strange tower. She watched these proceedings with growing apprehension.
Lady Mourningstar bid the women to use the ladle and scoop out the food, setting them upon her pans. The children all gathered around and, once the morsels had cooled enough, chewed at the bulging-eyed little creatures. They were Spider clan children, after all, and so were used to such untamed fare. And hunger was always the most appetizing ingredient of all. They indulged with relish and satisfaction.
The children ate until they could eat no more. The women ate, too, excepting the Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne. Afterwards, the ordeal and the tea and the food overcame the refugees. Some laid on the bed while others laid on the comfortable rug. All slept well, except Iadne. She could not sleep. She was tired, but she was also wary. It was not only a wariness of Lady Mourningstar, but also a general suspicion that things were conspiring against her. It all seemed a trap, nor was she, in the coming days, ever certain she escaped the trap. She wondered, increasingly, if she had aided it in ensnaring her.

***

The Lady of Lorwynne regained her spirits enough the next day to eat. She was not as happy with the fare offered by the swamp as Edea’s family, but she thanked her host nonetheless and ate what she could with the gratitude remaining in her. She did not talk, but she did listen to the children play in the tower. Their laughter spiraled up the tower like a flock of birds, nesting there in a gaggle for a happy hour or two. Listening to them, she wished that Eseus had had more time as a child to play games— more time for games and laughter and happiness.
Duty had been an omnipresent tyrant worse than any Valorian emperor.
Meanwhile, Iadne held the clew in her robe, and awaited its growth. It swelled, as did her silent rage. She wished she knew how she might steal Eseus back from his cruel cousin. Yet, she had no standing army, nor could she convince Eseus to abandon his people. All she had left was his child, growing within her womb alongside her rage.
Edea attempted to console Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne with the help of her children and grandchildren. Such attempts allayed the pain and the rage for a time, but the ebbing of such tides always gave way to flow afterwards in Iadne’s heart. When she had no other recourse, she turned the clew over and over again in her hands, Willing upon it wrathfully.
Days passed slowly, and the nights even slower. Iadne recalled what Percevis had said about the labyrinth that was time, and she could feel the walls slowly pressing from all sides.

***

All of the Oxenford peasants were arranged on either side of the Road to greet the caravan as it arrived. They cheered as if their very lives depended upon such a raucous display, and so their lives did. Though they smiled and shouted jubilantly, fear haunted every visage, gleaming in each eye like daggers readied at their throats. Pomp and pageantry abounded as if to further humiliate Eseus, but he was too dejected to be indignant as he was marched toward his cousin, sitting exultant upon her silver throne as four large men carried her into the Oxenford courtyard.
Eseus hated her, but he hated himself more. He had betrayed his mother and Iadne. He only hoped they had made it safely away from the soldiers without injury. He knew Iadne would see to the rest, being wise to the moorlands. He hoped both would forgive him in time.
His father had warned him that to rule was not a privilege, but a needful sacrifice; or so it should be for any noble and just ruler. He hoped his father would be proud of him, even as his son was held by his enemy, steeped in his shame. Swallowing his pride, Eseus knelt before his cousin and pleaded for the lives of his people.
“Dear cousin,” he said, “though I have raised arms against you, it was to protect my people, and now that they are hither brought to you, please pardon them for my misdeeds.”
Kareth wore a tiara upon her brow, woven of a whitish silver found only in the Sinking Mines of the moorlands. It was intricately molded in beauteous facsimile of flowers and vines. Opals, like glittering poison berries, were entwined among the spiraling leaves and stems.
“You have accomplished much,” she said, her smile never faltering. “So much to oppose me…and yet, a pebble was never a dam against the river. The waters carry it away as well, overlooked in the rapids. Thus, Fate cannot be overwritten. So. Here we are. Heir to Oxenford and heir to Lorwynne. Do you wish to parley? I believe you have earned that much. Indeed, I was quite surprised at your resourcefulness.. And you were quite the warrior in the battle. But you were destined to be overtaken, cousin, and regardless of your best efforts you achieved a mere protraction both needless and vexing. But vexing to yourself, for it amounted to little more than suffering. Take, for instance, the fact that had you simply allowed my preliminary party to assume control of the castle, not one father, son, brother, or grandfather need to have died. You needed only allow Commander Vant free rein and spared countless lives. But, no, your stubbornness prevailed and because of it over a thousand men are now dead. A thousand men that could have served me loyally had their Lord been possessed of more insight into the truth that towered over him like an ill-tempered god.”

