For three days after the spider bite Johnny ’s right eye was blurry and pulsated and brimmed with pus. Johnny had been staying in the darkness of his bedroom, but on the fourth morning he went into the bathroom to look in the mirror at his swollen eye. Exposed to the light in the bathroom, the eye crawled farther back into its socket, retreating from the brightness.
Her neck was long, stretching out from her kimono like a pale snake as her body lay sleeping on her tatami. From her room, and down the hall, her head went floating, searching the paper-walled rooms of the palace for the handsome young samurai. Blade drawn, and already wet with blood, the emperor awaited her within her lover ’s room.
Call And Answer
The cornfield trembled beneath the Harvest moon, and so, too, did Maggie, fearfully holding her doll to her chest. Somewhere in the corn rows the scarecrow walked, calling out with his dry, straw-tongued voice. After a time, Maggie ’s doll called out in answer, inviting him over.
Warren had been tracking the Great Horned Owl for months, seeking the pellets left in its wake. Sometimes at night, while alone in the woods, Warren heard voices, and even screams, as if far away, and saw orbs of light in the treetops. After Warren was confined to the asylum he continued to talk of fairies and pellets while clutching tiny skulls in his hands.
The Gallows Judge
Harold Marsh was a hanging judge who claimed no greater satisfaction than a gallows jig. Often Marsh would order a hanged man taken down, just before he could die, and then strung up and hanged again, just so he could watch the dance such men did a second, or even third, time. After retirement Marsh was found dead in his house, hung up in front of a mirror, a grin on his purple face.
Before Josh ’s first wife, Kelly, had killed herself, she vowed, “Josh would remarry over my dead body! ” And so, when Josh married Britney, his second wife, the ceremony was held atop Kelly ’s grave. True to her word, Kelly made no objections
Tony struck the rearview mirror with the palm of his hand, slamming it sideways so the high-beams of the truck behind him could no longer slash at him with a blade of blinding brightness.
“Stupid cocksucker,” Tony growled. “Turn off your brights!”
Raindrops popped on the windshield of his old, brown Ford Pinto. Tony felt like it was his blood bubbling and popping. The truck had been tailgating Tony for five miles along Highway 62. Beyond the highway lay the Sticks, and beyond them rose the knobs. All around them the wet darkness crouched closely like a cat atop its prey. It was New Year’s Eve, and the joker in the truck behind Tony must have thought that the dark and the rain and Tony’s steady 35 mph were reason enough to blind him from behind and blow his horn.
“Go around, asshole!” Tony roared. “Pass me if you don’t like it!”
The motorist could not hear Tony, nor did Tony believe the driver would have heeded him. The driver seemed hellbent on tormenting Tony.
“Pass now! Go ahead and do it already!”
The Highway was a straight stretch for a good mile, though there was a bridge with railings here and there. Trees and lowlands stretched into darkness on either side of the highway. There was little traffic on this side of the County.
Yet, the driver did not pass Tony.
“I wish you’d fucking wreck,” Tony said, grinding his teeth.
Tony had to drive slowly, not only because of the rain and darkness, but because his rear passenger tire was a small doughnut. The full-sized tire had gone flat a week ago, from a nail in the wall of the tire, and Tony didn’t have the money for a replacement.
“I swear to God, if I could, I’d fucking smash your truck into a goddamn ravine,” Tony swore.
At length, Tony saw the liquor store and slowed down, his blinker not working. He eased the Pinto into a turn, pulling into the big parking lot. A pot hole’s water puddle ruptured like a hemorrhage and the Pinto jerked sideways, but came to a stop. Meanwhile the truck blasted its horn. Tony glanced back only once and saw, within the glow of the parking lot lamppost, the side of the truck. There was a faded Confederate battle flag painted on the door.
“Go home and fuck your sister,” Tony grumbled. He sighed, irritably, then turned off the Pinto. Groaning now, he climbed out of the car, which was difficult for him since he was so tall, his legs so long, and the Pinto so small and low to the ground. He did not know which was worse: falling in or tumbling out. Standing up was like coming up from a game of Limbo. The old, familiar ache in his hip proclaimed it was still alive and well and had, much to his misery, learned new agonies.
Limping now from sciatic pain, Tony headed into the front door of Mike’s Liquor Store to start his shift.
Robbie, the second-shift clerk, eagerly abounded from behind the counter as Tony hobbled into the bleaching light of the store.
“Finally,” Robbie said in a low, disgruntled voice. “What took you so long?”
“I am on time!” Tony growled, glaring at the young twenty-two year old’s face-piercings. Even if Tony wasn’t angry at Robbie, he would still have been staring at the piercings. The silver rings glistened like Christmas ornaments and the chains that linked them swayed with the slightest movement. There were times when Tony wanted to tear them out. “I still have five minutes until it’s Eleven.”
“But I told you I needed to leave by Ten-Thirty,” Robbie complained in that monotone that never changed pitch, even when more robust emotions were meant to be conveyed. “I got a gig tonight with my band.”
Tony walked past Robbie, nearly getting hooked by the chains that dangled from his black pants and black shirt.
“I never agreed to come in early,” Tony said. “But I’m here now, so get lost.”
Robbie opened his three-ringed lips to say something, then closed them and headed out into the parking lot. He looked like a pale set of arms and a head as his black shirt and pants melded with the outer blackness of the night.
Tony assumed his place behind the counter. He noticed there were Cheeto crumbs on the counter. He raised a hand to sweep it off, but then grumbled.
“I’m not his momma,” he said. He looked out at the aisles of booze, wondering how many of them Robbie had filched. It didn’t matter, he realized. Mike’s Liquor Store had a terminal illness, and its last days were approaching fast.
He felt something like white noise in his ears. He heard it, too, but the radio was so loud that it had a tactile roughness, like sandpaper. After a moment of vegetated nonthought, he realized that it was the radio. He walked over to it, by the drive-thru window, and turned it off. It was the Metal music that Robbie listened to. Naturally, Tony hated it, just like the fact that he hated Robbie’s long hair. Tony was balding, and he thought that the only good music that ever existed, existed in the Seventies. Everything else— like the world at large—was expendable.
“Stupid crap,” he said.
He stood in the silence of the empty liquor store. He hated the bright lights. They reminded him of the driver in the truck who had been shining his high-beams and tailgating. He wanted to turn the lights off, or at least half of them. Why would it matter anyway? The liquor store was going to close soon because nobody came out this way for booze. Once upon a time, when Boone County next-door was Dry, its citizens would venture out here on Highway 62 and purchase all of their alcoholic needs. Business was going well back then. Mike, the owner, sometimes had a hard time keeping the store fully stocked since so many customers were coming here. The big parking lot was full, even in the late hours.
But then Boone County voted to go Wet, and sure enough the majority of Mike’s customer base dried up. Tony was surprised at Mike’s denial, though, thinking that if Mike was sensible he would have fired both Tony and Robbie and liquidated his remaining stock, or at the least opening another store somewhere else, on the outer edge of another Dry county. But Mike was in denial, and so long as Mike was in denial, Tony had a job.
And yet, Tony did not care for the job much. It was merely a means of buying booze to drown himself from day to day. Nothing more.
The door banged open and the little bell ding-a-ling-a-linged pathetically. A young guy in a hoodie and sweatpants walked in, followed by a young woman. She was in a hoodie, too, and both of them had their hoodies up over their heads, shielding their eyes, and most of their faces, from the bright fluorescence of the store. She had an oversized purse and wore a short skirt, the latter of which would not have been justified even by Summer temperatures. A tattoo of Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid smiled coyly from the inner thigh of one leg. A hookah trailed smoke up the other leg, disappearing into the skirt. Tony could have hazarded a guess as to where it ended.
“What’s up?” the young man said.
Tony merely nodded, watching them like a sheriff at the entrance of a new cowboy posse.
“Wet fucking night, am I right?” the young man offered.
“That’s what umbrellas are for,” Tony said, mirthlessly.
The young man pointed a finger-gun at Tony. “Good advice,” he said.
The young man and woman split apart, going down different aisles. Tony knew their routine better than they did. They thought they were being slick, separating to divide his attention while they filched whatever they could from the shelves. And they almost succeeded, but Tony was wise to the ruse because it was a ruse he knew well.
The young man tripped loudly over a display, making a dramatic show of knocking over a stack of Mad Dog beer. The beer cans rolled everywhere like aggrieved animals on the run.
“Oh man!” the young man said, gawping up at Tony with mock-embarrassment while bending over to try to pick up the cans. “Dude, I am so sorry!”
The young man scrambled to reassemble the display stack. He kept his face concealed beneath his hoodie; all except that dog-eat-shit-grin—it glittered in the fluorescence. Meanwhile the young woman stuck a bottle of Captain Morgan Rum into her oversized purse. She walked around with a hastened step, emboldened by her presumed success.
The young man made a show of looking around the store for a while longer before finally picking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the coolers. He brought it to the counter and, while he busily fished out his ID, his girl walked out the door, her purse swinging ponderously against her upper thigh.
“Just the PBR,” the young man said, handing over the PBR and a five-dollar bill.
Tony rang up the PBR, and the Captain Morgan Rum.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, man,” the young man said. His dog-eat-shit-grin twisted into a snarl. “What’s that shit you added there?”
“The rum your girl put in her purse,” Tony said.
“She didn’t do not fucking thing,” the young man said.
It never ceased to amaze Tony how petty thieves could become so outraged at suspicion, especially when they were caught.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?!” the thief demanded.
“The guy who caught your bitch stealing on camera,” Tony said. He hooked a thumb back toward the camera on the wall behind him. “So either pay for the rum or she can go to jail or juvie. To be honest, I’m not sure how old she is. Maybe her dad will want a word with you before the police do.”
The outrage did not subside from the thief’s face, but it was fractured with alarm.
“Camera?” he said. “There ain’t no fuckin’ camera. You’re fuckin’ lying.”
Tony gave the thief an indifferent, nonchalant shrug of the shoulder. “You’re the one risking everything. I just work here.”
The thief glowered at Tony.
“You don’t even know who we are,” the thief said.
“I have your ID right here,” Tony said.
“It’s fake, bitch,” the thief said.
“All the better,” Tony said. “More jail time for using a fake ID.”
The two men glared for a time longer. The younger man, at last, relented.
“Fine, motherfucker,” the thief said. “I’ll bring it back.”
The thief went outside for a minute. He came back with the bottle of rum.
“Here, you fuckin’ snitch!”
The thief slammed the bottle of rum on the floor, smashing it all over the scuffed-up linoleum tiles.
“Fuck you, you punk-ass bitch!” the thief shouted, flicking Tony the bird and shouldering through the door. A few beats later a car door slammed, an engine revved, tires squealed, and wailed down the road in impotent rage.
Tony scowled at the rum and broken glass. After a few seconds of trying to recalibrate his anger to a lower setting, he fetched a dust pan, broom, mop and bucket. He cleaned away the mess.
The camera inside the liquor store was, in actuality, nonfunctional and Mike did not have the money to fix it. Still, the broken camera could be seen by anyone glancing up while paying for their booze. It was a one-eyed alien from a bygone era. The only other camera was the parking lot camera. Tony occasionally glanced at its monitor behind the counter. Right now it was black and white and half-blinded by the parking lot light and the rain that slashed through the darkness like shooting stars of white streaks. There were no cars in the parking lot. The highway stretched between two counties, both sprawling boondocks riddled with the Sticks and underbrush and flooded swampland.
The radio, which Tony had turned off, turned itself on. It did this from time to time. The off/on switch was broken and only worked one way or the other for so long before switching itself. When it turned on, the chugging guitar of a Jimi Hendrix song blasted through the store.
“‘There must be some way outta here,’ said the joker to the thief…”
Tony yanked the radio’s plug from the wall. He should have unplugged it earlier, he thought. One day he would throw that radio in the dumpster.
There must be some way out of here…
The voice of Jimi Hendrix taunted him over and over again. He knew it was a desperate lie. There was no way out of here. Life was a prison all around him, and it had closed in on him with claustrophobic closeness over the years.
Feeling suddenly very moody, Tony took out his wallet and slowly pulled out a photo, extracting it with all of the cautious care of a surgeon conducting a perilous operation. The photo slipped out, at length, with minimal creasing. Old and crumpled and faded, it was a photo of a younger version of Tony, with a full head of blonde hair—healthy, shiny hair—and a pretty, young woman beside him, holding a baby. All three members of the family were smiling in the photo. It was a photo miracle, the portrait photographer said; a picture-perfect arrangement of smiles all at the same time. But what a contrast it cruelly displayed for Tony now. Nowadays, he had no hair, never smiled, and was raked head to toe with wrinkles. His wife—ex-wife, he told himself—had remarried and had aged a little better than Tony because she did not drink or smoke. She also wore makeup nowadays, or had been the last time Tony had seen her. He hated the makeup on her. It looked unnatural.
And the baby…the baby was now a grown woman. She had gone to college, and became a Veterinarian, and had gotten married. She had small children of her own now—two, in fact—but she had not allowed Tony to see them. He was a stranger to them, and a stranger to her.
“Ungrateful,” he muttered. “Without me…she wouldn’t even exist…”
Nothing had gone well in life for Tony. And the things that seemed to have been going well were just rotten bits of luck in disguise. They were the opposite of “blessings in disguise”. They were curses in disguise. It was like Luck apportioned by circumstance so as to provoke optimism only as a catalyst for the disappointments to come. Like a Leprechaun’s pot of gold that turns out to be stolen from Fort Knox, the pot tagged with a tracking device. The best example of such a curse was his ex-wife, Laverne. He had thought he won the Jackpot when he married her. In truth, he had won hot lead in a game of Russian Roulette.
It was just like that insurance scheme. He had it all lined up right, and would have made a hundred thousand off of it. But a fraudster was only as good as the victim let him be, and if the victim was an insurance company, then he was not good at all. Insurance companies were the kings of fraud, equaled only by celebrities and politicians. In the end, Tony had served jail time for the ploy.
Worse, he had ruined his life.
A couple of hours passed, crawling by with all the swiftness of a slug across a cheek. Tony felt the sliminess of Time lingering on him, like a triggered nerve that would not stop twitching his face just below his right eye. The fluorescent lights bothered him, and the booze. He wanted to drink a beer. But if he drank a beer he would want to drink another beer. And another. And then a shot of whiskey. Maybe a shot of Bluegrass Bourbon. And then, before long, he would have drained several cans and bottles and thrown them on the floor alongside his own slovenly, sloppy-drunk self. He did not want to betray Mike’s trust like that. Sure, he thought, Mike was fighting a hopeless battle, but Tony would have never forgiven himself for betraying Mike. Just like he never forgave himself for saying the terrible things he had said to his ex-wife during the Custody battle.
And so Tony went outside for a smoke. He stood under the eave of the liquor store, peering through the smoke of his cigarette and the veil of heavy rain and stared at nothing. Highway 62 was empty. No cars passed along that desolate stretch of hillbilly backwoods.
Tony’s preferred brand of cigarettes was Monkey’s Paw. They were cheap and they gave his body the amount of nicotine it thought it needed. And so he lit a cigarette, puffing his lungs to ash and tar and coughing occasionally, the Monkey’s Paw choking him like a garroter at times, and generally feeling sardonic about the world.
He smoked until there were flecks of ashes in the untrimmed scatter of mustache hair over his top lip. Flicking the cigarette butt out into the black glaze of the parking lot, he headed back inside. The chill followed him inside.
The alcohol still beckoned to Tony. He wanted to turn half of the store’s lights off and conceal the booze in darkness. Actually, he wanted to turn all of them off and just sit in the dark, staring at nothing. As a compromise, he turned off only the lights illuminating the counter and himself. He told himself that it would have save Mike some money, at least, since the store had bled too much money through the lights as it was. No customers at that late of an hour would have cared if the lights were on or not. But his eyes and tongue cared. Wherever he looked the amber gleam of whiskey and rum and the friendly glimmer of silver beer cans all enticed him over. It was like an ambush from old lovers with their legs all spread out and ready.
