Hysteria (Part Two)

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It was approximately midnight when I heard the scream. I hurried outside and ran toward Virginia’s cottage. The moon was bright, illuminating the treacherous path uphill. I heard a hissing voice hush her, but she would not be silenced. Shadows struggled in the candle-lit interior of her cottage. I rushed forward and the door was thrown open. A figure ran toward me, her long fair hair trailing after her. Behind her came a hobbling figure too slow to overtake her. Within the span of a breath she had cowered behind me, pointing at the hobbling man.
“He is trying to kill me!” she cried.
“I donna’ wanna’ kill her!” Henry said, his knife glinting in the moonlight. “Just her wanderin’ womb! It needs to cease its dreamin’ before it start’s wakin’! Will tol’ me so!”
The man had lost his senses. His eyes were wild with madness.
“Stop, Henry!” I said.
He did not stop, but raised the knife. I rushed to meet him, grabbing the arm with the thirsty blade. His eyes glowed with moonlight, and madness, and his cheeks glistened with tears.
“You donna’ understand!” he cried as we struggled. “I have to silence her screams! I have to silence the blasphemy of her wanderin’ womb!”
His mouth reeked of beer and his words rang with lunacy. “The wanderin’ womb!”.
“Get a grip on yourself!” I said. “Stop this! Drop the knife! William paid you to watch over her, not slay her!”
“You donna’ know the price!” he sobbed. “You donna’ know what he done to satisfy the Pact!”
I was taller than him, and had two good legs, but his madness lent him strength. Gradually, however, his crippled leg betrayed him, giving way as we both tumbled to the ground, the knife between us. I felt a splash of wetness, and the seaman shook as if suffering from a spasm of the spine. The struggle went out of him and he lay among the gorse, clutching the knife buried in his side. The blood was black by moonlight, like the shadowy cowl of Death himself.
“I meant her no harm,” he sobbed. “Only to free her. To free her from the wanderin’ womb!”
I rose to my feet, breathless and shaken. Virginia clung to me, looking down upon the madman. His breath shallowed, thinning and softening as the dark pall of Death spread wider.
“Ye’ donna’ un’erstand,” he gasped. “It’s an abomination. That…wanderin’…womb…”
They were his final words. He lay still then; dead as the face of the moon.
“Virginia!” I said, turning her away from the corpse. “Did he harm you?” I pulled her toward her cottage. “Come. I must check you for wounds.”
We entered her cottage. A candle burned by the window, but the writing desk was overturned, its contents spilled upon the floor. I used the candle to light an oil lamp, its fiery light further banishing the shadows. Virginia watched me with untroubled eyes, and I wondered, momentarily, if she would relapse into her catatonia. Instead, she let slip her white gown and stood denuded before me, her pale skin immaculate in that livid light. I was beside myself with astonishment.
“You said you would inspect me for wounds,” she said.
“At once!” I said, rallying my faculties against my astounded wonderment. “Of course, of course!”
Immediately, I surveyed her body most closely, holding the oil lamp near to reveal any lacerations or bruises that might need tending. Finding none, I told Virginia she was most fortunate and that she could clothe herself once again. She did not. Instead, she sat down upon her bed and stared at me— or perhaps stared at something beyond me. At length, she spoke.
“My husband assigned him to me,” she said plainly.
“Yes,” I said. “But certainly not to harm you. William would never…”
She tossed her fair hair impassively.
“What would you say if I told you that I almost welcomed his blade? What would you say if I told you I am tempted, even now, to withdraw that knife and thrust it into my heart? In truth, I am not even sure why I screamed. An old, animal instinct, perhaps.”
“You are suffering from your illness,” I told her. “You just need more treatment and more time to recover.”
She scoffed. “Time? Time is exactly what I do not need, nor have.” She smirked at the door. “That man was not so wicked as you might conjecture,” she said. “He refused to use his knife unless I absolved him of the sin with my forgiveness. Is that madness? I wonder…”
“Religiosity is a certain madness,” I said, trying to keep my eyes upon her face.
She appeared amused. “Have you ever been touched by a god, Dr. Grace?”
“By a god, Mrs. Worthington?” I said, not understanding. “Do you mean touched by God? As in a religious conversion?”
“By either, then,” she said, sardonically crossing her bare arms across her bare breasts.