***

Kareth’s coronet sparkled with diamonds like stars, and the silverwork was finely beaten and molded to delicate arabesques. Below the coronet, her green eyes sparkled, and yet there was no warmth in them; they sparkled like the green ice of the Aurora shores—that cold waste where nothing grows and nothing lives and is the immaculate domain of death.
Her silky dress conformed to her slim figure unabashedly, dyed deeply a dark vermillion as if soaked in the blood of the slain. The surety of her walk, and her gaze, was evidenced in every lax gyration of her stride and bespoke power and doubtless certainty of control over all whom she lay eye upon or spoke word to. Only her shadow seemed amiss in this, for she had none; though a candlelight night etched black shade upon hard stone from the most fleeting of specks, it issued nothing cast in semblance of her contours, nor did silhouette dare parody her form through curtain or draper. She had control most absolute, and not even her own shadow mocked her. Such was the way of a true sorceress steeped in her own vanity.
“The time has come for your Queen to wed,” Kareth said. “And it has often been said by my dear, departed father that the heir of Oxenford and the heir of Lorwynne should join together, united their houses. Yet, that was before the betrayal that stole my father from me.” Her voice was icy indifference. She did not attempt to guise it with feeling of loss or grief. “Thus, breaking from tradition I wish to set a new precedent. Now I ask all of my cousins—“ She turned toward the entourage of nobles. “—I ask who among you would dare to take up arms against the slayer of my father and, thus, save me from the ignominy of joining such a wicked heart to my own?”
Eseus looked among his kin, and saw many with angry visage, yet none with actionable courage. His grandaunt spoke to his dandy cousin, but he dared not budge. Eseus thought it a pity, for he would have gladly slain the foppish fool, even if for Kareth’s idle entertainment.
“Shall I have none to defend my honor?” Kareth asked, a hand to her heart and the imitation of a woeful brow. “Very well then. I will set another precedent. I extend this offer to anyone, regardless of birth. If you slay my treacherous cousin then you will find a lifelong wife in me.”
There was an immediate bellow among the crowd; deep and bellicose and beastly.
“I shall split him head to groin and feed his craven loins to the Crows of the Moor!”
There stepped forth Kareth’s handmaiden— that broad-shouldered, towering figure of unfeminine bulk and bravado. With large, meaty hands she unwrapped her head of her scarf and wimple, and let her frumpy frock fall from her burly body. Men and women averted their eyes, but when the frock fell away there stood before Eseus now a large man with cruel eyes encircled in blackened blood. He wore black vestments over chainmail, and a cape of black feathers.
“He is your rival,” Kareth said. “Lord of the Moor, Crovanus, heir to the Crow clan. With him will you fight for my honor. My father is not here to disapprove. But to think that the Lord of the Moor walked beneath father’s very nose! Many a laugh have I had to think of it.”
Kareth spoke freely of the ruse, and no one among the crowd dared to question her; not her family or her serfs or soldiers. When she ordered a soldier to return Eseus’s sword to him, there was no hesitation. Eseus held once again the sword of Lorwynne; that sword with which his father entrusted him. Crovanus, too, claimed a weapon. It was a barbarous thing to behold, as were all Crow clan weapons.
Crovanus circled around Eseus with a hefty stride, each ponderous step promising violence.
“I have changed my mind,” Crovanus said. “I will not kill you. I will geld you and render you a dog to feed on scraps from beneath my table. You shall be my Fool. When I am angry I shall kick you and beat you and grab you by the scruff of your neck and shake you until you piss yourself. And then I shall laugh at you. Everyone will laugh at you.”
Eseus said nothing. Talk was a distraction. He focused on the weapon the Crow’s heir gripped in his hands: a triple-bladed scythe with a handle like a crow’s foot. The weapon was large, and would have been encumbering for a smaller man, but Crovanus swung it easily one-handed, resting it against his shoulder.
Eseus leapt forward into the slash, catching the handle on his shoulder, the impact shuddering throughout his body, and then he thrust his sword toward Corvayne’s heart. But the Lord of the Moor caught the blade with his naked hand, turning it aside with his bleeding fingers. At first Eseus was too taken aback to react, but as Corvayne raised his triple-scythe to cut Eseus down, Eseus wrenched his sword free of Corvayne’s grip, severing his fingers to rain upon the floor while Eseus ducked below the sickles’ savage slash. The Lord of the Moor was never daunted, even at the loss of his fingers, but rather was enraged, flailing his sickles wildly with one hand, his renewed vigor waxing while his other hand bled from its stumpy bones. Being much larger than Eseus, Corvayne would have soon overpowered the Lord of Lorwynne had the former not had a defter hand and greater patience. Turning aside each blow, Eseus circled and resumed the center of the room, commanding it while deflecting and parrying the Crow’s crude weapon. Kareth stood by her vanity, her habitually calm composure now transmogrified unto childish glee. To see her so utterly rapt infuriated Eseus.
His shoulder was knitted with catgut and salved with honey, then padded with cloth. He was not allowed time to rest or recover. His terrible destiny awaited him.