One addiction did not help, and the other was too inappropriate, so Tony opted for his last addiction, which was the most dangerous of all three. He walked around the counter and picked up the phone. After a moment’s hesitation, he dialed the familiar number. There was no ring tone. His ex-wife must have blocked the store’s number, too. It was the only phone he had access to, and now it was a dead-end as well, just like their marriage.
“I wish…I wish things had been different,” Tony said to the dead receiver. He hung up and stood in the darkness, grim as a gargoyle. The silence of the store, the highway, and the surrounding countryside met his confession with merciless immutability.
Tony started for the nearest aisle, hand aiming toward the nearest alcohol without any consideration of what it was. But his shoestrings were loose and he nearly fell as he stepped on them with one foot and tried to step forward with the other. Catching himself on the counter, a breathed breath of relief, then bent over to tie his shoestrings. When he straightened up—with a groan and a jolting agony in his leg—there was a man standing before him. The man had appeared seemingly out of thin air. At first, Tony blinked, thinking that the figure before him was a result of the conspiring efforts of his graveyard shift, drowsiness, cataracts, and the half-light in the liquor store. After staring at the man, and gawping like a monkey, Tony concluded that he was, himself, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Evening, sir,” the man said.
He was short and had dark black eyebrows, a dark black beard, and dark black eyes like coal. His skin was burnt umber and the large turban topping his head was wound into a purple plume with a fist-sized diamond in the center of it. The man wore a black tunic and red, puffy pantaloons. He had a single earring in one ear, gleaming gold. Despite the rain, his strange clothes and turban were completely dry. Desert dry.
“I didn’t think you Muslims drank,” Tony remarked, after finding his tongue.
“I am not a Muslim,” the man said, his accent thick. “I am a Djinni.”
“Well,” Tony said, “whatever your religion is, I don’t care. If you want to buy some booze, you need to use the almighty American dollar.”
“I do not want to buy booze, either,” the stranger said.
“Then what do you want?” Tony demanded, growing irritable. “A lottery ticket? A lighter?”
The stranger’s lips creased at the edges, suggesting a smile. “I want to buy your soul,” he said.
Tony grimaced. “I’m a Presbyterian. I’m not converting to anything else.” He sighed, suddenly feeling despondent. “I’m too old to change now. Just ask my ex-wife. The most I can change nowadays is a tire.”
The stranger’s eyes were not black. They were afire.
“For your soul, Tony Gable, I will grant you wishes.”
The mention of his name gave Tony pause. “Who are you?” he said. “Did my ex-wife send you?” He grew irate. “Are you here to serve me papers? We had an agreement that I didn’t have to pay child support so long as she was married to that fucking car dealer…”
The stranger waved aside Tony’s furious words. “I know your name, Tony Gable, because I know your life.” His eyes blazed brighter and the fluorescence of the liquor store flickered out, leaving only darkness and the eyes that burned within that darkness. “I know that you wish for things. All mortals do. I am willing to make your wishes come true. All you need do is sell me your soul.”
Tony winced and then blinked. All at once the liquor store was alight with its stark fluorescence. The stranger was standing before Tony again, eyes dark as he waited patiently.
Tony’s mouth was dry. He moved his tongue and it rasped like a receipt in a pocket. “How…how do I know you are telling me the truth?”
The stranger raised a hand. There were bangles and jewelry dangling from his wrist. “Would you like me to give you a wish for free as a sign of good faith?”
Tony had not realized how much he was sweating until an itch brought his hand to his forehead. “Could you…could you cure my sciatica?”
The stranger bowed his head slightly. “Only wish it so.”
“I wish that my sciatica was cured,” Tony said.
The stranger fluttered the fingers of his raised hand, then lowered the hand, letting it fall at his side. Nearly instantly Tony felt his sciatic pain—that javelin that impaled him from hip to toe—melt, subside, and then disappear altogether from his leg. His disbelief was but a moment. After that moment, he stepped side to side, did a jumping-jack, and even lunged; left and right, left and right. The sparkle of joy in his eyes glimmered, but soon disappeared within a shade of apprehension.
“My soul?” he said. “My soul for always? Or is it just…slavery for a while?”
The Djinni said nothing. The dreadful silence, and his smile, said all that needed to be said.
Tony’s eyes fell to the scuffed tile as the scales of his mind teeter-tottered back and forth with their fateful weights.
“How many wishes do I get?” he asked.
“As many as you want until the moment you die,” the Djinni said.
A cunning and excitement scintillated in Tony’s eyes, but before he could speak, the Djinni spoke, snuffing it out.
“Remember that you are mortal,” he said, “that you were born mortal and you will die mortal, as is the Celestial Law. I may bend that Law, but I may not break it. Mortal you are and mortal you will remain until your death, and no wish may change that.”
Tony nodded reluctantly, his face veiled in dark thoughts. His brow creased with conflicted desire and fear. The wrinkles of his face became deeper, as if freshly sliced by a scalpel, the blood not yet ready to run. He cast his eyes over the liquor store, and out the window at his old Pinto in the parking lot. He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the windowpane. The reflection was dark, and his eye sockets appeared hollow and ghoulish. He clenched his teeth like an ape confronted by a challenger.
“Fine!” he burst out, flinging an arm in a simian motion. “I will sell you my soul! Not that it is worth much.”
The stranger vanished at once, like a candle’s flame winking out. Tony looked left and he looked right, searching the store for the turbaned man. There was not a trace of him; neither hair nor footprint or distant footfall. For a moment Tony thought he had hallucinated the whole visit. But after he turned on all of the lights, and as he walked around the store, looking for the short man, he was more and more convinced that the man had been real, for the ache in his hip and leg was utterly gone.
“He was a liar,” Tony told himself. “Wasn’t he?”
Pausing by the window, Tony gazed out into the parking lot. The only car in the rain-drenched lot was his own: that ugly, beat-up Ford Pinto. His eyes focused on what was nearest: his own reflection.
“I wish I had a full head of hair,” he said, “like when I was a teenager.”
Smooth, shiny hair sprouted from Tony’s head, growing thick to cover his bald spot and then spreading outward, forming the Devil-may-care parted shape of his teenage years. He could scarcely believe it, and ran his fingers through his hair and scalp several times while looking at himself in the window.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. He nearly hopped up and down with joy. Looking now at the Pinto beyond his reflection, he grinned. “I wish I had a Ferrari instead.”
The Pinto transmogrified at once, stretching and broadening and smoothing itself out into a red Ferrari. Tony did not know the year or model, but he loved it, running out into the parking lot to walk around it and behold the glory of his new vehicle. He did not even notice the rain. At first. But as the downpour strengthened, he decided to test the interior of his new car. The door opened vertically, at the touch of the key fob that was suddenly in his hand. With his sciatica gone, he had no trouble bending down and slipping into the black leather interior of the car. He pushed the fob again and the door lowered on its own. He started to put the key in the ignition, but paused.
“I wish I had a cell-phone,” he said. “A good cell-phone. And not that Apple shit, either. An Asian phone.”
A Samsung Galaxy 10 appeared in Tony’s hand, gleaming with its slick black design. He fumbled with it for a moment, trying to figure it out.
“I wish to call my ex-wife,” he said aloud, having given up on figuring the phone out enough to do it himself. The phone dialed the familiar number and, much to his joy, his wife answered.
“Hello?” she ventured apprehensively.
“Laverne, it’s me, Tony…” he began.
She hung up immediately.
Tony groaned and struck the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. Rain ran down the windshield of the Ferrari like teardrops down a cheek. After a moment, however, he brightened.
“I wish Laverne would call me and want to talk to me,” Tony said.
The cell-phone began to ring. Tony knew enough intuitively to swipe green on the touchscreen.
“Tony, are you there?” Laverne said hesitantly.
“It’s me!” Tony said, louder than he needed to.
“Yeah, well…it’s been a while since I spoke to you about the grandchildren. So I thought it was only fair that I tell you how they are doing.”
Tony sat up eagerly in the seat, leaning his body toward the phone he held against his ear. But instead of waiting for Laverne to inform him about their grandchildren, he spoke first.
“I wish Laverne still loved me!” he barked.
“…I miss you, Tony,” she said. “I still have feelings for you. I still…love you…”
“I wish she would want to get back together!”
“…and I think we should try to work it out…for the grandkids, but also for ourselves…we should try again…”
“I wish that she hated her used car salesman husband!”
“…and I hate Frank. He was not a good husband or father. Or a good salesman. I made a mistake.”
“I wish that she would beg for my forgiveness!”
“…Can you forgive me? Please? I need you to forgive me, Tony! Please forgive me and tell me you love me!”
Tony amended this conversation several more times until Laverne was sobbing on her end and promising to leave straightaway and meet Tony at his current residence. By the time the conversation ended, Tony could hear the baffled protests of Frank himself. Tony grinned, glad to hear it the salesman losing, at last, the deal of a lifetime.
Feeling quite pleased, Tony abandoned the liquor store to the rain and darkness and the pleasure of whatever thieves might visit it. He started for home, expecting to find his ex-wife awaiting him there. It was very dark still, and rainy, and it was the witching hour. His Ferrari cut through the darkness and the rain like a red blade. He felt good driving it, but he did not drive overly fast. He felt paranoid that he would lose control of it and wreck it. And he did not want to damage such a fine vehicle.
Tony had been ruminating on how he would break the deal with the turbaned stranger, and he was satisfied that he had found a loophole in the arrangement. He would simply wish that the deal was moot. First, however, he would reconcile with his wife, and he would sell the Ferrari for money, his reasoning being that the stranger could take the Ferrari away from the new owner, but not the money the Ferrari had brought to Tony. He felt optimistic about this ploy. He felt invincible. He would make several such wishes and then pawn them off for a dragon’s hoard of wealth. It was a transactional con, and he knew about them well.
Only, this one would work. He knew it would work.
Tony was halfway home when the headlights approached from behind. The high-beams flooded his Ferrari with blinding bright light. Tony cringed and shielded his eyes with his arm, then pushed the rearview mirror aside.
“I bet it’s the same cocksucker from before,” Tony swore.
The truck began honking its horn in rapid succession, keeping its brights on the Ferrari.
“Pass me, you dumb-ass,” Tony growled. “Or better yet…”
Tony hit the gas, accelerating down the straight, but wet and dark, highway. At first the headlights behind him began to lag behind, receding, but they, too, accelerated, catching up to him. Tony did not dare go faster or risk losing control of his new car. So he relented, slowing down, now, and hoping that the belligerent tailgater would finally pass him. The motorist did not. The truck’s high-beams flooded the Ferrari again, and the driver hammered the horn incessantly. Tony would have pulled off the highway, but there was no shoulder, nor any driveways or exits to take advantage of. It was a branchless road for miles.
The truck finally pulled into the opposite lane, revving its engine and driving up alongside Tony. But it did not pass. Instead, one of the passengers leaned out of the window and yelled at Tony.
“Fuckin’ faggoty foreign car!” the drunk slurred into the rain. He flung an empty bottle can, striking the Ferrari’s hood. The bottle shattered and scattered across the Ferrari. “Think you’re better than us? Buy American!”
Tony seethed. He recognized the truck, and its Confederate battle flag on the door. The truck kept abreast of the Ferrari, if only because Tony was too cautious to drive any faster. The rain fell harder, as if it, too, wished to damage the Ferrari like the bottle had. The driver of the truck blew his horn for one long, strident note. All the while Tony ground his teeth together in rage.
“You think you can outrun us?!” the drunk yelled. He slapped the Confederate battle flag for emphasis. “You goddamn Yankee!
“I wish that bastard would fucking wreck,” Tony growled.
The truck suddenly lurched forward in a burst of speed, and tried to maneuver in front of Tony’s Ferrari. But instead of gaining enough speed, and distance, it slid with a jerk to the right as a tire blew out, slamming into the Ferrari. Before Tony could utter a word, the truck and the Ferrari careened sideways, slamming into the rails that ran along Highway 62. The truck bounded off in the opposite direction, diving off the highway while Tony’s car overcorrected, hydroplaning. Tony screamed as the sports car flipped and then somersaulted down the road with its chaotic momentum.
In his excitement, Tony had not buckled his seatbelt. He flew through the windshield and tumbled along the asphalt as a broken tangle of limbs. The car followed after him, and after it followed the stranger in the purple turban.
The moon was bloated with moribund light as Phoebe walked along the desolate fields. Jagged stalks gleamed with the first frost of the year, crunching beneath Phoebe’s boots. Her shadow walked beside her, stretching out long and thin, as if mocking her short height with the taller figure she wished she possessed. Phoebe was a vain creature, especially for her thirteen years of life, and while she would have rather worn more ladylike shoes when out and about, even she bowed to the necessity of muck boots when in search of Devil’s Fen.
“Perfectly white teeth,” Phoebe said to herself. “Immaculate teeth. The best teeth in the whole county. And handsome blue eyes.”
The fields curved upward upon the hilly countryside, as if swelling like the seas at the beck of the moon and arching slowly like a groggy cat upon waking. The slow rise and fall of the slopes beneath Phoebe’s boots mirrored her breath. She scarcely trusted her own breath in the unsettling silence of that hour, for it rose phantasmally before her in the Autumn chill. She could see her immediate surroundings well enough beneath the moon, but the distant trees were black fringes from which wolves, or worse, might come bounding swiftly to catch her unawares.
This was a pilgrimage, she told herself; a pilgrimage for the sake of Love. She would not be deterred, come dragon or demon or damnation. The hag had promised Phoebe that she would have her wish fulfilled, and yet Phoebe felt misgivings amounting all around her like a pack of snarling fangs.
“Perfect teeth,” she said to herself. “Like pearls. And always grinning; always so handsome. Handsome beneath his handsome mustache and handsome blue eyes.”
The hilly fields gradually sloped downward, away from the moon. Yet, the moon illuminated the receding earth brightly, as if its glow bled and pooled here in this vast valley that deepened and drained at last toward the peat-heaped lowland known as Devil’s Fen.
“Perfect teeth,” Phoebe said, “and our children will have perfect teeth, too. And beautifully black hair. Handsome chin. And the bluest eyes.”
It was good that Phoebe wore her muck boots. Devil’s Fen was choked with water and mud, the only visible earth carpeted in moss that was so saturated that it held nothing as the cold moonlight glittered off of the scab-pocked mirror of water. Rushes and sedges grew everywhere in wilted clusters, and here and there lonely willow trees hung their heads in sorrow. From all of these did Phoebe set about gathering up the materials she would need. She had brought twine, and she uprooted rushes and reeds, cut them with a bone-knife the hag had given her, and sawed off withy from the mournful branches of the willows, stacking them all together and binding them in twine. The moon seemed to watch Phoebe as she worked among the shallow pools of festering plants. Whether it looked on in pleasure or abhorrence, Phoebe could not say. She was not given to such fanciful thoughts. She cared only for the task at hand and how it would win her the man she most desired.
And it was a man that the thirteen-year old most desired. William Clements was twenty and two and the most handsome of all the men in the county. He was brawny and broad-shouldered, had a full crown of dark black hair and bright blue eyes. Moreover, while all of these things recommended him in the admiration of the women, it was his teeth that truly shined as an endorsement of his qualities. A man with such fine teeth was a man to covet, and all the women coveted him, including Phoebe, despite her young age. Unfortunately for the women in Wischmeier county, William Clements’s blue eyes only ever followed the weaver’s daughter, Marianne Mayswell. Phoebe loathed Marianne. Marianne was fair and milky-figured, made graceful by both a healthy living and the primacy of her seventeen years of age. Though she would have never admitted it—even to herself—Phoebe could not compete with Marianne, either by figure or by feature, and despite being the daughter of the mayor, Phoebe could not induce William Clements’s fondness with either her promise of wealth or of beauty. She had tried, of course. Phoebe had her father buy several dresses and bits of jewelry with which to bedew herself as a rosebud in a golden dawn. And yet, at her rising, William only turned his head ever toward that humming afternoon sunshine that was Marianne Mayswell.
