Venom Pies Part 1

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“Vengeance pies
served with envy’s eyes,
abide the bride
to wed and to bed
in a house of lies.”
— an old Oxenford rhyme

The spider dangled from the strand. It was black all over, like the darkest shadow beneath the underbelly of the world, except upon its thorax where twin triangles mirrored one another, tip to tip, that scarlet hourglass as livid as blood freshly spilled. The strand twinkled with rain, shimmering as the irritated spider ascended its silken line in frustration at the falling droplets, seeking shelter once again in the bog-black sleeve from which the bone-white wrist and hand emerged, the smooth finger beringed with the end of the strand.
“Such a small malice you are,” the woman said. “And yet, trifling malice that you be, you may yet kill a great lord.”
She let the deadly spider crawl under the back of her hand, her palm up, and then scurry into the inner recesses of her sleeve. The woman looked out upon the rain-veiled valley where the castle resided, sprawling with its grandstanding towers and battlements.
“Time is at hand,” she said. “And time is up. Come, appetite.” She stood against the downpour. “We have a feast to attend.”
She began the walk down the slippery grass, and yet never slipped once, her footstep as assured as the stones that jutted here and there among the mossy banks. As sure as the vengeance she had promised herself, her pale pink lips smiling thinly within the dark shadow of her cavernous hood.
“And what a delicious feast served to joyful music.”
***

Eseus paced circles in the courtyard, as if to wear the flagstones down to dust with his boots. Restless-hearted with worry, he watched the last of the dinner guests enter the great feast hall beyond the columns, fretting over his role amidst so much mirth and politics. How he wished to be a simple guard, standing silently by portals and by crenelations! Instead, the emblem of the House of Lorwynne blazed darkly upon his breastplate— a malachite heron that meant he would be seated among the noble classes.
And Eseus was a noble, though he did not feel the fulsome draw of the festivities as keenly as his kin. To the contrary, he dreaded such gatherings as much as the peasantry and servants upon whom the labors befell. Yet, they were largely invisible— suffice that they accomplished their duties— whereas everyone seemed alarmingly interested in him. More to the point, they were interested in whom among his cousins he would marry.
The rainclouds were ill omens, he thought, and there spasmed through his nerves a brief inclination toward flight. Perhaps his cousin Kareth, whose father, his uncle, had invited him here as a special guest of honor. His uncle, it was no secret, was the strongest of the House of the Oxenford family, and whatever he decreed was obeyed.
Eseus heard the clatter of plates, the chuckles of his kin as they gathered around the long dining table. There was the trickling of lyres as the band prepared to add to the nobility’s conversations the cadences of music alongside the gloomy splatter of rain. Eseus remained outside yet, lingering beneath the tier of the courtyard He saw a woman walking on the second storey tier, through the rainy veil, her skin as pale as milk. She moved like a flashing ivory statue beneath a heavy hooded robe that could not conceal such radiant opalescence. His eyes followed her, briefly, then turned inward again, to his own gloomy hopelessness.
Sighing, Eseus consigned himself to his fate and entered the feast hall.

***

She was certain none of them had seen her stealing her way through the castle. They were too preoccupied with celebrating the latest conquest; too preoccupied with being nobleborn and content with their privileged lives. The servants, too, were too preoccupied with their tasks. The guards were too preoccupied with the spiders that covered them to stop her. She passed from the second storey to the servants’ stairwell, winding her way down into the kitchen. She set the pie in among a half-dozen others, then walked out— out of the kitchen, out of the castle, and half a mile out of the valley, watching the castle from the hillside, sitting upon a shelf of rock with her hood still shouldering her head against the rain and an eye in her hand— the eye of a crow that revealed to her what it saw from its twin inside the pie.
“By his own blade shall come his doom,” she said.
She then watched and waited.
Quite eagerly.

***

The candle bled slowly, the wax melting as a sluggish pus creeping down the tallow stalk. Eseus watched it glumly, seeing his life melt moment by moment. Eseus sat at the long table alongside the others, not touching his food but curiously. His uncle, Lord Oxenford, sitting at the head of the table, scowled at the tardiness of his nephew, drinking his wine as if it was of a bitter vine, and stroking his bushy beard irritably. Conversely, his daughter—seated on his right—smiled kindly at her cousin. It was a ruse, her smile, and Eseus knew it well. She had her mother’s charms, and like her mother her charms were as sharp and penetrating as an executioner’s blade.
“Cousin,” she said sweetly. “How delightful it is that you were able to make the journey to visit us. And with so much yet to do at home!”
“Yes, indeed,” he said warily. “Since father’s passing it is difficult to afford such…distractions as this.”
Her smile lessened unto a thin, pursed line as she stared at him, unblinking. She had bright blue eyes, and had enthralled many men with a simple gaze. It did nothing to Eseus, however, except provoke his irritation. He had learned to be wary of Lady Kareth’s charms long afore, in childhood.
“We are honored that you afforded us the sacrifice,” she said, still sweetly.
Her father grumbled and drank some more, growling something into his goblet. His daughter laid her dainty hand upon his larger one— a loving gesture, but of motive not unlike those her mother once offered alongside her sweetest smiles. Whosoever was the recipient of such a smile was not long for this world thereafter. She was a witch, people often said, and sweetened her brew with honey alongside the nightshade
“Tell me,” she said. “How fares your mother?”
Eseus did not answer for a long while, staring at the ring upon his own hand— the malachite ring of rule.
“She is unwell,” he said at last. “She has lost her husband. We are all…unwell.”
Lady Kareth nodded, a sympathizing frown upon her pretty face.
“Perhaps we can comfort one another in mutual confidence,” she said. “Each of us having had a beloved parent pass so recently.” She patted her father’s hand. “Cousin, I should like for you to stay here a time. If you are able. It would do my heart much good to commiserate with you.”
“My people are in need of my return…” he began.
Lord Oxenford slammed his fist upon the table, killing all other conversations upon the instant. A graveyard silence prevailed. Even the musicians were entombed in silence, faltering with a twanging string soon throttled quiet.
“What your people need is a strong alliance!” he said, his tone broaching no contradiction. “They need a strong marriage! The Crow clans are assembling all around you, you young fool! Your father has passed and you cannot rally your people against the barbarians. You have no military experience and are doomed to ruin if you attempt it. You must join your soldiers to mine and allow my rule over them, otherwise you and your people will join your father in the grave.”
The other nobles nodded and voiced their agreement. The way they readily voiced their agreement angered Eseus. The sycophants reminded him of hounds begging for scraps beneath the table, and he thought they ought to follow suit on all fours.
“The Spider clan will keep them at bay,” he said. “They are always too busy squabbling with one another to concern themselves with us. ‘Thus divided, thus diverted, thus destroyed.’ That is what my father often said.”
Lady Kareth’s smile deepened with satisfaction, but she said nothing.
“The Spider clan is dead to a man,” Lord Oxenford said. “The Crows saw to that.”
Eseus could only gawk. His uncle grinned knowingly, quite pleased with his nephew’s newfound bewilderment.
“Do you see now, nephew? You are too poorly informed on these matters. You require a strong hand and an experienced mind to guide your people. Perhaps someday you will possess such strength and insight yourself, but never if you are in the meantime slain alongside your people.”
Eseus was silent for a while longer, collecting his thoughts— and his jaw—to formulate a response of defiance. He could not muster it. He asked what his uncle thought he should do, though he knew the answer before he ever uttered the question.
“You must marry my daughter and merge our lands,” his uncle said. “Only united may we crush the barbarian clans once and for all.”
The other nobles gave a rowdy cheer, and much wine was spilled. Eseus lost whatever remained of his appetite as he stared at his roasted duck. He felt like that duck— headless, featherless, and cooked to be served to others.
At length, he spoke.
“I must have my mother’s consent,” he told them, which provoked much laughter around the table.
Lady Kareth nodded in encouragement, though Eseus could sense the irritation in her blue eyes— like an eager eagle diving through early morning skies for prey. She reached up with a hand and tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. For a moment her hooked fingers looked like bird talons.
“Of course,” she said. “I should prefer my aunt’s blessing in this fortuitous union of our houses. Like well-plaited strands of hair, we must be double-bound to secure ourselves strongly against the headwinds of the world.”
“By the binding of the heirs of our houses,” her father said loudly, “we shall overcome any threat poised against us.”
The rest of the guests again cheered, as if the marriage had already concluded. Eseus, however, felt quite cross and stubborn against this. He could sense the wills of everyone present twisting him and his cousin together in an irreversible knot. And it was not only a marriage knot, but the knot upon a noose. It chafed his neck.
But the matter seemed settled to everyone’s liking—except Eseus’s liking, of course— and so Lord Oxenford clasped his hands together and called for more wine and more food.
“Let us eat and drink in equal measure to our fortunes!” he demanded.
The servants did as bidden, and an indulgent procession of food passed from serving plate to dinner plate to fork or spoon, and finally to mouths, all washed down with various wines as to each guest’s particular liking. With greater wines came greater garrulousness, which was why the honored nephew forewent wine in favor of goat’s milk, though he drank of this sparingly, as he ate sparingly. Instead, he feasted his ears to surfeit with the conversations between the various guests, reading the politics inscribed upon the faces of his kinsmen as if upon an illuminated script. A sober eye could learn as much as a burning ear, and there was much here to glean.
These minor lords feuded over everything. They feuded even now, while beneath the truce-trussed castle of their host. While exchanging pleasantries and uniting unto a cheer to exult their host, they were feuding. Feuding for favor. Feuding for attention. Feuding for the sake of feuds. This little lord and that little lady displeased one another for no other reason than it was a tradition for their houses to be acrimoniously at odds. To see and hear them barter formalities and pleasantries while also exchanging barbs beneath the table, so to speak, exhausted Eseus. He also felt himself drained by the incessant gaze of his pretty cousin. She watched him unerringly, even as she spoke to others around the table. Some might have mistaken her gaze as love, whereas a more studied eye— like Eseus’s— knew it for what it was.
And he felt as a mouse trapped between cats, knowing not which direction to flee.
At last, the arduous hour came to its close. Dessert was served. As was the custom in the Oxenford House, Lord Oxenford was served first, and he cut every cake and pie himself. Lord Oxenford was a man who loved his sweets, and so he served himself from each of the seven pies and cakes in their circle. A generous slice of each he allotted upon his own silver plate. He settled down into his seat, thereafter, to eat while his primly pantalooned servants served the slices he had given to the other lords and ladies. Only Lady Kareth and her honored cousin, Eseus, abstained from the decadence offered; the rest ate heartily and nodded in appreciation of the desserts.
“I may have to abduct your cooks, my Lord,” one of his kin said. “Their skills are impeccable.”
Lord Oxenford nodded vigorously, speaking through a mouthful of pie. “Verily so. But you needn’t poach them, dear cousin. Whipping works wonders with more than mere meringues.”
The quip was well-received, with chuckles all around. Soon, however, the chuckles broken into gasps of pain and fright.
“My word!” a lady cried, dropping her fork in a clatter. “Something bit me!”
Other forks dropped, clattering in a sharp-toothed clamor. More gasps and grunts of pain accompanied this cacophony. Lord Oxenford rose, then, with a roar and dropped his own fork.
“I will have someone’s skin out to dry for this!” he roared.
A noblewoman screamed. “There is an eye in my pie!”
Everyone turned and saw that there was, indeed, an eye in her slice of pie, and it was watching Lord Oxenford. It was a human eye. Suddenly every slice of the pie— blackberry, it seemed— erupted with moving berries that traversed the table, chasing after Lord Oxenford. His nephew rose from the table, as did his daughter, backing away from the hundreds of spiders that came in a great tidal swarm.
“Guards!” the Lord shouted. “Guards!”
But there was little that guards could do with sword and shield against spiders that could crawl between plates of armor and chainmail and cloth. They succumbed to the venomous bites quickly, whereas the majority of the arachnid army marched upon Oxenford in haste.
Lord Oxenford was overcome in moments, clutching at his body in vain against the invading army. With a howl he fell to his knees, then upon the ground rolled as if afire with agony. His daughter came not near him, but had presence of mind for a theatrical swoon into her cousin’s arms. That he obliged by catching her upset him more than his uncle’s imminent death, even as that death was protracted with paroxysms of torment.
Carbuncles bloomed crimson upon Lord Oxenford’s face, and therefrom oozed the sickly sallow pus like candlewax, putrid with hastening rot before it even broke the skin. When Lord Oxenford finally released his last breath, his face was purple and black and knotted with the hemorrhaging lesions. Their victim conquered, the spiders dissolved in many directions.
The guards and the lady— all being bitten—suffered the same fate as Lord Oxenford. The court healer hurried forth in his ministrations, but to no avail. Meanwhile Eseus could not puzzle over the catastrophic turn of events, nor could he usher his cousin into someone else’s care, for she clutched to him with what seemed a compulsion of shock. He was asked to carry her to her bedchamber, which he did reluctantly. A waiting woman attended them, watching Eseus resentfully from behind a swath of head garments. She was a large woman—a head taller than most women—and bulkier than most men. Eseus did not know why, but he felt ill at ease with her walking behind him.
They ascended the central tower and entered Kareth’s room. His cousin immediately came to herself, standing freely, and bid him to stay. She told her waiting woman to leave. The burly woman paused, briefly, as if to scowl at Eseus, but exited without a contrary word.
Lady Kareth, now alone with her cousin, clasped his hands in hers and, inspirited, rejoiced in an unseemly manner.
“I knew this day would be fortuitous!” she chimed. “As I stated earlier. We now have the passage to our joint destiny, free of all obstacles!”
“Your father is dead,” was all Eseus could think to say in his dismay.
“Upon that point, beloved, it is now wayside shadows,” she remarked, her blue eyes twinkling with joy, and ambition. “There is nothing to impede us.”
“But your father,” he said. “An assassin…?”
She waved his words away with the most flippant flip of her dainty hand.
“Father had many enemies,” she said. “And what luck for us!”
“Dead!” Eseus said, still unable to overcome this stark fact. “Your father!”
“He was an incompetent lord at best,” she said. “He was governed by impulse rather than intellect. Mother always said so. But imagine what we could do together! Imagine our lands and people combined!” Her sweet smile was wryly edged with condescension.
Before he could question such a look further, Lady Kareth rushed into his arms.
“Oh Eseus!” she said, “We need one another now more than ever! Please marry me and help me rule this grieving kingdom! I cannot do it alone!”
Warily, Eseus attempted to withdraw from her. The incense in her bedchamber was overwhelming, and the day’s events taxed him. He felt as if he was tottering. “I must fetch my mother and prepare my steward,” he said.
“As you wish, beloved,” she said. She put her cool hand upon his hot cheek. Her fingernails, he noticed, were sharp and long. “And I must mourn my father or it may appear unseemly.” She kissed his other cheek, then, pulling him to meet her liips with an insistent hand. “As it would be unseemly for you to refuse his dying wish.”
Her smile curled at its corners tightly, and he knew not what to say.
“Now away,” she said, “my dearest treasure, and return to me in haste with blessed tidings. Fate awaits us. Make haste! Make haste!”
She ushered him to the door, then had her waiting woman guide him downstairs and into the dining hall.
“Her lady is mourning,” the waiting woman announced, loudly and without shame for her deep voice. “No one is to disturb her. Her cousin is leaving.”
She put a large hand on Eseus’s shoulder and shoved him with impossible strength. He nearly fell upon his hands and knees, staggering into the dining hall.
“Get on home, lordling,” she said.
Before Eseus could voice his anger, the waiting woman disappeared toward the tower once more.