“I am not of a religious inclination, Mrs. Worthington.”
She laughed softly, and I feared that this latest encounter had indeed damaged her wits. No sane woman would be inclined toward mirth after nearly dying.
“I would have suspected not,” she said. “No, once you are touched by a god, everything changes. You are awakened in ways you cannot comprehend, and so, to reconcile yourself, you become as if asleep to the rest of the world. Turned off, like an oil lamp.”
I turned off the oil lamp, thinking she was implying a need for greater privacy from the light. Her nakedness glowed within the room with its lunar luminescence.
“I am speaking of my catatonia,” she said. “I may have appeared unresponsive, but that was because I was like a wagon overburdened with weight. Too much upon my mind and so I could not budge beneath those panoramic revelations. Or were they pandemonic?” She reached out her hand and touched mine, ever so lightly. “But you fetched me back from those overwhelming sensations. With this hand. This hand beckoned me away from the pandemonium. I was too awake, Robert. I was catatonic because I was too awake.”
Without thinking, I clasped her hand in mine.
“What truly ails you, Mrs. Worthington?” I asked. “Please help me to understand. I feel as if I have been groping in darkness since first I saw you.”
She slipped her hand from mine and stood up, walking past me and looking out her cottage window. Her pale hip brushed against me and I quivered involuntarily.
“I am ever upon a bridge of sighs,” she said, “and I know not which way to go. Left or right. Up or down. Perhaps down, then up.” She shook her head. “No, no. Someone such as myself would not ascend. Too great a sin weighs upon me, ever growing, and I know not how I can expunge it without committing yet another sin in its stead.”
I needed to leave her cottage. I realized this with much affright, for I felt myself drawn to her as she stood, steeped starkly in the luminosity of her nakedness, and feared I might breach that gulf between patient and doctor.
“I need to fetch some men to remove the body,” I said. “You should rest. If you have difficulties sleeping I will bring some wine…”
She turned upon me, pressing against me with her belly and breasts. She kissed me, and her kiss dispelled all thoughts from my head.
“I will be fine,” she said as she withdrew. “Good night, doctor.”
She lay down to bed and I— in my bewilderment— fumbled with the door. Stumbling out into the night, I walked as if a somnambulist in want of smelling salts. So overtaken was I that I tripped over the dead seaman’s body as I stumbled through the moonlight. The tumble roused me to my senses, reminding me of the cliffs always hemming the moors, and so I picked myself up and, with a sober mind, I woke a few Cornish men, including George Friggs, and we saw to the disposal of the body.
I had thought we would bury the man, but George infromed me that the Cornish earth was not kind to shovels nor to the backs using them. Instead, they chose to wrap him in cloth and weigh him down with rocks. They then took him in a small boat and dropped him into the Celtic Sea.
“Is a proper sailor’s burial anyhow,” George reassured me. “The bastard might have been mad, but he will find his peace in the hereafter.”
It was the only prayer uttered that night. Everyone was eager to return to bed. Yet, I lingered upon the shore, listening to the hiss and hush of the tides. My mind went, naturally, to Virginia, but I turned it aside and thought instead of Henry O’ Toole. He had not seemed a violent man. He was mad, to be sure. The glint of flint in his eyes must have soon given itself to a great fire upon the brain. Yet, I had not believed him capable of violence. He seemed a reluctant assassin prompted by as much concern for Virginia as for the world. And Virginia’s account cautioned an overly violent characterization. True, he wished to harm her, but it seemed an act of fear or desperation rather than wrath or lust or any other such fiery emotion. He had ultimately begged for forgiveness, she said, and that, more than likely, was what bought her chance at escape.
I recalled his final words, too, for a clue. He had spoken of a “wanderin’ womb”. The phrase struck me as familiar, though I could not place its reference. Thinking upon it, I returned to my cottage. Once there, I sought my books. Throughout the witching hours I read by oil lamp the various passages I had marked concerning ancient beliefs concerning the womb. It was as the rosy blush of dawn came stealing out of the East that I found a relevant passage concerning the womb. It was in Plato’s works, of all people’s, and that imbecile had, as usual, much of nothing to say about anything that struck his fancy. He believed the womb to be a wandering creature that moved about in the woman’s body. I could not think that Henry O’ Toole was familiar with Plato, nor such antiquated notions as the womb being a separate creature living within Woman. So, what was it that the hobbled seaman actually meant? Surely there was reason in his madness, however disproportional.