And so Phoebe had gone to the hag, and the hag had sent Phoebe here, to Devil’s Fen.
“Teeth so white and spotless,” she said to herself. “Cleaner than moonlight. Brighter than the sun.”
Her boots splashed up a puddle of mud, sullying her new dress. She did not care. It was just another dress that had failed to garner the admiration and affection she envied in Marianne. The latter could have worn a potato sack and outshone Phoebe’s most regal raiment.
Whereas Marianne sewed all of her own clothes, Phoebe received her clothes from the big cities in the Northeast, her father bringing them back with him as gifts whenever his enterprise occasioned his presence in Baltimore or New York. Her father owned a lumber mill, and was the richest man in all of Wischmeier County. He employed most of the men who did not own their own lands with which to prosper. This was also why he was the mayor, for no one dared to challenge him and his resources, nor to cross him, or question him in things concerning the town. He held power nigh absolute. The only exceptions for the mayor’s power were the matters governing the romantic hearts in Wischmeier County and, of course, the Fall Festival.
The Fall Festival was held every year, during the Harvest Moon or thereabouts. Nearly participated in the Festival. It was the catharsis of a year of hard labor, and a consolation for the bitter Winter to come. There was apple cider, and moonshine, and dancing, and storytelling. There were many contests, too, and each contest rewarded its winner with an assortment of prizes. Naturally, Phoebe had never stooped to compete in any of the contests, deeming them beneath her. Yet, the hag had foretold that Phoebe would only win her husband by fabricating her own scarecrow in the Festival’s contest.
The hag said:
“With the rush and the reed,
with both withy and need,
in the dark Devil’s Fen
will you thereby know then
your fateful groom’s grin—
most unique among men.”
Phoebe might have dismissed this prophecy as the ravings of an old crone with more cats than sense, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Marianne always won the scarecrow contest, year after year, for she was the best weaver and seamstress in town. Phoebe often overheard, with resentment, the men and women who spoke so fondly of Marianne’s talents. But none spoke more fondly of her scarecrows than did William Clements.
And it was this latter fact that had convinced Phoebe to take up the hag’s words in earnest. Even if Phoebe did not win William’s heart, she would at least attempt to win the scarecrow contest. She must conquer Marianne by some measure, at the least.
Phoebe stomped about the glittering waters of Devil’s Fen, gathering the materials she would need. It was a chilly night, yet the work brought a heated flush to her young face. It was as much heat of temper as of labor, for she had never worked so hard in her life, and it miffed her greatly.
Phoebe had gathered enough for the scarecrow’s body, but she was unsure what to do for the head. The hag had told her that Phoebe would know what to use to cap the fellow off when she saw it, but so far Phoebe had seen nothing that snared her attentions. Leaving her pile of materials on a mossy embankment, Phoebe dared to trudge deeper into the Fen. She walked for some time, aimless in the moonlit waters except where some preternatural instinct prevailed, and came to the heart of the fen. The moon’s reflection shivered and dissolved upon the wavelets of the fen as she halted. There, in front of her, crouching upon a peculiar stone in the center of the fen, was a fat bullfrog. It was the fattest bullfrog Phoebe had ever seen, its broad green and yellow mouth like a wry smile. Phoebe felt a keen jolt in her bones. This was the missing material she needed for her scarecrow. There was no doubt, even if there was apprehension. She expected the frog to leap away as she reached for it, but it only squatted there, surrendering to her outstretched hands. Normally, she hated frogs, and toads, and all such things squishy and slimy and given to the muck and mud. But Phoebe was so assured now that she would have her heart’s desire that she did not mind the bloated heft of the bullfrog’s flesh as it bulged between her cradling hands. She carried it back to her stack of rushes and reeds and withy with a confident, determined air.
Her materials gathered, Phoebe set to work by moonlight. How long she worked, she did not know. Hours upon hours seemed to pass, and yet the moon never descended a single hair’s breadth. Had she not been so fixated on her creation, she might have noticed such unnatural spans of unmarked time, but her heart and soul were consumed by the task, and the seductive dream wrought therefrom.
As for the frog—to be plopped atop as the scarecrow’s head—the hag had given Phoebe a pot of foul-smelling muck. Phoebe knew not what the muck was, but it was blackish-brown, like molasses, and smelled like sulphur. Taking the strangely docile frog, Phoebe dropped the bachtrachian unceremoniously into the pot. She waited for a time—again, she knew not how long, for she busied herself with other things—and then she dumped the pot out and cleaned the frog with water from the fen. The frog had lost all of its color, becoming a uniform light brown unlike the complexion of William Clements. Moreover, its slimy skin was now leathery, wrinkled, dried and stretched unnaturally until the frog’s mouth was just like a lipless smile. The head now finished, Phoebe impaled it on the scarecrow’s reedy spine and overtopped it with the withy hat. Phoebe then began the process of thickening the scarecrow’s body. Using mud, peat, and moss, she fattened the scarecrow to the dimensions of a man. Using a cattail, she gave him his manhood.
Phoebe had wanted to have one of her father’s servants to weave the scarecrow together for her, but the hag had said that no other could lay hand to the labor without spoiling the spell. By Phoebe’s work alone would the scarecrow exist, or else her groom would not be procured. Thus, Phoebe set about with a plaintive, but ultimately passionate, effort to form the figure of reeds and rushes, to stuff him full of sedges and moss and peat and mud. Over all of this she gave him a shirt she had woven from potato sacks, and britches made of wool, and instead of a straw hat, she had woven a hat made of withy from the willow.
The scarecrow was finished. It was as big and heavy as a man—a man very familiar to Phoebe, in a yearning manner—and so she left it there, in Devil’s Fen, hidden beneath a willow tree as she eagerly awaited the Fall Festival.
Phoebe began the long hike home. It seemed so much farther to walk now, going uphill out of the Fen and the valley and following, once again, the undulations of the hillocky fields. She glanced back, once, at the willow tree where she had placed her scarecrow. Moonlight glowed on the mournful tresses of the willow with a wan wistfulness. As she turned away a phlegmy cackle echoed from somewhere in the darkness of Devil’s Fen. A mallard, Phoebe thought. Nothing more.
Head heavy with exhaustion, and too much sleepless dreaming, Phoebe trudged home like a sleepwalker in want of a bed.
On the day of the Fall Festival, Phoebe requested her father’s housemaid, Millie, to fetch her husband and son and have them all aid Phoebe in transporting the scarecrow from the outskirts of the Fen to the town square where the festival was to be held. The family aided Phoebe with a wheelbarrow and wary glances. As soon as they saw the scarecrow they crossed themselves.
“You superstitious fools,” Phoebe muttered. She added, more loudly, “Hurry! I don’t want to be late for the contest!”
The father and son pushed the wheelbarrow from the Devil’s Fen up through the valley and along the undulating fields, coming to the town square. The Fall Festival was always held on the town square, in among the dogwood trees and the maples. Festoons hung from branch to branch, and large tents stood steepled on tall posts, one after another, each sheltering a contest or auction or certain games for the children. Normally, Phoebe felt nothing but disdain for the cake contests and the games of horseshoes and the poor families juggling pennies to outbid one another for novelties that would be mocked as rubbish in any affluent quarter of a New England town. But she felt excitement to see the commotion made in the bustling crowd as the wheelbarrow was pushed through to the center of the square, its limp passenger nodding with the motion like a drunkard in his cups, or a corpse drawn up out of the bog.
“Is that real, momma?” a little boy wondered aloud, his eyes wide to the whites.
“I don’t know,” the boy’s mother said, drawing him back behind herself with a protective arm. “I reckon not, but I don’t know for certain.”
Such remarks only pleased Phoebe the more. That her creation should give such misapprehension to the country bumpkins proved to her that she had made a formidable scarecrow. A more grotesque specimen was never known.
Fortune smiled upon Phoebe more that day, for the scarecrow contest was to be held in the central pavilion of the town square. This was a large wooden roof, like that belonging to a barn, only hoisted high upon tall, thick posts. The scarecrows from the other competitors had already been erected on stakes for all to see. Marianne Mayswell had her scarecrow front and center, its cloth body assuming a fine semblance to a man in caricature, from his protruding nose to his button eyes and his fine-fingered hands. The weaver’s daughter had outdone herself this year. The scarecrow’s pants were good enough for a child of equal size to wear to church, and the flannel shirt was checkered with perfect little red and black squares. Marianne’s scarecrow was superior to the other scarecrows in every way. Seeing it made Phoebe’s heart sink. It was perfect. But then she turned and looked at her own scarecrow with its all-too-human proportions and its unique fen-furnished materials. Marianne’s was perfected tradition, Phoebe thought, but Phoebe’s was unique. Strangely unique. Bizarre. Otherworldly. At the very least her simulacrum deserved due consideration by the judges, if not outright praise.
“Be careful!” Phoebe admonished her helpers as the father and son struggled under the weight of her scarecrow. “If you break it my father will have you whipped out of town!”
The father and son steadied the scarecrow—even if they trembled now more than ever—and then, having secured it on a large stake, retreated from their mistress, disappearing into the crowd. The crowd swelled forward more closely around Phoebe’s scarecrow to stare in wonder, and abhorrence, at the grotesquery wrought before them.
Yet, while many faces contorted with fear and disgust at the strange, foul-smelling scarecrow, the only face that mattered at all in the crowd was that of William Clements as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the curio in their midst.
“It sure would scare crows away,” William remarked, smiling nervously. “It would scare me away if I saw it standing in a field on a dark night.”
“Not so,” Phoebe said, nearly giggling with giddy joy as she gladly stepped up to meet him and his pearly white teeth. “I know you too well, William. You are too brave and strong to be scared away by anything.”
William’s shoulders, and eyebrows, shrugged. “I have my limits,” he said. “If I’d caught sight of this thing in the field at night I’d kick up enough dirt running away to bury half the county.”
“Then perhaps you wish me to accompany you home,” Phoebe said, radiant with moon-eyed delight, “to protect you from my scarecrow?”
William did not answer her, for Marianne approached, then, and he had eyes now only for the weaver’s daughter.
“She has talent,” Marianne said. “And I like the curious use of reeds and moss. It lends it a different character than the normal sort of field-uncle that the rest of us made. And the use of leather for the head is a clever touch.”
It was generously said, and yet any generosity afforded to Phoebe by the beauteous Marianne smacked of condescension, regardless of how good the intention.
“I don’t have the lay skills of a tradesman,” Phoebe said, sourly, “or a tradeswoman, and so I make do with what my elevated upbringing has given me.”
The acerbity was unmistakable in Phoebe’s voice, yet she was young, and so negligible, especially as William and Marianne turned their attentions toward each other at the exclusion of anyone else. Phoebe saw how their eyes met, and could feel their tidal force. She felt suddenly reduced in size, small, shrinking beneath the taller, prettier girl and the mutual attraction William shared with her. Were Marianne and William to kiss, Phoebe realized, William would not need to stoop to kiss her, the young woman being as tall, whereas if he were to kiss Phoebe he would need to stoop as if picking up a child. And Phoebe was no child, she insisted to herself. She was as much a woman as Marianne, if not more so. Being the daughter of the mayor, she had real power in Springfield. She wore the mature dresses of France and Italy. Phoebe considered herself worldly in her wardrobe and her wiles.
And yet, her mind was arrayed with the thoughts of their first kiss. It would not be romantic. It would not be passionate. It would be absurd. William was a man, and she was a little, foolish girl. She felt tears burning at the edges of her eyes, unnoticed by the crowd gathered around her scarecrow. Before the tears could bubble free, she hurried away from the pavilion to the solitary shade of a maple tree. No one was near her now. She sat on the ground, unmindful of her pretty green dress from France, and cried bitterly. It was some time before she realized that the shade had deepened and darkened from noonday blue to midnight black. Raising her head, she saw that the hag was standing over her, smiling a toothless smile within her faded gray hood.
“Do not cry, my little lamb,” the hag said. “Whatever could be the matter?”
At the sound of pity, Phoebe’s temper flared. She leapt up, clenching her fists at her side. “You liar! You said he would love me if I made that stupid scarecrow!”
“It is but a step along the way,” the hag said, her feigned pity replaced by a sly smile. “Be careful how you foot it, for there are more dangerous paths than fens to wind one’s way through.”
“You say a lot without saying anything at all,” Phoebe retorted. “I trudged through mud and spent all night making that useless scarecrow, and to what end? To what end, you old, ugly hag?!”
“The end has not yet come,” the hag said simply. “You will have exactly what you wish. A husband with handsome blue eyes and immaculate teeth. You must have faith, child, for it will come to pass. You will have a husband with all the things your heart values. You will have his handsome blue eyes and his immaculate teeth.”
“But Marianne has his heart!” Phoebe moaned, feigning a swoon against the tree. She suddenly sprang upright, her green eyes flapping open suddenly and brightening with the fulgurous thunderclap of a thought. “Unless you mean some misfortune will come to pass for Marianne?!” She clapped her hands together excitedly. “Ohhh, is that it?” Still smiling, she feigned sadness. “Oh, but I must not wish too mortal a fate for her. It would be beneath me. She is, after all, only a weaver’s daughter. Better would it be that William were to reflect on his first choice and realize the folly of it, choosing instead to pursue truer taste in one as highly bred as I am.”
“You will have the man with the beautiful blue eyes and the immaculate teeth,” the hag said. “As you said you desired.”
“But when?” Phoebe moaned.
The hag gestured toward the town square with a wart-clustered finger. Phoebe’s eyes followed the gesture, falling again on the pavilion. There was a commotion within the crowd. Many were glancing toward her—at Phoebe—and Phoebe was taken aback.
“What are they gawking at?” Phoebe demanded, outraged.
The hag was gone. She had vanished into thin air. Someone broke away from the pavilion crowd and approached Phoebe. Much to her delight, and agitation, it was William. He strode toward her with his long, loping stride. Coming from among those commonfolk, he was as a proud stallion stepping forth from amongst a herd of dim-witted mules. Phoebe’s stomach whirled with butterflies and she felt as if she was reeling on a merry-go-round. She felt she would have to steady herself by grasping his mustache.
“Phoebe,” he said, “the judges have decided that your scarecrow is the best.”
“Really?” Phoebe said. The excitement in her voice had nought to do with her scarecrow; rather, it was elicited by the impeccable grin on William’s face. “So I won? Me? What a surprise! I am so happy!”
“You should come get your prize,” William said.
“What is it?” Phoebe asked, excited at the thought that it might be a kiss from the young man standing before her.
“A quilt,” William said. “Woven by Marianne’s father, Michael.”
Phoebe’s smile instantly soured. “I do not want a quilt,” she said.
“But it really is a pretty quilt,” William said. “One of the best her father has ever woven.”
“Then let her keep it,” Phoebe said, irritably. “What good can I have from a quilt? I get all of my blankets and sheets from France. They’re softer and better made in France. Because of their more finely bred fingers.”
William’s countenance darkened with what Phoebe knew to be anger. But instead of offering a cross rebuke, he merely turned away from her in silence, walking toward the pavilion. Phoebe watched him go with a feeling of terrible finality all about her and the cosmos. This finality consumed the spheres and made her feel claustrophobic, like a mouse chased deeper and deeper into a narrowing hole by a mouser. Her greatest fear seemed soon to reach fruition.
“William!” she called out, her voice cracking.
He said nothing, nor did he turn to look at her. He merely halted.