***

The marriage ceremony was brief. No one challenged Eseus thereafter; not even those among the Crow clan that were doubtlessly present, disguised among the peasantry. The Oxenford family scowled as Eseus and Kareth were wed before the Matharist priest. Fear stayed their tongues, nonetheless, and they were was impotent to stop the ceremony as they were to stop the sun rising and falling. Kareth took pleasure in the outrage so visibly etched on their silent faces. She would marry the man who allegedly conspired to slay her father? Yes, she would, if only because no one else dared to challenge him for her hand. Even wounded, Eseus intimidated them all. Their shame, too, seemed to please her, and she smiled to see their chagrined grimaces; their eyes averted in confusion and humiliation.
Thereafter came the festivities, including the Flight of the Bulls. Several young peasant men and soldiers stripped to their undergarments and were led into a large pen of palisades, their sharp stake teeth pointed inward. There awaited them a large bull antagonized by whips and canes. It charged about wildly, snorting and bellowing as it rampaged in every direction. Seeing the men, its fury found focus and charged them. The young men had to leap over the horned heads of the raging beast, or aspired to do so. Many young men were gored or trammeled, or gashed themselves upon the palisades. Those few who managed the acrobatic fear of leaping over the bull were crowned with berry stems and given a mushroom wine to drink. Those who were injured were tended and treated by healers. Many died before they could be tended to. Eseus never learned how many. And while he was not grateful that the men of Lorwynne were dead, he was glad they had not died for his cruel cousin’s idle amusement. Even so, it shamed him to sit and do nothing while Kareth giggled at the grotesqueries of the barbaric tradition that had been outlawed by his own father.
Kareth saw the horror on his face and smiled with pleasure.
“You disapprove, dear husband?”
“It is…a waste of brave men,” he said.
“Not so brave, half of them,” she said lightly. “Did you not see how they fled from the bull? That was their unmaking. You must not flinch or flee, but must surmount the obstacle directly. Without hesitation. There sit three young men who managed the simple feat. A goblin could have achieved it, had he the inclination, and so it is no great thing for mortal men.”
She turned to face him, then, staring into his eyes, her green-ice eyes unblinking and focused, yet empty of any feeling at all except, perhaps, the demand of obedience.
“But for you and I, Eseus, the bull we face would trammel the world were it not tamed by the steadiest and most ruthless of hands. You understand my will. You comprehend my aims. Will you be beside me on my chariot of Empire, or will you be detritus beneath its wheels?”
She did not give him time to answer. She simply turned away and raised her goblet, clearing her throat, impatiently, as a servant hastened to pour more wine, like blood, into the gaping mouth of the goblet. She sipped from it, staining her pink-petaled lips a darker crimson, then clapped her hands to call attention to herself, the soft impact of her dainty palms killing the festivities and music unto a solemn, wary silence. She then pointed to the bull still raging within the palisades.
“Tame the beast,” she said. “Make cold its heart.”
Oxenford soldiers hurried toward their task, carrying long spears. The bull was impaled all at once, then butchered for its meat and hide; its breath not yet vanished from the cooling Moor air. The head Kareth took for her own, esteeming it as a centerpiece for the wedding banquet table. Its eyes were still apoplectic with rage. It stared at Eseus, and he bethought he could see auguries in such dead, yet still somehow hateful, eyes.