It was a mystery, and I was too exhausted for mysteries. As I lay myself to bed my fatigued mind went wandering itself. I remembered what my father had said to me about my plans to become a doctor focused primarily upon women. He had been chagrined, and moreover, furious.
“My own son a degenerate!” he had exclaimed. “It should not surprise me that others should follow this Age of Reason with such abandon, but my own flesh and blood?! You must understand, boy! They are epicureans, one and all! Hedonists with intellectual pretenses. They feed themselves with libraries full of absurd immoralities to justify their perversions. Man’s sinfulness will inevitably corrupt every human enterprise, including Medicine. You will be damned, my son!”
“Knowledge is a blessing, father,” I told him. “And there is no happier knowledge than that of the creatures with whom Man is so intimately entwined.”
“I have lived with women enough to know the faults of them,” my father said. “And there is no remedying them, anymore than remedying a single man’s soul. Think back to when Adam sought to remedy Eve’s discontent and know the fruit of humanity’s sins. That is why they suffer in childbirth. That is why the bed holds no pleasures for them. Original Sin.”
“Certain women of Asia have enjoyed the marriage bed for centuries,” I had said. “There is no reason why they should be the only ones. And to understand women would be to improve their health. Is that not what we should aspire to do as doctors? So much could be learned in conjunction with women. Imagine what I could learn if I were to travel to the Orient. Perhaps I could even learn the means for safer birthing…”
“So you learn to practice Medicine from women now, do you?” my father had countered. “And savages at that.” He had scoffed. “But I suppose Asian savages are vogue in London. Perhaps you should import some into your service. Why bother with midwives of the English stock when you might have more exotic flavors at your disposal?”
“Father,” I said patiently, “what is it that you are implying of me?”
“That you have always had a keen interest in women,” he said. “Which I would normally encourage if the woman was of means and breeding. But to have a keen interest in all women…well, I am sure it is lucrative, but it is affords others much in the way of gossip.”
“I do not care for gossip,” I said. “It impoverishes our species. I only wish to elucidate what is sorely lacking in human knowledge. Women are yet a mystery to us. Half the world is in shadow. We need to know more about them so we can properly treat them for their maladies. And I believe that much of their suffering is from extraneous inhibitions and needless oppression. Why not work to eliminate the causes of these hysteria symptoms? For instance, if husbands would only tend to their wives’ needs in the marriage bed…”
“A woman’s pleasure in the marriage bed comes in her husband’s pleasure!” my father snapped. “Nothing more within it. Her personal pleasures lie beyond it, in her children and in the upkeep of the household. There is no personal pleasure in the marriage bed for proper ladies, as every married man in England can attest.”
“I contest it,” I had said vehemently. “It cannot be so. If you could only see how transformed these women are after a proper treatment…”
“Enough!” my father had said, nearly screaming. “What would your mother say? What would she say, having given her life so that you might live? And for what? To seek the bestial pleasures of these…these…bacchantes?! There is only one treatment for women: to read the Bible and forsake all other indulgences. Even chocolate is a thing of diabolic design.”
“Father, how can you say such things?” I said. “You have been a doctor your whole life. You have been a man of Science and Natural remedy!”
“And what has it given me? A son dedicating his life to perversions, like all among his ignoble generation. You seek to not only eat of the Forbidden Fruit, but to plant its seeds and make an Eden of your own; a manmade blasphemous thing that is a blight to the eyes of God.”
“We are only helping our fellow people,” I said.
“Helping your fellow people at the cost of the Master that made you,” he said. “Goodly works of God are being reduced to Natural trivialities, like ancient mountains mined for gold. This is the price of so-called Progress.”
“We must learn, though,” I argued. “Regardless of what it does to the superstitions that we hold dear, and indeed because of what it does to those superstitions. We must yoke ourselves to Progress.”
My father had shaken his head slowly, ruefully. “But you will not like what you find, son. It will be like gutting a flower to see how its petals bloom. All you will be left with is rot.”