“On second thought, I wish to see this quilt,” she said, hurrying forward. “It is, no doubt, as good as any French blanket, if not Oriental silk. The Maywells are very talented people.”
William turned about now, a wary smile returning to his face. “They are, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Not a weaver for four hundred miles that could do better.”
Phoebe’s luck seemed to take a change for the better a little later when Marianne had to escort her elderly father home. He had a wet cough and she, being his only child, wished to see him rectified with a bowl of hot soup and a warm fire. Reluctantly, William said his goodbyes to Marianne, and prepared to leave, himself, from the emptying town square as the gloaming drew its crepuscular fabrics all around. Phoebe, however, had a mind for fatefulness. So, she took the rare opportunity and asked that he take a walk about the town with her. Seeing no harm in it, William agreed, and not only agreed, but carried the quilt that Phoebe had won with her unique scarecrow.
Phoebe and William took several turns about the square. Phoebe spoke much about her father’s businesses, his prosperity, the various things he bought for her, and all of the material comforts which she thought a goodly lure for the man she wished to betroth. After a time, William interrupted her diatribe about the superiority of China to American pewter plates to remark upon her scarecrow.
“It seems your father had some people carry your scarecrow away,” he said, pointing.
Phoebe blinked in confusion, then followed his finger. Beneath the pavilion, the large stake was vacant of its former resident. This baffled Phoebe, for she had made no request for anyone to take possession of her creation, nor to carry it elsewhere. Her father, in fact, did not even know the scarecrow existed, for he had foregone the Fall Festival in favor of a festival of his own, awash with ale. Whichever way the scarecrow had come to vanish, Phoebe did not care. It had served its purpose, and now she was walking and talking with William Clements— alone, in twilight, with no one else eavesdropping upon them; and, truth be told, if someone did so happen to be eavesdropping, all the merrier for Phoebe. Let it spread around Springfield and to the bordering counties. Perhaps the rumor would gain momentum enough to carry this night into a foreseeable day of matrimonial bliss, or at least obligation.
“William,” she said, suddenly halting and facing him. “What are your plans for the future? What are your dreams?”
William’s brow furrowed with thought. “Well, I suppose I would like to own my own farm. Maybe someday I would even own two farms. Three even!” He laughed, and the laugh was full-chested with booming alacrity.
“You should really think about being mayor,” Phoebe said in earnest. “Someone with your recommendations could easily be a mayor. In fact, with the right wife you could become governor. A president, I should think.”
William squinted painfully, as if he had been struck on the head with a chance acorn. “I don’t think I would take to that sort of life,” he said. “I know cows. I know sheep. But running a town? I would be happy enough running my own barn without it burning down.”
Phoebe shook her head irritably. “No, no, no. It is simple, really, running a town. It is like a barn. You merely need to shepherd the people, as you do with cows and sheep. It is no different, truly. I can help you do it when we are married…”
William’s dark eyebrows lifted in surprise, furrowing his brow like plows. He sighed. “Phoebe, that is not possible,” he said. “I’ve tried to be soft about this, but you are making it hard for me. Marianne and I are getting married. You are too young to…”
Phoebe did not wait for him to finish. The tears gushed, followed by the venom. “Marianne is a stupid cow!” she screamed. “I’m the one with money! Why don’t you want to marry me?!”
William stepped back, one hand raised while the other cradled Phoebe’s unwanted-yet-won quilt, and his eyes darting about in wild terror. Dogs barked in the distance.
“Phoebe, please,” he pleaded. “It is not about money. This is about love. And I love Marianne. She is of marrying age. You…you are too young.”
“Then wait for me,” she said, her lips quivering with chaotic, conflicted emotions. “I’ll be of age in a few years and then you can marry me!”
“Marianne and I have been engaged in secret for two years, Phoebe,” he said. “I cannot break my vow to her.” He held out the quilt for Phoebe to take. “It would hurt her, and it would hurt myself. You have to understand. She and I were meant to be…”
Phoebe jerked the quilt away from him and threw it to the ground. Her scream was an infernal peal of primal rage. She pressed her hands to her ears and then ran away in a wild direction, heedless of where she was going. She ran and ran until the town square, and the town itself, was lost to the evening mists and shadows.
“She lied to me!” Phoebe wept. “The old witch lied to me! Will won’t marry me! He hates me!”
Sobbing and running, she went downhill until she finally fell to her knees, breathless beneath a wanly-glowing willow tree. The moon slowly rose, as if gloating over Phoebe’s sorrows. Her whole body rattled and shook with her weeping. She did not care about anything thereafter—whether wolf stealing through the woods or viper creeping through the weeds—and did not observe the world’s clock as it ticked on and on.
And yet, after a time, she stared down at her new dress. It was a French dress quite fashionable in Parisian salons, and now it was stained with the derisive touch of grass. She did not care. Her whole life had been marred, she thought, because William would not be bound to her. She wished her father would pillory Marianne and have her flogged. Phoebe was so wrathful that, had she seen Marianne’s face then, she would have clawed out Marianne’s pretty blue eyes. Blue eyes! Like William’s! As if matched by Providence! All of their children were fated to have such blue eyes, and they would taunt and haunt Phoebe to the end of her days!
“Weeping again, child?” the hag said. “And on your wedding night?”
“Do not…mock…me…” Phoebe said between sobs. “Leave me be. I just…want to…to…die.”
The hag cackled—a phlegmy, thick cackle like wet, rotten wood split by an ax. “You will not die, child. Not for many a year. You have too long a married life to live. Too many children to bear. Your groom comes. He will be here soon.”
“Go…away!” Phoebe rallied, her rage crashing, like lightning, through her shower of tears. Her hand found a stone, and she raised it with a fury.
The hag was gone. All around Phoebe was now silence and the moon-drawn shadows within Devil’s Fen. Lips still trembling, Phoebe rose to her feet. She breathed reluctantly, as if to breathe meant to endorse the life she now lived with all of its inherent hopelessness. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned toward the slope leading out of the Fen. Up from the valley her eyes wandered, as if looking for a sign. She found one. There, atop of the hillocky expanse, was a figure etched black within the moonlight.
“Wi…Will?” she whispered.
The figure approached her, walking with the same strong, long loping stride that stamped William Clements’s approach.
“Will?” Phoebe said louder, with more hope and joy. “Will, you do love me, don’t you?”
She wished to run to him, but dared not move, for she feared it was a dream from which she would abruptly wake.
The moon slid down lower as the figure descended into the valley toward Devil’s Fen, its full orange glow unobserved. Phoebe waited by the willow tree, the world overcome with a silence pregnant with anticipation. No whippoorwills chanted. No crickets chirped. No wolves howled. The silence pervaded, and Phoebe could hear her own heart pounding hard in her chest like thunder.
“Will, I promise I will be your perfect wife,” Phoebe said, or whispered, or mouthed. “I won’t ever disappoint you. I will love you, and honor you, and cherish you. I will bear you many sons with your same blue eyes and perfect white teeth.”
The figure came to the bottom of the valley’s slope, nearing the willow tree.
“If you want to be a farmer, you can be a farmer,” Phoebe said. “I will be a farmer’s wife. I don’t have to be a governor’s wife, or even a mayor’s wife. So long as I am your wife. Will, I…”
Phoebe’s mouth went slack, loosening into a gawping hole of horror.
The scarecrow loomed over her, its frog-face broad and leathery and stinking beneath its withy hat. Something dark and wet and fresh glistened all over its lips, dribbling down its cheeks and chin.
“No…not you…” Phoebe whimpered, shrinking in terror. “Please…go away…”
The scarecrow did not go away. It leaned forward, its familiar blue eyes inching closer. Its leathery lips curved upward, then parted wetly. Gleaming in the milky moonlight, each one as finely white as any polished pearl, were many an immaculate tooth—teeth more immaculate than any others in all of Wischmeier County.
Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest. As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour. His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs. Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.
“Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said. “The rain has a chill. ”
Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked. Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided. Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life. They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.
It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs. He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut. He saw Eiji standing near the corner. The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be. Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see. There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft. This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness. It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip. Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.
Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand. The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.
And a voice spoke.
“Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo. “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”
“What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror. He held his son behind him, protectively.
“I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot. “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”
“You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.
“Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said. The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire. “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”
Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it. “Ask for something else, ” he said. “I will do what you wish. But you may not take my son. ”
“I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.
Nobuteru looked at his wife. He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.
“Very well, ” he said. “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”
“No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly. “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ” The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo. “Five flood seasons from now. No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”
The voice died away like a withdrawing wind. Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well. Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know. He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.
“This is all a bad dream, ” he said. “Do not tell your mother. She must not know. Promise. ”
The tremulous boy nodded obediently.
Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest. Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder. He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them. He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut. His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him. The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.
Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child. Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born. Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest. He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres. He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.
It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous. Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad. A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.
“Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest. “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”
“Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said. “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”
He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter. Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive. It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.
“We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said. “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”
The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why. She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind. Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts. They cherished her, as they did her brother. To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi. But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.
The ritual lasted all day and night. What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof. It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks. The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon. Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved. Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted. She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.
Years passed. Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive. She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously. Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment. Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed. To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.
Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all. No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season. When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing. The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.
Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest. He became a fisherman to sustain his family. Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever. He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience. Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him. But he did not speak of such things to anyone. He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.
Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them. But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko. Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl. She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring. Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment. She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play. She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well. Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her. When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves. This troubled Eiji.
“There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father. “She is no longer as she was. ”
“So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said. “That is what the spirit promised. ”
“You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.
“Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted. “That is why I moved our family here. The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest. The priest saw to it. ”
“But father… ”
“Enough! ” his father snapped. “That is all! Do not speak of it anymore! ”
Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.
That night the rain fell hard. The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse. Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill. No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound. Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding. He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen. The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.
Gradually, they all fell asleep. They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain. When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways. Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko. They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow. All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind. But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko. Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own. Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her. He failed. Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills. They did not see Aiko again that night.
The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror. They called for Aiko. They prayed to the gods. Nothing answered them. When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo. Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead. They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay. When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine. It was shunned by animals and people alike. Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl. It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head. No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.
Hell of an ache in my leg. Must be going to rain. Good thing I’m wearing my trenchcoat. Even now, far from the trenches, I can’t escape the need to wear it. It is one of the best things to fend off the rain, despite how it can sometimes invite the wash-off into my boots. Good against the New York fog, too. And the cold New York winters. My fedora helps also, keeping my head dry, but nothing keeps the chill out of my gimp leg. Damp, cold pain. Like a Mauser gone cold in my leg. As it so happens, it is an old Mauser in my leg. Medics never could get it out, they said, without risking my artery. The fact that my artery had healed around it baffled them back then. Should have bled out, they said. I did bleed out. But I am still alive today, for better or for worse.
She wouldn’t let me die back then. Sometimes I think she is still here, keeping me alive.
The sprawl of the docks is like a ship at sea. The boardwalk sways with the ocean and creaks as if it has a hull breach, keen on sinking. The boats are in the distance, lost in fog and night and the crowding shadows. The streetlights lead me along in my uncertainty. Like a dog on a leash, unsure why his master has a sad face and a loaded rifle. The dead of New York line the empty streets, like shades on River Styx. Only I can see them as their apparitions drift by. Not many living people would put up with the Sight. Seeing the dead everywhere can really ruin your appetite.
But the dead are not the people I’m concerned with. At least, I don’t believe so. I’m on the lookout for a young man. His Jewish mother is wanting him home. Probably went for a visit at a brothel and fell in love with Loose-Lucy. Or maybe got himself Shanghaied. Or maybe just left his old mother for another life. It happens. If he was dead, I would have seen him in her apartment. The dead cling to familiar forms of their former lives. Much like those of us who are half-alive, having lost our former lives in the War.
I try not to think about the War. There are enough ghosts on the boardwalk as it is without conjuring more to haunt me. That old decade is gone, and a new one’s begun, the upstart pup saddled with all of the problems from the old hound dog. Nobody warned me that the new decade would be of the same pedigree as the old. Same president, but different war. Not that I have anything against Truman. He’s just no Roosevelt, you know? Maybe he started war with the Koreans because he thinks he needs to live up to Frank. Maybe there are too many war hawks circling restlessly since 1945. I don’t know. Feed them scraps from the table and they think they rule the castle. I’m no Beatnik, but even I’ve got to say this country’s had enough of war for a while.
Glad I’m a cripple now. No war with a side order of conscription for me, thanks. Then again, there’s always a war going on in New York, isn’t there?
The bar is called the “Creak-Easy”. A joke, obviously. It is on the edge of the city, near the docks. A good place to funnel some patrons fresh off the boat. Dock workers. Sailors. Fishermen. The bartender has blonde hair and blue eyes. Hitler would have loved him slapped up on some propaganda posters. Only, he is one of our boys. Navy, I assume, by the pictures of the battleships and sailors and pilots all over the place. Also, the bloated dead men around him are a hint. Not much detective work involved, all in all. Dead men tell no tales, they say, but that isn’t the case at all for me.
“Hello,” I say.
“The name’s Dan,” the bartender says, unprompted. He extends his hand over the counter. “I like to greet all my new regulars.”
I hesitate, sizing him up. I shake his hand.
“Jim,” I say. I hold up the photograph Allen’s mother has given to me. “Private investigator. Looking for a missing person. Young man. Tall. Big. Jew.”
“A tall, big Jew, huh?” Dan says, grinning as he glances at the photograph. “He’d be easy to spot. Most Jews I know are little guys with big noses.” When he sees that I do not share his joke, he shifts uncomfortably, withdrawing his hand. “Course, they didn’t deserve what the Nazis did to them. Just saying that your Jew doesn’t sound run of the mill.”
I ignore his opining. “His name’s Allen Cronenburg. Likes to go by ‘Al’ sometimes.”
“The problem is,” Dan says, “that not many of them come around here.” He hooks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating a Catholic crucifix on the wall. “Even if he was welcome here—and he wouldn’t be—he wouldn’t dare show his face around here. Not if he was a smart Jew.”
“Guess I’ll ask around anyway,” I say, turning to go.
“Not without buying a drink,” he says, his baby blue eyes hardening.
I don’t drink anymore. It gives me a headache, and I see more than I care to see when I’m drunk. So I try a different tact.
“You were in the Navy,” I say. It is not a question.
“Yeah. What of it?”
“Lost a lot of friends to the waves,” I say, trying not to stare too much at the swollen faces of the ghosts around him, behind the bar.
“Maybe,” he says, shifting uncomfortably.
“I lost friends, too,” I say. “In the Death Factory.”
His scowl dissolves into wonder. “You survived the Death Factory?”
“Somewhat,” I say. “Not completely.”
He nods. He stoops down behind the bar and fetches a glass. He pours a glass of beer and hands it over to me. “On the house,” he says.
I take a gulp— just enough to show good faith—and I survey the bar and its patrons.
“The limp?” Dan asks.
I nod. “Lucky I got to keep it. The leg, I mean.”
Dan starts talking to me about his own wounds. I am not listening to him. One of his ghosts is sputtering with swollen lips, his voice gargling in his distended neck. It is hard to understand the dead sailor and his babbling, but I get the gist of it. The dead man tells me his message for Dan, the bartender. I will tell him later. Right now I am more concerned with finding the living man I was sent to find.
“And so I get this shoulder ache pretty badly from time to time,” Dan concludes, grimacing as he rotates an arm. “Better than dead, I always say.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I say. “But keep the healthy perspective. Excuse me.”
I leave the counter and head toward the middle of the room, amidst all of the tables. None of the ghosts look like a tall, big Jewish boy, so I ignore the ghosts, for now, and focus on the living. A couple of guys at the far back corner have several dead men around them, their tickets punched to the Stygian shore. Bullet holes in some. Others with wires around their throats, eyes bulging out of their sockets. Mafia men, likely. One of them smirks up at me—as only a Mafia man can—and winks. The other one—bigger than the smaller, smirkier one—scowls at me.