Waiting woman: Her accent struck him strange, and not only because of the harshness of her voice. She did not sound like noble or peasant, but something entirely different. Uncouth. Unfamiliar. The thought of home, though, and his mother, prompted Eseus’s haste out to the stables where his armed carriage awaited him. His men stood at attention upon his arrival, but he told them to stand easy. The events of the day were odd and suspicious, and not only because Lord Oxenford had been slain under such an unnatural machination.
“You shall take the carriage by the Oxenford Road,” he told his men, “but I shall take a horse independent of you.”
“But my lord!” the men protested. “Highwaymen!”
Eseus raised a hand. “I will exercise caution,” he reassured them. “As will you. You will be a diversion, for I intend to arrive home in three days, not two weeks, and if there is any foul play ahead it will fall upon you. Please be vigilant and arrive safely home. Something is not right in Oxenford. I must swiftly rally our people. Foul deeds are afoot and we must be ready to greet them with blade rather than sheath.”
He spoke no more of it, but took the reserve stallion for himself, readying the saddle and bridle and a satchel of salted meats and hardtack for the journey. His men gave him a few carrots and radishes, too, saying he would need them for his eyes when all was shrouded in the murk of mystery and mischief. He enfolded himself in a long cloak as well, to keep off the rain and the curious eyes. In addition, he took an unadorned, unassuming blade. To all ignorant eyes he appeared a lowly messenger of little worth to bandits or clans.
He then climbed atop his horse and rode off across the treeless moors.

Gossssssip

Kate sat on the subway train, cradling her cell phone to her ear and chatting to Angela about the weekend.
“And you’ll never guess who Sophie went home with Friday night,” she said, her green-as-envy eyes glittering with glee. “Nick Satterly! Yes, Laura’s Nick! They both shared a martini, and several beers, and then Nick gave Sophie a ‘ride home’. To his place, of course. What? No, you know Laura was out of town over the weekend. Some business with her brother.” Kate shifted her cell phone to her other ear, crossing her legs. She could feel her pantyhose chafing her unpleasantly beneath her skirt in her unmentionable place. “No, I’m not jealous,” she said. “Why would I be? I’m not his wife. Laura, on the other hand…”
She fell silent as a woman sat down next to her. On the subway Kate expected someone to sit next to her, eventually, but this woman set off her alarm bells. She had frazzled black hair, dark black eyes, and dark black eyebrows in a long face with narrow slits for a nose. She wore a black dress and was covered like a Christmas Tree in gaudy, cheap Dollar Store jewelry that looped and dangled from her in mad disarray. She looked like a crack-head Cher with a rat-king nesting in her hair. Kate’s nose crinkled in disgust.
“…Well, Laura will probably be mad,” Kate finished lamely, too distracted by the woman to be colorful or hyperbolic about the weekend affair. She listened to Angela for a moment— her excited gasping and wondrous hawing—and then answered her subsequent question. “No, I’m the only one from the office that knows. You, Ben, Arthur, Madeline—everybody else left the bar early. Only I stayed behind and saw them leave together. And then Sophie called me Saturday morning, giving me the low-down. And it was a new low for her, for sure. Down, down, down low…”
Kate tried to giggle, but realized that crack-head Cher was staring at her. Kate turned away from the strange woman, presenting her back as a barrier of privacy. The woman did not seem to take the hint. Rather, she spoke to Kate freely.
“Who is Sophie?” she asked. Her voice was husky, like heady smoke. She smelled of strange, earthy incense—burning fragrance within a deep cave. “Is she your friend?”
Kate sighed in irritation. “What is it to you?” she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief and continuing to talk to Angela. “No, not anyone important. Just some weird lady on the train…”
“You do not speak of her as a friend would,” the woman said.
“Stop harassing me, you rude, smelly crack-whore,” Kate snapped. “Or I will call the police.”
“Deep underground here?” the woman said. Her look of skepticism was replaced by a small, mysterious smile. “This is my world. No one comes unless I wish them to. I am the Pythian priestess.”
“You are a wacko, is what you are,” Kate said. “She’s a druggie,” she then explained to Angela on her phone. She turned toward the woman again, puffing up with anger and righteousness. “I am not going to give you money,” she added. “I don’t even carry change on me. And if you think I am going to give you my credit card, you are badly mistaken.”
The woman’s small smile widened to reveal bright white teeth, flashing all the whiter in the sooty ash that overspread her pale face. She reminded Kate of a gypsy, or the stereotype of a gypsy. Her teeth were so long and narrow that it looked like she had no gums.
“I find no worth in any such thing as that,” the gypsy woman said. “I do wonder about your worth as a friend, however.”
“How dare you!” Kate exclaimed, sliding down a seat away from the woman. “And for the record, Sophie and I are not friends. We are coworkers.” She spoke quickly into the phone. “But Angela and I are besties. Always have been. Always will be.”
“Then it is very unprofessional,” the woman continued. She slid closer to Kate upon the subway seats, crowding Kate against the end of the row. As she slid nearer her cheap jewelry rattled and the fabric of her black dress hissed. “But who am I to say such things? The world is run by unprofessional people. Unprofessional gods, at that! Did you know that prophecy is simply gossip between the gods? It is true. Gossip is divine. Gossip becomes true, even if it isn’t, because the gods demand that it be so.”
The woman then folded her arms, each hand grasping the other forearm. Her skeletal wrists were entwined with many coiled circlets that clanked and jangled like bells.
“Since gossip is divine,” she said, “I will bless you, Kate Huxley. By the deep womb of Delphi, may you speak a sibilant sibyl’s song. May the twin-headed snake seek you in your most private moments…and places.”
Kate stood, then— losing all patience—and walked to the other end of the subway car. When she sat down she glanced back, but the gypsy woman was no longer sitting where she had been. Kate paid it no more mind. Instead, she took up chatting with Angela where she had left off, telling her all of the scandalous details about the affair over the weekened. She became quite happily lost in the lurid flow of it all and never reflected a moment enough to wonder how the weird gypsy woman knew her last name.

***

Kate did not stop talking to Angela on her phone about Nick and Sophie until she was face to face with Angela on the tenth floor of their firm’s office building, and even then she simply turned off her cell pone and spoke to Angela about them directly.
“He did not even pay for her Uber ride,” Kate said, laughingly. “Can you imagine?”
Angela smiled in mild amusement. She was very tall and skinny. “You know Nick’s always been that kind of guy. I think he has dated every woman in this building at one point or another. Not me, of course, but…well…others.” She eyed Kate’s pink sweater sideways while they both walked to their own corner of the floor. Behind them the maze of cubicles spread wide beneath florescent lights. Beyond the windows the sun rose sullenly between the crowding skyscrapers.
“But I’m sure Nick treated the other women better than Sophie,” Kate remarked. Her smile was somewhat bitter. “She said he didn’t even cuddle afterwards. He just sort of…ahem… he just rolled over and…hack…went to sleep…”
Hand to her chest, Kate coughed and hacked.
“Are you all right?” Angela asked.
Kate waved away her coworker’s concern. A moment passed, and so did the congestion. She continued speaking as before.
“What was she thinking?” she said, laughing sardonically. “As if Nick would use her for anything but a few jollies over the weekend! She’s not even sure…huck…that he wore…ack…a condom…”
Hunching over, Kate coughed and gagged, finally expelling something long and slimy from her throat. It slipped out and fell to the carpeted floor in a sinuous heap of scaly coils. Looking down at it in surprise, Kate saw that it was a snake— a small scarlet snake with pearly white fangs. It slithered toward the elevator. She watched it go with a feeling of relief, and an anticipation of mirth. She did not feel disgust or horror, nor did Angela show any.
The elevator doors opened as the snake reached them, and the snake coiled around Sophie’s ankle as she stepped out from the elevator. She did not seem to see it, but her face twinged as the snake bit her calf muscle through her silk pantyhose. Kate paid the snake no further mind, nor did Angela comment upon it at all, and the two women turned to greet Sophie as she walked slowly toward their habitual corner of the office.
Sophie appeared out of sorts and anxious. Her hoop earrings jittered like June bugs on a hot windowpane. Normally she wore makeup, but not today. Her face was sickly green with snake venom.
“Laura’s not here yet, is she?” she asked them.
Kate looked to Angela, and Angela shook her head. “I don’t think so. She’s not supposed to come back until tomorrow. Nick is here, though.”
The look of betrayal on Sophie’s face did not faze Kate in the least. The serpent bit at Sophie’s leg and foot several times, nearly tripping her as she stood upon her wedges.
“Kate,” she said, “you promised not to tell anyone.”
“I only told Angela,” Kate said. “And she’s my best friend. Just like you. Besties trust each other. We’re supposed to share everything.”
Sophie glanced nervously around the labyrinth of cubicles.
“I don’t want anyone else knowing about it,” she said, red-faced and heaving beneath her blouse. “I could lose my job. Nick could, too.”
Kate took Sophie by the hand. “There are plenty of other things to talk about,” she said. “And people. Did you know that Joe Plitschy in Accounting is getting fired? Hank Danforth told me that Joe bungled a few thousand dollars’ worth of numbers in the Hawthorne account. Some people think he’s addicted to pain meds and…hack…he doesn’t think of anything…blahaock… except taking them…”
Bending over, Kate coughed up another snake. It was orange, like fire, and it slithered toward a cubicle on the far side of the cubicles. Neither Angela or Sophie remarked upon it, though they clearly saw it. Kate continued talking as before.
“Anyway,” she said. “They are going to let him go at the end of the day.”
“I always liked Joe,” Angela said. “He reminds me of one of my dead uncles. Not the creepy one. The one that liked to give presents because he had no family of his own.”
“It was probably that back surgery,” Sophie said, still looking nervous as the snake loosened its fangs from her ankle. “I bet he has been in pain ever since returning from medical leave. Sitting at a desk without lumbar support doesn’t help. Even my back hurts sometimes.”
“Weekend activities can make things worse, too,” Kate said, making the snake at Sophie’s ankle bite her again.
Angela opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment saw Joe Plitschy hobbling toward the men’s restroom.
“There’s Joe there,” she said.
Joe’s face was bright red and his brow had broken out in a cascade of sweat. He was a rotund man—misshapenly so—and his girth twisted awkwardly with each cumbersome step he took. The orange snake which Kate had expelled had encoiled his chest. He held a hand against the wall for additional support.
“Going for his pills, I’ll bet,” Kate said. Her eyebrows hopped eagerly and she left the corner of the office, heading to Hank Danforth’s office. Leaning into his office from the door, she spoke to him briefly, then returned to Angela and Sophie. Danforth stepped out of his office and watched Joe Plitschy go into the restroom. He waited a moment and then went into the restroom himself.
“All things in due time, Kate,” Angela said, crossing her arms irritably.
Kate shrugged. “It’s for his own good.”
Shortly afterward, Hank emerged from the restroom. A minute or so later, Joe emerged, his eyes to the floor. He walked more slowly than before. The snake had tightened its coils around his chest, and had buried its fangs deep into the middle of his spine. The balding man cringed with every biting step as he went to his cubicle to pack his things. Eyes from the other cubicles followed him quizzically, then sympathetically. But no one said goodbye to him.
A few minutes later Kate, Angela, and Sophie went to their cubicles. The workday began for everyone except Joe Plitschy.

***

Kate had a lot of business to attend to. Not official work-related business; but social business. She was a confidante for many people in the office building. Ironically, she had earned this dubious station by sharing with everyone what others had shared with her. People felt like they could trust her because she trusted this and that person with another person’s secrets. Even now, when she was supposed to be filling out data tables and spreadsheets, she spent her time reading emails and sending emails concerning salacious information. She felt the snakes roil and coil in her chest, writhing with restless anticipation.
As the workers sat at their cubicles, working on their computers and reading emails, there rose many whispers between the cubicles among that peopled maze. The whispers were hushed, but together sounded like many snakes gathering in a sibilant storm.

