Spider Tea

Amongst cobwebs I sat on her love-seat

while in the kitchen she turned up the heat

on her big pot, setting the tea to boil;

her house was old, dusty, lit with lamp oil

and so dim, illuminating the night

as if reluctant—for fondness, not fright,

and I saw a deck of cards, the Tarot,

arrayed by a book faced with a pharaoh

and I thought what an eccentric lady,

but did not mind, for, however shady,

she had a good figure, like an hourglass

in a red and black dress, and a big ass

that made my loins rigid with excitement

as I waited there, despite the light scent

of metal that lingered in the stale air

and the scurrying I heard here and there.

At length, she returned to the living-room,

holding two cups and a teapot abloom

with a wispy strand of spider-spun steam

that rose to the webbed ceiling, like a dream,

and she a dream herself, smiling at me,

saying, “Oh, you must try my homemade tea.”

Before I could speak, she turned about-face

and set the cups down on the mantelplace

above which were photos, old and faded,

black and white, the people grim and jaded.

She was old-fashioned like them, yet she smiled

and I liked her hair, like a beehive piled

atop her head, and the webbed jewelry

which should we soon get to tomfoolery

I would have liked her to keep on, just so,

as well as her black stockings, thigh to toe,

whereas all else would be shed, as a husk,

while entangled from dusk to dawn to dusk.

“I’m a witch,” she said with a mocking tone,

handing me my cup, pewter white as bone.

I said, “You don’t seem like a witch to me,”

for she was young, graceful and quite pretty.

“But I am,” she said, sitting herself down

right beside me and smirking at my frown.

“You see, I have used my cauldron to brew

this especial spider tea just for you.”

“Spider tea?” I said, looking at the cup,

the fragrant steam like phantoms rising up.

“Indeed,” she said, not at all like a crone.

“It is quite tasty when one’s all alone

and cold in the long winter months to come—

just as good as any brandy or rum

or hot cider or bourbon you might drink

to help you to, and also not to, think.

I said, “But what is it really made of?”

She smiled and said, “A black widow’s love

and the aloofness of a fiddleback

all smashed together, pressed in a small pack

and their eggs, too, along with their cocoons,

aged in a dank cellar for many moons

and steeped in my cauldron, or my teapot

if you will, until it is nice and hot

to bring about the best acridity.

I noted, then, the tea’s acidity

and remarked upon it, to which she said

“Quite.  The venom gives a kick to the head

which invigorates the intrepid blood

to swell and flow like a river in flood.

Not many men may stomach Spider Tea,

nor many men who may satisfy me.”

“I can handle it,” I said, sipping more

as I felt sweat drip from every pore.

I grinned and said, “I’ve had lots of rotgut,

from white dog to hooch, no drink ever cut

because a real man has a lead belly

and doesn’t have insides made of jelly.”

“Oh, you big boy,” she said, licking her lips

to which I grinned more, taking a few sips.

“Big in lots of ways,” I said, leaning in,

my hand slipping up her arm and down again,

and since she did not pull away, I kissed

her fingertips, her palm, and her pale wrist.

“Drink up,” she cooed.  “Don’t let it go to waste.”

I drank all the rest, not minding the taste

since I knew she’d soon sweeten the flavor

with her body, which I longed to savor.

Spider Tea now drank, she caressed my thigh,

then kissed me with lips succulent and sly,

and I felt so hot with lust at her touch

that I did not mind the pain quite so much

while my guts boiled badly from within, then,

and I breathed scalding steam like an engine.

“Do you want me?” she asked.  “Tell me you do

because I brewed Spider Tea just for you.”

I did want her, and I said so, again and again

while my lust burned and boiled outside and in,

and I melted for her, body and soul,

while she sucked me dry, drinking me whole.

Confessions And Silence

There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods.  No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over.  The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion.  And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea.  And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.

 Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God.  Some said a god died there long ago.  Some said in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher that something yet more ancient than gods had died there.  Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits.  And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death s release.  It was what they strived for beneath the preacher s watchful eye.  It was what they all wanted more than anything.

 That was, all except for Tilda.

 Tilda was the preacher s daughter.  She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers.  She especially disliked being the preacher s daughter.  Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows.  Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden.  Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes.  Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin.  Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.

 She hated Confessions most of all.

 Her father s sermons were dreary things.  For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored.  Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such.  Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father s mouth.  She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith.  She liked how her father s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed.  She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday.  Of all the Biblical passages she liked few though they were she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.  That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.

 

 There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp.  No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like.  They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk.  The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became.  After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash.  She was now determined to meet the witch.  She knew it was her destiny.

 And so one night Tilda crept away from her father s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky.  The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named.  Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch.  It was common knowledge.  Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp.  A candle illuminated the hut s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch s fireplace.

  Come in, my little fawn,  a voice cackled from within.   I have been expecting you.

 Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut.  It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also.  She was an old crone  as witches often were and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak.  Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.

  You will make me a witch,  Tilda said.  She did not cower from the witch s scowl, but was emboldened by it.   You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps.

  Do I know such things?  the witch pondered dubiously.  She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman s of the same-seeming age.   I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn.

  I am no fawn,  Tilda said defiantly.   I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such.  I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help.

 The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.

  Dear me, you are a presumptuous one,  she said.  She looked the preacher s daughter up and down from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul.   You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent?

 Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly.  She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.

 The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face.   And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn?

  By reaching between the fire and the heat,  Tilda said proudly.   Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides.

  You speak rightly enough,  the witch said.   And you manage a magic…of a crude sort.  But what of your soul, my little fawn?  What can you manage of it?

 Tilda scowled.   You are squandering time, beldam.  The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night.

 The witch s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself.  For a moment  just a moment  the beldame s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree.  This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.

  Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron,  she remarked.  She stood up from her stool or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut.  Perhaps both.  At length, she settled down, or shrank.  Her voice was low; calm and quiet.

  Know you lemongrass, my little fawn?

 Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.

  And what of belladonna?

 Again Tilda nodded.

  And hemlock?  Wolfsbane?  Yarrow root?

 Tilda nodded to all three in succession.

 The witch smiled wryly.   Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me.  I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand.  Baby s breath.  A good man s guilt.  A double heart.  And so on.  Now leave me.

 Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision.  She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch s face had unnerved her.  A glint in the witch s eye sent her to the door and back home.  It was such a glint as a cat s eye had upon spotting a mouse.

 

      ***

 

 Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise.  She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk.  Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night.  Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats.  Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.

 Tilda s father was summoned.  He counseled the aggrieved parents.  He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way.  Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own.  When pressed by Tilda s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners.  Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.

 Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods.  While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing.  The woods were a haunted place, after all.  Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming.  Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal.  Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere.  Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger.  The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do.  They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.

 Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required.  Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime.  Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day.  When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged.  Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.

  You are playing with devilish mischief!  he roared, indicating the basket.  He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin.   When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”

 He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved.  Her hands stung and were bruised.  She returned to her bedroom.  She did not sulk.  She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due.  She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts.  She thought of power.  She thought of revenge.

 And so, at the darkest hour of night when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires  Tilda crept out of her father s house and went to find her willow basket.  It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.

 Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket.  Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up.  A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.

 Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch s hut.  When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before.  Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before.  The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.

  Hello, my little kitten,  the witch said as she stirred the cauldron.  Her voice was different.  It was lower, older.   She said you would bring what was needed.

 Tilda approached the witch with empty hands.   I had gathered them,  she said, trying not to cry, but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and…

 She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before.  She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.

  Those never mattered, my little kitten,  the different witch said.   What matters is the trouble of gettin  them.  The willingness.  The sacrifice.  Especially the punishment for gettin  them.

 The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.

  Come, my kitten.  Hold your hands in the steam.  It won t hurt you a bit.  I promise.  In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth.

 Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron.  Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid.  But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge.  The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.

 Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot.  The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms.  The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer s day.

  There we have it, my kitten,  the witch said.  She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve.   Now you must drink it.  Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek

Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid.  She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation.  Her repulsion stayed her.

  Do you desire power or not, my kitten?!  the witch screeched.

 The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater.  Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared.  Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting.  The more she drank, the more she craved of it.  She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep s gut stuffed overfull.  Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron s yield.  Conversely, she grew lighter.  So very light.  Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions.  She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive.  Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.

 Silence.

  Now is the time, my little kitten,  the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit.  The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking.   Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten.  Do as you will, and do much.

 As a dream Tilda went wandering.  Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast.  The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud.  Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her.  She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch s hut on the Borderlands.

 Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name.  He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling.  He was not supposed to defecate in the brook no one was but he did so anyway.  His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days.  He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook.  She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled.  Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him.  Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.

 Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on.  She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air.  He blinked at her in confusion.

  Wallace Eckridge,  she said.   You will come with me.

 Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.  

 Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch s hut.  She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him.  She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure.  The creatures in the woods did not bother him.  Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased.  A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself.  Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.

 To the hut they came at last.  The witch thanked Tilda for the offering.  Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared.  She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.

  It is true what they say,  the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls.   True power does not die, nor does it rot away.  It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it.   Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady.   Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass.  My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth.  They grow stronger.

  What are they?  Tilda asked.

  What is earth?  the witch countered.   What is the sky?  What is hate?  What is hunger?  What is the meaning of things?  So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things.

  Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god?  she asked.

  How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist?  the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure.   We exist, do we not, little lamb?  And that is all that matters.

 Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home.  The power had gone from her at daybreak.  She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air.  She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world s men with a word.  She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.

 

 Her father awaited her in her bedroom.  But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise  or worse, make Confession of her he was summoned away.  Wallace Eckridge s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft.  At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace s lecherous advances.  Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together.  They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers.  Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.