Save those two for last, I think. I focus on the other patrons before the smaller Mafia man’s smirk loses its edge of humor. I could use tact with the two Mafia men—butter them up with some jokes and whatnot—but my leg is hurting me, so I just sit down, uninvited. Sometimes you got to just open with an honest salvo. Let’s both sides know that there is no flirtation involved.
“Looking for this guy,” I say, holding up the photograph. “Allen Cronenburg. You two wouldn’t happen to know what could have happened to him, would he? He frequented this dock. Possibly for business. Possibly for pleasure.”
“Maybe for both,” the smaller man says, smirking. “Some of us have the good fortune of business and pleasure at the same time.”
The bigger man says nothing. He only nods, his hard gaze unblinking as it, in all likelihood, surveys me for every little bone he could break when need should arise.
“It can be,” I admit, “but I don’t know the peculiarities of the man enough to know. You know? I wanted to make sure he did not get mixed up in anything that wasn’t…kosher.”
The smaller man— an Italian with dark black hair and a pencil mustache that could underwrite your execution—smiles broadly. His brown eyes glitter with amusement beneath his fedora.
“This guy here is funny, ain’t he?” he says to the bigger man.
“Real funny,” the bigger man says, mirthlessly.
“And that’s why I’m going to give him a warning,” the Italian says. “But in a funny way.” He grabs my arm; not violently, but firmly, and points to his own nose with his other hand. “We don’t like nosy people,” he says. “And Jews got big noses, don’t they?”
He laughs and lets go of my arm. I smile, but it has no more humor in it than the bigger guy’s openly hostile grimace. I wait until the Italian’s laughter peters off, then press him while still holding the photograph up.
“So you’ve never heard of him?”
The bigger man squints up and down at me like a tailor making an estimation of size for a suit, or an undertaker for a coffin. The Italian glances at the photograph, briefly, then shrugs.
“No,” he says, “but you keep sticking your nose where it don’t belong and you’ll wake up to find yourself a rabbi.” He grins broadly. “By which I mean you’ll have gotten an aversion to pig’s blood.”
He chuckles. His friend—accomplice or partner in crime or whatever he may be—does not share in this joke, either. His grim expression is set in granite, like a mountain, and like a mountain he is ready to drop those boulders of his fists on my head.
“What?” the Italian says, looking hurt. “Nobody appreciates a good joke. A couple of wet rags, the both of you.”
“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” I say, standing.
“No problem, gumshoe,” the Italian says, rolling his eyes to watch me step away. “Happy hunting.”
I leave their table. The two Mafia men are not responsible for Allen’s disappearance. Their table is crowded with people, but none of their ghosts match the photo of Allen. Their eyes follow me imploringly; wanting revenge or justice or acknowledgment. I don’t have much time to offer them anything. There are more dead in this city than there are homeless, and even if I had the money to offer the Ferryman payment to send each of them Beyond, I still wouldn’t have the time to see it through.
The next person I visit is an old man with the drunken dazzle of the sea in his swaying eyes.
“Hello there, old-timer,” I say. “Mind if I shoot the breeze with you for a minute?”
“It’s a briny breeze,” the old man says, taking a gulp of his beer. “Awfully salty. But it’s the way I like it.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I say. I sit across from him, the wobbly little table between us. I show him the photograph. “Mother’s looking for her son. Young man, as you can see. Allen Cronenburg. Big Jew. Probably head and shoulders above us all.”
The old man finishes his beer in one last gulp, then squints at the photograph. He is wearing a trechcoat, like mine, but faded with too much sun and saltwater.
“There ain’t no saltwater like a mother crying for her lost child,” he says. “Big man, hm?” He rubs his scraggly beard. “Lots of lads help on the docks. Different sizes, but few so tall as you say. Maybe he sought his fortunes over the waves. Some of us do, and never look back. Take a new mother to replace the old.”
“I thought he might,” I say, “but I still need to make sure, if I can.” I shrug. “I don’t get paid, otherwise.”
The old man drinks the rest of his beer, squinting with one eye out the window, toward the docks. He never blinks. He seems the type that stares at the sun defiantly, even if it burns out his sea-dazzled eyes.
“Aye, the payout’s what we are all looking for,” he says. He sets his empty mug down on the table, in front of me. “Any sailor worth his saltwater gets a portion forwarded afore the ship sets out to sea.”
Taking the hint, I pick it up and bring it to the bar. I tell Dan I need another beer.
“On the house,” he says.
“Not for me,” I say, hooking a thumb over my shoulder at the old-timer. “Him.”
It is a mistake.
“His tab is as deep as the Mariana Trench. I’m not even sure how he got that beer to begin with. Probably filched it from somebody or suckered them with a sob-story.”
“I’m not looking for a sob-story,” I assure him. “Just a trail, or a few breadcrumbs.”
“You’ll get nothing from him but hogwash.”
“Regardless,” I say, “I need a beer for him. I’ll pay.”
I pay for the beer, then bring it back to the old sailor. I set the mug in front of him.
“Thank you, kindly,” he says. He takes the mug casually, lipping the froth. I ask him a few questions as he wets his beard. He ignores my questions in the meantime, then sets his mug down.
“What you need to know,” he says, “is that men have been dying around here. Young, old, Christian, Jew, Negro, Pollock. It don’t matter as to who—they’ve all been turning up dead. And by ‘turning up’ I mean to say floating up. We’ve been finding them on the sea near the docks. Lot’s o’ dead from drowning. Or so it seemed at first. Only, they’ve been done a terrible wrong. Their…well, their lower halves have been violated all bloody. Mutilated. And sharks and fishes can only account for so much. Maybe they all crossed the wrong gang. I don’t know what Christian would do that to a man to kill him. A garroter might bloody his hands a little with a little wire, and a hitman might bore a swallow’s nest out of a man’s head, but to do what has been done to some of these boys? Well, what diabolical bastard would do that?”
“You think Allen suffered the same treatment?” I ask.
He takes another swig of his beer, clearing his throat roughly as if he’s got shrapnel in it.
“Don’t know. All I know is that even the gangs around here are unnerved by it. Nobody wants to talk about the bodies. Even those tough boys over there that you risked your stones to talk to don’t like nobody saying nothing about it when they’re in earshot of it. Gets them upset.”
The old-timer chuckles, or gargles glass— it is hard to tell the difference.
“They go all lily-white,” he says quietly. “Reminds me of that fellar in London with the knives and the prostitutes. What’s his name?”
“Jack the Ripper,” I say.
He nods. “Something like him,” he says. “You don’t want to find a body like that.” He gives me a knowing look. “You were in the War, right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, it’s like somebody sat on a landmine. Not a pretty sight. You know, we used to eat turtles, and one of the ways of cleaning them is to cut off the head and put a hose in the stump, flushing it with water. These bodies are like that, only reversed.”
He takes one last swig of his beer, tilting his head back dramatically and draining it to the dregs. His head sways as if he is ready to fall asleep, but his eyes never shut or blink. They just keep on squinting. I wonder if he sleeps with his eyes open, like Captain Ahab ever fixed upon his White Whale.
“No, sir,” he concludes, “you do not want to witness what we pulled up in our fishing nets. It’s likely to haunt a man…even a man that’s seen the horrors of War.”
This conversation finished, I stand up and walk around between some of the other patrons of the Creak-Easy. Some are more taciturn than others. Some can’t stop talking; others are tight-lipped as a can of sardines and mercury. Eventually, someone makes a scene. Not me, or anyone I am conversing with, but a newcomer barging in through the door.
“Whooooo!” the newcomer crescendoes, wobbly as a jellyfish. He is wearing an old, dirty coat and a pair of dirty slacks. A hat sits crookedly on his head, and seems like it will fall off at any moment as he wobbles left and right. Ican tell just by the look of him that he has all his shoestrings untied.
“Leroy, you loon!” Dan yells. “I’ve told you before to get out and stay out!”
Leroy’s feet halt, their big boots planting heavily on the floor, but his upper body sways as if he was a plunger struck by a 2×4. He is a lanky man of indeterminate age, his dirty beard curly and twirly.
“Oh, Dan!” Leroy exclaims. “Jus’ lemme’ haf a seagull drink. Jus’ won drink!”
“You’ve have enough, by the look of you!” Dan says, scowling. “Get outta’ here before I have to throw you out. Go get some sleep!”
“I can’t,” Leroy says mournfully, blinking back tears I cannot see. “I ain’t had nuffin’ to eat! Not won bite!”
Dan glares all the harder, but says no more. His anger gives way to blue-eyed pity—reluctantly—and he fishes into his pocket with a hand. Sighing, he holds up a couple of quarters.
“Go get something to eat,” Dan says, “somewhere else.”
Leroy wobbles to the bar, takes the two quarters, and stands there, staring at all of the liquor behind Dan.
“I said go,” Dan repeats. “Somewhere else.”
Leroy purses his lips thirstily, then sighs as if someone told him his childhood sweetheart has died.
“Ain’t no love fo’ ol’ Leroy ‘round ear,” Leroy groans. “Jus’ haf to throw mah’selth in the oshun if I wanna’ drink. Like ‘em lizard people. THE LIZARD PEOPLE!” he shouts at the end for emphasis.
Leroy staggered toward the door, the two quarters now gone into his dirty coat pocket. Smelling a potential trail, I head after him. Drunks with loose lips can reveal things that others are less likely to say.
Dan meets me at the door.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “but Leroy’s a lost cause. He can’t offer you any info except what color the park bench is under its seat.”
“What happened to him?” I ask, still eying Leroy as he goes through the door.
“Same thing that happened to everybody else,” Dan says. “The War. Leroy was a cook on my ship. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a bad cook. All he could cook well was his own brain. And then a kamikaze hit us and he took a heavy kettle to the head. He has been dazed ever since. Dazed and confused and drunk. Once, when sober, he begged me for a drink. Saying he kept hearing ‘voices’.”
“Lizard men?” I say.
Dan shook his head. “No, the voices of all of the men trapped below-deck. The ship was taking on water and we had to abandon ship. We…we all hear those voices sometimes. That’s why I can’t stand the Japs next-door. I won’t go out of my way to tell them so, but I can’t stand them.”
“What are they, tenants?”
“Something like that,” he says, scowling. “But they also sell food to idiots willing to eat it. They act innocent, but no Jap’s ever been straight. Even their eyes are slanted, ya’ know? Probably been killing people and putting them in their soup. They’re goddamn cannibals, and I would know. I’ve heard stories from buddies in the Pacific. Japs don’t even value their own lives. Kamikazes will tell you that much. Crashed into us like they were playing chicken while blindfolded.”
Japs next-door. Cannibal soup. Farfetched, I know, but I think I’ll bite this hook and see where it takes me.
My governess, Rosamund, was quite vexed with me today. It was all her fault, naturally. It was she who left me unsupervised while I was plunged in my French studies, the lax woman taking the liberty of a walk about the garden with her favourite servant of the house, Clifford. While she was thus engaged I neglected my French in favour of the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies. It is ever a dear subject beloved in my heart—Fairies, I mean to say, not French—and I maintain that it must hold in its strange murk some glittering kernel of truth, as a nugget of gold amidst a vast coal mine of shadows. That is why I keep secret my copy of The Strand, though two years have passed since its publication. I am more inclined to read it than anything else published by Arthur Conan Doyle, particularly his stifling adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, I am astounded that Doyle could have entertained the Cottingley Fairies with any seriousness. When I consider his famously logical detective and his vacuous rationalism, one would never think Doyle of an inclination toward the phantastical. And yet, I hold within my hands evidence to the contrary.
Father attempted to dispossess me of the magazine because he believed that it fueled my fancies. What he had failed to understand, however, was that I am a keen observer of things, and so when he ordered Clifford to throw it out, I knew precisely where the magazine would find itself. That is to say, in Clifford’s bedroom. Rosamund is not the only person to search Clifford’s bare furnishings for an incriminating item.
Father has many times reprimanded Rosamund for being lax with her attentions to my studies. Therefore, when she returned from her walk she administered the French crucible in earnest, testing my poorly cultivated powers of the French tongue. I failed decidedly to follow her conversation and therefore confirmed her fears concerning my capacity for that quarrelsome language. It was an utterly hopeless cause. I would sooner master the magic of flight than master that tongue.
C’est la vie.
Of course, that is not to say I am deficient in mental acuity to master the language. Only, I rather prefer my native tongue, having honed its edge and multiplied its vocabulary with thirteen years of practice and study. I am ever collecting words for it, as fervently as any lepidopterist his beautiful specimens, whereas my French tongue withers and wanes without sufficient nourishment. And quite by design. I confine French to the basement, like a lowly urchin, and let it die slowly of starvation. My aim is to be a celebrated novelist of the phantastical variety. Not Gothic, understand, nor of the Romances, but such as Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald, the poetess Christina Rossetti and poet Alfred Tennyson. This aim is at dire odds with Father’s intentions for me. He claims a man of good breeding and better fortune would never condescend to marry a young woman of frivolous ambition, and that I should abandon my fanciful daydreams lest they interfere with more pragmatic aspirations. But I cannot help my mold and manner, anymore than his humorless austerity. Austen was apt to remind us that no man worthy of his estate wishes to link his life to a silly wife, but that is of no consequence to me. To the contrary, to marry would be the greatest consequence of all.
I persist in my ambitions, adamant that a capable mind may accommodate both pragmatism and phantasia. I intend, in short, to win financial independence as Jane Austen had, whereby I will thereupon claim freedom to be as stoic or as silly as my inclination should dictate.
June 21st, 1922
I saw a Fairy today! A real, honest-to-God Fairy! I am all aquiver at the recollection, scarcely able to write with a steady hand. Oh, but what a day! How shall I recall this otherworldly encounter? I suppose I should begin with banal descriptions of the Fairy himself.
Outwardly, he seemed but an unremarkable boy such as would be drawn from any common stock in England. He was a young boy and was of a young boy’s height. His hair was dark brown and his skin so pale that he seemed a deathly ill person. I was sitting beneath the gazebo when he alighted on the railing. I quickly put aside Voltaire’s Candide and stared in astonishment at his boldness. He crouched upon the railing like a crow and said nothing. He was utterly naked, which should have embarrassed me; only, he was a Fairy and, so, why would I fault him his heathen manner and means? He moved so strangely, his head lolling loosely and his limbs somewhat slack as if he might, at any moment, swoon and tumble to the ground. His eyes stared unblinkingly and his mouth hung open, nor did his blue lips move smoothly. His otherworldliness was confirmed in every bizarre respect.
Yet, I cannot refrain from noting with great disappointment that he did not possess butterfly wings. Rather, there extended from his back the translucent wings of a dragonfly: long and elliptical and diaphanous. It was a pity. Perhaps the females of the species are possessed of butterfly wings. I should hope so or it seems a dreadful waste of feminine conceit.
“Hello,” I said to him. “How do you do?”
The poor creature must have been malnourished, like a hummingbird that has been famished for too long a time, for he swayed as if he might fall. But he did not collapse. His mouth gaped open, and his throat undulated, the vocal cords producing something akin to human speech, and that speech was, surprisingly, a disordered form of English.
“Girl, pretty,” he said. “Fairy, I. Fairy, I. Pretty girl. Wings like Fairy? Wings like I?”
“I haven’t any wings, no,” I said.
The Fairy’s head tossed left and right ungracefully. “No. Wings, want? Like I?”
I understood him, then, to mean that if I should want wings I should have them. But I did not care for his wings or the prospect of having such. Being ever direct and thoughtless in my address, I said, “I would rather have butterfly wings.”
He grew agitated at this, vibrating like a locust in Summer, so I apologized.
