Ladderback Jack

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Ladderback Jack was as tall as a lamppost,
his spine reticulated, sharp, and longer than most,
his arms apish, hanging lax with lank hands
and fingers overlong from overactive glands,
his legs slender and knotted with knobby knees
while his greasy hair lay limp in any breeze.
He had a pale complexion, Jack did, like boiled tallow,
the whites of his eyes dull, waxen and sallow,
and he walked with his back hunched, bent double over
as if always looking for a rare four-leaf clover—
and Jack needed all of the luck he could get,
being an ungainly, gangly, graceless half-wit;
so much so that people said he was of the fairy folk,
born of a dimwit mother, herself a town-wide joke.
No one knew who Jack’s father could have been,
though they joked that it was Oberon, or some such kin.
As for his nickname, that was easily explained,
and once explained, that nickname remained:
when Jack sat down to relax in a ladderback chair
and then stood up, the chair would hang there,
hooked on his protruding vertebral pegs
as he pulled himself up onto his long legs,
and, so, crook-backed, overstretched, slack-jawed,
he was thought an entertainment as he shambled and hawed,
muttering to himself about finding his father in the sky
where the cloud castles, Fata Morgana, resided nearby.
“Jack, your father’s just a will o’ the wisp,” they’d laugh,
“so go look for him in the black bogs of a Kilt Gaff.”
Yet, though townsfolk laughed at him most days
they grew ever uneasy as he became set in his ways.
And then, one day, Jack asked to take for himself a bride—
the mayor’s daughter, Saoirse, her father’s pride.
Jack asked during the town’s Midsummer Fair
and thus everyone in and out of town was there.
The town laughed and laughed, whereas the mayor meanwhile
took umbrage at Jack’s presumption, commanding exile,
but even as Jack left amidst mean-spirited laughter
he vowed, in his quiet way, to have the last laugh hereafter.
“My father is both the Gate and the Key,” Jack said,
“and he will see that his line is hereby finely bred.”
The town returned to normal after the exile of Jack
and everyone forgot about Jack’s promise to come back
until one night when lights were seen in the midnight sky—
lights above the hills, each swirling like a firefly.
Jack came into town the next day, grinning ear to ear,
and walking, bold as brass, without any fear
up to Saoirse, holding a ring of strange onyx metal
and asking her to give to him, in return, her maiden petal.

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Saoirse was ready to call him an imbecilic cur,
but was suddenly transfixed by the ring held out to her.
Her father interceded, as did many of the local men,
and they beat Jack black, then blue, then black again.
“Go back to the hills, among the inbred Fae,”
the Mayor said. “Or you will hang from the gallows today!”
But Ladderback Jack was not of the fairy race,
nor was his father, that thing beyond Time and Space.
“My father,” Jack muttered, “is the Gate and the Key.
He is beyond the outer darkness, the stars, of all forms that be.”
And so the sky blackened in the middle of the day,
the villagers trembling to see the noonlight fray
as their town was pulled into a pocket of void, a world
unknown to Man, a place where madness unfurled.
Waiting for them there was a nebulous cloud of spheres
to which Jack pointed and declared, in worshipful tears,
“Behold! My father! The Lurker at the Threshold!
Behold what was, what is, and what will be! As foretold!”
The primordial sludge of luminous orbs and oculi
looked upon the people of that town, letting them see
in the fullness of its depths the endless cosmic chasms,
bathing their brains in luminous gulfs, the neural spasms
softening the meat of their minds unto a viscous pudding
and releasing them only after revelation could bring
them to confront the meaninglessness of their being
of which, ever thereafter, there was no unseeing…

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To this day that village still remains, quiet and quaint,
all of the villagers vacant-eyed, imbecilic with its taint—
all serving silently, reverently, the bloodline spawned
from Ladderback Jack, that avatar-son of the Beyond.

 

Wave Of A Lifetime

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“I don’t know, man,” Bo said. “Sometimes I just feel like I’m drifting in open water.”
“That’s because you are drifting in open water, dude,” said Tyler, his grinning teeth as bright white as the surf breaking on the Hawaiian beach. His sandy-blonde hair was a nest of sun-bleached curls. The silver lenses of his shades reflected Bo’s exasperation as clearly as a mirror. “This water’s glassy as fuck today. No gnarly waves at all. The ocean’s taking a breath and holding it, man. We aren’t going to get any good barrels today.”
They both floated on their surfboards, belly-down, arms hanging laxly over the sides. Tyler had been smoking marijuana all morning long. Bo could smell it on him through the salty air of the ocean. He had probably popped a pill, too. Bo was trying to stop taking drugs altogether.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” Bo said. “Dad’s really pestering me to go to Business school, but, damn, I can’t stand those kooks. He keeps threatening to take my allowance away. He thinks he can scare me straight or something.”
“Your dad’s got mucha moola, dude,” Tyler said. “But, yeah, I’d hate to work around a bunch of kooks all day.”
“I was wanting to do something that would let me stay in Hawaii,” Bo said. “The only thing I really like to do is surf, and even that is starting to let me down.”
“Don’t worry, bro,” Tyler said. “There’ll be more waves to ride.”
“Even if there were,” Bo said, sighing, “I don’t think I’d care about them.”
Tyler looked at Bo for a long time, then shrugged. “You sure this isn’t a problem with Rae?”
“What about her?” Bo said.
“She’s going to school, too, isn’t she?”
“She graduated from highschool, so, yeah.”
“What’s she going to study?”
“Marine biology,” Bo said.
“At least she’ll be able to keep on the ocean,” Tyler said. “And studying whales and stuff would be cool…if I could do it from the back of a surfboard.”
Bo laid his face on his surfboard, left-cheek down while his eyes wandered over the landless horizon to the West. “We had an argument last night. She said I wasn’t taking anything seriously anymore.”
“What did she want you to take seriously?” Tyler said, grinning mischievously.
“School,” Bo said. He closed his eyes and sighed. “And our ‘relationship’.”
“Relationship?” Tyler exclaimed, chuckling. “You’re friends with benefits. That is more like an arrangement than a relationship!”
“Yeah, but now she wants something serious. Don’t get me wrong. Rae is a cool chick. I like hanging out with her. I like the sex, too, but she wants me to meet her grandparents.”
“Whoa-ho!” Tyler laughed, grinning and shaking his head as if he had sandfleas in his hair. “Talk about being in the pocket. Her dad is loaded with cash. Hell, if you two marry then neither of you would need to work again, man.”
“Her dad’s a hard-ass,” Bo said. “One of the big Kahunas. He hates that Rae hangs out with me. He thinks I take advantage of her. He’d kill me if he knew I was shagging her three days a week. But I’m only a year older than her, and she knew what she wanted when she started this thing. Still, he gives me the whitewater treatment. Whenever I do go to her house he tries to bog me bad. Always saying shit like he’s going to hurt me. Rae thinks he’s kidding around with me, but he doesn’t play.”
“Oh yeah. He’s actually one of the elders, isn’t he? Like, he belongs to one of the oldest tribes on the island.”
“And her mom is Japanese,” Bo said. “She’s nice and everything, but she’s very traditional. Can you imagine having in-laws that are tribal Hawaiian and old-fashioned Japanese? Man, that’s like surfing over coral!”
Tyler brayed like an ass. “That’d be a cheese-grater for sure, man! Ha!”
“And it’s not like I don’t like Rae,” Bo said. “But sometimes I feel like I don’t have any passion for her, ya know? I don’t have passion for much of anything. To be honest— and you keep this to yourself, man, I mean it— the only reason I have sex with her is because it feels like I’m accomplishing something. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It feels like I’m building up to something.”
“Yeah, man,” Tyler said, laughing, “building up to creaming in her face!”
Bo thrashed his hand through the water, splashing Tyler in the face. “You can be a real dick, sometimes, man.”
Tyler just grinned through the water dripping down from his face and shades. “Just being honest, bro. Not trying to steal your waves or anything. It’s just that you got a good thing going with her. And, like, you could get your dad’s money and her dad’s money and you could just surf for the rest of your life. Or just coast. Or whatever, man. If I were you I’d be shacking out of my mind. Plank in the ocean and plank on Rae. Ride the waves out to oblivion.” He lifted his hands and made the choka gesture, pinky and thumb extending out while the middle fingers curled in. “That’d be totally gnarly, dude.”
“Do you have to be such a stereotype?” Bo said. But he laughed and then sat up on his surfboard. He glanced back at the shore. There were lots of kooks in the shoals, and a few trying to catch the nonexistent waves. Little grommets hauled their boards ashore, upset at the lull in the ocean. Bo thought for a moment about his future, and nothing looked good.
“You got it going on, dude,” Tyler said. “You shouldn’t be worrying about nothing right now, man. Just marry Rae and call it a day.”
“But her mom will want grandkids,” Bo said. “Hell, my mom will want grandkids. And if we do that then I will have to get a real job. No more wave-riding for me. No more coasting. Just the 9-to-5 grind. Everyday, five to six days a week until I can retire, roll over, and die.” He punched the water.
“Fuck that, man,” Tyler said. “Stay on the pipeline. Kiss the spray. Throw buckets at it all. I bet Rae doesn’t even want kids. I’m telling you, man, it’s not a bad deal.”
Bo opened his mouth to say something else, but then saw something terrifying. Shark fins— fifty of them, at least—all cutting through the water in a helter-skelter, zigzag non-pattern of frenzy.
“Fuck!” Tyler screamed. “Total sketch balls!”
The sharks did not pay attention to Bo and Tyler, even as the two surfers flailed to turn about and flee. Instead, they swam around them and headed toward the island. Even at the distance Bo could see the sharks slam into the shoals, then up onto the shore. It was like a mass-suicide of sharks. But he had never heard of sharks doing anything like that. Maybe, he thought, he could ask Rae about it.
Before he could contemplate it more, however, something struck his feet. He nearly tumbled off his surfboard in fright. He and Tyler both gasped as the schools of fish rushed by, so thick in numbers that they were like a moving landmass beneath the ocean; dense and frenzied as a mosh pit. This massive front of wildly diverse fish clustered around the golden sands while parents, screaming, fled with their children in their arms. Other surfers and kooks staggered frantically out of the water, retreating from the waves of marine life all throwing itself ashore.
And then the water became darker. Large creatures passed beneath Bo and Tyler. They could do nothing but watch as the pods of whales surged beneath them in feverish flight. Stunned to incredulity, the two teenagers watched as the whales stranded themselves with the rest of the creatures, crushing fish and shark alike to escape the ocean.
“What the fuck is going on?” Tyler said.
Bo and Tyler felt the ocean suddenly draw back, pulling them far out to sea as if on a riptide. Bo looked out over the horizon. He saw a white crest, as long as the ocean’s horizon, and knew upon the moment, with an instant dread, that it was coming their way. It was a rogue wave. It may have even been a tsunami. It was difficult to discern at the distance, but it confirmed itself rapidly with the passing of one moment into the next.
“Jesus Christ!” Bo cried. “That’s, like, a hundred foot swell!”
“No way!” Tyler said, gawping. He took off his shades and strained his eyes against the West Pacific as the sun glared along the concussive waters. “Fuck! That’s a monster wave, man.”
The wave was not something Bo or Tyler had any experience with. Bo did not believe they could ride it, and even if they tried he knew there would be no telling where the wave might take them. It might sweep them to the wrong side of the island, where rocks and coral waited with sharp, jagged teeth.
“We gotta’ dive under it,” Bo said.
“Fuck no,” Tyler said. “I’m riding that monster.”
“It’s too damn dangerous, man,” Bo said. “Go under it, or you’ll be just another cracker crushed in the soup.” Bo laughed giddily at his own joke, never having meant to make it.
“You can’t duck-dive everything, man,” Tyler said. “Me, I’m gonna’ face this thing head-on. Deep in the pit. Tickling the chandelier. Riding the pocket. Know what I’m saying?”
“Fuck that,” Bo said. “This isn’t necessary. It’s not worth the ris…”
But Tyler had already started paddling out to meet the large wave. Bo watched him in disbelief, wondering if he would ever see his friend again.
The sea went from glassy to choppy in seconds. Bo waited until he felt the ocean surging beneath him and then he took a deep breath and dove downward, abandoning his board and going down as deep as he could in the darkening ocean. He had trained for years to hold his breath for long periods underwater. It wasn’t so much his lung capacity that was the danger, but the panic of what he was trying to avoid as it rushed above him. He felt the wave pass, pulling him upward with it, but by the time he broke the surface the wave had already tumbled down into its own impact zone. He breathed out the old air and then sucked in some more. He regained his breath just in time to dive again and avoid another wave— somewhat smaller than the first— and repeated this until the waves finally subsided enough that he could ride the smaller ones shoreward. He yelled for Tyler in between each surge.
And then he turned around, looking seaward, fearful that he might see Tyler’s lifeless body drifting in that foamy calm. But instead of seeing Tyler, Bo saw a large shadowy figure on the horizon; a shadowy figure that dwarfed the sun sinking behind it. The shadowy figure was gargantuan in size. Reticulated wings spread from its humanoid back, whereas its face was a writhing tangle of tentacles. Its massive eye looked balefully upon the world and then its body lurched forward, wading through the deep ocean as a child might wade through the shoals. Had Bo not been awash with the briny waters he would have been soaken with sweat. Panicked, he swam shoreward with a frenzied flurry of his arms. A wave of terror carried him without end.