 But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace s disappearance.  She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic.  Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister.  This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village.  Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart.  Much ado was made of it before the day was done.

 

 Before nightfall Tilda s father returned.  He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter.  Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night.  Her tears were her sole company as she waited.  Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again.  She wept as she walked, each step painful.  Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.

 The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.

  Hello, my little lamb,  the witch said softly.

 Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.

  My little lamb,  the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind.   My poor, dear little lamb.  Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe.  Let it console you.  Let it invigorate and strengthen you.

 Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again.  To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten.  Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep.  Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut  which was more a house now than before and went floating through the woods.

 Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook.  At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott.  Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her.  Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.

  You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott,  Tilda said, for you do not believe the innocence of your wife.  Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.

 Tilda s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him.  She led the man out to the witches  hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared.  Alongside him disappeared Tilda s powers once more.  Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.

  My dear little pup,  the witch said, gladdened by Tilda s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott s sudden evanescence.  Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye.   You have done so well.  And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup.  For you are strong in the ways of us witches.

 The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.

  What do you do with the men I bring to you?  she asked.

 The witch s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile.   My pup, it is but a matter of conference.  We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet.  In time, they welcome the Silence.

 This all meant nothing to Tilda.  She could not understand the witch s real meaning.

  They are dead?  she ventured.

  No more than the gods,  the witch said.   My little pup.

 

 Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn.  Her father was not there.  He was busy blessing the water from the brook.  He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening.  He also used it for Baptisms.  He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort.  As a man must, he claimed.

  We should aspire to be as this brook,  he often admonished his flock.   For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction.  We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife.

 Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.

 No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott.  Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge.  Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin.  Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.

 

 Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession.  A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron.  Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.

 Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods.  The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns.  When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically.  For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.

  Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge,  Tilda demanded.   I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest.

 The woman s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods.  Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming.  They came to the house-sized hut and entered.  Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold.  The witch who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil told her more arcane secrets.

  Primordial gods do not fade.  They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself.  We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp.  All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands.

 

 The next day Tilda s father was in a foul mood.  Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her.  Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life.  Perhaps even her soul.  The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.

  It is God s wrath,  he proclaimed, and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety.  We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith.  We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil.  We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire.

 Tilda s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night.  After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled.  The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.

  My dear little fledgling,  the witch said.   Whatever is the matter with your legs?

 She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night.  Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however.  She muttered through her

 “I want to complete my transformation,  she said.   I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call.  Not just borrowed powers.  I want to be a master adept, like all of you!

  Oh, my little fledgling,  the witch sighed.   That is such a momentous change.  Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now?  Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people?  Surely it is enough, isn t it?  It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you?   The witch smiled furtively.

  I am ready,  Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks.   I wish to be untethered.  I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties!

  If you wish it,  the witch said, then your wish shall be granted.

 The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house.  A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly.  But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated.  Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge.  Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession.  The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself.  She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches.  Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world.  They were not debased.  They were exultant.  They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.

 The steam was not hot.  It was cool, like mist.  It reminded her of a heady miasma.  She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup.  Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid.  It did not burn.  It did not scald her.  Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.

 What did she feel?  She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking.  Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness.  All grew dark and still within the cauldron.  Deathly.  Soon, however, she felt life stir within her.  It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot.  The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her.  It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what.  At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.

 With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods.  She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook.  To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.

 She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell.  Tilda floated above him for a time.  Then she entered him through his empty spaces  as he so often did her while in Confession and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her.  Taking her time, she led him through the woods.  The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut.  The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered.  Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses.  Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.

 He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.

  I have made abomination with my daughter,  the preacher said.   I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years.  I have sullied her, and made ruin of her.  I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt.  I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite.  I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be.  I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence.  God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell.

  No,  the witches said as one.   Not Hell.  To something…purer.  To something Holier.  To the Silence.

 Tilda s father vanished into the Silence.

 

 Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp.  As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before.  The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager.  She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.

 Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless.  Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms.  And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago.  And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures.  One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.

Gaslight Essence: Flesh And Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way, sir,” he said.

The pale gentleman entered the bedroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is your name?”

“Emma, sir,” she said.

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

“I am…an apprentice, sir,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She burst into tears.

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

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

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

The constable and the watchman exchanged uneasy looks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And where were they?”

“Seeing to…business, sir.”

“Ah,” he said again, nodding once.

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

“And I suppose he fled out the window?”

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

“As I thought,” he said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And where was Emma at this time?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps as Lilith in exile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Drink,” he commanded in his beastly voice.

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

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

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

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

 

Still Life

Still Life

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I deferred to his opinion, naturally.

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

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

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

“I am honored, Padre,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Padre?” I said.

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

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

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

 

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

The Offering

20200317_224706-1-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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