Echoes Lost

I.
There was a monk who lived by himself, cloistered in the high mountains. Where the mountains existed does not matter; everywhere, nowhere, it does not matter. What matters is that every day the monk ventured down into the timberline and rummaged for his food— mushrooms, nuts, berries, and dandelions—and every day he fetched water from a limestone well in the cave where he slept. This was how he lived. This was all he knew. It was enough.
The monk was an ascetic in his isolation. The only belongings he possessed were his robe, his straw mat, and the bucket with which he drew water from the well. He lived for decades by himself, nor did anyone deign to visit him, for no one knew he lived in the mountains. His only conversations were with his echoes in the well. These conversations were very one-sided, but the truth was that he was unsure which side these conversations actually took place on. He listened as much as he talked, for the well echoed with his words. It was very much like a form of meditation, for through the echoes he could see how he was, himself, an extension of the world, and see how the world was indeed an extension of himself.
The monk was not a solipsist, but he was a philosopher, and a poet, and the theologian of his own religion. His philosophy was very wise, his poetry very beautiful, and his religion very true. In fact, the monk’s religion was the truest religion ever known upon the earth, besides the self-correcting religion known as Science. The monk could not abide falsities, and so his religion had to be irreproachably truthful. If it had not been, he would not have abided it. He would not have believed anything at all.
Sometimes the monk spoke for hours into the well, lecturing the well so the dark hole could in turn lecture the monk. It was as if the earth itself was revealing its heart to him, and all of its secrets. At other times the monk would be silent for weeks and listen to the winds talk amongst themselves, carrying word from around the world like a gadfly-gossip. He appreciated, too, the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks, the howling of wolves and even the growling of bears. Whether fierce or funny, all conversations were his to learn from. Therefore, there was much to listen to, even when isolated in the mountains.
But however much he learned and lectured, the monk was mortal and, in one especially cold winter, he passed away. No one knew what his religion was, or what he had heard in the wilderness, nor the heart of the earth and its unburdened secrets. Not even an echo remained of him, spiraling up from that deep silent well. Why, then, does this monk matter? Does he matter, or was his life simply another Koan— the deferral of meaning?

II.
There was an oni that lived in the mountains. He did not like humans, but he had grown accustomed to hearing the monk talk. In fact, the oni lived in the well, and sometimes he played tricks on the monk, altering with his own voice the echoes that rose up in return to the monk. It was not that the oni was spiteful, nor that he really wished to deceive the monk. It was only a bit of mischief to pass the time, and the monk seemed contented with the echoes that rose up to meet him. The oni had lived for thousands of years. He knew about humans, and he knew about the material world. Long ago he had nearly become a Bodhisattva, but turned away from the Path after succumbing to baser impulses. He had also traveled the world, and had learned many religions and their various facets of Truth. Thus, he had imparted the monk’s words with real truths about the earth, and about mankind. He lied, yes, by falsifying the monk’s voice and throwing his voice with words not the monk’s own, but he spoke truths among those words. His echoes, thus, were true insomuch as they spoke to the Truth.
When the monk died, the oni wept for a year. His voice echoed out of the well and rumbled in the mountains. His voice became as thunder and his tears became as rain. The storm of his grief brewed over the mountains for a long time. Yet, no one visited the mountains, so no one heard him or his grief. When he had finished grieving, the oni left the well and took his echoes with him. No one knew the oni had existed in the well— not even the monk whom the oni mourned. Why, then, does the oni matter? Does he matter or was his life simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?

III.
There were mountains that were somewhere, or perhaps nowhere at all. They may have been, or may never have been. A monk may have lived among them, and an oni may have also, or they may not have. There may have been echoes in the deep bosom of the earth. Or there may not have. Yet, of them this was written, and writing is but the echoes of things that may or may not have been. Why, then, does writing matter? Does writing matter, or is it all simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?