Ignorance, for me, was a blasphemy. And I had no use for gods of any kind. My own birth had slain my mother. What sort of god demanded such a terrible price with so much infinite power and wisdom at his disposal? To me, if there was a god then he was a cruel tyrant, for his very breath was a great storm at sea that sank ships and widowed women and orphaned children upon his unfeeling whim. He was an elemental creature beyond Reason, and so beyond Empathy for the creations he had forged through eons of bloody Natural Selection. His very breath soured the world.
And I vowed I would dedicate my whole life to casting just a sliver of light upon his shadowy depths, if only so he had less darkness wherein to dwell, unseen, like the monster that he was.
Now, of course, I truly regret glimpsing god, for it is one of many of the horrors I must take with me to the grave, burdened as I am with hideous revelations.

***

My ghosts clung stubbornly to me throughout the night. Their cumbrous, clammy touch inspired frets and fatigue without relief. My father’s ghost bickered and demeaned me while the faceless ghost of my mother blamed me for her death. When I attempted to speak— to apologize to my mother and tell her my intention to atone for murdering her with my birth into this world— I had no tongue. I had no voice. I had no breath. The ghosts of my parents sat upon my chest and I could only roll my head about, powerless against their condemnations.

***

I woke late in the afternoon the next day. Charlotte had asssumed liberty in sitting next to my bed, in a ladderback chair.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“You were sleepin’ awfully long, sir,” she said. “I feared you might be sick.”
“I could not sleep well,” I said. “There was an incident last night, of which I should like to inform you and your sisters. It may affect Mrs. Worthington’s convalescence here.”
“As you say, sir,” she said, rising from the chair. She lingered by the bedside, her face a silent seal of concern and apprehension. Her presence vexed me.
“Is there anything else, Charlotte?” I asked impatiently.
“No, sir,” she said, curtsying. She hesitated. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I only wondered if there were anything I might do for you.”
“Yes,” I said, with admittedly waspish irritation. “Your chores. That is what I pay you for.”
She curtsied once again and left to join her sisters. I was suffering too much from a headache to be pestered at that moment by Cornish girls with their silly peculiarities. I rose from bed, groggily, and prepared myself for another day. As I often did upon rising, I searched for the velvet pouch with which William had secured his wife’s safekeeping. Its heft of wealth was reassuring. There were enough jewels, pearls, and gold to buy a manor house further inland and live the rest of my days in comfort. And perhaps I would do that. Perhaps, I fancied, I would invite the Worthingtons to winter there.
Perhaps William would be too preoccupied with business and Mrs. Worthington would come alone.
It was an ignoble fancy, but it gave haste to my movements despite my fatigue. I hurried to don my clothes and to start the day, heading directly to Virginia’s cottage. She was already upon the moor, walking through the gorse. Her whitely golden hair streamed in the briny breeze— tumbling with the shamelessness of a Greek nymph. She turned to me, as if expecting me, and smiled.
“It is high time you had risen,” she said in her husky, yet melodic, voice. “I was beginning to fear that the madman had not been so dead as thought and had taken you with him.”
“He cannot harm you now,” I said, “nor anyone.”
“Thanks to you,” she said, smiling openly as the sea winds blew her long fair hair about her face. She looked like an elfin queen behind that wilderness of flaxen hair. My heart leapt in anticipation of becoming lost in its caress. I was quite lost in such unbecoming fancies. “You are my knight now,” she said. “I shall dub thee Lancelot, though I dare say it is an ill-omened title.”
“I would gladly be your Lancelot,” I said.
She took my hands in her own. “And would you kill a dragon for me, if I asked it of you?”
“Anything you wished,” I said, grinning at what seemed a childish jest.
“And if the dragon was a part of me,” she said, “and would mean my own death to free me, would you do it?”
All mirth vanished in the instant, blown away by the faint stench of rot upon the winds.
“I do not like this conjecture,” I said.
She smiled and let go of my hands. “It is just a fancy of mine, is all,” she said. “Come now. Let us walk away this angst. Give our demons a jaunt, as a kettle master would his dogs.”
We walked for much of the day upon the moors and the heathland. The sun was radiant and the flowers further inland were ebullient with its light. It was an idyllic stroll. We said little except to comment upon a certain flower, or the refreshing air, or the sparkle of the sea. Eventually we came to a granite outcropping near an old ruin of a building. Well-worn ruts formed a crude road leading away to a shore nearby shore. I had never been so far from my clinic. It was exhilarating in its own way, and keenly I was pleased with having Virginia by my side. Nor did I fail to understand the scandalous nature of my emotions. I was dancing upon a steep and slippery precipice.