Sharks, whales, fish, dolphins—the beach was strewn with dying sealife that had stranded itself in its wild flight. Their slick, glistening flanks expanded and contracted desperately, but their eyes were empty of anything except instinctive terror. Many more animals had gutted themselves on the reef break. Bo came ashore slowly, gradually navigating the coral on this side of the island. He found Tyler waiting for him. They greeted each other with openmouthed dismay.
“This is some crazy shit, man!” Tyler said. “And one hell of a wave! A wave of a lifetime!”
“Wave?!” Bo cried. “Wave? Didn’t you see that…that…thing coming out of the ocean?!”
“These crazy beasties?” Tyler said, gesturing to all of the sealife dying on the shore. “Course I saw them. Hell, some of them were riding the wave with me. I managed to ride the barrel to the shore before I could hit the impact zone. Was pretty damn gnarly, man.”
“No!” Bo said. He pointed toward where he had seen the shadowy figure sloshing through the ocean. “I’m talking about the monst…”
Whatever it was, the monster was gone, and the sun had set. Dusk flared over the frothy sea. Tyler walked between a Great White Shark and a marlin, then tiptoed gingerly between a humpback whale calf and a Tiger Shark. He grabbed an opah that was the size of a bicycle tire and lifted it up.
“Dude,” he said, “does Rae’s mom know how to make sushi?” He gasped, awestruck by a sudden thought. “Dude. Dude. There’s enough fish here for the whole island to have a luau.”
Bo kept staring out toward the ocean; staring hard to see the creature again while also dreading the sight of it.
Tyler had now exchanged the opah for a Yellowfin tuna that was the size of his leg.
“We could have both, you know?” he said excitedly. “Like, a sushi luau, that way Rae would feel at home. You could propose to her! That’d be…”
“That’s it!” Bo cried suddenly. He stormed up the beach, farther inland. “I’m going to Kansas to be a farmer!”
Tyler followed after him, fumbling with the Yellowfin tuna. “What do you mean, dude?”
“Or a businessman,” he said. “An insurance salesman in Idaho! Or a pig farmer in Kentucky! Anywhere else but here!” he screamed, stomping between the hundreds of animals that had beached themselves there. “Away from the ocean! Away from that thing!”

***

Bo rode that wave of terror all the way to Denver, Colorado. He bought some land and grew pot for his own business. He was known as a savvy businessman that was fair and amicable. His father was proud of him for becoming a businessman, but also resented the fact that he never visited his family in Hawaii. Tyler married Rae, but that marriage lasted only three months and ended in divorce when he happened to see something rising out of the water one day, too. He joined Bo in Denver eventually. Rae married a doctor in Honolulu. Her father, and his tribe, were very pleased and no more gigantic monsters were seen off the coast of Hawaii.