***

Lunchtime came, and with it whole rivers of snakes spewing from Kate’s mouth. The multitudinous tangle in her chest uncoiled and spilled from her throat impossibly, like clowns from a clown car. Occasionally she hacked up a large nest of snakes—like a cat coughing up a hairball—and set them loose on the whole HR department, rolling among the cubicles like a pinball in an elaborate machine until it gradually unwound itself, leaving snakes everywhere to await the return of the workers from their break.
For Kate the release felt good. Thrilling. Cathartic. Orgasmic. Each expulsion of a snake was a tectonic rapture. She was the nexus, after all; the convergence and the floodgates of the garrulous flow. She spoke serpents into the world, and it pleased her to do so.
Everyone had a mess of snakes to struggle with as they returned to their cubicles. But no one had more snakes than Sophie as she returned to her desk. Her head hung heavy with snakes. She bowed beneath the weight of them, staring at the ground like a forlorn Medusa. No one spoke to her except Angela. Kate spoke about Sophieincessantly, and subsequently Nick and Laura.
Nick did not seem to mind any of it. He wore his snakes like trophies as he smiled his All-American golden boy smile and joked around with the other guys in the Acquisitions department. He was invulnerable. This did not so much provoke Kate’s ire toward him as much as provoke her ire toward Sophie and Laura. Laura was not there to protest, and Sophie was too overwrought to do anything about the snakes. And to try to fight against them did nothing but antagonize them. The more she tried to disentangle herself, the more riled the snakes became, biting her in waves of discontent.
And then things became worse. To everyone’s surprise, including her husband, Nick, Laura arrived for the latter part of the day. She appeared unhinged, and not only from apparent jetlag. One of her friends in HR had notified her of the affair via email. Everyone expected her to confront Nick and Sophie, and she did, hysterically. Nick hurried her to his office where the door muted her sobbing and screaming minimally. Meanwhile Kate crept nearby, listening at the door. Angela attempted to call her away, but Kate only smirked. There was a mixture of mischief and malice upon her face as she listened.
And then, abruptly, Laura was standing there, looking like a wartime refugee in the florescence of the overhead lights. Her blonde hair was disheveled. Her blouse and skirt were wrinkled and hitched up and down like she had been fighting herself. There were distraught tears streaming from her eyes, yet the look on her face was simple, overwhelming horror. She looked more like a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer rather than a victim of Monday gossip.
“How could you do this to me?” she said, her voice cracking. “Nick and I are getting a divorce now.”
At first Kate did not know to whom she addressed the question. Her surprise gave way quickly to supercilious disavowal.
“Sophie is the one that did it to you,” Kate said. “She slept with your husband.”
“Lots of people have slept with my husband,” Laura said, her voice hollow. “I don’t like it, but it’s the way we work.” The mournful dismay in her blue eyes hardened into ice. “But you…you had to talk about it. You had to spread it around where we work. We don’t have privacy anymore about it. You’ve shamed me more than Nick ever could. Everything is ruined.”
“It’s not my fault you don’t feel any shame about not being able to please your man,” Kate snapped. “You and Nick need to separate. You’ve needed to for a long time. If you had any self-respect you would know that, and do it. Right away.”
“I was happy,” Laura said, ignoring Kate. “We were happy. Happy enough for me. But then you ruined it. You ruined everything with your forked tongue.”
“You should have had your own house in order,” Kate said, smiling with faint satisfaction. “You should have had more self-respect.” She spoke loudly, then, so that everyone in the labyrinth of cubicles could hear her. “You should have divorced Nick for all of the other affairs he’s had. But you just let him walk all over you, and fuck whoever he wanted. You’ve got…hlack…no one…glack…to blame but…ack…yourself…”
Kate bent over, her hands on her knees while she heaved. Her neck bulged and her face reddened and then darkened to purple while her mouth stretched unnaturally wide. A giant python disgorged from her throat, landing heavily upon the floor. It slithered toward Laura and encoiled her. Laura shook her head slowly, ruefully, and let the snake have its fill. She could barely breathe.
“I hate you all,” she said faintly. “I hope you get what you deserve. I hope it comes back to bite you on the ass before it’s over…”
She disappeared into the snake’s unhinged jaws.

***

Kate entered the Ladies restroom. It was the last break before the end of the workday and she needed a moment to take a breather and relieve her bladder. She sat in a stall, tinkling and texting, and soon heard two women enter the restroom, talking. She knew them immediately. They were Angela and Sophie. They did not use the stalls, but stood near the sinks, Angela’s high heels clopping loudly on the bathroom tiles.
“I still feel bad about Laura,” Sophie said. “Friday night was…unplanned. All of us were at the bar and then you guys all left and I had had too much to drink. Kate was hitting on some random guy, trying to show off. I hate her sometimes. And Nick…Nick was so nice to me. I knew better, but I just felt so…so lonely. I hadn’t even been out on a Friday in over a month. I have no life, you know? I’m a loser. A guy hasn’t paid attention to me in forever. And then Nick was so nice and sweet and one thing led to another and I just…I feel awful.”
The water faucet hissed on, and Kate could hear Sophie splashing her face with water.
“Shit happens,” Angela said, “and then you die. We all make mistakes. Several mistakes in a row, too. It’s like playing a scratch-off lottery ticket. You win the jackpot— or Nickpot, I guess—and you are as surprised as anyone.”
“That’s for sure,” Sophie said, sighing. “Drink too much, sleep with a coworker, then tell another coworker about it. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have told Kate anything. She talks too much.”
“That’s because she has no life, either,” Angela said. Kate could virtually see her smirk through the stall door, so strong was the twist of her lips on that sharp tone. “And don’t feel bad about Nick and Laura. Their marriage has been doomed for a while now. You’re not the first woman he has taken back to their marriage bed for a one-night-stand. Last year he and Kate slept together. A couple of times, actually. She wanted him to leave Laura. But he wouldn’t do it. She was just another side-piece. Kate told me about it. Several times. Wouldn’t stop crying over him. God, I dreaded those phone calls.”
“She liked him that much?” Sophie said, incredulous. “But why? He wasn’t even good in bed. I’m not even sure I had an orgasm. It was over so quick…”
Kate did not see the snake slithering under the stall’s door, raising its head toward her spread knees. She was staring at her phone instead, but her mind was attending the conversation at the sink.
“Who knows why?” Angela said. “Kate’s always wanted what other people had, even if it wasn’t that good. Or maybe she hates Nick just like she hates herself and wants the both of them to be miserable together.” Angela tittered like a snake would if it could. “Whatever the reason, Kate is super-jealous of him and whoever he is with; whether it is Laura or some other girl on the side. She didn’t get over him as well as you have.”
“That’s just…sad,” Sophie said.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Angela said. “Afterward she was so upset that she tried to make Nick jealous. She went and got blackout-drunk at a bar and woke up with some guy. He never even told her his name. He left shortly after they had both woken up, but he left a gift for her to remember their romantic evening.”
Angela paused for a long time, and in the meantime Kate felt like she was falling down into the depths of the earth. Things swarmed over her in that terrible darkness.
“Kate has HIV.”
Sophie’s sharp intake of breath was a hiss, and Kate flinched painfully at the revelation. The snake speared itself into her womanhood and slithered its way into her womb.
“Kate has HIV?” Sophie said, aghast. “But she seems so healthy.”
“She’s on really expensive drugs to manage it,” Angela said. “She’s actually running out of money. I gave her a loan myself to help pay for her rent.” Angela tittered again. “It would be a shame if everyone at the firm found out about that, wouldn’t it? But then again, it might be divine comeuppance, too. She’s always been a busybody. Ever since college. Probably ever since she learned to talk. She doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.”
The restroom door opened and the two women left. Kate sat in the stall, stewing in her own venom. Bitterly she stared at nothing, her cell phone loosely gripped in her limp hand. Deep within her, the snake coiled in upon itself, constricting itself into a knot of self-loathing and hatred and despair. It was a two-headed snake and it entwined itself balefully, each end trying to eat the other in an interminable struggle. She wished she had never spoken it into existence.

The Hunt

She sat in his lap, giggling as he gnawed at her white throat. Her laughter was pitched like silver bells chiming in a playful cadence. Her dark eyes lit with delight until they happened upon the trophies mounted on his cottage wall. The laughter on her lips subsided to a faint, faraway smile; the glee in her face suddenly languishing with doubt.
“You know, I do not think I could ever shoot a deer ,” she said. “They are simply too innocent! How can you shoot them and then decorate with the poor wretches’ heads? It seems…barbaric.”
“It is not barbaric,” he said in his deep, guttural voice. “It is the Natural order of things.”
She nodded reluctantly. “I suppose you would know more about such things than myself, you being a gamekeeper, but I nonetheless believe it would give me pause to kill such a beautiful creature, even were I starving for food.”
“Such prey is easily killed,” he said, his teeth raking playfully at the downy of her neck. “And skinned and eaten. It is easy to hunt what you despise.”
She nodded pensively, her hand on his bare chest— pressing against the hairy mat in both affection and to caution a distance between them. She pulled slightly away from him, looking again at the deer mounted on the wall.
“Why should you despise them, though?” she asked. “It perplexes me greatly.” Her dark eyes flashed luminously as the flames of the hearth crackled and billowed.
“Naturally you would not understand,” he said. “A lord’s daughter rarely is taught the truths of the world. But I will explain as best I can.” He took a swig from a bottle of wine, and then offered her some, which she gladly quaffed. After she had overcome a momentary fit of choking and coughing, he spoke again. “It is because they are stupid creatures, and are stupid because of their complacency; complacent because of their stupidity. Having no predators has rendered them stupid and complacent over many generations. No bears live here now, nor wolves. Only the deer remain, untouched in their thickets. It is thus easy to slay them. And I happily assume the role as the surrogate predator which Nature needs.”
She had seemingly lost interest in what he was saying, her eyes wandering in the dark brown hairs of his beard and chest; her dainty little fingers playing there, twining and twining in nervous anticipation.
“Father was utterly wroth when he heard of my cousin’s situation,” she said. “Being with-child out of wedlock is a terrible thing for a nobleman’s daughter. Poor Miriam is destined for the nunnery. Father raved like a lunatic upon receiving the letter informing him. Of course, he has been of an ill temper lately in every matter. Not a morning passes that he does not foul the air with maledictions against the French rabble. He swears such a revolution would never happen in England, or else he would beat all of his servants…” She smiled like a mischievous elf, gazing into his eyes. “…including you.”
The gamekeeper lifted the young lady with one arm, shifting his legs slightly and resettling her once again upon his lap. Her lithesome figure was a small burden for his burly arm.
“The dandy is welcome to try,” he said.
“Oh, but you would not hurt him too much, would you?” she said, puckering her lips and batting her eyelashes. “If only for my sake.”
“No more than what would be needed,” he said. He did not laugh. The light in his eyes was not gleaned from the fire in the hearth. They burned of their own will. “The wolf never means pain for the fawn,” he said. “Only death. The former is an unavoidable consequence of efforts toward the latter.”
She glanced again at the deer on his cottage wall. “How many deer have you slain?”
“Hundreds of bucks,” he said. “And I have mounted hundreds more of does.”
Her nymphet face wrinkled quizzically. “I count only three,” she said. “And all bucks.”
Instead of addressing her confusion, he pulled her tight to his chest. “You are very dear to me,” he said.
She lightly smacked his cheek, then played in his chest hair. “You tease me so.” She glanced down at her long flowing nightgown whose flowering fabric overspread his lap. Beneath her stockings were his leather pants, and beneath that, more. She felt it stir beneath her. “You wear leather every day. This I know. I have watched you so much, ever since I was a little girl. You are not like those foolish fops father hopes to marry me to. You have a hard-boiled leather soul.”
“A gamekeeper must,” he said.
“What kind of soul do you think I have?” she asked.
He regarded her for a moment, rubbing his chin in mock-contemplation. “Silk and lace, perhaps, or perhaps fawn felt.”
“Fawn felt?” she said. She tossed her head left and right, a single finger to her chin, considering it seriously. Her auburn tresses burnished gold in the firelight. “I rather like that. A frolicking sort of softness that is rare and pretty anyhow. Yes. I have a soul of fawn felt.”
“You are still young in your pelt,” he remarked. “And yet, as you say, many bucks gather in the glade to clash for your favour.”
“And they weary me so!” she exclaimed, sighing in agitation and swooning with the pretense of fatigue. “Between them, father, and my governess, I scarcely have a moment’s peace.”
“And yet, here you are,” he said. “How did that come to be?”
“Father believes me abed,” she said.
“Very soon you will be,” he said.
She shifted uneasily in his lap, eyeing again the deer mounted on the wall. “The most difficulty I had was escaping my governess. She can be such a hound at times!”
“She is jealous of your youth,” he said, eyeing her ironically. “And how did you shake that hag-faced hound?”
The young woman giggled. “It was so simple. I offered to serve her an evening tea, and she condescended. Naturally, she corrected me in my manner and method, but what else are such tutors for? She did not observe the herbal elixir I poured into it, however. She now suffers the most unladylike of afflictions. Presently, she is engaged with her bedpan as industriously as a boatman with a bucket upon a sinking ship.”
They both laughed.
“Have you noticed my new heels?” she asked after a moment, lifting her feet. “They are lovely, though it was difficult walking through the woods in them. Especially at night. But I am fond of them. I fancy that they elevate me in my maturity.”
She stood up, abruptly, and took a turn about his cottage—mindfully near the fire and the bed, both of which seemed dangerous with her long gown blooming around her. She walked proudly, with her chin held high, yet awkwardly also, a self-conscious exactness in each step, not unlike a young fawn learning to hoof through the thick clover and thistle.
“A proper lady must not only be educated about the world,” she said, “but be ready to stride about it with confidence and poise.” She tripped over his bear rug and he caught her, taking her up into his arms. She spoke breathlessly thereupon. “I have no love of History, but I must confess myself possessed of a long-lived memory. History bores me so, but I take pride in my heritage, and so must present myself respectably to others. Or so father says. He claims all lords and ladies have such an ancestral pride, and must, or else they would forget themselves.”
“Is that your worth, then?” he asked. “Remembering that you are crowned among the other animals in the forest? Much good that does anyone between a wolf’s teeth.”
He carried her bodily toward the fur-covered bed. She weighed little— being a mere sapling when compared to the busty, brawny laundresses he usually bedded. She weighed even less than the farmers’ daughters he had enumerated among his herd. Flinging her unceremoniously, he then unbuckled his belt and let the last remnant of human skin fall away. She sprawled upon the bed, her willowy legs flailing out from her gown’s translucent skin. She laughed gleefully as the fur’s coarseness rubbed against her virgin thighs.
Climbing atop her like a wolf upon a fallen fawn, he consumed her utterly, the rapture of the hunt hushing all other sounds from the wilderness beyond the cottage walls. The dead deer stared on, their eyes gleaming blankly in the firelight. She did not cry out except in pleasurable ruin. He did not cry out except in exultation, having devoured the most stupid and complacent of prey.