“Please forgive me,” I said, “for I have always been very forthright. A novelist must be so when concerning the facts. Your wings are quite becoming for your being a boy. It is only that a young lady should prefer wings more ornate to hold her aloft. Though I am confused how I might procure wings of my own, having not been born a Fairy. Or have I misunderstood you?”
“Wings, pretty girl,” he said, though his lax mouth did not conform to the words, nor did the strangely buzzing voice seem quite his own as it issued from his bulging throat. “Pretty wings. Pretty girl. Pretty, pretty, pretty.”
Nothing of his speech struck me as particularly pretty, but I suppose that is the manner of all boys, whether born of Adam or of Avalon.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he continued to say in his buzzing voice.
“Very so,” I agreed, “or I should like to think. I have been told my mother was a beauty in her time, God rest her soul. My name is Esme. I am French by name, as well as by mother, but British by way of breeding and upbringing. And by way of Father. And who might you be?”
“Who?” he said.
“You, my silly fellow,” I said. “What is your name? What do I call you?”
“Name?” the Fairy said, his countenance lax. “No names. One in many. Not one at all.”
Such a voice! Like the buzzing of insects. Yet I understood him well enough.
“So you have no name,” I said. “Then I should like—with your permission—to name you.”
“Name?” he said again, and I took it to mean his consent.
I considered him for a moment as he crouched upon the railing. Sunlight sparkled upon his diaphanous wings, and he swayed like a drunkard straight from the wine cellar. Perhaps it was my imagination getting the better of me in this wondrous moment, but I fancied I saw something strange upon his back, glimpsed only edgewise and briefly. But I could not discern what it could have been. Likely it was a shadow and his disheveled hair behind his ears and down his neck.
“I believe your name should be…” I paused, letting the thought come of its own accord. Suddenly, it struck me like lightning. “Ariel! Yes, of course. That is who you are, my confused Fairy friend. It is perfect for you. Ariel. How do you do, Ariel?”
He did not seem impressed, or perhaps he was simply indifferent. Fairies do not conform to human pretenses in many ways, it seems, and names are just one of many customs they forego. He watched me with his unblinking eyes and, though I was still enchanted by his presence, I began to feel peculiar. The gaze of his eyes seemed so faraway, and yet keen, and it quite unnerved me in their contrary nature. I could not deduce why. Perhaps it was the faint luminosity in his eyes, such as that of a somnambulist astir in the middle of the night. The shadow at his back again disturbed me, nor could I distinguish it, even as the sunlight draped him over his shoulders with its radiance.
At length, there came two voices from down the garden walkway—two figures engaged in private conversation peppered with giggles and chuckles and cooing sighs. At the sound, Ariel fluttered his wings and took flight, flitting swiftly away into the air. I left the gazebo, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in a higher altitude, but he had vanished before I had emerged from under the rounded roof.
Rosamund and Clifford approached, their voices quieting conspiratorially as they neared me, though their spiteful grins remained.
“Hello, Esme,” Clifford said, quite too familiar for a mere servant in Father’s household. “How go the daydreams?”
“Better than my French,” I confessed, which was much to great folly, for it invited Rosamund’s scrutiny at once.
“Are you studying French?” she asked, as if all that mattered in the world between us was my fluency.
“No,” I said. “I was reading and then the most unbelievable thing happened.”
“Indeed?” Clifford said, exchanging a dubious glance with Rosamund. “And what was that?”
I opened my mouth to disclose the encounter with the Fairy, but faltered before the utterance of a single word, realizing the ridicule that should follow.
“Yes?” Clifford said, patiently.
When I faltered, yet again, Rosamund scoffed. “I should say it was that she applied the proper conjugations to her French verbs. But that is too unbelievable, even for a believer in miracles, such as myself.”
I scowled at the vexing crumpet, but turned away so she did not observe it.
“I saw…I saw a wondrous dragonfly,” I said. “Inordinately large. Strange. Unlike any other I have ever seen.”
Rosamund and Clifford exchanged another look—this look being one of disappointment and disinterest.
“Dear,” Clifford said to Rosamund, “perhaps you ought to allow her to indulge her fancies a little more, or else she will be grow ever duller until she is fascinated by account ledgers, and so ruin her leisure.”
“If only she would!” Rosamund remarked, shaking her ugly brown curls. “She would be so much more manageable, in any case. And to think she might read account ledgers in French! Her father would be impressed greatly. He might even raise my wages!”
Rosamund laughed heartily and went along her way. Clifford dutifully followed, accompanying her. I remained near the gazebo. I would have been greatly injured by their insolence, but I was too delighted with my newfound Fairy friend to begrudge my petty governess and a lowly servant for paltry slights. Their comeuppance would come in due time. The universe is a just place, after all, and the Scales of Justice mete out their punishments eventually, even if only incrementally.
June 22nd, 1922
I am all melancholy! Ariel did not visit me today. I am afraid that I offended him by refusing the wings he had offered me. But, honestly, how might a human girl be granted wings? I am not a Fairy. Perhaps Fairies may, by magic, confer wings upon one such as myself. If so, I should like that very much. Only, I should want butterfly wings, not his meager dragonfly wings. That being said, with any such wings I should aspire to the very sun itself. None could keep me grounded, either by order or obligation. And to think of the look upon Rosamund’s quarrelsome face! Just to think of her potential expression as I fly away from her, and from Father’s estate itself, would be a daydream made manifest. I would be irreproachable, for I would be faraway from anyone disposed to be captious. Such liberty! Perhaps tomorrow Ariel will return and offer me again his gift, but on better terms.
I should so very much prefer butterfly wings!
June 23rd, 1922
The Devil take that bovine busybody! Betty overheard me speaking with Ariel through my window last night. Why she should be in the family wing, and so late at night, I do not know, but I believe it testifies poorly to a scullery maid’s character that she should be skulking about so late and where she is not wanted. She forthwith informed Father that I—his one and only daughter—was talking to myself like a lunatic. What infuriated me more, however, was Father’s credence to the portly spinster in contradiction to my own account of the facts. Of course, my account was false, and I readily admit it here, but the substance of the catastrophe is that Father does not trust me more than a ridiculous woman who has no business passing by my bedchamber so late in the night. Or ever! Were it the morning, I might abide it. I have sometimes caught her passing my door early in the morning, before the rest of the household had roused itself. Presumably to wake Father—though Father always wakes later than even myself, despite Betty’s early presumption to rouse him—but that is amiss of the point! I am too upset to concentrate my powers of reasoning. Enough for today! I will write more at a later time.
June 24th, 1922
Having reread the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies—with a greatly expanded personal knowledge concerning Fairy kin—I can only conclude that the Fairies therein photographed are but flat, fabricated artifice meant to swindle credence from the idiotic public. Indeed, the whole affair is either an absurd fabrication or, less likely, the Fairies photographed are a different breed than that of Ariel, for they are of utterly disparate sizes and dimensions from the friend whom I know so well. Ariel is as veritable as the very hand which writes this, and though I have never seen his back, there is no doubt of the authenticity of his wings. They carry him aloft, clearly before my uninhibited eyes. But what of the Cottingley Fairies? Never do I see a photograph wherein the dainty creatures suspend themselves freely in the air. Rather, they are as stiffly aground as any doll within a dollhouse.
I cannot help but be vexed at the idiocy of the Cottingley phenomenon. It is a ruse, unless, of course, it is not and there do happen to exist Fairies of diminutive size with wings more pleasing to my sensibilities. But I simply cannot abide the idea that there would be Fairies with pretty little butterfly wings, and that they should neglect my acquaintance! Perhaps there are other such Fairies, and perhaps I shall meet them in due time and be invited to dance with them.
Ariel seems disinclined to dance, and disinclined to mirth generally. Were he invited to dance in a roundel to the piping of flutes, he would only crouch—as he ever does—and stare imbecilically at the other dancers enjoying themselves. Is this a common trait of all of his people or is it his own unique predilection? Perhaps other Fairies bear themselves not so clumsily as Ariel and, so, can keep time enough with music to enjoy moonlit revelries. At times I think Ariel is soft in the head, like an imbecile, and doleful. Perhaps he seeks me to enliven his own dolorous life, having been born of a temperament unbecoming of livelier pursuits.
In my experience the stranger personages known have been of the human variety. Father’s household, for example, consists of too many bizarre characters. Jasper, the new gardener, eyed me too familiarly today. This seems a great feat in and of itself when one realizes that Jasper is a gangly lowbred fool with a wayward eye. Even so, he eyed me and continues to eye me when he thinks I am not looking. I abide the impertinence for now— if only for the sake of his widowed mother, for whom he labours to afford a livelihood—but should he persist in this unwelcome presumption, I will have a word with Father and have Jasper spirited away.
This is not to say that I did not have an otherwise splendid evening. I read The Goblin Market once again today while Ariel crouched at my window, listening. There did not appear any transition of emotions across his countenance during the whole reading, but I think he listened quite attentively. He always does. Occasionally he interrupted me to ask if I wanted wings, but I steadfastly stuck to the reading. Even Fairies must be cultivated in the finer Arts that humans have made in their honour. Someday I will read to him the play The Tempest so he may understand his namesake. I do not wish to read to him A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lest the bard’s flippancy be misunderstood and a war be declared between humanity and Fairy folk. There is too much war in the world in the present age as it is.
June 25th, 1922
Once again I caught Betty passing my door early this morning, before the dawn mists had even gathered in their fullness. She appeared in a disarrayed sort of state, and yet her corpulent smile was one of vast satisfaction, as if she had spent the predawn eating a grand feast when she should have been preparing breakfast for the rest of the household.
Father did not rise until much later in the day. Beneath his whiskers was an ever-fixed smile—a slight smile, for Father was never one to indulge overmuch on any conveyance of emotion—and he walked with an energy that bordered on mirth, insomuch as he was concerned. Perhaps the Fairies had enchanted him and Betty. I must ask Ariel upon his next visitation.
June 26th, 1922
Having reread some of my earlier entries, I must sadly confess that I do not write as abundantly as I should. Therefore, I am of the conviction that the only means by which to improve my capacities as an authoress is to write with renewed diligence. Only discipline and perseverance conjoined together may manifest true genius, however strong one’s natural daemon might be. Thus, I am inclined to exercise my daemon in pursuit of that subject which most infatuates me presently: Fairies. Thus, this needful exercise necessitates that I write of my dearest bosom friend, Ariel.
Ariel—as I have stated in a previous entry—is not one to make merry in a roundel, dancing like Puck beset with mirth. Rather, he is more the toadstool around which the other Fairies prance and cavort. Sometimes he is so silent and vacant of expression that I believe mushrooms shall sprout from his ears. Thus, he is more a dead log than a flower in a playful breeze. One would think Oberon banished him, so dour is Ariel’s countenance. Or perhaps Titania hexed him for some unnamed naughtiness in regard to one among her maidens. Men are wont to do as they do, regardless of race. Maybe Ariel is Puck himself, discombobulated through magic until all that remains of his former mischief is the impertinence of his steadfast stare. His eyes are dim lodestars leading to a chilly emptiness. Sometimes I fear where they will lead me.
June 27th, 1922
Father, for all of his earnest endorsements of Reason as a guiding principle, has proven himself guided as much by fancy as ever I was. He has bought a dog. Nor is it any small specimen, but a large hellhound. It is the largest among the breeds I have ever seen —a Great Dane, no less —and I cannot help but think it a terrible indulgence on behalf of someone else ’s whim. Betty ’s, most likely. No doubt she sees in its largess a certain kinship to her own breeding. Large, cumbrous creatures adore other large creatures insomuch as they allay their own self-consciousness. And so I have yet another proof of Betty ’s plot to ruin me. The lumbering behemoth is named Caliban —that is what I have come to call him, anyway —and I loathe him so. Why should I not? He is ever barking roughly and abounding clumsily, smelling most disagreeably. Were I inclined to dogs, I should like a sleek, graceful, and small dog of fine breeding and feature, not some cumbersome, dull-footed oaf scrambling in his overeager excitement to keep atop his ungainly legs. What ’s more, he chases Ariel away, barking and growling whenever I attempt to sit alone with my Fairy friend. Why, just this evening Ariel was at my window and the fatuous canine did not cease his barking until my friend had flown away. The belligerent beast had wakened the whole household, yet Father forgave so readily the misbegotten creature that Father seemed not himself at all, but a changeling. Betty apologized profusely, yet Father treated her tenderly — more tenderly than he should ever have his own daughter were her pet to rouse even half the household with its raucous barking.
I was so upset about that monstrous hellhound that I have been hitherto compelled to write an account of my grievances in my journal ere I fell asleep. If I may fall asleep. My nerves are frayed even now by the continued presence of that brutish beast. May the inferno reclaim him! Preferably without delay!
Father scolded me today. And what was the offense? I had barbed words with that corpulent imbecile, Betty. She had prepared a cake, as per my request, yet had failed to make it as I instructed. I am very fond of chocolate cakes —as are most people of elegant refinement —and, in this respect, the cake was successful, for it was, by and large, chocolate. However, the fatal flaw resided in the feature of the cake ’s only having two layers. This is unacceptable. All cakes must be possessed of three layers to be concluded wholly successful. Perhaps the lowborn can enjoy two layers of cake, but those of us who are cultivated know that the cream and the cake must be afforded proper portions in each bite. It is, I dare say, a scientific law within culinary circles. But Betty —being of such a hysterical disposition —collapsed in tears at my reprimand. When Father overheard the chastisement, (in which I was completely justified), he immediately soothed her and sided with the maudlin woman against me! When I then accused Betty of poorly allotting the amount of sugar, Father took me roughly aside and berated me with such ferocity that I wept a deluge of tears, as opposed to Betty ’s shallow tears. Yet, Father ignored my heartbreak in favour of Betty ’s. A cruelty, to be sure, and an absurdity against the laws of Nature. It is well-established that more finely bred people feel emotions more keenly and deeply than rough-worn labourers. But did Father soothe his daughter in her time of distress? Did he recant his harsh words when I wept alike to Andromeda chained to the rocks? No. He mentioned something irrelevant to the situation —concerning Betty ’s youngest brother and the War that had come and gone and such —and then left me alone to gather my tears. What cruelties Father hoists upon his one and only daughter!
My consolation came only later when Ariel appeared in the garden. I was sitting among the trellis, on a bench with the woodbine all around me. Ariel alighted beneath a statue of the Madonna. He was disposed to listen and so I confided in him, feeling much better while I spoke about, and ate, the cake in question. I offered him a piece, but he seemed unmoved by it, despite my magnanimous approval of Betty ’s failed attempt. Perhaps Fairy food ruins the lowly fare that we mortals consume. Or perhaps Fairies may not partake of our food without trapping themselves forever in our world, much as it is said we will be trapped in theirs should we partake in their feasts. Nonetheless, Ariel could have benefitted from some food. He was much more gaunt now than when we first met. His face was shrunken, his eyes dimmer than ever before, and the blueness of his lips spread along his pallid features. He looked as anemic as any blue-blooded member of the royal family.
And then Caliban chased him away. At times I feel as if the whole of this household conspires to vex me with their every breath!
July 2nd, 1922
My nerves have been too racked of late to write. I have attempted to find solace in the works of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Browning. The former I adore, but the latter is a prattling knave whose works are deliberately enigmatic in the worst conceivable manner. Did he think himself so clever for having written such abstruse dribble? I dare say, his “last duchess ” should have left him at the altar. I do not understand it, nor do I believe it a failing on part of my intelligence. Rather, obscurity reveals paradoxically the inabilities of the poet, and Browning ’s works are resplendent in their unrefined dimensions. Had he written his work less obtusely, he would have benefitted his audience and himself and his poetry with readier comprehension. I regret having ascertained Father ’s copy from his library. When I returned it I happened upon him reading to someone in the recessed window, near the globe. Sneaking surreptitiously within, I found that he was reading to none other than that bovine busybody, Betty! From what I heard, he was reading John Donne, which infuriated me. What infuriated me more, however, was the patience with which he explained to the dull intellect of that lowbred woman the deeper meaning of Donne ’s poetry. As if she could plunge those depths!