Moontide

Moontide

“There’s something wrong with the moon,” Sophie said, staring out the window. “It’s almost green-looking. Apple green. Sweet, delicious green.”
Austin did not bother looking up from the television. He was tired. He was tired because it was nighttime and he was watching a BBC Nature program on Netflix. He always did this on a weekday to put himself in the mood for bed. He inherited the habit from his father, who would follow the same habit on weekdays. Only, his father had watched PBS Nature programs, since that was all that was available to him back then. Since Austin and Sophie lived in the Valley, it was hard to get a signal from any local stations. All of their neighbors in the subdivision used Netflix or satellite tv.
“Its so green,” Sophie said. She stood at the window, with her fingertips planted on the glass. Ever since the birth of their first child, Dallas, she had a hard time losing weight. Where she was once lithe and lean she was now plump around her hips and stomach. Where she once wore tight, contour-conforming blouses and jeans that made her husband hungry for her curves, she now wore loose, curve-flattening hoodies and jogging pants that rendered her a unisex tomboy. She had been trying to lose weight every day, but the only thing she lost was hope. She tried to exercise in the evening, but it was hard to find time when she had to sit at a cubicle for nine hours, juggling HR spreadsheets and payroll accounts, and then had to come home to look after their son.
Austin was an oil rig man who worked on the coast. It was a job his father did, and his grandfather. Three months on, one month off. This was his month off. Coming home made him relieved, but he always felt a bit disappointed, too.
“Maybe I should wake up Dallas,” Sophie said.
“Let the boy sleep,” Austin grumbled, his own eyes dragging heavily up and down in uncertain wakefulness. “And let me sleep.”
“It might be one of those once-in-a-lifetime events,” Sophie said, never once taking her eyes off the moon as it reigned above the Valley. “He might miss out.”
“Let the boy sleep,” Austin repeated, drifting off. His eyes went in and out of focus on a gigantic flock of birds going on migration. He was so tired, and lacked so much concentration, that he could not remember the name of the birds. The Narrator of the program— some Brit with a silken voice that cradled Austin’s mind like a hammock—lilted in a swaying song of syllabic cadence.
“I think I will go get Dallas,” Sophie said. Yet, she did not leave the window.
For Christ’s sake, Sophie,” Austin growled, rousing again. “Leave the boy alone. No wonder he ain’t growing at all. He isn’t getting enough sleep to grow.”
“That’s not true, Austin,” Sophie said, too wonderstruck by the moon to be defensive or even peevish about the assertion. “The doctor said his hormones just haven’t kicked in yet. He’ll have a growth spurt eventually and maybe he’ll be almost as tall as you.”
The thought that Dallas would not be taller than Austin bothered Austin. He took a deep, disgruntled breath and sighed through his nose; noisy with aggravation. He folded his arms across his chest and adjusted himself on the sofa. “Maybe we should put him on some protein drinks,” he said. “At this rate we’ll be lucky if he’s five foot tall. And the kid needs to eat something. Jesus, a strong wind would blow him away.”
“He’ll get better,” Sophie said, still staring out the window. “Just give him time to fill out.”
Austin almost said “Fill out like you have?”, but he knew it was meanness and did not want to say it, however much he thought his wife was now a jelly-belly. His son was a sore spot for him, and often provoked him in ways nothing else could. Dallas was asthmatic. He was sickly. Austin had wanted a son like himself: a rough-and-tough football player always getting high-fived by the guys and handjobbed by the cheerleaders. He wanted a son that was happy. But Dallas was a nerd. He liked computers. He liked looking at the stars. He liked playing videogames. Granted, the videogames had half-naked women strung throughout them, but that was a mere shadow of what Austin enjoyed in highschool. And at this rate Dallas was going to be like those awkward, quiet kids that Austin mocked throughout highschool. He was going to be a loser.
Something flew past the window, faraway. Despite the brightness of the moonlight, the thing flying was too faraway to discern as it floated above the concave neighborhood. It became lost in starlight and distance. Whatever it was, it did not move like a bird. It floated like a balloon on a gradual rise. Austin wondered if it was a birthday party balloon or a bachelor party balloon. Part of him wished to see a stripper dancing in front of him.
“Wow,” Sophie sighed. “Look at all of them. They’re really going…”
Austin inhaled and exhaled laboriously, then settled in again, trying to fall asleep. The Nature program had shifted from birds to some jellyfish in the sea, all gathering under the pull of the moon.
“I need to see better,” Sophie said. “It’s just so…so beautiful.”
As if sleepwalking, she went upstairs.
“Don’t wake the boy up,” Austin muttered, half-asleep. He drifted in and out of sleep. One moment he was watching a group of tentacled lights dancing in dark waters; the next, he saw a small fish chasing a glowing lure in utter void, only to be devoured by a horrific mouth. Then came Canadian Geese flying high above drafty, plummeting depths. Then came salmon swimming upstream, leaping toward breeding grounds. Bears caught them as they passed, and tore them apart with easy demeanors. He was not sure if he was watching a Nature program with ADHD or whether he was simply dreaming about all of the Nature programs he had watched throughout the years.
He roused a little when he heard tapping on the window upstairs.
“Jesus Christ, woman,” he grumbled, more to himself than anyone else. “You never quit, do you?”
He leaned forward on the sofa, rubbing his face with his hands and growl-sighing in annoyance. Standing, he stretched his arms, ready to walk to the master bedroom and crash, hard, upon his bed.
But then something caught his eye. There was a greenish glow upon the Valley. He could not see the moon, but he could see down the sloped neighborhood and over the rooftops that swooped down along the Valley’s crater. There were things floating into the green-tinged air. Hundreds of them. Their bodies were slack, hunched over, and rising slowly as if pulled upward by the shoulders on gentle ziplines. They were not birds or balloons. One flew past the window and he recognized it as Mr. Peterson, his nextdoor neighbor. Austin shook his head and rubbed his eyes, and still he saw them rising— rising into the sky.
Suddenly remembering Sophie, Austin hurried upstairs. He found her in Dallas’s room. She was tapping her forehead against the window. She floated a foot off the ground, as if gravity meant little to her pudgy body anymore.
“Sophie!” he gasped.
She turned around, in mid-air, still hunched over, her body lax. Her eyes were dilated utterly black.
“Time to go home,” she said. She turned away from him and touched their son, Dallas, on the forehead. “Get up, honey,” she said. “It’s time to go. It’s time for all of us to go.”
Dallas looked up at his mom, then toward the window. The little near-sighted boy became gawp-mouthed, like his mother, and floated up from his bed, the blankets and sheets slipping off of him. Austin ran to pull them both back. Pulling on them, he screamed. But then he, too, glimpsed the moon through the window. It was so large and green and close to the earth. It peered so closely at them— at all of them—and Austin finally understood.
It was time to go home.
He felt himself rise, alongside his family, and huddle against the window. He felt, distantly, the window buckle and shatter, falling away, letting the cool air of the Valley caress his face as he and his family rose above their house, and their neighbor’s houses, and felt the whole of the earth dissolve into a dream beneath them, their eyes and their brains and their thoughts full of nothing but that green light. Flying away like a great flock of…something. Words lost meaning. Images lost meaning. Life, as it had been on earth, lost meaning. Nothing mattered but the green light of the moon. Instinct dictated all, and all that mattered was to pass where that great lurking hunger had been waiting for them to come to it, one final time, for the harvest of a million millennia.

 

Author’s Note:  This story came to me in a dream; not all of its particulars, but the main thrust of the story.  I woke up this morning and typed it down in one go.  I doubt I captured the raw horror I felt upon dreaming this story, but I hope I conveyed it in a manner that makes it understandable.  Unfortunately, it was a very image-heavy story and I do not know if such things are “paintable” by words alone.  Vladimir Nabokov said he painted with words, and he certainly did, but I am not the literary virtuoso that Nabokov was.