A Short (A)Morality Tale

Justin Faire was a godly, fair-minded man. He whipped his kids no more than they deserved, went to church every Sunday, paid his taxes on time, and worked hard upon his farmlands, earning a comfortable living for his grateful family. He gave alms to the poor, and every year hosted a generous feast for his neighbors and fellow churchgoers. When a neighbor’s crop was lacking, he supplemented his neighbor’s stores with the abundance from his own. As a father, he was loving, but firm. As a husband he was devoted and very satisfying to his wife. As a neighbor he was friendly and inspired good will in all that he did. His only vice was his virtue: he believed in fairness and order and an ideal sense of the cosmos.
“You reap what you sow,” he often said.
And what was more, he believed it. He believed that if a man worked hard and was morally righteous in his leisure time then God would treat him well in return. That was the one true covenant between Man and the Cosmos, according to Justin Faire.
Justin Faire had a bountiful life in many ways. Not only were his fields fertile, but so too was his marriage bed. His beloved wife bore him four children: two daughters, lovely as their mother, and two sons, strong as their father. All of his children were upright in all that they did, following the straight and narrow path that their father and mother walked every day of their lives. Their children adored their parents, honoring them in all they did. As a consequence, the Faire family was much lauded among the county, and no gossip ever followed them but praise without even a hint of resentment, even if rife with envy.
Many respected the Faire family, especially its patriarch. Justin would have been a chieftain in ancient times, wherever and whenever he might have been planted. He was strong, wise, handsome, and just, always encouraging his neighbors to be better men. Had he the desire, he could have ran for mayor of the county, governor of the state, president of the nation. Yet, Justin Faire solely wished to farm and earn his bread through soil, seed, and sweat, like any righteous, Godfearing man should.

Just down the road from Justin’s farm, however, there was another family that was the abject reverse of the Faires. This family, whom no one spoke of except with a disapproving shake of the head, had earned a nasty reputation throughout the decades. Terrible things were said of them, and more terrible things were true of them. They earned their ill-repute each day of their lives in honest recompense, for they were overfond of cheating and lying and stealing and trespassing their way into infamy. Consequently, no one wished to speak to them, much less do business with them or marry into their family. The patriarch of that family had been warned against breeding his wife at her age. And though he often scoffed at any sort of advice— including a doctor’s advice—he heeded this advice and took it to heart.
He bred his daughter instead, or so his neighbor claimed.
The malformed boy borne from this grotesque union was named Joshua, though most people called him “Mongo” behind his back, for he was, without a doubt, the largest, most ornery Mongoloid anyone had ever seen. Mongo heard this name sometimes, but was partially deaf, and slurred as if he was always drunk, and so he spoke of himself using this name, but mispronounced it as Mondo whenever he spoke. For Mondo spoke of himself in third-person whenever a thought crossed his lopsided brain.
Eventually his name went from Joshua to Mongo to Mondo, and it remained there. Mondo was well known throughout the county. Women and children were admonished to avoid him. Even men feared being near him alone. The towering creature scared everyone. He was a large man-child, an idiot, with a high voice that slurred as if he was always drunk, even when he wasn’t. And he was strong, despite his laziness, and could hurt someone if he was of a mind to. Eventually, Mondo’s father died, and his sister-mother had fled not long after he was born, and so no one remained to take care of him. The people of the county did not know what to do with him. He was a middle-aged man who could not take care of himself. The Bible offered no specifics concerning such a peculiar predicament.
And so Justin Faire— sensing the injustice of the predicament—stepped forward and offered to take Mondo onto his farm as a farmhand. Mondo greeted this offer indifferently, shuffling away with Justin Faire with an impassive blandness on his malformed face. Justin took Mondo to his home. Justin and his sons then built a small shack with nothing more than wood, nails, and a sense of duty to their fellow Man.
“This is your new home, Joshua,” Justin said, for he despised when other people called the imbecile Mondo.
Mondo stared at the edifice indifferently, his gaze wandering toward Justin’s two daughters and his wife.

Over the next month or so Mondo stayed with the Faire family. He did little work on the farm, sitting around and idling by himself. Sometimes he harassed the cows. Sometimes he killed chickens for no reason. And sometimes Mondo eyed Mrs. Faire in a way she did not like, and the daughters, too, but Justin dismissed their concerns, saying, “Charity unburdens the heart, and heavy hearts sink like anchors into the Lake of Fire.”
Mondo had no heavy heart, for he regretted nothing. When Samson, the farm’s dog, ran up to him in an excited state, Mondo kicked the dog so hard that the amiable mutt tumbled over backwards like a wheel and struck the side of the barn. The dog was insensate for a while, but gradually stood and limped away. It took three weeks for Samson to heal. Mondo never did apologize or pet the dog. Instead, whenever he saw the dog his booted foot dug into the ground as if ready to kick the wary mutt again.
Whereas Mondo contributed nothing to the farm, he ate in outsized proportions compared to anyone else, including Justin Faire. The large imbecile could and often did eat a whole chicken by himself. When Justin’s two sons complained, Justin admonished them toward patience.
“He takes much, it is true,” he said, “but he will provide us strong labor when he overcomes the grief of losing his family.”
Justin’s sons were not convinced, nor were his daughters. Mondo sometimes stared up at their window at night, watching them lay down for bed. Justin’s daughters said he never prayed, but only stared at the house like a cat staring at a mouse in the field. Nor did Mondo pray in church with them. He sat in the back pews, or simply walked out during the sermons, preoccupying himself by throwing rocks at birds in the trees near the graveyard. One day Justin discovered Mondo turning over headstones, and knocking them down. Justin chastised him, but Mondo turned an indifferent shoulder to him.
At last, Justin Faire tired of Mondo’s laziness and petulance, realizing that it stemmed not from mourning, but from a lack of regard and a lack of shame. Thus, he doffed his belt and went to take it to Mondo’s backside, hoping that a few lashes with leather would soften the man-child’s contrariness where the lashes of a tongue would not.
Mondo was sitting in the barn, as he often did when he wanted to avoid farm work. He had the farm cat in his arms, and was tightening his arms around the tabby. The cat screeched and clawed to no avail, soon smothered in the Mongoloid’s unfeeling arms.
“I will put the fear of God into you, Joshua!” Justin yelled, at last losing his temper and coming after the idiot like a spirit of vengeance.
Mondo greeted Justin Faire’s wrath as he greeted any other thing done by Man. He ignored it. When the belt came down against his backside he did not flinch, nor cry out in pain, but dropped the dead cat and looked impassively at his caretaker. Standing, he took hold of Justin’s wrist in his fat hands and twisted it until there was a terrible sound like an oak branch breaking. Justin Faire squawked and dropped to his knees. When he tried to free his broken arm from Mondo’s merciless grip, Mondo took hold of that other wrist and broke it as easily as the first. Justin was a strong man, but this pain was severe. He tried to remain conscious, but the agony proved too great. He fainted within moments.

When Justin Faire woke later he staggered out of the barn, sweating and groaning as he staggered over the field toward the house. He came upon the bodies of his two sons— limp and pale upon the ground. Choking back tears, Justin Faire hurried around the house. His two daughters sat together, agog with horror and clutching one another in their trembling arms. Justin saw Mondo atop his wife, rutting like a beast while the latter screamed in terror.
Howling like a wounded wolf, Justin leapt atop Mondo, striking him with his elbows. The imbecile did not grunt or groan or even sigh, but grabbed Justin Faire and wretched him down to his knees, clutching the patriarch’s head between his arms as a man might a sheep soon to be shorn.
Justin wept and raged and fought in utter futility against the fat, unwavering arms of the idiot.
“Why would you do this?!” he cried between clenched teeth. “We took you in! Gave you a home! Food! Clothes! We were as charitable as anyone could be, and now look what you’ve done to us!”
“It ain’t about you,” the idiot said. “Nothing ever was.”
Mondo snapped Justin Faire’s neck and let him fall to the heedless brow of the imbecilic earth.

Love Letters

Emily sat at an escritoire that resided on the landing between the lower and upper floors of her ancestral home. The lower stairs were to her right, in front of the old grandfather clock, and the upper stairs to her left, both flights shrouded in shadow. At her back was an old chair— lion-pawed and adorned with arabesques, the head of which was a fierce face wreathed in a mane—and beyond it the balustrade overlooking the lower floor’s hall. In front of her, atop the cherry oak escritoire, was vellum, a black ink well, and her pale hands, the left sprawled atop the vellum in a most fragile, yet possessive, fashion, and the other crooked with a quill in its dainty claw. Beyond all this loomed the window, which allowed the moon in as that pallidly polished piece of silver rose above the garden, stretching the shadows of dogwood trees across the lawn. From here, too, could be seen the barn upon the hill, at a greater distance, where the cows slept, its asymmetrical roof angling toward the silent stars.
But none of these observations mattered to Emily. Rather, her thoughts were wholly consumed with one image, and that image was the face of her beloved. She wrote his name several times, and whispered his name all the while. Her parents were abed, as were the slaves in their shack, and so Emily made little sound as she toiled by moonlight. To have seen her working so, her parents would have disapproved—her father because he knew well how ruined a pair of eyes might become by moonlit labors, and her mother because she knew well how ruined a young woman could become by moonlit romances. Emily had at the ready a match and a candlestick, but she was not ready to employ them yet. For the spell to work the preparations had to be properly undertaken. The candlestick and the match lay beside a small, red-edged penknife.
Emily continued writing the name of her intended lover until the vellum was utterly wet with her scrawl. She began to feel faint, swaying as an anemic exhaustion overtook her. The wind blew susurrations through the pink heads of the dogwoods. The latter were all abloom, but black and white by moonlight.
Letting the vellum dry, Emily leaned forward and raised the window. It took great effort, for it was a large window and she felt very weak. At length, it rose and the wind swept in, cool against her wan skin. She collapsed back, her nightgown rustling, but the heavy chair silent and unmoved with the sudden return of her languid weight. Her lips trembled, colorless, and her eyelids fell heavy over her blue irises. Lolling a moment, she roused and rallied herself once more. Her bonnet seemed too great a weight upon her clammy head and so she peeled it off, letting her blonde hair spill down freely.
Emily drifted through a fog of memories. The ritual required sacrifice, and those sacrifices returned to her in inchoate flashes of images. She saw the little calf she had helped deliver and fed and coddled like a childhood playmate. She had slit its throat herself and through her own labors rendered the vellum from its skin. She saw the parrot her father had procured for her, and which she had taught to repeat loving words to her mother. She slit its throat, too, and sharpened its tailfeather into her needful quill. The tallow candle had been gotten from the fat of a farrow of piglets that, like her calf, kept her company for a time.
The vellum had at last dried and so Emily struck the match, its head flaring into a small flame. She lit the candle, holding its waxy tower in her stronger hand. The wax seemed warmer than her own fingers. With her weakened hand she lifted the vellum and, in the moonlight, her scrawl almost appeared black, though it shimmered red as the paper wrinkled and shivered in her unsteady hand. Her wrist stung where the cloth bound back its tide and her grip wavered. Willing her grip tighter, she lifted the vellum higher.
Now came the moment of revelation. She held the vellum by its top corner, letting the bottom corner drag across the candle’s flame. The moon was high as the flame greedily ate the vellum, racing up its whiteness and leaving only ash and flaring embers that drifted out the window, against the wind, and across the field, toward the hill. She held the vellum until the last bit of calfskin paper had been dissolved between the pinch of her blackened forefinger and her thumb. That hand did not matter anymore— it had been rendered useless by the ritual. What mattered now was the face she had seen reflected in the ivy-wreathed window, among the flames and the crimson scrawl. The wind rose once again, trees whispering. Emily heard them say her name. Looking beyond the windowpane, she saw another shadow upon the hilltop where the barn sat. There was a ring of megaliths where there had been none; three to a group, in post-and-lintel arrangement.
Quietly, Emily tiptoed downstairs and slipped out the door. The night air invigorated her, as did the promise of the ritual, and though her arm was numb she did not care. She crossed the garden, passed the dogwoods, and then the field. The only creature that stirred was an old black dog on the porch of the slaves’ shack; and it merely whimpered, trembling incessantly.
As Emily tread uphill she raised her thin nightgown above her head with her good hand, letting it fall to the earth. Clothed only in moonlight, the slender figure entered the ring of standing stones and was never seen again.

War Paint

Margaret was glad that, at her age, she could still paint beauty into the world, even if the world had, year by year, taken her personal beauty away. Her husband departed, and her children preoccupied with their children, and their children’s children, she woke every morning with nothing on her mind but blank paper soon to be filled with whatever whimsy was demanded by her muse. This was half the fun: not knowing what would manifest from the end of her paintbrushes. She was as amazed as anyone by what she painted.
When Margaret was younger, and still desired making a name for herself in the Art World, it was frustrating. None of her work was unified by a single theme, and so most art galleries had little interest in displaying it, however masterful it may have been in its realization. What common thread could be found in the paintings of a fox, a still life bouquet of flowers, a meadow with a single apple tree, and a portrait of her niece’s youngest daughter? Nothing— nothing except that her muse demanded them and embargoed all other things until such demands were met.
Of course, Margaret sometimes attempted to plan out her paintings beforehand, and she would always fail at them. The paintings lived as they willed, unmindful of their creator and as vengeful to the taming whip as a wild lion newly caged. She simply accepted this, letting herself be the avatar desired, and was content in both the satisfaction of a deft execution and the serene calm that enveloped her while surrendering to her muse every morning.
Since her last remaining vanity was painting, Margaret equipped that vanity with the makeup that accentuated her talents. Watercolor, gouache, sometimes inks. She preferred water-based paints because they seemed more natural— more elemental to her fastidious muse. The watery colors were chaotic and would run at times like invading armies where they were not invited. They also presented minimal risks to her health and sanity, unlike oil paints which could have poisoned her and had her cutting her own ears off within a year. Her children already believed her too old and senile to be living alone; she did not want to provide them with further evidence for their case.
Nowadays her children rarely visited her. You would think their repeated concerns for her solitary life would culminate in a visitation every other week or so. But they hardly ever came, except for her eldest son, Damon, and that was because he was prime executor of the Will. He visited her twice a month in the attempt to convince his mother to forsake her happy, isolated independence for the crowded miseries of a nursing home. Though he masked himself with concern, the conceit was so counterfeit as to announce itself in shrill overtures. He desired only the house, which to most people would have been considered a mansion.
It was exactly that, too; a mansion in the middle of Vermont’s most pristine woods. Her late husband hated people and so aspired to avoid them wherever he could. The irony, of course, was that he tried very hard to people the house with as much as his seed would yield; with his wife’s assistance, naturally.
And now, born literally and metaphorically from those efforts, his many children were conspiring to take Margaret’s house from her, just as they were conspiring to take that selfsame house from each other.
Succinctly put, they wanted Margaret out of the way, just as she had wanted her husband out of the way when he was yet living. The difference was that she had worked in accordance to wisdom and married a wealthy, older businessman— some twenty years her senior—so that Time would serve her expediently as a trustworthy hitman. Time’s accomplices, Stress and Heart Disease, also served quite loyally.
Now, Time was demanding its payment from Margaret, too, while her children demanded— in subtle words of concern— their inheritance. How could she blame them their covetousness? They had inherited such selfish traits doubly on each side of their blood. Perhaps she would have been as transparent in her greed as they were if she had not been born, too, with the witch-like cunning that possessed her.
That is not to say she had not grown to regret her own behavior. She had been born a cold, distanced girl, and so she grew to be a curt, mostly indifferent mother. Her destiny was never one aligned to the nurturer’s calling; this she knew and embraced wholeheartedly. Any milk that flowed from her bosom had been scarce, if not soured.
Margaret had married her husband John because he was wealthy, and because with his wealth came the prospect of leisure to pursue her painting. Unfortunately, the cost of the wealth was his desire for heirs, and so she surrendered to his old-fashioned notions for the sake of her one passion. A nanny was employed to compensate for Margaret’s natural disinclination toward motherliness, and John had many mistresses, which pleased Margaret as much as her husband, for it spared her any intimate relationship with him after their five children were born. Margaret had always been asexual in her preferences. Their relationship was not even platonic, truly; it was merely an abiding business transaction. Their prenuptials explicitly embraced such a condition, and both had signed their names— and so their lives— to this arrangement without hesitation.
Sometimes Margaret wondered if the only things that perpetuated her life were her paintings and the frustration her continuity caused her impatient children. She lived to spite them and to beautify. She lived as she had always lived: selfishly. She had no illusions about her virtues. Were her virtues equaled in weight to their constancy then a small thumbtack could have held their combined weight up on a wall. Nor would it have mortified her if her virtues were overlooked among the wallpaper, or even a blankly white wall.
Her heart, succinctly put, was a withered leather sack emptied of any and all keepsakes, spacious in allowing solely her paints and brushes entrance. Her husband’s death had not bothered her anymore than her children’s obvious frustration at her longevity. She lived alone, and she lived happily. No memories harried her. No regrets weighed heavily on the leather sack, as if to make it burst. She was content.
And then, one morning, things changed.