“This must have been a mine once upon a time,” I remarked. “Copper or tin, I should think. Maybe even iron. I do not know.”
“It contrasts greatly with the heath,” Virginia said. “Indeed, it is most foul in appearance, like a ruin where once it was likely beautiful.”
“Pardon me,” I said, “but did not your family’s fortune come from mines?”
“Yes,” she said. “But they have been barren for a long time.”
“And so you married William,” I said, the implications distasteful. “I presume to understand that his newfound wealth has been a result of mines in America.” I thought again of the strange creamy white gold and oddly coloured jewels that resided in the velvet pouch in my bedcamber. “Gold mines, if I am not mistaken. Is that so?”
“He has found wealth in America,” she said quietly.
“So,” I said, hoping that I did not inquire too clumsily into this rather personal business, “how did he acquire such opportunities? Did he buy a teat off that Golden Calf? What has he traded for such wealth?”
Virginia was quiet a very long time. “Something not so near and dear to his heart as gold,” she said, her long fair hair blowing around her like an aureola.
“I see,” I said, not at all seeing what she meant.
Virginia continued to gaze at the plundered earth with its open wounds of blasted turf and rent rock. There was a wrathfulness in her countenance. Combined with her beauty, it made her appear like an avenging angel.
“What a creature Man is,” she said. “When Man looks upon something, he must either control it or destroy it. Whether it be animals or land or Woman, he must control or destroy it. But soon there will come things that Man cannot control; things which he will despair of ever destroying. It will be as a new hell for Man, then; one that Man will not be capable of reconciling himself with, but like a fly against a window pane he will slam himself again and again in the futile effort to break free. Whereas Woman…well, Woman has learned to deal with such hells since her creation and will, through her strength, endure yet another glass cage no different than the one before.”
She trembled as she spoke, but whether wroth or ill I could not tell. I know now that her tremors were born of simultaneous sources.
“Are you well, Virginia?” I asked, touching her wrist.
She drew away from me, and there came a momentary flare of hatred in her eyes. But she shook her head and sighed. “I am sorry, Robert,” she said, warily. “It has been a long walk and I should like to return to the cottage.”
“As you wish,” I said. “Let us go.”
We returned to the village. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were in the field, affecting to pick flowers. When I approached the three sisters, only Anne and Emily hailed us. Charlotte turned away, as if lost in her own thoughts.
“It is good to see you out of bed, sir,” Anne said. She eyed Virginia with a sidelong glance that I disliked. “And our one and only patient is doing well, too, it seems.”
“Yes,” I said, “though the ruffian I dispatched last night merely had her in his grasp.”
The sisters’ demeanors changed upon the instant from smoldering resentment to startled apoplexy.
“Indeed, Dr. Grace?!” Emily said, her mouth a moue of surprise. “What happened?”
“It does not matter,” I said, wanting to spare Virginia the recollection. “It is enough to know that I have slain the deluded fool with his own blade. Now you no longer need fear any trespassers.”
The revelation overawed the three sisters and I, to my great shame, took pride in being a hero of my own story, especially since it involved saving the life of the beautiful Virginia Worthington. I exulted in it, truly, and blinded myself to my own folly.
I sent the three sisters home early once again, after they had made an early supper for Virginia, and then I set myself down to the tavern once again, hoping to speak to George about last night’s bloody business. In truth, I wanted to regale the Cornish men— to whom I was considered little more than a London dandy— with my heroic encounter with violence the night before.

***

As Fate would have it, I would not be able to confer upon the Cornish flock my grand tale of valor. Instead, I greeted George at the bar to order another modest meal of mutton and potatoes and was served, instead, with a sobering bit of news.
“Dr. Grace,” he said, “I received a letter today from a lad working a merchant ship. We were to deliver it to you at once, but your midwives said you were resting. Later, they said you had gone for a stroll. I am sorry for the tardiness of its delivery, but here it is, swift as bad luck could have it.”