The Crossroads

I felt I had, in my mad dash, run my legs to splinters. When I saw the inn, standing tall beneath the moon and looming large on the precipice of the seaside cliff, I beat my feet harder in my boots, as if digging another trench against the Krauts and their endless artillery shells. I hurled myself into the door, slamming it bodily aside and falling forward onto a soft carpet. At my back I could still feel the darkness and the artillery fire vying for conquest of the night, and, too, that fetid breath of the monstrous thing that had pursued me down this midnight road.
I kicked the door shut, the heavy wood slamming loudly with a finality like artillery falling from above. I lay there, then, relieved and insensate, breathing heavily as my bones and muscles ached below my knees. Too long the War March was. The hammering of the artillery and the crawling through wet mud and barbed wire and the bodies of the dead—all too much for me. As I sat up, gathering about me my senses like a seamstress’s scattered thread, I realized that a tall woman stood before me. She was fair as salt, ephemeral like a ghost in moonlight, her white nightgown and white hair making a pale pillar of her, like a caryatid. Yet, her material form was attested by a candlestick she held to light that dark lobby. A ruby cross necklace lay between her comely breasts.
“Are you the innkeeper?” I asked.
“Always,” she said. She had a French accent, as was to be expected in Boulogne.
I looked to the window near the door, and saw the moon eclipsed by a bulky shadow. I heard the creature snorting in frustration, like a boar; like the push and pull of the tides.
“That…thing chased me here,” I said.
“As it does us all,” she said. “It catches some of us unawares. Some go to it willingly. Others ride it as a mount, exulting. But even they slip off, in time, and are eaten.”
“I…I am with the Irish Guards,” I said. Clutching my head in my hands, I felt ashamed at leaving my brothers behind. “I fled. The fighting… The artillery… I cannot take it anymore…”
“Come,” she said simply. “Your bed awaits.”
“My bed?” I said, confused.
She said no more, but turned to leave.
I did not know what to make of this young lady. Feeling ashamed now for my shame, I rose, slowly, wobbly, to my bleeding feet and followed her as she lifted her candle to light the inner gloom of that large establishment.
I could see little as I followed her except her back. She wore a sleeveless gown in the French style, the back low cut, the angel wings of her shoulderblades etched softly in her pale skin. She was ghostly in form, in her movements, as if she floated ahead of me through that enveloping darkness. She inspired in me fear, like a war widow soon to betray me to the Krauts. I had heard stories of them— French women who betrayed Allied soldiers to the enemy in return for favors. Then again, there were plenty of other stories about French women who saved many Allied soldiers; women who died saving them and their fellow countrymen. So I followed her, knowing I did not wish to return to the artillery shells or the beast beyond the threshold.
She led me upstairs to another hallway with many doors on either side. Guiding me to the last door, near the hall’s window, she unlocked the room with a key. I chanced a glance outside and glimpsed, briefly, that bulwark form of the beast below, shrouded in the obscurity of shadows. The moon glowed brightly, as did the innkeeper’s pallor. She opened the door and gestured with a lithe arm as slender and speckless as ivory. Her white hair, I realized, was coiled back into a chain of French braids, baring her slender neck on one side.
“If soldiers come,” I said, “they will ask for me.”
“No one who comes here ever knows where they will go,” she said. Her voice was faint, yet even as she stood apart from me, it was as intimate as if she spoke it at my ear. The inn, otherwise, was silent, except for the snorting of the beast at the threshold and my own heartbeat, the latter echoing loudly in my own ears. She did not smile, but she did not frown. Her face was enigmatic as she asked me a question.
“Do you want company on this Night among nights?”
I watched her face— looking for a hint of malice or mockery, or simple coquettishness—but found nothing. Only mystery dwelled in that pretty visage.
“No,” I said. “I wish only to sleep.”
She entered the room, her candle’s halo blooming in that space. What was revealed as the shadows pulled back like overabundant curtains was kingly quarters, finely furnished and familiar, its walls adorned with wallpapered flowers and finely lacquered wainscoting. The large bed was utterly unlike the muddy blanket beneath which I shivered in the trenches. It was a four-post bed heavily stacked with quilts and would have been more befitting of a Lord than a simple farmhand such as myself. Looking upon it, I knew I could not wear my sullied uniform. My muddy, bloody boots did not belong in that room, either, and so I took them off, one at a time. The pain was excruciating. It felt as if I had taken my shins off with the boots. At length, however, I stood in the hallway, barefooted and hesitant to enter. The innkeeper beckoned me with a gentle gesture, and so I entered.
She set the candle on a small escritoire beside the bed and walked to the door, presumably to leave. When I heard the door shut, I doffed my uniform, born again in my undergarments. I did not pray, but put myself to bed with utmost expedience. The innkeeper startled me by sitting on the bed, next to me, and laying a soft hand upon my forehead. I had thought she had left. She did not smile, but there was an impression of benevolence and concern in her face.
“Have you no other needs?” she asked.
“My legs hurt,” I said.
“Do not think on it,” she cooed, stroking my forehead. The ruby cross flashed as it caught the light from the melting candle. It seemed to blind me.
I felt hot and chilled alternately. I wished to be home, in Ireland, with my family.
“Why do you wear that…thing?” I asked, waving away at the red flash of her cross. “You know it does no good in times like these. Nothing does.” I became angry. Bitter. Spiteful. “The dead pile up. Nothing stymies the flow of blood. God takes no sides, but takes from every side. We are His playthings.”
She said nothing, her face illegible; mysterious; beautiful and empty, like the cross that adorned her heart. I sighed in resignation and regret.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” I said, after a while. “My father told me not to enlist. But I volunteered to fight over here of my own accord. Everyone in Britain looks down upon us Irish, but when there’s a fight we cannot help but ball up our fists and start swinging for their honor, as much as for our own. Maybe I thought I’d find a new life over the sea. But all I found was another crossroads to spin about on.”
She shushed me with a kiss to my lips.
“I shall sing to you a lullaby,” she said. “To ease you in your time of suffering.”
She then proceeded to sing a quiet, soothing song that calmed me like morphine in my veins.

“My only love swam out to sea
while singing a song, mon ami.
He swam too far dans la mer
while wondering how not to care.
My only love did not swim back to me,
lost forever in la nuit…”

I slipped beneath her gentle palm into an ocean of oblivion far deeper and darker than the Atlantic. There was no pain there; no lonely ache for home, nor cold nor fever nor memory nor regret. There was only the deepness of peace. I was at long last contented.

***

When I awoke, the fair-haired woman was gone, along with her candle and her ruby cross. Yet, I was not alone. Moonlight spilled through the windows, illuminating in milky softness the interior of the room: the walls, the furniture, the bed upon which I lay. All things were illuminated; all things except the hulking mass of shadow at the foot of the bed.
I tried to scream, but my voice would not come forth. The beast lurched forward, then, and fell upon my feet, chewing at them slowly while I attempted to scream for help and pull away. Yet, I was paralyzed, voiceless, at the mercy of its snorting, ravenous, cruel appetite as it chewed my toes and my feet and then my shins. I sobbed inwardly, for tears would not come, and the beast ate of my legs until, as if suddenly disinterested, it turned away and melded again into the shadows. In agony now, I succumbed to the pain and fell asleep all at once.

***

I awoke in a tent. A doctor stood over me, a clipboard and a pencil in his hands. He wore a long white uniform that was splattered redly, like a butcher’s apron.
“Good,” he said with a British accent. “You are awake. The worst is over.” He turned away, then paused. “But I suppose the worst is yet to come.”
He motioned for a tall, pale nurse to see to me. She wore a Red Cross gown, with a white skirt and a bonnet over her white hair. She looked familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen her. I was feverish, soaken with sweat, and I ached all along my legs. I tried to sit up, but had not the strength. I looked to one side of the table, and to the other, and saw other soldiers bandaged and bloodied and broken. Some were covered with a blanket, head to toe. Dead.
“I do not belong here,” I whispered. I pushed myself up and turned, trying to stand from the bed. I hopped off the bed, plunging downward through empty air and hitting the floor with my thighs, sprawling out helplessly in astonished misery. The tall nurse rushed towards me, but it was too late. Surveying myself, I moaned in horror. My legs had been reduced to stubs by the Krauts’ artillery shells.

***

That night I crawled out of the medical tent, pulling myself through the camp and out into the French countryside. I crawled past the dozens of nameless crosses that stood in testimony to the thousands that had died in the war, nailed together out of driftwood and kindling. I wanted to go West, away from the butchery of trench warfare. I wanted to return to Ireland. I would float out to sea, I told myself, and wake up a selkie on Erin’s beach once again. Behind me I heard the artillery shells that lit up the night once again. But I never looked back. If I looked back I would dissolve.
I crawled all night and at morning light found myself at the edge of a seaside cliff. I stared down its bluff as the briny air whispered intimately in my ear. Far below, in the deep water, I saw the beast beyond the threshold, snorting hungrily among the waves. It wanted the rest of me. There was nothing left for me except to feed it, as countless other soldiers had in this terrible war. Whoever won the war, the spoils were its alone.
The tall nurse surprised me, then, running towards me. Her hair was done up in a French braid that billowed behind her. She had been looking for me, it seemed, and she now found me. I saw the cross upon her heart, red as blood, and bitterly wished to tear it from her breast. Behind her I saw the explosions of a battle enjoined once again. She glistened like a pillar of salt, and I looked away from her before she could dissolve within the warring winds. She called to me, in her French accent, and the beast called to me, too, with a terrible squeal like a bomb falling and exploding all around me.
“Do not swim so eagerly out to sea!” she cried.
“To sea,” I said. “To home. To nothingness.”
I pivoted my legless body upon the crossroads and plunged forward, giving myself fully to the beast.

The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

 

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The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

“Teach the sweet coquette to know
Heart of ice in breast of snow…”
—Thomas Pennant, Ode To Indifference

It was midday and the thunderheads dragged their pall across the earth, making midnight of the afternoon. Mr. Thenton and I were in the coach, quietly awaiting our arrival at the manorhouse of that infamous poet, Lord Aeron. Mr. Thenton had been trying to scratch ink on parchment, to no avail, and I busied myself with ignoring the dread I felt as we entered that Welsh province. The road was rugged and unruly. It rattled the coach as a toddler might a music box that refused to play. Nothing boded well for this misbegotten adventure.
While attempting to wet his quill, Mr. Thenton spilled the inkwell onto the butchered scrawl that marred the parchment’s surface. With a disgruntled sigh, he set aside his ruined parchment and covered his inkwell. He once again opened Lord Aeron’s poetry collection, The Gale Between Passion And Pain and read through another of its poems. At length, he closed the book.
“Certainly, he is a confessed bacchant,” he said. “These poems are superb in execution and style, yet shameless in subject. His poem ‘Caligula’s Reins’ celebrates so many depravities that I should think Ovid would demand restraint.”
Much to my relief, he extinguished the candle that burned nearby on its holder. I had feared for the last hour or so that the candle would topple and set flame to the coach’s interior, and to ourselves.
“I have always adored Wales,” Mr. Thenton continued, attempting optimism against his frustration. “Were it a woman it would be a belle with a disposition towards leisurely activities outdoors. Indeed, a comely nymph given to quiet walks and tending to the roses. And, of course, the flora and fauna are endearing. There is much to admire in these prospects.”
“It is idyllic,” I agreed, though it was difficult to see anything in the darkness beyond the window of the coach. “A perfect place for a stroll.”
“It would have been lovely to bring my wife with me,” he said, “but it is the unfortunate nature of a man’s work that it is woefully impaired by the presence of the fairer sex. That is, of course, unless the man in question happens to be the esteemed Lord Aeron. It is the happy situation of poets, novelists, playwrights and the like to always find inspiration in the company of women. Alas, a Naturalist’s office is one of minutest observation concerning explicit detail and not expressed emotion, otherwise Emma would have been a welcome adventurer in our party.”
“Gossip suggests to me that a young lady should not wish to visit Lord Aeron’s castle,” I observed.
“Of course,” Mr. Thenton said, adjusting his powdered wig. “I would not invite the rumors on my wife. Everyone is well aware of Lord Aeron’s scandalous reputation as a debauchee. If not for my national reputation as a gentleman among English society I would not have requested an audience with such an infamous rogue.”
“You did not hesitate to invite me,” I noted, watching impassively as the golden cuffs on his overcoat’s sleeves gleamed in the shadow-shrouded coach. “Were you not concerned with the effect on my reputation?”
The coach was tossed slightly to one side and I heard the coachman admonishing the horses with a few select profanities.
“Mr. Sheridan,” he said, “you are my esteemed colleague. True, you are Irish, and so are not afforded the defenses of English rank such as are privileged to my station, but you are protected by association. Moreover, what good would my best observations be in writing without your keenly drawn illustrations? The English audience demands word and image, the two working upon one another like two wizards conjuring wonders in the cauldron of their imaginations.”
“I have noticed you always become verbose when you are nervous,” I said.
“Indeed?” he said, surprised. “I never knew myself other than a very succinctly spoken man. It hardly conforms to my humble ego, such a revelation. Were you not my colleague, and thus known to me from profession, I would think it a captious assertion.”
“I do not theorize or opine,” I said. “I report what I see.”
“Verily?” he said, with a smile. “Then, may your keen observation skills prove their worth in this endeavor.”
He said no more, but smiled out the window at the passing scenery which, like his parchment, was a messy pool of inky blackness.