It had been raining all week, and, according to the weatherman, would continue to rain. Margaret welcomed the rain. Its pervading presence announced the silence reigning in the house with a softly thrumming echolocation. Her muse welcomed the rain also, and its hypnosis. Who cared for sunlight with its peanut gallery of forest voices always chittering and chattering? She could paint light, if need be, and there were no distractions in the shade of a thunderhead. There was only the brushing hush of the rain as it veiled the house. There was only the silent water as it colored the paper with vivacious splashes of overlapping hues.
Then the phone rang.
Margaret was so startled she dropped her paintbrush, smearing an azurn cloud as the brush twirled out and away from her knotted fingers. Stooping, she fetched up the rebellious brush and set it on the easel, then thought on whether to answer the phone.
Part of her said that she should ignore it and simply focus on restoring the smeared cloud. Another part was mourning over the body of her murdered muse as it was hauled off to the tomb for a resurrection— scheduled at whatever time was its impish fancy. The phone’s petulant noise had killed it dead.
Without her muse to distract her, Margaret decided to answer the phone, if only to unleash hell upon the caller. She wiped her hands on her apron (splattered as it was with every color imaginable) and begrudgingly walked over to the antique dial phone resting on the antique rollerdesk. Twisting her face up toward her haughtiest eyebrow— the left one—she lifted the sleek black-and-brass receiver and pressed it to her dried-up peach slice of an ear.
“What do you want, Damon?”
“Hello, mom,” he said. the word “mom” was as uncomfortable coming out of his mouth as a wisdom tooth. “I was just calling to check on you…”
“I’m not dead yet,” Margaret retorted. “Until that hour arrives, leave me to my remaining hours of peace.”
“Hold on, now,” he said. “Since you brought that up, I have to ask you, mother, about the grand piano downstairs. You haven’t said where you want it to go.”
“The grand piano?”
“The one downstairs,” he said.
“I know which one,” she snapped. “It’s the only one in the house, after all.”
“Of course, mother,” he said.
Margaret loved that grand piano. She enjoyed sitting on its bench in the morning and setting her morning coffee on its hood and just ignoring it altogether while her conniving children dreamed in vain of selling its large mahogany bulk for a small fortune. Probably to pay for a new car, perhaps, or kitchen renovations. Denying them these petty dreams pleased her.
“I do not know what I will do with it,” she said. “For now I would not worry about it.”
“But mother…”
Margaret returned the phone to the stand, then stepped away. Her mind was still mourning her Lazarus muse when the phone startled her once more with its grinding gearbox-throated birdsong. She nearly jumped with surprise. Had her muse been a vampire this would have been the stake to the heart.
“Damn it all!” she cried.
Angry, Margaret wrenched the phone up from the stand as if she would fling it across the room. Instead, she slammed it into her ear.
“What, Damon?!”
“Mother, you need to get caller ID.”
It was her eldest daughter’s voice. Laura. Her tongue clucked with jaded sarcasm. Indeed, Laura was nothing but jaded sarcasm.
“If I had caller ID I would never pick up the phone for anyone,” Margaret said.
“That’s no way to talk, mother.” Laura’s pronunciation of “mother” was as frigid and disagreeable as a governess attempting Peter Pan’s domestication.
“What do you want, Laura? I am busy trying to live before I die.”
“How appropriate,” Laura said. “That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was speaking to Damon earlier today and he seems to think that he is going to inherit the grand piano, which I knew could not possibly be true. I was the pianist in the family. I was the one that had musical inclinations.”
“Yes, but no musical talent,” her mother retorted.
There was a long silence from Laura’s end of the phone. It ticked like a bomb, though it may have just been Laura biting her nails. At length, she spoke.
“It would be a great travesty if you were to give such a beautiful instrument to that dolt. I would flaunt it in my living room, and play it at Christmas parties. Wouldn’t you like that, mother? To know your great-grandchildren are being cultivated on the holidays with a family heirloom?”
Since Laura’s sarcasm was infectious, Margaret asked how her great-grandchildren were doing, and she did so sarcastically.
“Henry has the Measles and is having a bad go of it,” she said. “Betty’s trying her best, but you know how Henry can be.”
No, Margaret did not know how Henry “could be”. She could not for the life of her remember what he looked like. Presumably he was boyish by look and bratty by nature. That is, if he were an honest heir to the family’s blood and not another cuckoo.
“And Susan’s off to boarding school,” she continued. “We couldn’t afford to send her to the school she wanted, but it is nonetheless an excellent school. Highly recommended in the Club for people wanting the best while balancing a budget.”
Margaret shook her head ruefully. “Knowing your side of the family you might be better off sending her to a nunnery.”
Again Laura clucked her tongue.
“If you knew her you would know that she is not like that,” Laura said.
“Oh yes, just as you were never like that.”
“It is always a delight to speak with you, mother. I do believe that it becomes even more pleasant with ever passing year.”
“Yes, I don’t doubt that you welcome each year as my last, just as you think every conversation with me will be the last. Well, don’t fret too much. I intend that this should actually be our last conversation.”
This time Margaret did slam the phone down.
And once again it rang.
“Laura, I gave you what you wanted…!” she said.
“So you gave her the grand piano?” It was Eric, her youngest son. “Mom, I can’t believe you…”
“I’ve given it to no one, Eric,” she snapped. “In fact, I am thinking of having myself buried in it. Why waste money on a coffin when the grand piano would serve just as well?”
“Mom, that’s silly. You need a proper coffin…”
“It would save more money for your inheritance, wouldn’t it?”
“Mom, I know a guy who wants a piano like that and he is willing to pay forty thousand dollars for it. That’s a lot of money.”
“No, Eric, it isn’t,” Margaret returned. “Your father would make that much money in a week sometimes.”
There was a long, defeated sigh from Eric’s end. “Dad was a stock-broker, mom. Of course it wasn’t much money. But I’m a teacher, and I’ll be lucky to make that much money in a year.”
“It is not my fault you chose public service over selfish practice,” Margaret said. “We paid for your education. You were the one to aim for the ditch when you had a golden brick road to follow.”
“Mom, this isn’t about me. It’s about Ashley’s care. We’re trying to hire a specialist to work with her.”
“Ashley?”
Margaret could not be bothered to remember the names, nor even the faces, of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They were as indistinguishable to her as a nest full of chirping, gaping throats. And each one a cuckoo, too.
“Ashley, my youngest grandchild,” Eric said. “She came with us last time we visited you.”
Margaret was surprised to find that she did remember the girl. She was a quiet, self-contained child with a meek face and shy, flighty eyes. The awkward girl was perfectly innocent in her reticence and self-consciousness. Upon first seeing the girl— Ashley, was it?— Margaret wondered briefly if perhaps the girl was a cuckoo planted into her dumb grandson’s house by a roaming salesman. Or perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed meek enough to be one.
But the poor girl did have her father’s natural pout, worsened by a surprising overbite that neither Margaret nor her husband had to such a drastic degree. Ashley was also prone to freckles, her rounded cheeks bespeckled with them like stars on a night sky. Perhaps she was a changeling. Margaret knew her grandson and his wife had nothing to do with the child. That was why Eric was looking after the girl. Margaret could not fathom it. Having to birth children and raise them was a bother enough— having to raise the children your children birthed was the never-ending spiral staircase to madness.
Be that as it may, what remembered Ashley most to Margaret, though, was her quiet disappearance during the last family visit. It had been six months ago or so and Eric had not noticed— so busy was he inspecting and cataloguing the silverware in the house— but Margaret had, and she went looking for the curious girl. Margaret found Ashley in her painting studio upstairs, standing as if rooted in the center of the room.
Margaret was at first enraged, thinking the careless and homely girl might knock something over, or damage her finished paintings that were lined up along the walls. But then she noticed the gleaming light in the girl’s otherwise murky brown eyes. It was an exciting light; a light of magic and joy and appreciation.
“Do you like it, child?” she asked her great-granddaughter.
The child did not answer, and it was then that Margaret realized that the girl was not altogether there. Back in the old days they would have called her a dumb mute, or an idiot. Margaret did not know what they called them today. Even that asinine word “special” had become passe. Perhaps, she thought, they called them something as equally ridiculous.
So Margaret walked over to Ashley and gently took her by the arm and pointed out all of the things in the painting which had taken so many countless hours to paint. The field with an old castle in the background, collapsed to ruin by the onslaught of Time’s catapults of entropy. The Black Angus cows grazing between the mossy remnants. The crenelations on the remaining walls, like broken rows of teeth, and the castle’s bowels clogged with vines. A sky morose on the horizon, darkening with black clouds.
Looking at the painting anew, with the simple girl beside her, Margaret felt like that castle was her; her old constipated, rotting, derelict body. It was sad and beautiful simultaneously, and she allowed herself one tear of self-pity, but no more.
“Mom? Mom? Are you still there?”
Margaret shook herself from her woolgathering. “Of course I am still here,” she spat into the phone. “Not dead yet, no matter however much you might wish it.”
“Mom, don’t be like that,” Eric said with all of the feeling of a door mat.
“I’ll be however I like,” Margaret retorted. “And as of right now I will be hanging up the phone.”
As said, so done.
Margaret also unplugged the phone from the wall. Then she proceeded to her easel where she painted in supreme peace for a full two hours without interruption by blood or blotch or bladder.
Rain fell heavy on the house, cascading down the windowpanes in hydra-necked rivulets. The thrum of it put Margaret at ease while she painted. A certain serenity enveloped her so utterly that she sometimes forgot to breathe as she painted, her breath growing shallower and shallower until she nearly drowned in open air. Nor did the prospect of dying at her easel scare her; it was a peaceful prospect. The only death that might be superior would be in a blaze that took the mansion and all of its contents while her children stared on in horror, calculators in hand to reckon the total wealth lost.
Margaret had started painting when she was old enough to pick up a brush and splash some cheap watercolors across a page. Her young mind marveled at the colors. It was like there was the life-forming magic of nebulas in those haphazard collisions of color. Eventually, she had to develop an artist’s discipline of form and subject, rather than continuing the Jackson Pollock method of painting inherent in all children below the age of four. Yet, discipline was as pleasurable to her adolescent mind as the splashes of colors were to her toddler mind. Thus, a passion had been born in her: the passion of creating life, or at least, visions of life. Only in this way was she motherly.
Presently, her paintbrush was creating a wild moor, its verdant expanse bordered by whimsical trees and a seaside cliff. It looked like a very persuasive travel card from the Emerald Isle. Her muse always had an affinity toward the Celtic.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which irritated Margaret immensely. No one should have been visiting her today. The grocery boy was supposed to come on Sundays. Not today. Moreover, it was raining heavily, which meant the groceries would be wet and would need to be dried if they were to be properly salvaged at all.
Perhaps that was why the doorbell rang so urgently.
Margaret hurried downstairs, past the living room and dining hall and into the foyer. She opened the door, expecting the grocery boy— what was his name?— and instead found her eldest son, Damon, hurrying inside with his umbrella dripping water all over her floor.
“Its raining cats and dogs outside!” Damon remarked, laughing like an idiot. “Be careful, for they will chase each other about your head and leave wet pawprints on your temples.”
He took his fedora off and shook off his wet trenchcoat, hanging both of them on the coatrack. Of all of Margaret’s children, Damon most resembled her dead husband. Perhaps that was why she could stomach the sight of him the least.
“Mother, I wanted to apologize for being so rude with you on the phone,” he said. “I know I sometimes become pushy and it is very insensitive of me. I just want you to know that I am trying to do what’s best for everyone.”
Much like his father, Damon could also lie with a straight, serious face, or with a smile, or with a laugh. It served his father well in his business practices, but such a skill was wasted on Damon. He was “in-between jobs”.
“What would be best for everyone would be to leave me alone,” Margaret said. “When I am dead and gone you can fight amongst yourselves over the house. I do not want to be in the middle of your bickering while I am still standing. At least do me the courtesy of waiting until my corpse hits the floor.”
“A fight is exactly what I intend to avoid,” Damon said. “In fact, I will finish it before it starts.”
He began walking through the house without asking leave. It infuriated Margaret. This was still her house, whatever his intentions as executor of the Will. And she had half a mind to call the police on him for trespassing.
Damon arrived at the grand piano, which resided in the living room near the large recessed window. He then proceeded to inspect the piano in the most outlandish fashion. He plucked at the strings. He rubbed a finger along each square inch of mahogany. He tapped every single key, both white and black, and paused between keys to listen to its distinct note ring and then fade to silence. Margaret was fairly sure he had no idea what a finely tuned piano should sound like. He also kneeled down to inspect the legs of the piano, and its underbelly, and finally, after shaming himself beyond what Margaret could tolerate, he took a permanent marker from his pocket and wrote on the inside of the key cover his own name, the date, and the current time as per his wristwatch.
“How dare you!” Margaret yelled. “Out! Get out!”
She pushed at him, but he was a large man, much like her husband, and did not yield an inch of ground.
“Mother, please, if you do not stop this I will have to put you in a nursing home.” He then added, as an afterthought, “For your own good.”
“That is still my piano!” she said.
“And I am the eldest,” he said, “so it will of course go to me in…due time.”
He then left for the door, grabbing his umbrella and his hat.
“If Laura or Eric call, please inform them that the matter of the piano has been settled.” He opened the umbrella, then opened the door. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Take care, mother.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Margaret returned upstairs to paint, feeling rather furious. She entered a vicious sort of trance that held sway over her for countless hours. Possessed of her newfound passion, her every spiteful thought went from neuron to brush tip like a lightning strike. It was a murderous mood most foul and perpetrated itself with gashes of gouache all over the watercolor underpainting.
When she came to herself later—brush in hand and swaying with exhaustion— she was disturbed to find her moorland painting savagely deviated from its original image. The trees were aflame, the sky was black with smoke, and the moor itself was littered with corpses mangled within shattered armor. Mass pyres burned on the horizon and women wept over fallen husbands, sons, and brothers. Swarms of black flies crowded upon the banquet of death served so generously to them. Soldiers stood in the distance, looking distraught and dismayed at the destruction they had achieved, like dogs of war waking suddenly from a bout of rabies.
And standing in the center of it all, like a grandstanding ringleader grinning at applause only he could hear, was a tall figure in a blood-red cloak.
Margaret’s eyes lingered on that strange figure, and his eyes seemed to linger on hers. Something about him seemed to pop off the page. Perhaps it was merely his red cloak, which was a complementary color to the green field.
Enough, she thought. It was past time that she had something to eat. All of the painting and family drama had exhausted her. She was also feeling dizzy and faint.
Without further ado, she walked downstairs and made a simple salad for herself, sitting on the couch in the living room and watching a little television to distract herself from the grand piano and the painting upstairs. The television chatter blended with the sound of rain pattering on the house. Neither made distinct sense in her waywardly drifting attention, but both were welcome and comforting.
Accompanying her salad was a tall glass of merlot. She kept the bottle on the coffee table, within easy reach should she have need of a refill; which she had, and numerously. She was drinking her fourth glass when she fell asleep on the couch.