I was so upset that I bumped into a small table and knocked a book loudly onto the floor. Father perceived me at once and called to me. I had no recourse but to step forth into the humiliating scene.
“Is that my book of Robert Browning? ” Father asked.
“Yes, ” I answered.
“And did you enjoy it? ” he asked.
I answered that I did not enjoy it; that Mr. Browning was too overripe with himself.
“A peculiar way to put it, ” Father said. “But it is not to everyone ’s tastes. Perhaps when you grow older, and more familiar with the subtler meanings, you will grow your appreciation for it. ”
I could not bear this remark! It allotted me such short thrift, and no less from Father himself! And while in the audience of that cow-eyed imbecile, Betty! I stormed out of the library in a hail of tears and have not spoken a word to Father in three days ’ time! Indeed, the only person to whom I speak at all is Ariel, and only whenever it pleases him to make himself known. I have no means of summoning him and, so, my confessions and consolations are entirely dependent upon his own capricious nature. It is insufferable! I am as a prisoner in my own home! When will I enjoy the freedom that so many others take for granted?
July 2rd, 1922
Today was the anniversary of mother ’s death. Father went walking about the estate, accompanied by Betty. I mislike that. When he returned his eyes were red and Betty advantaged herself during his vulnerable state to take liberty of his arm. The impertinence! The audacity! She should have been stripped and beaten like the presumptuous harlot that she is! She plots grave machinations. She seeks to endear herself to Father, to make herself indispensable, and thus to establish herself in his intimacy, thereby exacting awful control over him, as belike a sorceress unto King Solomon. It is most intolerable! I know not what to do about it, however. Perhaps I shall put a few of Father ’s hair in a jar, alongside nails and wax, and bury it. That is a sure trap for witches, from what I understand.
I have been thinking of Mother today. She was French, so it seems only congruent that she should have died as she did, from what Father has deemed the “French disease ”. I do not know the particulars of this vague disease, but it favours all the more my inclination to despise all things French. Indeed, I am dedicated to being wholly British in bearing and pretense and perspective. Or perhaps a Fairy, if only I could have butterfly wings rather than those of a dragonfly.
There are children missing, or so the gardeners were saying today. Lowborn children from the country, I should say. The commoners bear so many children that I think one or two missing from each family should not be cause for alarm. They breed like sows, after all, and their litters are overfull. They seem to think, in their own superstitious way, that a witch has taken them. Maybe a witch has. Maybe Betty is one such witch. Betty has always been beholden to an excess of appetite. Yet today I noticed that she was ever cramming food into her maw, like some sow soon to farrow. I ’ve also noticed that she has grown more corpulent of late. Today I saw her belly strike the table repeatedly as she rolled out dough for our evening supper. Had I witnessed her nurse a litter of piglets I would not have been astonished in the least. Maybe she is a witch and she has eaten the lowborn children. If so, the Fairies will not let her take me. I will not feed her expanding largess. I would rather shove her down the stairs. How can Father indulge her so? Can he not see how bloated she has become beneath her frock? The mere sight of her is repulsive enough to disturb the hungriest appetite.
I resolve myself to speak to Ariel about betty and see what he would advise to do to remove her from the household.
July 3rd, 1922
Caliban is dead. It seems he contracted some virulent variety of worm while entertaining himself in his usual bestial manner. Clifford and Jasper were given the strenuous duty of carrying the heavy beast out to the field and burying him beneath a rather idyllic oak tree. Why they should wish to ruin the scenic oak with the overbearing beast ’s presence, I do not know. Betty was not to be consoled, though Father attempted with all the heavenly powers at his disposal. I could scarcely understand the need. It was a dog and dogs are earthly beasts resigned to their earthly brevity. It is not as though an actual soul had perished, only a small ball of nerves and instincts bound up in a skull. It is no different than a butterfly tumbling dead in a strong wind. Less tragic, I should say, for I do love the beauty of a butterfly ’s wings whereas there was nothing beautiful about Caliban. And his death was not so proud as that of a butterfly ’s. Jasper and his father were afeared to touch him due to the roiling, writhing creatures in his bowels.
Later today, while everyone was preoccupied with consoling each other over the departed hellbeast, I was visited by Ariel. I recounted for him the passing of Caliban. He was as unmoved as I was, though there seemed to be a certain comprehension in his eyes that I rarely saw there. He is my confidant, of course, and so naturally I am inclined to relay to him the particulars of my daily life, but this was the first time he seemed to understand more than he would say. There was a “knowing light ” in his eyes. I cannot express it in any other fashion. Perhaps he suspected, as I did, that Caliban was the sort of beast that would seek out its own destruction in its own careless, heedless manner. If so, I am glad Ariel and I are so alike in our thinking. It accords a certain harmony of thought that bespeaks much in the means of sympathetic comprehension.
July 7th, 1922
The nerve of Rosamund! She had the audacity to label me a “spoiled princess ” in front of Clifford, Betty, Madeline, and countless others in Father ’s service. I should have slapped her, truly, and brought with the blow a new appreciation for her true standing within the household. Her impertinence and insolence are unbearable! I am all tears now and cannot compose myself! I should like to fly away from here at once! Away from her torturous lessons on French and Clifford ’s insolent smirks and the disapproval in Father ’s eyes! The latter I cannot tolerate, for they did not flinch or baulk at Rosamund ’s impudence! Rather, Father walked away, abandoning me to infernal judgments. It was his most heartless betrayal yet. I cannot bear it. I shall leave here asa condemned soul escaping Dante ’s Inferno.
Yes, I shall fly away. It is simple enough. Or so I should think. Ariel has offered me my grand exeunt, and I shall receive the offer readily. Granted, I am not overly fond of the wings I am promised. Butterfly wings would better serve me, but I suppose his wings are beautiful after all. They have a spectral sheen to them that is very fetching, in its own way, and I think, upon further consideration, that it is not so much the wings that detract from the overall aspect of Ariel, but that imbecilic stare that inhabits his face. Undoubtedly, were I to wear such wings as are possessed by him I would better flatter them, and so transpose with the beauty inherent in my features the composite impression of such wings. Indeed, though Ashputtle wore tatters and was blackened by her menial labours, her natural beauty rendered anew all with her innate loveliness, outshining her sisters when in their more lavish dresses. An old shoe, thus, may be made beautiful if it houses a lovely rose.
Perhaps I shall join the Fairies and write of my times among them, recording their habits and customs and creeds. It would be a grand sensation among Europe. It may even inspire the world to relinquish all future wars, bringing harmony and everlasting peace to humanity. Do I flatter myself overmuch in such ambitions? No. I dare say I do not.
July 8th, 1922
I sat before the pianoforte today, practicing my Moonlight Sonata. The piano belonged to mother. Father expects me to grow proficient in the intricacies of the keys, but I would rather have my fingertips feverishly dancing along a typewriter, hammering out bizarre manifestations like a blacksmith at the beck and call of his daemon. Yet, Father persists in his refusal to purchase the Remington I desire. My mother was said to be a songbird, with an excellent voice and an excellent adroitness for ivory. I will not be a songbird in a cage. I will fly free. This I vow.
At times I feel as if I am an esteemed breed of dog, to be groomed and bred and to have no life of its own. Do I pity myself overmuch? No. If pity is considered in degree of recompense to its merit, then I am woefully lacking compensation. For who has endured such trials and tribulations as have been my breakfast, lunch, and supper? But I choose to fancy myself an oddity insomuch as all pioneers and iconoclasts tend to be. If I am alienated among my own home, then it is because I am such a rare specimen of peculiarity that none may share in my propensities and insights, including those sharing my blood. An anomaly, I will live a life that will not be appreciated except by those generations yet to come, when the collective of humanity progresses beyond the limited vision of their yesteryears. Perhaps I will be an Aristotle, or a Da Vinci. The fault lines of the earth shift beneath my feet, bringing seismic change. I do not doubt that my understanding of Fairy kind will bring mankind out of the shadows of a Dark Age and into a new Age of Reason. My halo of learning burns bright, and those in my home cannot bear the brightness of it.
July 10th, 1922
What a frightful day! Whereas yesterday had been woefully uneventful, today was extraordinarily tumultuous in its seismic cataclysms. Oh, but where to begin? I will start with the greatest calamity of all: Rosamund saw Ariel today! And just when he was renewing his offer of wings! She came upon us in the woods. I had gone walking to clear my mind after a row with Rosamund over my French. She had accused me of forsaking all learning of it, which I will not deny to be true. I had quite given it up, for it no longer concerned me, nor would it concern me however much the inducement or admonishment. I had wholly made up my mind on the matter. I would leave to join the Fairies. Let them conjugate that verb!
While walking I was weeping at my misfortunes. It was a hot summery day, but the shade of the forest afforded me some small comfort while in my time of woe. Ariel alighted above me, crouching low upon a branch with the sunlight and shadows battling about his dappled shoulders.
“Wings? ” he offered.
I wiped my tears and attempted to smile encouragingly. “I would like them very much, ” I said.
“Come, ” he said. He crawled upon all fours down the side of the tree and beckoned that I should follow him.
Before I could follow, Rosamund appeared in the dappled shade, pale and shrieking like some banshee in heathen Ireland. I turned away from Ariel, confronting her absurd expression of horror, but before I could explain the situation, she snatched me by my wrist and yanked me along and out of the forest, senseless in her affrighted state. Indeed, she did not relent until we were in Father ’s house and before Father, in his private library.
The melodrama that followed cannot be recorded, so chaotic was it in all its preposterous dimensions, but the conclusion of the misunderstanding was that I was forbidden from leaving the house. Meanwhile Rosamund —being deemed a lunatic by Father —was exiled from the household itself. Clifford accompanied her in her departure, looking rather more chivalrous than I could have thought him, especially with those overlarge ears of his. Perhaps he had an ancestor whom was a knight in another age. He held his head high and seemed as stalwart in his determination as Don Quixote chasing Maiden Folly.
Rosamund, on the other hand, was overwrought. Even unto the last moment of her presence in Father ’s house, she swore that I was in danger. Through lachrymose pleas she swore to a horror and spoke of the missing children among the commoners. What drivel! To think she had been my governess, sworn to elucidate the world for me! It is too much like the lunatic leading the asylum! And to think she might actually care for me and my well-being! A first, to be sure! But I know better than to believe such poppycock (poppycock —a good word to use as a name for a Fairy who spouts drivel. Perhaps I shall write such a character based upon Rosamund ’s hysterics). She was merely attempting to retain her employment in service to Father. Yet, the one thing Father cannot abide is a woman succumbing to hysterics. And Rosamund was as hysterical as a rabid mare. I always knew her frigid governess veneer was a mask for what was, undoubtedly, a very frayed disposition of agitated nerves. The most outwardly austere of personages are those most likely to unravel when encountering something beyond their habitual, everyday experiences. Let her gather up her ragdoll nerves in a countryside cottage far from here. She could benefit from more sun.
To think that she should have maligned Ariel so! Deeming him a monster! The Good People are invariably good if treated so. The only misnomer to be considered egregious is that of Rosamund ’s title as “governess ”, for she could not govern her own head, let alone mine.
Despite the chaos of the day, I had the wherewithal to disavow all of Rosamund ’s ravings. Thus, whereas Father believes Rosamund unsettled in her wits, I have escaped unscathed in Father ’s estimation. Indeed, I am by virtue of contrast with Rosamund ever elevated in Father ’s estimation. He is likely to attribute my previous fancies to the influence of my former governess, and so I am absolved of all previous infractions of sensibility by having what Father presumes to be a moon-eyed teacher.
The advantages in this current predicament are manifold: Rosamund ’s absence from the household and the fact that Father does not believe in Ariel or his Fairy kin. Thus, my dreams of becoming a Fairy go undiscovered, and, so, unimpeded. Just so, I fear that Ariel may have been too unnerved by today ’s tumult to return and offer me again my wings. Perhaps all is ruined. Perhaps not. We shall see.
July 11th, 1922
There is no concealing it! Indeed, I wonder how I could not have seen what was so plain before me —Betty is with child! What a scandal! I wonder who the father is. How delicious if it was Clifford! Oh succulent spite! To think he might have begat upon her and then fled with Rosamund. I hope Rosamund is with child as well, and that he should flee her. Crumpets deserve as much. But I do mislike Father ’s keen interest in Betty ’s condition. He would be better to turn her out before she should bear her piglet, lest the scandal sully our household. What would high society think, knowing we have a maid soon to birth a fatherless child? They would think it the abode of Bacchus. I cannot debut in society with the swollen, shadowy figure of Betty overhanging me. No matter how dignified and regal, I will be tainted by the association.
But Father —for all his austerities and forbearance —is too soft-hearted toward Betty to lord over his household properly. It does him no good. It does the Wellington estate no good, nor its legacy. If Father wished to do her a good turn he would locate the father of the bastard and rectify him promptly with the mother of his child.
July 12th, 1922
It was a strange stretch of hours that passed today, and a stranger evening. Everyone glances at me sidelong within Father ’s house, almost surreptitiously, as if they hold a secret behind their lips and they fear they may let it slip simply by breathing. No doubt, it is scorn. They presume to take great cares with me, but that is a farce of pretense for what is otherwise derisive attitude and malfeasance. Even Father seemed to be unforthcoming today, condescending only to ask me how I might appreciate an expanded family. Were Father to remarry, I should not care. It is beyond my capacity to care. He should pursue whichever folly chances his fancy and I will pursue mine. The deathly circumspectness of everyone taxes on me so. I would rather they reverted to their outright insolence. I tire of their taciturn tension. It is like being in a house of snakes, all coiled tautly and ready to strike.
But poor Ariel! He suffered a dreadful episode today, the nature of which still eludes me. We were at the edge of the woods, at that time which the French call l ’heure bleue. Advantaged by the distraction of Betty ’s condition, I stole out undetected by Father and by the servants. Ariel was, as usual, crouching upon the branch of an oak tree. I was reading to him one among my favourite poems, “The Stolen Child ”, by Yeats. All seemed well enough —even if Ariel seemed not the least interested in what I was reading —when suddenly he succumbed to a violent paroxysm. At first glance I mistook his fit of trembles to be a Fairy prank. But when he spoke his voice was so altered from his customarily buzzing voice that I then thought him attempting a more perfected emulation of human speech. Would that I had more influence over such an affectation, for I would have steered him toward a better-bred tongue!
In this lowborn dialect he exclaimed loudly.
“God help me, Miss! Please! Fetch…fetch…the priest…Save me! ”
He nearly fell from the tree, finishing his imitation with a cry of despair. Shortly, however, he choked back his affected country accent and spoke, once again, in his vibrating Fairy voice.
“No mind, no mind, ” he said. “None for you. ”
I took this to mean that he meant I should not fret over his failed outburst of human speech and should mind my poetry again. I did so, finishing my reading. Truth be told, I do not believe that the poem held him in any interest. Perhaps he did not care much for Yeats. Perhaps Ariel is prejudiced against the Irish. I cannot fault him that.
I believe that Ariel must have been aspiring to repeat what he must have heard some inane, lowbred child exclaim upon seeing the Fairy. The commoners are a superstitious lot and would fear the Good People when they should instead rejoice in their appearances. Oh, but you cannot elucidate the idiotic masses. They misunderstand the simplest of things. Like Jasper with his wayward eye, they cannot keep their vision of what is true and what is not aligned. Their perspective drifts wildly awry.