When I first saw the manorhouse— in the dim distant light of that dark day—I thought it a castle, for it was so large and constructed of such grandstanding stone masonry that a castle could well be its claim. Beneath the umbra of the clouds the red stone appeared almost vermilion, like dried blood on a healing wound. From the bottom of the hill I saw the terraced gardens, staggered like the steps of giants up a hill crowded with flowery bushes and strangely-pruned yew trees. Indeed, the latter were a bizarre multitude of abstract shapes growing together heedless of human considerations of geometry or form. To walk those layered terraces would be to suffer vertigo, I was certain, for there was such a tumult of abnormal undulations in the greenery that a perambulator’s feet could hardly convince his eyes of level ground or walkways.
“It is a strange place,” I remarked.
“As natural as they come,” replied Mr. Thenton. “Natural for the residents, truly.”
“I may be a simple man,” I said, “but even I am aware of what is unnatural by human estimations.”
“I would say you are simply prejudiced by your vocation,” Mr. Thenton said. “An artist is always seeking to better the aesthetics of another man, especially when he cannot understand such aesthetics. And you condescend from what you presume to be superior sensibilities.”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” I said, “but your being a Naturalist prejudices yourself as well. You wish to think everything natural, even when it is not. And this place is not natural. Nor are its tenants, if rumor proves true.”
“Then we must naturalize,” he said, with his dauntless child-like smile. “That is what we do, is it not? Record the natural world, in word and in picture, so England can familiarize herself with it. And Lord Aeron’s otherworldly visitor shall be naturalized. You will see. At the end of the day the most unnatural thing we will have encountered will have been the Welsh accents. Nothing more.”
I relented and so we rode the rest of the uphill journey in silence. At length, the coach halted and the coachman called out to someone. There was the rattling of iron gates, the shriek of hinges, and the coach continued along its path, though now the wheels rolled easily over a cobblestone road. A few moments later the coach stopped and the coachman opened the door. Mr. Thenton, being most eager, stepped out first, and I followed after a moment of hesitation. My misgivings abounded as I saw Lord Aeron’s majordomo approach. He was an old man, senile and frail and leaning upon a cane, trembling as he spoke to my congenial patron.
“We only have a few effects,” Mr. Thenton said, “but they are crucial to the enterprise. My associate’s art supplies and my parchment and ink. Take especial care with the latter, for I am afraid I have ruined a considerable amount on the way here.”
“I will see that they are taken inside with care, sir,” the old man said. “For now, please enter and wait in the parlor. Lord Aeron will be with you shortly.”
Thus bidden, obeyed. We sat in the wainscoted parlor and patiently awaited our host. Or I should say, I patiently waited our host, and dreaded him. Mr. Thenton was anxious, his hands restlessly fidgeting with his collar and cravat and wig. I was grateful for being a tradesman, then, and thus simply attired in accordance to my vocation. Even were I more renowned as an artist I would shun a gentleman’s elaborate trappings. It has been my observation that such trappings do nothing but cause endless fuss and frustration.
“A lovely parlor,” Mr. Thenton remarked. “Indeed, fit enough to receive royalty, I believe. Or, I should say, provincial royalty. His Majesty would expect better, but this is a summering home, after all.”
The room was dark at its corners, and otherwise lit vaguely by candlelight. If there was finery to be admired it was obfuscated by layered shadows. My colleague’s nerves were speaking through him. His nerves were afire for excitement, and my blood was cold for fear.
“Do you really believe she is of the Fay?” I said.
“Or some other manner of visitor, to be sure,” returned Mr. Thenton. “The original Lady Aeron died years ago. It is rumored that she succumbed to some complication resulting from syphilis. God knows the two of them were notorious for their rampant promiscuity, often indulging in brothels and scandalous trips to Amsterdam. For years following her burial, Lord Aeron disappeared from society and ceased writing his renowned poetry. His closest friends were shunned and he refused to admit any visitor, including those representing his Majesty. I dare say, his Majesty would have been insulted had Lord Aeron not continued paying his taxes. Practically minded, our king.”
I merely nodded, harboring no love for that imperial tyrant. Mr. Thenton continued.
“And then, quite unexpectedly, the reclusive Lord Aeron arrived at a ball with none other than a woman whose features and semblance were, to all authorities on the matter, an exact doubling of his deceased wife. Either she is a resurrected phantasm, or she is a changeling using glamor to mirror his memory. Regardless of origin, we shall naturalize her to the rest of England’s consciousness. For, as you know, being the Irishman you are, that all realms belong to England, and the first step toward domestication is to understand a species or race in natural terms.”
I should have refuted Mr. Thenton’s errant rationalizations outright. The Lady in question was neither wildlife nor wilderness to tame, nor some primitive peoples disadvantaged by technology or numbers. But I was well aware of my colleague’s character and how singularly affixed he was in this misguided endeavor and his patriotic fealties. At his heart, Mr. Thenton was a harmless jingoist. Thus, I forgave him much.
“Did not the Lady Aeron have a twin?” I asked, trying to be more reasonable about the matter.
“No, she did not.”
The voice came abruptly from the inner door. There, standing with a determined and grim expression upon his face, was a man of obvious standing in the house.
“Nor would I have disgraced her memory with such a mundane substitution,” he said. “Indeed, you wrong me, sir. I am a man of greater imagination than that.”
Mr. Thenton stood up and bowed. “Lord Aeron! Allow me to apologize on the behalf of my colleague,” he said. “He is a simple Irishman unaccustomed to the social graces of higher status. Yet, you will see that his skill with a pencil and a brush can compensate for what he lacks in etiquette.”
“It is all well,” Lord Aeron said, “for I jest, of course. As a poet, I am naturally inclined in kinship to any artist dedicated to his craft.”
Not knowing what to say, I imitated Mr. Thenton with a bow. Even so, I looked upon the famous, and infamous, poet to discern his attributes and winnow the reality from the chaff of fiction. Lord Aeron was a tall man, as pale and handsome as his reputation. Dark black hair hung slackly over his high forehead. His overcoat was a dandy’s shade of violet and his cravat was as black as his hair, his overcoat trimmed with arabesques of gold and his waistcoat beneath it in likewise scheme. I have known artists, poets and authors of eccentric tendencies, but Lord Aeron’s expression was less the madness of a man given to poetic passions and more the jaded indifference of a cynic aloof from his own soul.
“I have the privilege of owning many of your books, Mr. Thenton,” our host said, “and I notice that you are given to poetic exaggeration. While such embellishments inspire greater interest in the reader, I believe no embellishments will be needed in the subject you seek today. To the contrary, it would rather impoverish the subject. Know that I do not say this lightly, for, being a poet, I know the temptation toward hyperbolic adornment, and so I must insist that it would be mistakenly implemented. As mistaken as an Epicurean at Communion.”
“I will be as strict as a Mamluk with his blade,” Mr. Thenton said, bowing yet lower.
“An apt comparison,” Lord Aeron said. “Though I believe the Tawashi would be more appropriate.”
“I am afraid I am unacquainted with that term, my Lord,” Mr. Thenton said, smiling through his ignorance.
“You will come to know it in due time,” Lord Aeron said, mysteriously.
“Can you please elaborate on your wife’s…condition? I have heard that the inspiration of your new literary works has come in the form of what some would deem unnatural, or, dare I say, supernatural sources.”
“Mr. Thenton, I was of the belief that you were a Naturalist. Why would you come here when you suspect it to be anything other than natural?”
“Because I do not believe anything is unless it is natural,” Mr. Thenton said, “including what superstitious minds would deem the ‘supernatural’.”
A thin smile then spread across Lord Aeron’s face, almost imperceptible in its expanse and yet overbearing in its suggestion. “In that are we of the same mind,” he said. “For, as you will see, should you prove so brave, my Lady Aeron is the most natural of all things on this or any other plane of existence.”