Sometimes Margaret peed the bed. Sometimes her bowels betrayed her. But there was little shame in these accidents because there was no one around to shame her. She simply bleached the sheets, washed her underwear, and found a large sheet of blank paper upon which to work her frustrations into fulsome fusillades of paint.
Unfortunately, the couch was not something so easily cleaned as bed sheets. Rather, it was leather, and she had no idea how to properly clean the smell of urine off of leather. So, when she woke later, in the middle of the night, she did the only things she could do: she took a shower, threw her dirty clothes in the laundry machine, put on a nightie, and scrubbed the leather with wet, soapy rags. Whether it would clean it sufficiently or not, she did not know.
When she was finished, Margaret went into her bedroom and cried, thinking about how much she hated the thought of a nursing home and how much she hated the thought of her children rejoicing in finally exiling her from her home.

***

So long as Margaret could see, and so long as Arthritis did not clutch her hand into a gargoyle’s stony claw, she could paint serenity and beauty into her decaying life. Thus, the next morning Margaret woke up and, without food or drink or even a bathroom break, she stood at her easel and painted for four hours straight; unblinking as if in a trance. What possessed her, she did not know, but when she was finished the paper was wet with a strange scene.
It was a royal court, presided over by a king robed in crepuscular velvets and crowned with stars. The people populating his court were humanoid, but not human. Their faces were more delicately featured, some being cartoonish in their long noses and slender chins. Their ears were tapered and long, like pointy aloe leaves. The men’s faces were narrow, and the women’s faces were shaped like acorns. All wore finery of a more anachronistic make, such as lavish gowns and trim-fitted pantaloons, frocks and tunics and petticoats, vests blooming with cravats and waistlines tightly wound with whalebone-and-lace corsets. Translucent wings, such as those belonging to dragonflies, sprouted from the backs of the men, and the women were paired with butterfly wings whose diaphanous colors shimmered.
Margaret was astounded by the breadth of the details and the sheer amount of dexterous work involved in the painting. Frankly, she amazed herself. She wondered if she was suffering dementia, and if so, she concluded it her best muse yet.
And then her eye alighted upon the most dominant figure in the scene, with the exception of the twilight-robed king. There was a tall, willowy man in a bright red suit standing near to the king’s throne. He was, perhaps, the most gaudily dressed gentleman in the room, and while he was certainly handsome, there was something about his eyes— as he peered over his shoulder at Margaret— that chilled her through to her old bones. Something whispered in her ear, Oleander, and she knew, at once, that Oleander was this creature’s name.
Startled, she glanced about herself. Blood throbbed in her head and she decided that it was time she had something to eat, lest she faint.

Margaret ate eggs benedict with a cup of plain milk, the latter of which was a rarity for her. It was raining outside again, though the sun sometimes shone its light through that hushing veil. As she finished her eggs, the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be the mailman, she went to answer it.
It was not the mailman.
It was her eldest daughter, Laura.
“Hello, mother,” Laura said, stepping in with her stilettos hammer-tapping the floor. She tossed her parasol to the floor, quite unmindfully. “I came to check on you today. Damon said you were in extreme duress yesterday.”
“You should be in extreme duress,” Margaret said, “wearing high-heels in this weather.”
“You still have your spirit, at least,” Laura said, puncturing the silence of the house with each piercing step. “God willing, mind and body will remain, too.”
She pretended to give the foyer an equal glance over— here and there— but soon arrived at her obvious purpose for the visitation: the grand piano in the living room. She walked around it, inspecting it casually, feigning disinterest before lifting the key cover and running a ringed finger along Damon’s name. She clucked her tongue and stomped her heel like a billiard ball striking another billiard ball, and another, and another.
“That selfish bastard,” she said. “He knew I wanted it. He knew I deserved it. He had never shown any interest in it until he found out what it was worth. I remember when we were children and he would mock me for playing it. He had no ear for good music.”
“None of you ever did,” her mother said.
Laura ignored her. She had a purse at her side— a black leather, diamond-studded gaudy thing— from which she fetched a tube of fingernail polish remover. She then proceeded to dab at Damon’s name and the date with the odorous little brush. While the acetone ate at the permanent marker, she stood by and waited. Then, using a handkerchief, she wiped away the ink, as well as some of the piano’s finish.
“Right as rain,” she remarked, folding the handkerchief and returning it to her purse.
“Nothing is as ‘right as rain’,” Margaret grumbled.
Laura then proceeded to take a turn about the lower level of the house, from the living room to the kitchen, to the utility room and the pantry and the dining room. It was mostly an open-floor plan on the first floor, and so each of her stiletto-steps echoed pointedly throughout the house. Margaret followed her, outraged and yet helpless.
Whereas Damon resembled his father, Laura resembled her mother. She differed, however, in that she was taller and younger, and thus vainer. This was why Margaret could suffer her presence even less than her other children’s. The very reason Margaret painted so much was so she could escape herself, and yet here was a walking, talking reminder of all of her former earthly vanities.
Returning to the living-room, Laura suddenly paused in her perambulation. The click of her stilettos stopped, ending with a cluck of her tongue that seemed louder than her punctuated walk.
“Why does it smell like pee in here?” she asked.
Livid with anger and shame, Margaret lied. “The cat peed on the couch.”
“I didn’t know you had a fondness for cats,” Laura replied, craning her neck to look for the errant beast.
“I don’t,” Margaret said, “which is why I had to rid myself of it.”
“I see,” was Laura’s stiff reply.
Laura gave the house one last sardonic look. “Well, mother, I suppose I should be going. Julio and I are set to take the grandchildren to the beach.”
“To the beach?” Margaret said. “But it is too cold for the beach.”
“Copacabana beach, mother,” Laura said, curtly. “We’re taking Julio’s company jet there this evening. Long trip, of course, but worth the eleven hour flight. Little Laura has been so looking forward to it. She can hardly wait.”
Margaret could only nod. She could not remember what “Little Laura” looked like. She supposed she looked like a little Laura, which was to say, a girl not unlike what Margaret herself resembled when still young; a happy, pretty, spoilt, naive little girl. Not so bent and embittered and soured to life as Margaret was now.
“Well, take care, mother,” Laura said, heading to the door. “Try not to fall down the stairs or anything. If Damon comes by again, tell him he can put his name wherever he likes. I have plenty of remover to wipe away any claim he might make.”
Laura left and Margaret fumed. The pettiness of her children, and the invasiveness of their visits, infuriated her. There was no end to it, except, perhaps, the end. And it was all so uncalled for. Laura was very wealthy; perhaps wealthier than Margaret had ever been. Her husband, Julio, was a derivatives market conquistador from South America. A bronzed man with an aquiline profile, he had a black ponytail and was built like a professional soccer player, even as he entered his mid-fifties. Margaret’s dead husband hated him, more for their similarities than their ethnic differences. And that was why Laura had married him. That, and his financial liquidity. The plain fact of the matter was that Laura could have bought any piano she wanted, but she wanted Margaret’s piano precisely because Damon wanted it, and Damon wanted it because Laura wanted it. At least Eric was honest about wishing to sell it, not that such honesty earned any appreciation from Margaret. An honest thief was still a thief.

Margaret returned upstairs to her studio. The next painting came spontaneously and without forethought or reflection. Margaret welcomed her muse and became its willing conduit. Like a bloodhound on the trail, she followed it with single-minded devotion. When she had finished, and woken from the magical mesmerism, she looked at her painting with a stranger’s eyes.
It was an outdoor scene where a king in a crepuscular robe and star-studded crown was walking through an apple orchard. Arrayed around him were many smaller fairies— perhaps sprites— all sitting in the boughs of the trees, or flitting through the air, or hiding under flowers and roots. Beside the king stood the same devilish dandy in his crimson cloak that smirked in Margaret’s other two paintings.
Oleander.
Lord Oleander, something told her.
In this painting he was much closer to the viewer, his features elaborated upon with greater scrutiny. Lord Oleander was a tall, willowy sort of dandy, with conceitedly long blonde curls. In that slender foppishness, however, was the cold, sharp promise of anger, like an unsheathed rapier with a flowery handguard to distract from its blade. He was the sort of blade which never sheathed itself but reluctantly, and then only to lower his target’s guard and trick them for a killing strike.
The devilish dandy was gesturing the king toward a ring of mushrooms in the center of the orchard. The king, who was a bent and sallow looking old fellow, nonetheless beamed with a genuine grandfatherly sort of smile. He could not see the kris dagger in the dandy’s other hand.
Margaret took a few steps back, then leaned forward, peering. She stepped forward again and leaned back, peering. No matter how she looked at the painting, she felt like she was painting someone else’s painting—not her own. Where did this painting come from? Where had it been hiding inside her all this time?
Letting the paper dry, Margaret walked to the studio window and looked outside. The massive Vermont pine trees were standing like soggy, shaggy green beasts wishing they could come in out of the incessant rain. Some perverse part of her wanted to see her spiteful children standing out in this rain, wanting to come in, just so she could deny them entry and watch the rain taunt them with its cold wetness.
“I am a bad mother,” she said to her ghostly reflection in the window. “I have always been a bad mother. That is why I have bad children.”
She walked downstairs, found the half-empty bottle of merlot, and carried it to bed.

***

The ringing of the bedroom phone woke Margaret from her drunken slumber in the middle of the night. It was Chris, her youngest son.
“Heya’, mom, I just wanted to give you a call,” he slurred into the phone.
“Chris, it is three in the morning.”
“It is? Aw well, it ain’t no biggie. How ya’ doin’, mom?”
“You’ve been drinking again,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She leaned over to put the phone back down on the stand, but the empty bottle of merlot fell to the floor, ringing and rolling. “Chris, you know the court will not like it if they find you’ve been drinking again.”
“Ain’t no big deal,” Chris slurred, blithely. There was a sound similar to a bullfrog’s throat engorging and croaking, ending with a wet smack of lips and a throaty sigh of satisfaction. “My parole officer doesn’t know where I am.”
“You get involved in another hit and run, Chris, and you’re on your own! I’m not paying to bail you out!”
“You didn’t pay last time,” he snorted. “You let me rot in jail.”
“I gave Mr. Setter the money and he took care of everything.”
“Mr. Setter? Oh yeah. The mute suit. Fucking stuck-up sonnabitch wouldn’t say a damn word to me.”
“That is because he is a lawyer who knows when to speak and when not to,” Margaret quipped. “Something you never learned, obviously.”
“You were always a cold ass, mom,” Chris said.
Behind him came a volley of voices and the distorted blast of music from static-eaten speakers. The occasional chinking of long-necked glass told Margaret all she needed to know. He was at a bar. Knowing Chris, she guessed it was in all likelihood a dive-bar.
“The boys and I are goin’ for a run later,” Chris said. “We’re going to pick up some girls. But don’t worry, mom. Sheridan’s driving. Or Joseph, maybe. Wait a second…” He shouted away from the phone. “Hey! Who’s driving?! Thomas? Fuck all, I might as well be driving…”
Margaret hung up the phone. She had no patience for drunkards, especially those who cost her money.