He handed to me an envelope with William’s seal upon it. I sat down, then, next to a candle and opened the letter, reading its contents. It had not been written by William, nor did it claim to be. Rather, it was written by the captain of his trade ship. It reported—in a succinct, clinical hand—that William had taken his own life in the captain’s quarters. My childhood friend left no testimony behind, and gave no forewarning to his self-destructive state of mind. The captain had sent the letter ashore with the lad and then continued North, having too much cargo to tarry for formalities. Since I was Virginia’s caretaker it was incumbent upon me to inform her of the tragedy. In the meantime, the captain would oversee William’s trade ventures, as had been a contractual stipulation previously agreed upon in the event of misfortune.
I was shocked. William had been a lifelong friend, and now his life was at an end. Simultaneously, I felt a quickening rush of relief and, moreover, joy. Virginia was now a widow, and as such was available to court. True, there had to be a sufficient period of mourning, but afterwards she would yet remain in my care and, so, be free to wed me as she undoubtedly desired. Yes, fool as I was— and, moreover, a repugnant opportunist, it seemed—I had no doubts as to her attachment to me; no more doubts than as to my attachment to her.
I thanked George and left the tavern, walking uphill toward the seaside moor. The moon was full as I approached Virginia’s cottage. I rapped at the door once, and it at once opened.
“Robert?” she said. “Is something the matter?”
“I am afraid so,” I said, affecting proper solemnity for the message. “Please, be seated. This will come as quite the shock.”
She did not sit, but stood by the window, turning away from me. Her petticoats seemed swollen with an errant wind through the window. She did not turn away from the window, but stared out at sea. I wondered, perhaps, if she was looking for William somewhere beyond the horizon, or if she was looking for something else.
“I have terrible news,” I said.
“Did William kill an Albatross?” she asked, her voice flippant.
“No,” I said. “It saddens me to say it, but it appears he has…taken his own life.”
I expected female frailty, and so rushed to her should she be faint. But in the stead of a swooning woman I found an unmoved statue of icy scorn.
“A coward’s end, then,” she remarked. “I knew he had not the stomach to endure what he had begotten upon the world. Begotten with his scheming and conniving. How ironic that I should have the stomach to see it through to the end.” She turned away from the window, then, and I saw how beautifully icy her blue eyes were. “Tell me, doctor, since you have the privilege of being both a man and a doctor that treats women, what do you think of that trite epithet, ‘the fairer sex’?”
I knew not how to answer her, for I knew not the purpose in such a question. Before I could stammer a response, she took my hand and led me toward her bed. The lunar luminescence of her face outshone the moon itself, her skin seemingly glowing in the shadows.
“I am ready for another treatment, Robert,” she said. “For I wish to be reminded of how a woman should feel before it is too late to feel anything human. But I do not want you to treat me as you would any other patient. I do not wish for you to treat me as a doctor should. Rather, I want you to rut upon me as a man would a woman, naturally, without these pretenses of Medicine. Be as a beast upon me, and let me be as a beast upon you.”
Whether it was dread or exultation that silenced me, I do not know. But I did as she commanded.
She undid her petticoats and stepped out from that frilled garment, slick with her nudity. Her belly was protuberant and hung upon her solidly, and yet it did not repulse me. Her breasts, too, were swollen, and her nipples dark and engorged, the tips damp already with excited milk. I will not omit that I did take her, then, as she wished it, and she took me, in turns, straddling me as her milk trickled upon me. The excitement I felt was as a new awakening, very much akin to those that I gave to my patients in the clinic. For who was I to fool myself into believing that what I practiced was clinical medicine? What I did for my female patients was as Hedonistic as my father avowed, and was all the more therapeutic because of its Natural basis in human pleasures. It was simply animal instinct sanctified by the pretense of Medicine.
And yet, even in the euphoria of our mutual paroxysm, I felt dawn a fear akin to religious terror. As my hands cupped her breasts and I gazed up at her, I saw the climactic triumph in her eyes, and yet I was drawn in my attentions to the rotund swell of her belly and the strange, overabundant movement that writhed there, deep in the mysterious womb of Woman.

***

What was it that lured my heart to these iniquities? Idleness, perhaps, and indolence, too. Perhaps it was the idle hours that tempted my mind ever toward my singular patient. Singular, also, was the vice, for had I more patients in my care such fixations would not have diverted and vexed me so strongly within the lecherous lap of so much leisure. Indeed, idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and I had idle hands in want of work. Wanting work, I exercised them, and my heart, upon the newly widowed Virginia Worthington. It was a passionate, shameless enterprise.