He gestured that we follow him. He led us out of the parlor and into a long hall whose windows provided scarce light on account of the overcast day. Along the walls there were candelabrum punctuating the darkness with their ghostly haloes. The floor was hardwood, yet I felt my boots stick to it every now and again as if it was splattered with drying plaster or seeping sap. Not wanting to be rude, I said nothing of it, but noticed Mr. Thenton lifting his boots with abnormal effort as well.
“We are to see the Lady now?” he asked.
“My wife is not herself today,” Lord Aeron said, “so you must pardon her for now. Until she has regained her composure, I will lead you on a tour about my home.”
“That is an excellent notion,” Mr. Thenton said.
Feeling it incumbent upon me to sound agreeable, I also said it would be a pleasure. Truth be told, I did not know how successful such a tour would be with such scant light. Had we lanterns it may have been more feasible an idea. Nonetheless, our host was undeterred and so led us through that large palace that he called a “manorhouse”.
What I could see of the interior was decadent. There was a Baroque style molding, all bold brass and gold scrolling thickly around the most banal door. Thick marble coated much of the window recesses and the tabletops, the house being as much marble as brick and wood. The walls were frescoed and richly illustrated by what must have been a legion of master painters, all depicting gods ravishing women. Zeus and Leda. Zeus and Europa. Bacchus and Ariadne. Eros and Psyche. Apollo and Daphne. Yet, more surprisingly, there were in other rooms other frescoes that depicted the roles of victim and attacker reversed: men being ravished by women. Hippolytus being stripped by Phaedra. Adonis being pulled apart by Aphrodite, Persephone, and Artemis. Echo mounting Narcissus. The Maenads tearing King Pentheus and Orpheus apart and employing their mutilated bodies for…depraved passions. Lord Aeron had spent no lesser expense in assuring that the painters had captured these images with as much skill and detail as the others. Violence and sexual conquest were important to him, it seemed. I would have ventured to believe him an aspiring protege of that infamous deviant, the Marquis de Sade, if not for depictions of women in dominant roles.
We arrived at the inner courtyard and found that it was, curiously, not open to the sky, as courtyards often are. A dome had been constructed to cap its airy heights. Corinthian pillars remained arrayed around the spacious expanse, and each was neighbored by a brazier whose flames burned fiercely in the gloom. The ceiling itself spiraled with stucco ridges, all converging upon the glass-eyed oculus in the center of that large dome. Directly below the oculus was a bed large enough to accommodate a sultan’s harem of concubines.
“What is the purpose of this bed?” Mr. Thenton asked.
Lord Aeron offered a humorless smile. “The usual purposes of a bed,” he said.
“You sleep here, then?” my naive colleague asked.
“Among other things, yes.”
“It is quite unusual.”
The latter Mr. Thenton whispered to me with his habitual discretion. Naturally, Lord Aeron overheard him, but said nothing of it. I found it more than unusual. It’s implications were disturbing. Whereas many beds furnished their occupants privacy with a canopy and a thoughtful array of curtains, this bed flaunted no promises of privacy. There were a few pillows and a sheet, but no blankets for comfort or cover. Furthermore, it estranged expectation with long-bodied mirrors placed around the bed in a five-pointed star formation. The purpose of these expenses baffled me. Perhaps had I been more of a libertine I should have deduced the purpose more swiftly.
Lord Aeron paused at the door leading out onto the terrace and down into the garden, for his majordomo intercepted us at the threshold. His servant whispered a few words to his master.
“It is time for dinner,” Lord Aeron said, grinning at some secret amusement. “The tour of the garden grounds shall have to wait until after we have eaten.”
My patron, being always amiable to a fault, said that a walk outside after dinner would do his digestion good and that we would be glad to oblige Lord Aeron’s schedule.
“Will Lady Aeron be joining us for dinner?” I inquired.
I saw, then, Lord Aeron’s thin smile play about on his lips again. In all outward respects it was friendly, and yet it seemed in import to hint at mischief, and malice.
“My wife never feeds in the dining hall,” he said.
This I thought strikingly odd of our host to state, yet before I could question him further, my friend replied with his customary friendliness.
“My wife has very much the same reservation,” Mr. Thenton said. “Emma would prefer to dine where no one may observe her, for she is ever afraid that she may ruin her reputation with neglect of the most obscure rules for proper dining etiquette. No doubt it is a fear thoroughly haunting the minds of many among the fairer sex, including Lady Aeron.”
“To the contrary,” Lord Aeron said. “She is of a predilection that is wholly indifferent to observation while feeding. Mores and etiquette hold no sway over her, for her intelligence is unencumbered by such arbitrary conventions of Man.” Here his thin smile widened, though whether due to mirth or menace I could not discern. “She is simply not hungry at the present moment. Please forgive her this small disappointment.”
“But of course!” rejoined my friend, dauntless and doubtless in his amiability. “May we all be so faithful to the modesty of our appetites!”
We proceeded into the dining hall and found a rather exquisite meal awaiting us. It consisted of lamb and roasted vegetables with a fine wine, though I must confess that my appetite was not sufficiently agreeable at the time to enjoy it. Mr. Thenton, conversely, enjoyed it as readily as a beggar invited to a kingly banquet.
“Splendid,” he said, increasingly buoyed by the treatment and the prospect of a new book. “An excellent meal! Truly, I can see that you are a man of exquisite appetite, sir, and taste. These indulgences would induce a gourmand to question the reach of his education and experience.”
Lord Aeron regarded my friend’s praises coolly, sipping faintly at his wine and abstaining from much of his own plate. Lord, like Lady, seemed to be possessed of insufficient appetite. After sipping at his wine, he spoke in a rather complacent tone that betrayed condescension, which struck me disagreeably.
“The passions of a man may well begin in the stomach,” Lord Aeron said. “For the basic necessities of life must be appeased before the basic drives of life may be indulged. Yet, that is not to say that necessitated appetites cannot be foregone in favor of satiating less needful appetites. And, indeed, a seemingly inferior appetite may well define and prolong our species more than what is most needful for our immediate survival. I have myself known pangs of hunger that were sharply eclipsed by what many rationalists would consider trivial compulsions. Thus, I believe that until Man conflates his myriad appetites together as a unified compulsion these drives will always vie with one another for dominance, often at the cost of the species and its experience on this plane of existence. Thus, every act is as a feast. Every verse of my poetry is a banquet that feeds and sates. Every breath drawn is in pursuit of devouring the world and its variegated pleasures.”
I did not know what he meant by this long lecture, and he did not elaborate, nor do I believe that elaboration would have elucidated his perspective. It all seemed pretentious verbosity designed to impress rather than enlighten. Mr. Thenton, however agreed whole-heartedly, as was his inclination in all things concerning individuals of higher wealth and rank. That said, I doubted his understanding in the matter as much as my own. Had a duck been crowned King of England, and proceeded to quack vociferously in my friend’s ear, Mr. Thenton would have nodded his head in ready agreement with the waterfowl’s nonsensical noise, despite his vast reputation as a respected Naturalist.
Dinner concluded and Lord Aeron led us away from the dining hall, delivering us to the terraces on the South side of his manorhouse. The portal there opened onto the side of the great hill upon which the mansion stood, its terraces cut from the stone of the hill itself. The dark clouds thinned and relented for a time, allowing an early twilight to illuminate our jaunt down the terraces and into the lavish greenery and flowers sprawling on that side of the hill.
The garden grounds were paradisaical, the hedges and the yew trees primly shorn while the flowers bloomed in a jealous competition for attention. Marble statues adorned the grounds as well, standing high on elevating columns and pedestals. Yet, whereas most statues of gods were modest, even when nude, these unashamed figures boasted priapic endowments unfit for a vestal virgin’s eyes. Verily, many such Dionysian figures had become bereft of their phallic adornments due to their own hefty largess and the merciless barbarism of gravity. Thus, for every Aristophanean figure there was a eunuch in need of repair, his loins shattered upon the cobblestoned paths. Lord Aeron noticed my gaze and chuckled humorlessly.