Margaret tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. When she got up in the morning she had a migraine that not even Columbian coffee could allay. Wanting to paint, but unable to concentrate, she took a long hot shower and then laid on the couch in the living room, listening to the rain continue its hushing thrum upon the rooftop.
Gradually, the trenchant pain in her head dissolved into a lax pool of numbness, and with it her consciousness. She slipped, gratefully, into a restful nap.
She was startled awake by what sounded like an intruder upstairs. Fearful for her life— whatever little of it remained to her— she stood up and walked to the kitchen, quietly taking a butcher knife from a drawer. Cautiously, she walked upstairs, her house slippers whispering to each other as she baby-stepped across the floor.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and of tearing tape, of what must have been her easel as its three legs were rattled into a new position while the intruder moved it. What was the intruder doing up there?
Upstairs now, Margaret sidled toward her studio door. Her nerves were electrified with anxiety and fear, and static electricity. The friction of the hall rug was building static in her furry pom-pom slippers. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. Scared to breathe, she craned her neck around the doorframe and peered into her study.
No one was there. She checked behind the door, and near her stacks of paintings against the wall. She even checked the window and found that it was fastened tightly against the elements, permitting no entry or exit. As she was turning from the window the phone rang in the bedroom, giving her a violent start. She jumped.
“Damn it all!” she gasped.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked to the master bedroom and answered the phone.
“Heya’, mom,” said a chippery girl’s voice without a care or wear in the world. “What’cha’ doing?”
“Angela?” Margaret said, unsure.
“Duh, mom,” Angela said, giggling. “Did you forget me?”
“No, I did not,” Margaret said. “It is hard to forget you when I am still getting bills for your credit cards. You know, I am seriously contemplating canceling your cards.”
Angela laughed nervously. “Oh, mom, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave me stranded in the middle of France without any way to live or get by.”
“You could always find a job,” Margaret said. “Washing dishes. Cleaning rooms. Oh, but you never learned how to do anything for yourself, did you?”
Angela’s chippery voice flattened with gravitas. “Mom, I am taking care of myself just fine. I stay in cheap hostels and…”
Margaret cut her off. “Nothing is cheap in Paris. I have the bills to prove it.”
There was a long pause on Angela’s end. When she spoke again it was with a measured amount of optimism. “My novel is coming along. Jean believes it will do well in France. Maybe even the rest of Europe.”
If Margaret was a young woman again she would have rolled her eyes. Instead, one of her eyes simply twitched with frustration. “And what is this novel about again?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, mom. It’s about a young American woman living in France who falls in love with a mysterious man with a dark past.”
“How very…romantic,” Margaret remarked, the word as corrosive in her mouth as acid. It invoked Cherubim, and immediately shot them down from heaven.
“Jean has many literary contacts in Paris,” Angela said, heedless of her mother’s sarcasm. “Publishers, agents, critics. He says they are all interested in me.”
“Just make sure you don’t meet them in dark alleys after midnight,” Margaret said.
“Don’t make fun, mom,” Angela said.
“I’m not making fun,” Margaret replied, seriously. “I am speaking in earnest.”
Angela was the youngest of all of her children, born unexpectedly when Margaret should have been going through menopause. Margaret was not even certain Angela belonged to her husband. Had Margaret not been there herself for the delivery, she would have questioned whether Angela belonged to her, too. In her late twenties, the adventurous girl still acted like a teenager on Summer Break; all year long.
“Once my novel is published I will be able to pay my own bills,” Angela said. “Actually, I will be able to pay you back for all of the bills you have paid for me.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Margaret said.
“Stop making fun of me, mom,” Angela said. “I will be able to take care of myself. You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
“I mean, I know you won’t be around forever. I’ve got to get my shit together.” She dropped her voice again. “By the way, mom, what are you doing with the house? I mean, I don’t want to own it, but can’t there be a clause in the Will somewhere that says I can stay there whenever I want? I bet I could really write a lot if I set up a desk and computer in your old study.”
Margaret bit her tongue.
“By the way, mom, have you figured out what you’re going to do with that grand piano? Jean plays in a band and…”
Margaret slammed the phone down with a very satisfying bang.
Her fear, now, was completely replaced by fury. She went through the entire house, finding phones and unplugging them. This done, she went upstairs to paint.

Hours later, a painting sprawled across the heavy-weighted paper, centered on the crimson-cloaked dandy. He stood victorious in the court now, all of the crepuscular tapestries hanging from the walls replaced with blood red tapestries in likeness to himself. Lord Oleander. The throne was refurnished with carmine velvet and a new crown sat upon his head, its petals forged from a reddish-gold.
“What a horrid creature,” Margaret said, distastefully.
Everyone in the Elfin court— from lord to lady, peasant to soldier— bowed low to Lord Oleander, their faces twisted with disgust and fear and impotent rage. The crimson dandy basked in the bitter emotions of his subjects, a joyful smirk wrinkling his long, narrow face. In an upraised hand the kris blade glittered in the morning light, the head of the old king impaled through the eye for all to see.
Margaret heard the the front door open and close downstairs. Then came the heavy clomping of boots as the intruder walked through the lower floor. The tread sharpened as the intruder went from the rug-lined foyer to the tiled kitchen and then the wood-paneled living-room.
“Mother?”
The intruder’s voice was more curiosity than concern. His tread sharpened again as he came near the bathroom. There was a knocking at the door, which Margaret knew was open.
“Mother?”
The intruder headed upstairs.
“Mother, where are you?”
He came up to the landing, then spotted her through the open door.
“Mother, you really should answer me when I call to you,” Damon said. “I was afraid something might have happened to you.”
“Oh, really?” she retorted. “Is that why you took your time walking through the house? Make sure I’m good and dead before you find my body and have to call an ambulance?”
“Mother, this attitude of yours does not help anyone.”
“Were you in my house earlier today?” she demanded.
He looked at her all agog. “Of course not, mother. I have been at Mr. Setter’s office, adjusting the Will. Was someone in the house?”
“I…I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was just a squirrel in the attic.”
“Are you sure you are not hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“Oh, I hear more voices than I care to,” she said. “Especially right now.”
Damon ignored the quip and instead looked over his mother’s shoulder at the painting she was working on.
“What a horrific scene,” he observed, though his flat and impassive tone did not indicate that he was seeing anything that struck him as horrific. “Mother, I worry about your mental… stability. You shouldn’t be painting things like this.”
“I worry about your mental feasibility,” Margaret returned. “All your life I’ve worried about it. For you see, Damon, you are an idiot, and I do believe that had I been a more attentive mother I would have remedied your natural deficiencies to the best of my abilities. Which is to say, I would have sent you to a school for the handicapped.”
“Don’t be so rude, mother.”
“I’ll be however I’ll be,” she said. “I grow tired of my children telling me not to be as I am inclined.”
“It’s just that you have had, for some time now, a very twisted view of everything, mother…”
“My head’s on straighter than yours,” she rallied. “I see things as they are; not as I’d like them to be. I can see, for instance, that you’re looking forward to my death so much that you can’t see anything else, including how foolish you are in your transparency.”
“Mother…”
She pointed her paintbrush at him as if she were mugging him with a knife. “You are hurrying me to the grave, but I won’t go quickly. Eventually, yes, but in my own time.”
Damon stared at the paintbrush with an unimpressed frown.
“That’s not true, mother. I want you to live as long as you can. Many years more, in fact. And I want you to live them happily. That is why you need to go where a professional medical staff can look after you. Riverside Retirement Villa has an excellent rating with…”
“I am going to die in my own home,” she snapped. “If that means breaking my hip on the stairs and starving to death all alone, then so be it. But if you force me out and I die somewhere else I promise you that I will move back in here and haunt you forever. I promise you that, Damon.”
“Mother, no one wants to force you out…”
Margaret laughed; a bursting sort of abbreviated laugh that someone might make if they had been run through with a rapier upon hearing the particularly powerful punchline to a joke.
“I’ve never seen so many buzzards fighting over an animal still alive and out of reach. Is there not some roadkill down the street that can sate your appetite in the meantime?”
“Mother, you do your children a great disservice…”
“You are right,” she said. “I should have never had children. I should have had my lady bits cut out so you wouldn’t have to grow up to become…me. I’m tired of you. Leave now.”
“Mother.”
“Out, I said!”
Damon left, though not soon enough, and Margaret returned her attention to the painting she had been working on.
“Lord Oleander,” she said, staring at the crimson-cloaked dandy.
King Oleander, someone said.

That evening Margaret went to bed early. She could not sleep, and she cried. She did not cry maudlin tears, or even tears of self-pity; they were tears of frustration and anger. She had never in her whole life cried out of anger. It was a new experience.
“Might as well get that out of the way,” she said aloud, wiping wrathfully at the tears. “Before the end. There’s a first time for everything, even in a long life like mine.”
Margaret knew she had been selfish in her choice of husband. She had chosen him because she thought he would die early and allow her the financial freedom she desired. But instead of finding freedom she had found her children readily assuming his role as oppressor. They, in turn, thought that she was selfish in her sternness. Yet, they did not know what it was like to be married to their father. Love was not an essential factor of life, for her or for him, but he was needlessly cruel to her. Indeed, that she had so many children was confirmation of the way that he dictated how her life should be.
“I will cause a scene at my own funeral,” she vowed. “I will decompose quicker than usual and make the pallbearers flee from the stench. I will make a scene for the newspapers, and their articles shall hound my children forever more.”
Lightning flashed beyond the windows. A downpour began, hammering the mansion with its own angry tears.
Unable to sleep, Margaret climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen. She poured a glass of water for herself and sipped from it absently while she returned upstairs. In the second storey hallway she saw her studio shrouded in shadow. A flash of lightning illuminated the easel. The tripod stood in the center of the room, like a ghoul, its shelf a jaw splattered with paint that looked like blood in the brief flashes of light.
She turned and looked at the master bedroom, and hated it. She hated the bed that sprawled there, insolent with its parted sheets. This, she thought, was the bed that begot her life. This was the marital bed, the conception bed, the deathbed. This was the hateful apparatus whereby her husband exercised his continual control over her.
Upset, she slammed the bedroom door shut and went into the study. Using the glass of water she had brought upstairs to drink, she worked in the epileptic luminescence of the thunderstorm, welcoming both the light and the shadows that fought over the embattled painting there.
The hours passed quickly. Midnight came and fled on fleet raven wings. Then came the witching hours and they were more riddled with thunder and lightning than anytime before. Once the creative seizure was over, she looked at the painting for the first time.
There were children impaled on pikes while parents mourned on bent knees. Babies were bashed across walls and thrown from windows like refuse onto the cobblestone walkways. Men and women were being skinned and bled dry, their blood flowing in runnels that converged on the royal robe of the new king. He sat in the center of it all, rejoicing on a throne of bone. He wore a vest of flayed skin and drank from a goblet brimming with the blood of innocents.
“King Oleander,” she said.
“Emperor Oleander,” said someone behind her.
She turned and staggered, clutching at her chest. Standing there, in the dim light of her study, was the crimson-cloaked dandy himself: Oleander. He was half-shrouded in shadow, and flickered into stark relief with every lightning flash through the window.
“I had not the luxury of time during my last visit to address you directly,” the tall fairy said. “I was so preoccupied with the Purification in my kingdom that I could scarcely afford my attentions being anywhere else. But I am encouraged to see that you, for your own sake, took to my dictation and have been allotting the appropriate amount of your time to the most important priorities of your life. Namely, recording my legendary ascension to the crown— and with it a new age unlike any other.”
Margaret could only stare in astonishment at this crimson gentleman. She feared she was suffering a stroke-induced hallucination. Any moment she feared a vesicle should burst in her brain.
“Granted, I should be offended that my glorious reign should be recorded by someone of your breeding and background,” the fairy continued to say, “but I am of a charitable character when Fate decides it so, and so I will gladly allow you the honor of being my chronicler.”
He paused, seemingly awaiting her reply. There came none and so he continued.
“You are overwhelmed by my presence. It is only natural. But I am afraid that this arrangement will soon come to an end. Rejoice in the service you have rendered me, for while I will live on, as recorded here, you will soon depart from your mortal coil. The whole of your life was for the making of this tribute to me.”
Margaret looked at the painting again, in the flashing luminescence stabbing through the window, and then at the crimson dandy with his habitual sneer.
“Allow me to paint you one final time,” she said suddenly, “so as to better capture your majesty.”
The malicious fairy’s face curdled into a vicious smile. “One final painting? You are dedicated, mortal. Very well. Yes. Yes, I suppose that it is enough of a reward for a lowly mortal to be the chronicler of my unequaled magnificence.” He turned to leave, but hesitated, speaking over his shoulder. “But do well by me in this, your last tribute, or else you will suffer.”
“I promise you that the execution will be perfect,” she said.
The next morning Margaret sketched for hours trying to force her willful muse to depict the Execution of Emperor Oleander. But to no avail. No matter how much she tried to enslave her muse to her dictation, the wild-willed wanton refused submission. The sketches were a disordered mess of smeared graphite and blurred erasures. When she attempted to paint the most successful among her failures she found no respite from her contentious muse. The paint bled and fled wherever it would, like a wounded beast, and she could not corral it into an orderly stillness. Had she been a more attentive mother with her children, all those many years ago, perhaps she would have learned the patience and authority to overmaster her own errant inner child. But she had not and now that spoilt brat would not bend or bow, defiant with every little artistic impulse.
Frustrated, Margaret walked downstairs to get away from her studio, and her muse. She turned on the television and flipped through a few channels, arriving at some absurd soap opera. Normally she abhorred drama, but this she watched with dawning enlightenment. The tone-deaf drama represented on-screen what was likely the kind of absurdist scene that would soon follow her own demise. Torrential arguments. Fish-eyed gawping outrage. Frigid shoulders and the soul-crushing gravity of disappointment. Theatrical tantrums. Histrionic fits. Pity parties to surfeit.
The prospect of such melodrama would have been wonderful if not for the fact that she would be too dead to relish it. A pyrrhic victory was all she had remaining for herself.
Margaret turned off the tv and plugged in a phone. She called Mr. Setter, the family lawyer. She informed him that she desired to review the Will.
“Of course, Margaret,” he said.
Mr. Setter had learned early on in their business relationship that Margaret preferred to be called by her given name rather than by her married name.
“I do not know what is in the Will,” Margaret confessed. “I’ve forgotten. Could you bring it here so I could read over it? I do not go out much these days.”
“Yes, I can arrange to have that done,” Mr. Setter said. “Do you wish for the Executor to be present also?”
“No. No, I will handle this myself.”
“Then I will send it over with my secretary this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Setter.”
The business call ended, Margaret unplugged the phone.