Yet, I must write down that I saw something strange upon my friend as he contorted and writhed in his sudden paroxysm. There was something along his back, though I could not discern it while facing him. It was more than his wings —almost a protrusion of some sort —but it was ambiguous in its form so utterly that I could not conclude its nature definitively. It seemed almost an incandescently metallic blue or green, shimmering as a spectral shell or carapace. But it was glimpsed only at slight angles, necessitating a better view from behind. Perhaps it was simply a fancy of mine. Perhaps not. He flew away before I could further discern its peculiarities.
July 14th, 1922
Betty incessantly complains about the pains she feels in her condition. She crudely complains, also, as if the scandal was not ribald enough. Speaking of things gnawing at her from within, too concerned with the repercussions of her Babylonian sins to appreciate how gnawed our household is with the shame of her continued presence. Father is going to great expenses —both financial and social — to accommodate Betty and her despicable condition, whereas were I mistress of this household I would turn Betty out of my home forthwith, alongside most, if not all, of the other insolent parasites to which Father ’s house has been claimed as host. Were I Father I would put her down like any crippled mare. Her condition has made it exceedingly difficult to attend to my journal, or any writing I might venture to do. She is too loud —a donkey in a storm of biting insects would have more self-possession —and it is a trial to merely jot down these words, so disjointed are my thoughts as the house echoes with her cries. An opera house suffers less melodrama.
July 17th, 1922
O joyous day! And ever more joyous night! Ariel led me through the woods, toward the peat bog, and thereupon introduced me to the other Fairies of his acquaintance. There were four in all: two young boys, roughly the same age and appearance as Ariel, and a tall girl of lovely aspect. Like my dear friend, these specimens were bereft of clothes, unmindful of their own nakedness, and while I admired the liberty with which they lived, I vowed that even while exulting in my own Fairy freedom I should dress myself up in all manner of pretty gowns so all those who looked upon me would do so with great reverence and envy, being that I would become the most idealized spirit of beauty and liberation.
And because I would be no hedonistic Fairy.
The tall Fairy girl spoke, addressing me with a voice similar to any girl ’s my age, except for the buzzing edges of her words. Her throat vibrated as if to burst.
“Welcome, ” she said. “Wings? ”
She had dragonfly wings like the others, but she had a crown of reeds along her forehead, above her empty eyes. She must have been the Fairy Queen, Titania. Who else could she be, being so tall and regal?
“Wings? ” she repeated.
“If you would, please, ” I said.
The two young boys were crouching among the bog. There was, I realized, a cluster of small pinkish bubbles floating buoyantly atop the sprawl of green duckweed and algae. One of the boys plucked a single pinkish bubble and brought it forward, holding it up with one hand while wading through the thick, putrid sludge of the bog.
“Turn, ” the Fairy Queen said.
I did as I was instructed, eager and excited, but also slightly afraid. The Fairy boy put the pinkish bubble on the nape of my neck, beneath my curls. It stung. There was a sharp, brief pain, like the little sting of a wasp, and then it subsided. Somewhat. Truthfully, it has not stopped stinging since he put the bubble upon me. I cried out and wiped my eyes. The Fairies assured me it was necessary.
“Wings grow, ” Ariel said. “Soon, fly. ”
They said no more. I wished to speak with them more, but I was not feeling well. I left for home, a little staggered and dizzy. Ariel did not accompany me. The Fairies watched me leave, staring at me with unblinking, vacant eyes. I felt cold, and my neck hurt, but I was delighted. Soon I would grow wings and leave this terrible house behind. My liberation was at hand.
July 20th, 1922
I have had a fever for the last few days, and have been confined to bed while everyone tends to Betty. Madeline visits me briefly every other hour, bringing me water and asking if I should like anything. She offers me soup, but I am in no mood for food. I ask only for water, my diary and a pen. Very soon, when I am of clearer concentration, I will write my farewell letter to Father. I hope he will not be too heartbroken at my departure.
July 22nd, 1922
My health has improved, but not enough to leave my bed. Father visited me, briefly, to see how I was faring. He would not speak of Betty, nor did I wish him to, though I could discern that his concern for her well-being seemed markedly more than my own. I cannot lay on my back, but must lay on my side, for my nape hurts. The pain has begun to spread down my spine. I have not had the strength to rise and peer in a mirror to see how my nascent wings grow, nor do I tell anyone about my wings for fear they will attempt to confine me when my wings have grown a span enough to lift me. I keep the blanket and sheets up to my chin at all times and tell everyone that I merely feel ill because of my monthly menstruation. I insist that I do not need to see a doctor. At times it feels as if I am in a chrysalis of heat and sweat and that my flesh, itself, will split open so my new self may emerge. At other times I feel as if something speaks to me with a buzzing voice, though no one except myself dwells in my room. I do not understand it.
Ariel has not visited me at all. I have not seen him since I followed him to the swamp to meet the Fairy Queen. I hope he is well. I wish to thank him once my wings fully blossom.
July 24th, 1922
I overheard the servants whispering in the hall, speaking of monstrous things. They said that Betty ’s child was stillborn. The reason for its hopeless birth? It had been infested with parasites! From milk, no doubt, for Betty has always been an unmannered cow who enjoys milk straight from the teat. Doctor Froud attended the delivery ,but he was unfamiliar with the parasite, having never encountered them before. What I have gleaned from overhearing the servants is that they are not unlike larvae. Never having been inclined to milk, I feel that my natural predilection is thus validated. That bovine busybody has reaped her just rewards for an intemperate appetite and intemperate passions.
With Betty ’s bastard child expired, I had hoped the household would be quieter. Alas, this wish has not come true, for Betty weeps greatly while Father consoles her. I loathe this absurd development. He is too attentive with her, and Betty is too familiar with Father. But it is no matter. I will be absconding soon, never to return. My wings grow! This I know, for I feel how sensitive they are while abed. I can walk now, though weakly, and I must be careful not to draw too much attention to my metamorphosis. Most of the household think I am having a protracted temper tantrum, cloistering myself in my room because of some petty jealousy for Father ’s attentions. Let them think such! It facilitates my efforts to keep my secret from them, for they shun me presently. Beneath my silken shift my diaphanous wings grow, undetected. Occasionally I swoon, and have even fainted, but it is no matter. I can anticipate when such episodes are to come, the vibrations growing stronger in my neck and at the base of my head, and so I hasten to my bed, covering up before the weak spell topples me.
My only difficulty, truly, is ascertaining sufficient food. I have arranged that Madeline bring me biscuits every other hour, alongside tea and several cubes of sugar. I eat the sugar more often than I drink the tea, but it is a good pretense for so many cubes a day. Madeline is a recent addition at the household, so she does not know what is and what is not a routine serving. Meanwhile, her ignorance serves me as well as any other servant I might need. Were that all of the servants were so unquestioning toward my commands! This household would be a tolerable place to abide, at least for a time.
July 25th, 1922
Betty has perished. It is, admittedly, a shame whenever anyone passes away, but why should Father be so lugubrious? I have never in my life heard him cry so miserably —or express any emotion in his strictly stoic features —and yet he is a ruin of tears as he walks through the garden. It is not the first instance of a servant dying while in service to the house. Why should Betty ’s death invoke so many lachrymation? It is no different than when any dog should die in the kennel, but Father seems to have taken it too keenly to heart. He oftentimes stands in the scullery, gazing about as if looking for something, then alternately sighing and sobbing in turns. It is most unmanly for the master of a household to be seen thus by his servants. They will sense the weakness and exploit it by performing their duties most lackadaisically. Indeed, I looked out of my bedroom window and caught sight of the gardeners lounging in the shade of an oak tree. Such ungrateful parasites! Perhaps when I grow my wings out I shall lift Jasper and drop him from a goodly height. It may knock his wayward eye straight again.
July 26th, 1922
Ariel visited me last night! Happy news, indeed! I had thought that he had forsaken me. Happier news, yet, is that I have grown to understand him now. I had never noticed it before, but the vibrations in his words form a language in and of itself. Like the undercurrents on a lake, they flow with meaning beyond the superficial level. He is more articulate than I ever credited him to be.
But my pain has increased alongside this comprehension. This pain should be expected, I suppose. Growing wings must be painful for all Fairies. Yet, I console myself in the thought that this pain is but a chrysalis from which I shall emerge more beautiful and independent than ever. I await that day eagerly.
July 27th, 1922
I have been fainting of late. When the pain becomes too much. When the vibrations overwhelm me. I wake in strange places, baffled as to how I came to be there. This morning I found myself in the woods, up a tree. It took me a long time to climb down, for I was in great pain and fatigued. My fingers hurt, the nails broken and jammed with bark. I scraped my body climbing down. Only Jasper saw me coming from the woods. I scowled at him and he looked away. Yet, his wayward eye remained upon me. I should like to take a stick and poke his eye out.
There was great bustle in the house as I rested in my bedroom. Voices and hurried scurrying. They talked of country children being found. They said other things, but in hushed voices. Father was among those in the large company that left the house. A rider was dispatched to fetch Dr Froud. I do not understand what the fussy haste was all about. I am too tired to.
July 28th, 1922
I awoke in the peat bog today. Shoeless and clueless as to how I arrived there. Queen Titania was not there, nor were the other Fairies, including Ariel. I walked home. My shift was ruined. Stealing into my bedroom, I changed clothes and had Madeline bring hot water for my tub so I might wash myself and my shift. I was feverish yet, but also felt clammy, too. Fatigue drained my strength and I committed the shift to the garden, flinging it out my window. It plummeted to the earth, caked heavily with mud and peat. I fell asleep in the tub and did not wake till my fingers were pruned. Sluggishly I crawled out of the tub and into my bed. The bed was soaked through, but I did not care. I slept until evening whereupon I woke and began to write this entry. I feel groggy once again. The pain surges. Must sleep.
July 29th, 1922
The pain is unbearable. The nape of my neck throbs. I cannot think very clearly. Writing these words is difficult. Pain. The voices outside my window throughout the day. So many buzzing voices. I hear them constantly. It is another language. Like French. But I understand so much now.
It hurts so much. Cannot tell Father. I will get my wings soon and be free. It hurts! Pain. Voices.
Cannot write much. Cannot think well. In English. Hurt. Pain. Voices. Head pulses. Throbbing. Words. No. Madeline, close window. Voices in garden. Too many. Buzzing.
Examination of Patient #6, Conducted by Dr. Brian Froud on August 3rd, 1922
After an extended surgery, the specimen has been removed and placed in formaldehyde to preserve its anatomy until further dissection can be conducted. Like the others, it is an insect belonging to some new species, or perhaps a very old species that has hitherto remained dormant until recently disturbed. Whichever case it may be, it is a marvel of evolution. Measuring half a meter long, it resembles mostly insects within the Odonata order. It is parasitic by nature, however, and attaches itself to a host ’s spine using its legs, thorax, segmented abdomen, and its terminal abdominal appendages. Its jaws penetrate the base of the victim ’s skull to manipulate the host ’s cerebellum to appropriate motor function. By vibrating its thorax the insect manipulates the host ’s vocal cords to imitate speech. The life cycle of these insects —as accurately as I might approximate it —consists of a hive of larvae infesting a host, feeding from the host ’s body until the host ’s death, then the larvae emerge, enveloped in globules that are, in fact, chrysalises formed from the host ’s dead cells. An embryo is gathered by infected hosts and then implanted into a new host ’s spine for fusion as the embryo matures to adulthood. Using the host, the adult repeats the cycle by infesting new hosts with its larvae, primarily through ingestion. The complexity of this life cycle offers hope that we may curtail the colonization by such a pernicious species before it can grow pervasive.
Due to the nature of the parasitic insect, the patient died during the procedure, as have all of the patients I have attempted to treat with surgery. The inextricable nature of the creature makes it impossible to remove without a terminal outcome, so intricately bonded is its body with the host ’s spine. For the sake of the safety of the remaining servants and the master of the estate, I have advised that they leave the household while a thorough investigation is carried out by the local authorities. I have been told that there will be no total extermination due to the importance of the specimen. My experience with the specimen will also be required in future examinations, for the British Armed Forces are interested in the specimen and its potential implementation as a weapon to protect Great Britain from future foreign hostilities. I hope to prove myself invaluable in such an ambition.
The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life. The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees. The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones. The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes. Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things. And so he was contented. His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.
And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.
As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple. Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night. He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain. Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.
But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders. He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat. He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden. When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging. He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.
And his mind began to fail him. He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned. Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.
And then the shadows began to come to him.
They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer. They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue. The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue. The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth. The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.
The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements. He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes. He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination. He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.
But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling. They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.
And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form. They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.
Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.
Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself. He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow. Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself. That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead. It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.
“You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said. “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward? Aches and pains and old age. ”
The old monk responded with a level voice. “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”
The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity. “And yet you have not achieved Satori. So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”
Again the old monk replied with a level voice. “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said. “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”
The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple. “We shall see what answers you when given temptations. Yes! Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”
The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng. It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown. No, two women! They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them. They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight. They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands. Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy. The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.
“You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said. “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”
The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire. Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.
“No, ” he said, his voice quivering. “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”
Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont. The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.
There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly. Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple. Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.
“You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom! Buy two! You would live in comfort and . ”
The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly. Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.
Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over. He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been. But he felt shame.
“A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures. Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap. Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens. Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”
The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon. The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled. After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth. The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.
Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki. It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron. The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen. Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.
The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.
“You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”
The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know. His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple. The monk moaned silently, but did not move. At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.
“A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”
The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously. Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down. Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.
“So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked. “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”
He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind. When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.
“Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk. “Choose to indulge or abstain. It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care. No one cares, except yourself. ”
The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha. With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.
What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.
It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple. When he arrived he found it deserted. There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds. The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment. The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next. For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again. He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor. Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own. Whose it was, he did not know. When he glanced around, he saw no one. Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.
They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people. Being a slave, I dare not contradict them. By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano. Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit. I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.
My new tongue has not improved much. I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue. And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues. Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak. If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence. The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size. And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.
By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.
Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin. He thought it some sort of trickery at first. He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest. In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased. The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God. I was not sad to see the coins go. It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate. Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels. But as Allah sees fit, I abide.
Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road. Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai. This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty. The plum trees are especially pretty. Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor. Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people. More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.
Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.
We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire. I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers. We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me. I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri. My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring. The samurai, too, sleep well. I cannot sleep. This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels. The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.
I pray in the direction of Mecca. I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour. I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice. He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha. Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not. Perhaps he wishes to protect me. But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah. And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.
Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering. It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness. The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.
Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face. Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.
“Hello, brother,” a voice growls. It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone. “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures? Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”
The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn. I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.
“Speak, little brother,” he growls. “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”
His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.
“I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature. I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni. “I am a man. But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”
The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead. “Yes,” he says. “I see my mistake now. Far too small to be my kin. And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”
“I am a Moor,” I say. “From faraway.”
“A rare meat, then,” the oni says. “I shall savor you.”
He reaches for me with clawed fingers. I unsheathe my sword, clumsily. I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand. But not because of my blade. He sniffs and frowns.
“You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.
“Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue. “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”
The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.
“A foul stench,” he says. “I do not care for it. It fouls your soul, little black man. A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”
I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy. “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say. “For he made all, including you, demon.”
The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.
“But he smells of other winds and other waters. I do not like his smell. It is arid. Stagnant. It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it. Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.” He pointed to the Jesuits. “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.” He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me. “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you. A smell of many other gods. Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be. Gods grown in more interesting lands. Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home. Better gods. Truer gods. Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”
“You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.
The oni turns away, indifferently. He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.
“I will not partake of this feast,” he says. “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them. What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”
Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day. His voice growls faintly one last time.
“All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known. By nothing else…”
I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken. After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly. The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.
“Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me. “Make no more noise, for the sake of God! Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”
“My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.
Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side. “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.
My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would. But I let the spark extinguish. Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.