“It is a lesson we all should take to heart,” he said. “Urchin and king alike, when we engorge ourselves on pride we may find ourselves soon emasculated by the expansion. It is only…natural.”
The clouds converged once again, like a routed army reforming its ranks, and prepared for a violent display of arms. Rain came upon us hard and we had to retreat into the manorhouse ere they hurl their fulgurous spears down upon us.
As we sat in the great hall— drying and warming ourselves by the hearth— Lord Aeron surprised me again while stoking the fire with a poker. He stared into the flames and spoke to us with more open candor than was his habit that day.
“Tragedy can change a man,” he said. “The confession shames me, but I became spiritual after the death of my wife. Not religious, certainly, but I did read religious books. The Torah, the Bible, the Koran. The Vedas, or as many as I dared, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Each proved useless in its own turn, but I did not recant hope. Obscurer books I sought and bought. Holy scriptures from around the world. I entertained any text, no matter how esoteric or illegitimized it was by what is known of the natural world. I learned cuneiform simply so I could read Babylonian tablets and translate them with my own understanding. These, too, disappointed me, and it seemed that the earth was too small to provide me the gateways of knowledge I sought.
“In time I grew more desperate. Arabia became my home for a year; a year of restless searching. I discovered there what would be the salvation for my wife. I purchased, at great cost, a book which owns as much as it is owned. A book of skin. A book of heresies, not only to Man’s religious pretensions, but to his premises for the natural world. This book I deciphered with grueling dedication. I ate little, and I slept less, but at last I came to understand the necessary spell. And when I performed it, a gateway opened to an icy plane. My wife awaited me there. She came back to me from beyond the shadowlands. My Malia returned to me, ageless. Deathless.”
“That is what we wish to document,” Mr. Thenton said, nearly losing his wig with excitement. “This new dimensionality of the natural world. The undiscovered country that would expand the British Empire to a new frontier, superior in resources and land than even that of the rebellious Colonies.”
“You said she came from an icy plane,” I said, ignoring my colleague’s impetuous patriotism. “Were there any others near her? Did you hear angels…or demons? Did God speak upon returning her to you?”
“Many Gods spoke,” Lord Aeron said. “The Old Gods. They returned her to me from the stars, and I received her with a grateful embrace.”
“Is she phantom or Fae?” Mr. Thenton asked.
“She is the Lady Aeron,” he answered, a dazzling light in his eyes. “She is my wife, my mistress. My raison d’etre.”
It was then that the majordomo entered, his cane clacking in front of him. “Master,” he said. “You must…see to your lady’s needs.”
Lord Aeron stood, then, and walked to door. He paused. “A while longer, sirs, and I will invite you further into my confidence. I am eager for your…shared intimacy. It would please each of us, assuredly.”
Lord Aeron left, then, but the majordomo tarried a moment longer. He spoke to us with words of courtesy, but a tone of gruff intolerance.
“I have had your effects taken and placed in the main bedchamber. Forgive me if I did not arrange your easel to your satisfaction, but I have little experience with them.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I am sure it is satisfactory.”
“And my parchment and ink?” inquired Mr. Thenton.
“They are prepared as well,” the old man said. “I have had a small writing desk fetched for you, and a chair.”
“That is most thoughtful,” Mr. Thenton said.
The majordomo bowed and then turned to leave. In the flickering light of a nearby brazier I saw, with no small astonishment, that the old man’s eyes were milky with cataracts. It seemed odd, truly, that a half-blind man with a cane should be the only member of the staff present. Stranger still was the realization that I had seen no other servants throughout the mansion, though I was certain this old, crippled man could not have prepared our effects or our meal without assistance. The absence of Lord Aeron’s staff puzzled me. Indeed, their absence crowded that dark palace with an emptiness pregnant with apprehensive misgivings. Disturbed, I voiced my concerns to my friend. He dismissed them outright, albeit in his unfailingly friendly tone.
“The best servants are never seen nor heard unless needed,” he said. “Just as the best subjects of Great Britain are to be devoted to orderly industry in the pursuit of the empire’s betterment without all that utterly French rabble and rebellion.”
“So we are to be as children,” I said, offended. “Neither seen nor heard, but always at beck and call?”
“With gratitude, too, of course,” my friend said. “That is the best arrangement, yes. But if you dislike that comparison, you may think of your Ireland as being a wife to the empire. Ever devoted to the King and awaiting his loving embrace with her domestic duties quietly fulfilled.”
“It is no wonder,” I said, “that Emma attends so many balls during your prolonged absences.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, utterly oblivious.
“Nothing,” I said, “except that the Natural order of things must take precedent.”
“Indeed!” he said, blithely and oblivious. “For I am a Naturalist.”
“And so is Emma,” I said, “in her own way.”
Mr. Thenton and I sat thereafter in silence until Lord Aeron returned. I felt that I had sufficiently been dried by the fire, and that my wit had never been drier. But irony is always lost on the patriotic, so I felt it a futile enterprise to endeavor it anymore. And, to the point, the gleam in Lord Aeron’s eye sobered me of my resentful jests soon enough.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “my wife is ready to meet you now.”
With a sense of great foreboding I followed Lord Aeron through his manorhouse. Once again I was confronted by those strange murals on the walls with their predatory gods and goddesses. I felt myself shrivel as a man and shrink away inside myself, not unlike a mouse in the looming shadow of a cat.
The winds bellowed through the halls like restless spirits. Lightning clapped and crackled. Thunder boomed like the angry roar of a god. Lord Aeron escorted us again to the central courtyard, that strange bedchamber with its spiraling stucco ceiling and glass-eyed dome. It seemed to somehow have grown colder in that palace, despite the warm gales invading the halls with their summer-storm breath.
Arriving into the domed room, we were met by a startling and improper sight: a woman standing denuded near the large bed. Propriety demanded that I look away, and yet the woman’s command of my gaze was stronger. Seeing her there was to see Botticelli’s Venus standing upon her clam, ensorcelling the mind with her nymphal figure. Her skin was unnaturally pale and her eyes wholly black— otherworldly black. Her hair was long, trailing like a black and silken veil down her back, undulating as if alive. She was comely, I could not deny; perhaps the comeliest woman I had ever beheld. Nor do I say that lightly, for I am ever faithfully fond of my wife and her pretty make. Yet, the Lady Aeron was of another class of beauty, frankly one which she inhabited in unrivaled solitude. The old masters would have wept for her embrace—philanderers, sodomites and pederasts alike. Even I found myself hungering for her embrace, hot beneath my clothing while a bitter coldness emanated from her pale, lissome form. My whole being wished to warm her flesh with my own flesh, to entwine her frigid essence with my warm-blooded body, even while I instinctively sensed the mortal dangers therein entailed. Her whole being was a siren song sweetly beckoning me toward the craggy rocks. I knew of the rocks and yet my flesh did not care to be shredded if it meant caressing that pale bosom, however briefly.
Clutching me back from the impulse was the image of my wife and my children. My Irish temper, ironically, was the vice that proved my virtue, and I ripped my eyes from her body with a violent jerk of my head, resentful that I should be tempted to the brink of my character. So weak was I afterwards, however, that I had to lean against a column, shivering as I recovered my self-control and my steady pulse.
As to my colleague, Mr. Thenton, I dared not look at him for fear of an eye alighting again on that carnal sorceress; that Snow Queen.
“This is my wife, gentlemen,” Lord Aeron said, his eye gleaming in mad triumph. “She is whom I lost and won from a cold and indifferent star beyond the light of our own. She is the love of flesh. She is the pain of loss. She is the queen of meaning in the barren womb of existence. I call her desire. I call her bliss. You may call her Malia, for her love is a ‘bitter sea’. Now tell me, and tell me true— do you sincerely believe you can capture her beauty by ink or paint or word or song?”