A few hours later, Mr. Setter’s secretary, Skyler, arrived with the folder containing the Will. She was a mousy-looking, bespectacled thing in a brown overcoat that was as plain as she was. Margaret envied Skyler insomuch as Skyler, when she aged, would have little to mourn as she became older. She had less for Time to steal, in other words— less beauty, less wealth, less vanities and pretensions. That was a comfort to be cherished in and of itself, she thought, for the homely among us.
Margaret read through the Will while sitting at the grand piano. There were few specifics in the Will regarding the actual estate. In fact, the overall Will seemed to be more of an afterthought than a genuine summation of Margaret’s overall material existence. And it seemed to have a defiant sort of vagueness to it, as if it was procrastinating in denial that the event that the document addressed, DEATH, would ever come to pass. It seemed to acknowledge the possibility in mere abstraction and without any serious concern of its inevitability or its repercussions.
Margaret frowned down at the document for some time, forcing her mind to accept what it represented: a glimpse into the future; the cold, dead-eyed stare of her own corpse as she was hauled off to be embalmed and buried. Skyler, meanwhile, stood aside with all of the calm, quiet patience ingrained in a a bookish woman who had been ignored all of her life.
Margaret laid the Will on the grand piano and then, after a moment’s hesitancy, fetched a pen and a pad of paper. For the next two hours she catalogued the possessions in the house and designated to whom each would be granted upon the time of Margaret’s death. It was no easy feat, especially since it confronted her not only with the starkness of her mortality, but the thought of her children rejoicing in these things they had coveted of her for so long.
When Margaret came to the thought of her paintings and what would become of them, she wrote that she wanted them to be buried with her. Then she remembered little Ashley— Ashley was her name, wasn’t it?— and how that mute girl would stare at the paintings as if they were magically entrancing her. Margaret scratched out her selfish post-mortem request and wrote down “To my great-granddaughter, Ashley Tess: ALL of my paintings”.
Margaret was resolved. She would not be an atheist pharaoh hoarding her most prized treasures for an afterlife she did not believe in. There was no better afterlife, in her sardonic modern view, than in the eyes of a mute who could say nothing and simply stare at her great-grandmother’s paintings. The girl could not speak ill of Margaret, even if she had wanted to. In truth, Margaret regretted not having spent more time with the child.
It was as Margaret was signing and dating the catalogue that Damon arrived. He looked momentarily stricken to see Mr. Setter’s secretary there, but soon overcame that fleeting sign of weakness and introduced himself with a big, deceitful smile.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand. “You must be Skyler. I believe I’ve seen you in Mr. Setter’s office. You are his personal assistant, yes?”
“Secretary,” Margaret said, enemy of all euphemisms.
Skyler would have scowled at Margaret, but a tall, handsome man was showing her attention; never mind that he was old enough to be her father.
“Yes, Mr. Tess, I am Mr. Setter’s personal assistant.”
Margaret chuckled. They ignored her.
“What brings you to my house?” Damon asked.
“It is my house…” Margaret began, but Skyler was too mesmerized by Damon to hear. He was handsome for an older gentleman.
“Mrs. Tess was just reviewing the Will,” Skyler said, making herself an eternal foe to Margaret.
“Oh really?” returned Damon. He looked at his mother in mock-surprise. “So you are finally treating it with the seriousness it deserves, mother?”
Margaret wanted to slap that ridiculous fedora off his head, along with his head. “I am just making sure that everyone gets their due.”
“Now, see, that’s the most sensible thing you have said since father passed away.”
Margaret looked to the heaven’s for patience, and found none. She pushed the notepad into Skyler’s hands. “Here, secretary. See that Mr. Setter gets that today. I am done with visitors. You can see each other out.”
She turned and walked toward the stairs.
“This is a happy coincidence,” Damon was saying to Skyler. “I have business with Mr. Setter later today. Maybe you and I can go out for dinner afterwards? My treat…”

The outrage Margaret felt focused her mind into the shackles necessary to chain and bend her muse to her will. She was angry— with herself and with Damon, and even with Skyler— for she realized, too late, what Damon would do. He would not let her have her last wishes as she wanted them. He would deny his mother her last dignity.
Her last dignity stolen, Margaret painted and painted; all evening she painted. Her muse finally surrendered to her rigors and she worked with the forethought and deliberation that she had lacked her entire artistic life. Even so, she knew it was killing her muse in the process. The sacrifice of freedom was too great and her muse started to wither, even as Margaret’s skill bloomed one final time.
When Margaret finished she stepped back and looked at the painting with tears of pride and of loss, for she knew it was the best and the last painting that she would ever make. Reconciling herself with fate, Margaret then walked through the house— her house— and looked over its contents. She tapped a few keys on the grand piano; not for spite or defiance, but because it was just nice to hear the keys ring in the dead silence of the home.
This done, Margaret felt extremely sleepy. She returned upstairs and laid down on the studio’s floor. Rain came again, calming in its pattering pall. Margaret listened to it with her eyes closed. She thought she heard someone in the room.
But I am the one and only Oleander! You cannot do this to me! I am your emperor! I am your god!
Margaret sighed contentedly.
Then she passed away.
***
A year later— after the burial and the distribution of the estate and its effects— there was an art gallery exhibition in New York for the Margaret Tess collection. Damon Tess secured the showing after spreading word about his mother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent paintings of strange, deranged worlds that visited her deteriorating mind while she dwelled in “misanthropic isolation”. Since Alzheimer’s was a very popular crusade among the New York intelligentsia, it proved to be an excellent marketing strategy. Damon had the potential of making millions from the auction on the following month.
The premiere was crowded. Many high-profile New Yorkers came. There were reporters, art critics, celebrities, and even a few local politicians. But while all of the self-important adults were chattering and clattering wine glasses, a little girl was walking from one painting to the next, unnoticed by the insular crowd gathered there.
She was strange, this girl, and very quiet. Had anyone engaged her they would have found her doe-eyed and mute. She stopped in front of the painting entitled “Dementia On Trial: Losing One’s Head”. The girl’s granduncle, Damon, boasted that it was the last painting his mother had completed before she was found dead in her studio. The tale of his grisly discovery had already been revisited multiple times by her granduncle, and was likely to be revisited many times more before the auction next month. But the girl did not care about such things. She had a mind only for the painting itself.
The painting depicted a crowd of strange-looking people who were gathered around a chopping block where a tall, slender fop had just been executed with an ax. There was no joy in the faces of the crowd as they looked on the decapitated corpse; only unabated anger that would live on for generations.
The little girl’s ear tingled suddenly. It caught the notes of piano keys tiptoing daintily in the air. Enamored, she followed the sound past the self-absorbed adults and out of the gallery room. Down a hallway she went, toward the storage area of the gallery. The hallway was dark and dusty. She passed a broom closet and a single-toilet bathroom. At the end of the hall opened to a large, spacious room that was murky except for a bright candle sitting on a grand piano in the center of the floor. Coming closer, the little girl recognized the piano. She did not recognize, however, the strange man sitting on the piano stool.
His ears were pointy and his head was narrow and he was very tall, gangly, and yet graceful with his long fingers. He wore a strange suit unlike the tuxedos flocking about in the gallery. It was the color of twilight, this suit, and had a flowery bloom at the neck. On his head was a simple crown of silver saplings uncoiling toward. He was the handsomest man the little girl had ever seen. And he had wings like a dragonfly’s.
The young man stopped playing the piano and turned to the little girl. There was something in his lap. He picked it up and gave it to her.
“The settling of debts, my little princess,” he said.
The little girl looked at the thing in her hands. The room fell to darkness, then, and when she looked up again the young man and the piano were gone. She left the room and went down the hallway. Turning back, she found that the room, too, was gone. She returned to the gallery.
“Ashley! Ashley, don’t stray!”
Ashley looked at her grandmother, then down at the thing in her hands. She returned to her grandparents with a slow, confused stride. They were standing next to her grandaunt Laura, though Laura did not seem pleased by their presence.
“Eric, I told you not to bring her,” Laura whispered harshly. “She will make a scene.”
“Oh, she is just looking at mom’s paintings,” Eric said, smiling nervously. “She always liked mom’s paintings. More than anybody else.”
“That tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Laura mumbled to herself before taking a sip of wine.
Ashley’s grandmother scowled. “Says more about Margaret’s children than it does about her great-grandchildren.”
Laura rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue.
Ashley held out the thing the prince had given her.
“What’s this, honey?” Eric asked.
The little girl handed the notepad to her grandfather. Eric smiled and read the first page. At first his eyes skimmed the long list with a polite, albeit disinterested, gaze. Then his eyes widened, scouring each line in shocked disbelief. He saw the signature and the date at the bottom of the page and gawped. A moment later he shut his mouth and ground his jaw, as if chewing stiff leather.
“Laura,” he said, as evenly as possible, “you, Damon, and I have some things to talk about.” He slapped his palm with the notepad. “Many important things.”
“Surely, it can wait,” returned Laura, sighing. “Damon’s about to give another boring toast to mother.”
“Well, I don’t think things will be boring for long. In fact, I think war is on the way.”
Laura blew smoke lazily from her cigarette. “What are you talking about?”
“Theft,” he said, slapping the notepad again. “Shameless theft.”
His jaded sister rolled her eyes in disinterest. “Don’t make a scene, Eric. Mother wouldn’t have wanted it at her first official gallery showing.”
“To the contrary,” he said, “That is exactly what mother always wanted. A memorable scene for the newspapers to write about.”
Eric walked over to his brother— standing amidst his rapt audience as he spoke of how much he had agonized over his mother’s well-being— and slapped the glass out of his hand. He then slapped the fedora off of his head. When Damon opened his mouth to voice his outrage, Eric held up the notepad for all to see. The flush of fury in Damon’s cheeks abruptly drained to a sickly pallor. He looked like a dog about to be beaten by the newspaper. And he was.
“This is Margaret Tess’s last Will and Testament,” Eric said. “And it says that my brother here is a scheming thief trying to rob her great-granddaughter out of her rightful inheritance…”
As the journalists hurriedly jotted down notes, Eric began to read his mother’s last Will and Testament aloud for all to hear. It proved quite the scene and later only added to the mystique of the paintings. Art historians argue to this day that the family infighting only increased the value of the paintings, the scandal multiplying their worth manifold among collectors. After a lengthy court battle the paintings came to belong to Margaret’s mute great-granddaughter since she was, according to the Will, the only person who appreciated Margaret’s art while Margaret was alive. Ashley retained ownership of the paintings until her death many years later. No one currently knows where the paintings reside. Only Ashley knew, and she, of course, never told a soul.

Another Bagful Of Goodies (3 Sentence Stories)

 

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“It’s time you learned how to swim better,” Tommy’s father said, tossing Tommy into the water. “Motivation is key.” He upended the bucket of chum into the fin-crazed sea.

He promised to cook something she loved for supper. She ate it happily, with good wine to wash it down and candlelight to set the mood. Later she brought the scraps outside to give to her beloved dog, Max, but he was nowhere to be found.

The tree’s branches scraped against the bedroom window, waking up Lisa. Groggy with sleep, she walked over and closed the blinds. The scraping became faster.

Ashley’s sexy barmaid costume was a hit at the Halloween party. “Can I have a drink?” everyone asked her. Happy to be so popular, she laughed…until she saw their long fangs.

“This punch is a little bitter,” Julie said to Maggie, the host of the New Year’s Eve party.
“Bitter drink for a bitter year,” Maggie said, looking sidelong at Julie’s husband. “Next year will be much better,” she concluded as Julie choked and fell to the floor.

“I did my book report on a very old book,” Katie said as she stood in front of her 5th grade class. “It is called the Necronomicon.” Her eyes glazed over as she spoke and opened the book, showing its secrets to her classmates.

The barrel had been buried for nearly two hundred years when the archaeologists unearthed it in the outskirts of a Caribbean pirate town. There were carvings of crosses all over the barrel’s wooden flanks. They buried it again, unopened, when they heard something moaning inside.

The hitchhiker waved from the side of the dark highway, her wide grin flashing in Jerry’s headlights. He slowed down, momentarily, then smashed the gas pedal to the floor. Shadow and light rotated in her empty eye sockets as the car screeched by.

“It is a really good makeover,” Zoe remarked. “Beth looks better than she did during the Homecoming Dance.”
“I pride myself on my work,” the mortician said.

“All whom are baptized today shall fear pain no more!” the priest announced as he walked upon the sea. He looked gray and bloated, his arms hanging laxly at his sides and his head lolling with a vacant face. Something undulated in the water beneath him, restlessly awaiting his flock.

The pilots saw the beacon through the storm and redirected the plane toward the light. They thought the turbulence came from the winds, but it didn’t. When the plane crashed no bodies were found onboard.

The medical students all gathered around the cadaver. The professor held up his scalpel and said, “We need a fresh start today, so do I have any volunteers?” Ellen stepped forward, and screamed as they held her down beneath his blade.

Cedric the Magician knew it would be his final show, so he wanted to make it memorable. Everyone cheered when he sawed his assistant in half. No one cheered when he pulled the box apart.

Her red hoodie concealed her face as she walked along Woodland Drive in the dark. The hairy man snuck up and grabbed her by the wrist, spinning her around and unbuckling his belt with his free hand. Afterward she continued on to her grandmother’s, wiping blood off of her smile with her sleeve.

Aello’s sister always said she had terrible tastes when it came to men. But when Aello saw Patrick walking down the road, she knew he was different. Spreading her wings, and her talons, she swooped down upon him and carried him away.

The necromancer sat in the graveyard all night, scowling at a black book in his lap. “I did everything the spell required,” he growled, “but nothing has risen!” Suddenly he saw the sun rise above the tree line, and he leapt for joy, exclaiming, “I am the master of Life and Death!”

Lady Chastain had lost all patience with suitors that evening and came to sit in her parlour, next to the cage where her parakeet perched. A man stepped forward from near the fireplace, a knife gleaming in his hand. When they found her body the next morning, all the parakeet said, over and over again, was, “A twist of the knife for a twist of the tongue.”

Diogenes drank all night and woke up the next day on the steps of the Parthenon. The Athenian priests threatened to beat him if he did not sleep elsewhere. “Hypnos, upon Pan’s counsel, bid me sleep here,” the philosopher said, “and so who are you to question such gods?”