***

We retired from the Lady Aeron’s bedchambers in distraught retreat. I was distressed to my core as we left that blasphemous bordello. Lord Aeron assured us that we would eventually inculcate ourselves to his Lady’s overwhelming effect, given time and exposure. I did not believe this. A man may acclimate himself to the icy bite of winter, or the balmy kiss of summer, but not to that season that exists within and apart of the two: desire.
Mr. Thenton and I were shown to our rooms. The guest rooms were comfortable and pleasant, each with a fire stoked in their hearths and a few candles lit on their holders. I assumed that the fleet-footed servants of the manor had prepared everything while we were otherwise preoccupied. A decanter of wine awaited me on the table next to the canopied bed. This I gratefully drank from, albeit sparingly, and then readied myself for bed.
Through the window I noted that the clouds had parted and the moon appeared in her full white glow, disrobed of the storm like Lady Aeron of her modesty. I used the lavatory to wash my face, but the splash of cold water did not awaken me from the enchantment of the Lady’s black eyes. She haunted me even then, and I worried that she would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I laid myself down in bed and stared out the window at the cold, indifferent stars. Had I been more an Irishman, and less a man of the Age, I might have prayed. Then again, I wonder even now whether I would have prayed to the Trinity or to that bewitching creature with her pale skin and black eyes. One deity seemed more real than the other, and that was not simply because I was an apostate who valued what his eyes shown him more than what any holy man might postulate. My eyes closed, I could see her still, her visage unbroken behind my eyelids. She was branded upon my mind, a scorched scar in the more bestial region of my brain. My thoughts sought her like the Holy Grail, and dreaded her like the kiss of Circe.
For an hour or more I tossed and turned, and to no avail. I sat up in bed, blinking my eyes in earnest, and yet never dismissing the image of Lady Aeron…Malia…from either eyelid or waking eye. I stood up and drank a draught of wine. It burned hot and sweetly and my anxiety only intensified. I had to exercise this possessive demoness lest it overrule my restraint with her goatish passions.
My easel and paints remained in the domed courtyard—with a canvas covered in my preliminary painting—but my bag of sketching materials had been brought into the guest room by the unseen servants. I rummaged through the bag for adequate materials. I required something dark and menacing and strong in its contrasts, so I fetched out the charcoal and the parchment. Then, with a memory branded unto scarring with her image, I attempted to exorcize the demoness and capture her upon the page. I translated her physical features with dutiful accuracy, but found I could not capture her exotic expression. Upon further reflection I realized that the eyes were rendered incorrectly. Indeed, I had failed to record the eyes with the same hollow, alluring depth of hunger that burned so lividly within Lady Aeron’s black orbs. I set aside the sketch and drank again from the wine decanter. My brain was afire with intense restlessness. There was something akin to hysteria upon me, and it would not abate nor could I abide it. I knew I would not sleep restively that night; not without hurling myself into the sea and cooling those lusty fires with cold, suffocating saltwater.
Suddenly there came, with startling clarity, the sounds of groans through the mansion. They were a strange, bestial volley of sounds, not unlike goats or horses in rut. I would have deemed the sounds aberrations of my fevered mind had not they come again, more loudly than before.
Disturbed, I went to my door and pressed my ear there, straining to hear. To my dismay, I could hear something akin to beasts given to the breeding season. Cautiously, I pushed the door open and peered out, listening to the grunts and snorts echoing down that dark hallway. Stepping out of my room, I crossed the hall and rapped on my colleague’s door, knowing that I would be less fearful in seeking out the source of the ruckus while accompanied. But Mr. Thenton did not answer me. I assumed he was fast asleep. He was, after all, a man known to sleep better than dead men, however inhospitable the conditions. In the midst of an Indian expedition he had slept a whole night without ever rousing, despite the jungle’s otherworldly sounds and discomforts. A tiger had roared in the night, and set the locals to trembling, and yet, as we all huddled near the fire for mutual protection, he remained in his tent, oblivious to the dangers stalking between the trees.
Nonetheless, I knocked at his door once more, hoping that he was as restless as I and so disturbed beyond his normal routine. But he did not answer. Unheeded, I turned away.
The manorhouse was eerily silent except for the voices. The voices redoubled, their urgency frightening. Alone, I followed them through the hall, coming to the domed courtyard at its center. I stood by the door to that expansive room, my eyes once again enchanted by that perfect female form as it gyrated in the moonlight shining down through the oculus; moonlight showering her figure and the figure pinned beneath her on the bed.
Merciless illumination! Maddening revulsion! Shameful fascination! My mind was at war with my loins. Lady Aeron was straddling Mr. Thenton in amorous congress, and Lord Aeron stood to the side of the bed, feverish in his onanism.
I felt horror, and I am ashamed to confess that I felt lust, too, and the hollow ache of envy. How I yearned to be the one beneath her! To be conjoined to her beauty, however briefly! She was desire itself. She was lust and appetite and base instinct unified. Yet, even in my ardor for her I noticed, with some bafflement, that her face was utterly devoid of expression. There was no ecstacy or pleasure, in either human or animal form, nor did she make the same bestial noises that Mr. Thenton and Lord Aeron issued in their passions. She was as unfeeling as the winter’s snow, and as horrifically cruel. A sumptuous paradox of
There came a nausea as I watched her, and a dawning terror, for my keen eyes were meticulous in the minutiae of form, even while my conscious mind had yet to observe and recognize the transmogrification that was taking place. It was Mr. Thenton’s reaction that corroborated my leaping fear. His mad smile of joy and his groans of pleasure abruptly exploded into a howl of pain. He fought to push Lady Aeron aside, and yet he could not. She held him fast beneath her quivering thighs like the talons of a hawk upon the sparrow.
And then the change came. There unfolded from her womanly form a monstrous array of corpulent tendrils belying her lithe dimensions, spreading profusely with a serpentine elasticity. These appendages wrinkled as they writhed, the smooth skin spoiling like curdling milk, and there arose a terrible odor that both aroused and repulsed my most primitive instincts. It permeated my rational mind and infected the deeper folds of the brain, arresting the fight or flight response that Nature has given all animals with the sufficient evolutionary adaptations.
Immobilized, I stood as if struck to stone by a chance glance from Medusa. I was unable to look away and so bore unwilling witness to her terrible transformation atop her wretched victim. What she became invoked conflicted images of a beast of unknown fathoms and even more mysterious heights. The appendages coiled about my patron and were working beastly contortions upon him while the great maw fed upon his yet-living body. His howls of pain were choked with hemorrhaging from his mouth. Elsewhere he hemorrhaged likewise, the white sheets of the bed stained crimson beneath Lady Aeron’s vestigial thighs.
And all the while Lord Aeron watched eagerly from the side of the bed, engaged in onanism while his nightmarish wife coiled about the helpless man and fed.
I must have screamed— surely I screamed— for Lord Aeron looked to me while still engaged in his self-gratification.
“She is a gift of the Old Gods,” he said. “Commune with her. Become one with her!”
I fled then, running through that dark country manor, heedless of where I went so long as it was far away. So swept away was I that I took a wrong turn and found myself along the terraces. The open air restored to me some semblance of clear-eyed sanity as I stared down the disorienting pathways into the gardens.
Then came the servants of the Aeron household. They stumbled together, like a gaggle of blind geese. They were boys, their lolling heads sightless as they listened for me. Each had been scarred across their foreheads and noses with wounds consistent with frost-bite. They moved as one, as if puppeteered by a single mind. Their mouths opened, as one, and uttered my name with an inhuman voice.
“Sheridan…”
I hurled myself down the paths and the terraces, fleeing past those strangely shorn yew trees and those gleefully unmanned statues. I came to the hedges and flung myself through them. Onward into the night I ran, like a dog stricken mad by moonlight.
By the time I stopped running I was on the rugged country road that led into the village. This I followed until I came to the town’s inn. I awoke the innkeeper by pounding on the door and told him what I had witnessed. Thinking back on it, I doubt he understood half of the words I sputtered, but my affrighted condition must have informed him enough. He told me that all of the villagers knew of Lord Aeron’s unholy visitor. Many of them had lost children to the house, each child branded by the Lady’s touch. Many more feared that their older sons would be selected for the “honor” of her congress. I asked them why they had not slain that terrible creature.
“What can we do,” he asked, “when it fears neither fire nor blade nor bullet nor holy word?”
“Then send word to Court,” I said, made too desperate by what I had witnessed to think rationally. “Notify the authorities. Notify the King if you have to!”
The innkeeper merely shook his head. “You are an Irishman, sir,” he said. “Do you truly think anyone of rank in Great Britain would care for us in our time of need?”
I relented, then, though my mind was frenzied with fear. The innkeeper allowed me to stay in one of his unoccupied rooms that night. I could not sleep, and every shadow seemed to roil with protean horrors.
On the morrow I left that cursed province and returned home, to Dublin, as swiftly as the winds could usher me by boat. Upon my return, I kissed my wife and hugged my children and strolled through my beloved countryside to ease my soul. I did not report the incident to anyone for fear it would not be received credibly, and would impugn my reputation and, by extension, damage my family’s well-being. I sought only to cleanse myself of the terrible encounter. To forget, I thought, would be to save myself.
Yet, the thing that was Lady Aeron haunted me. I could not appease that horrible recollection except in rendering her monstrous visage in inks and paints. Even so, there have been times when no amount of exorcism could rid me of her nightmarish assemblage. I have seen her with my eyes closed, in the dead of night when the shades lay heavy on my house. I have seen her with my eyes open, in the glow of midday while my children play and my wife kisses my cheek. I see her still, even now. I cannot escape the image of her.
This is the account you have asked me to write. I must confess that I did not think you would believe me, yet I am compelled to chronicle it regardless of the credence you lend it. You have seen my paintings, and I swear that my paintings cling to truthful representation. Hang me, if you so desire it, but know that I did not kill my colleague, Mr. Thenton. Know that you hang an innocent man and that you leave my children fatherless and my wife a wretched widow. And know that Lord Aeron is a liar. People disappear daily in his province and yet the Crown does nothing to depose him. He mocks you all in his poetry and rejoices in the iniquities of his home, yet you refuse the confessions written boldly in his own hand; his boasts of peopling the earth with his wife’s offspring. I hope it comes to pass that you are readying yourselves for bed at night and you pick up one of his books and you remember my paintings as you read his verse. I hope you see the ink writhe and the letters crawl and you glimpse Lady Aeron’s pale face haunting you inescapably within the margins. I hope you see her black eyes and her alabaster bosom and her quivering thighs and you feel the hunger of her embrace!