We dropped all pretenses as to doctor and patient. Instead, the treatment cottage became as a rutting grot of amorous delights. The sisters inquired after us only once, happening upon us in our mutual pleasures, and they fled in appalled fright. This encroachment only catalyzed our passions. Seeing Charlotte’s heart break awoke in me a Sadist I had never known. This demonic twin reveled in debauchery and its gremlin familiar, gossip.
Again and again Virginia and I sought each other’s flesh. Moreover, we walked like husband and wife through town. The Cornish people were aghast at our impropriety. Yet, it delighted us to no end. We relished our shared flesh and shared sin. We took our supper in the tavern, much to George’s horror, and that he did not refuse my coin only made it the more enjoyable experience. For weeks we cleaved to one another. It was not Love, nor was it wholly Lust. Indeed, it was more of an act of ruination upon society, and civilization. Like animals we were, slighting the conventions of modern civilization by savaging ourselves with every bedroom taboo that willed itself upon us in our ardour. We were as unashamed as Adam and Eve, and as corrupt as the Serpent, yet no one dared to burn our Garden down.
But a certain melancholia would clutch Virginia intermittently, like a hawk upon a hare, and she would turn wan and swoon away after the paroxysms had at last left her. In these moments of lethargy she would beg me, with a wanton’s sincerity, to end her life.
“You do not know the agonies I know,” she said. “You do not know the horrors visited upon me by the shadows of this world.”
I explained to her the absurdity of this fixation and vowed that I was forbidden from harming another. I had taken the Hippocratic oath, and the first vow was to do no harm. Yet, even then I knew I was deluding myself. By refusing to end her life, and thus aborting the creature growing within her womb, I had done unto the world a greater harm beyond all reckoning.
Gradually, Virginia’s belly swelled all the more with child, and yet my desire for her only increased. My mind turned ever toward her, even as I slept at night, lost in the nightmares that visited me in my vulnerable hours of sleep. I saw, yet again, the Great Flood that subsumed the continents. I stood upon the ridged spine of the earth, surrounded by endless ocean to either side. I saw the island rise with its terrible countenance. I saw the dark, indifferent eyes and the maw thrashing its ropy appendages upon the water. I saw Virginia entwined within its writhing tendrils.
When I heard her screams, I did not know if they were screams of joy or of agony. Perhaps they were both.

***

The sisters never returned to my employment. The Cornish people avoided me, except whenever wealth held sway, and even then they acknowledged me with a begrudging taciturnity. I pondered the notion of selling the cottages and taking the jewels and gold and gems that William had given me and moving inland. Thinking it would please Virginia, I told her of my plans while abed in the aftermath of our passions. Contrary to my expectations, she succumbed to a rage.
“And I suppose you think I will leave with you?!” she cried. “You suppose you and I will live happily ever after, growing old together like true loves in a ridiculous French novel? That is absurd, Robert, and you know it!”
“What is errant in the idea?” I demanded, becoming angry. “Do you not wish to escape to some private place where we might live in happiness? An estate in the country, perhaps? Or do you wish to return to London? I would be willing to live in London, but you must know that there will be gossip. Gossip of which we would be powerless to silence.”
She sat up in bed, her belly swollen to a full rotundness and her breasts almost always trickling milk now— so much so that it ruined the sheets, though I had long foregone frets upon such things. Even the unnatural writhing of her womb did not give me pause or halt my breath with terror. She looked upon me with her blue-eyed scorn, and it both withered me and excited me. I loved when she so loathed me with a single look.
“Powerless?” she said, her hysteria taking hold of her. “Powerless? Is that what you fear? Well, perhaps you should. Man has never known the powerlessness inherent in being born Woman. Man does not know the rough indifference of a rutting beast mounting him against his protestations, being taken body and soul by the indifferent whim of another. But he will know it. That time will come soon enough.”
“I only wish that we live as husband and wife,” I said, feeling an angry possessiveness overtake me. Her hysterical fits always provoked me, for I still understood little of their nature. “I am your doctor, after all, and I know what is best for you.”
She stood up, quivering with rage. She did not bother to don her clothes, but left her cottage without clothes or shame. I hastened to clothe myself and follow her, lest great anger would lead to great folly.
There were no sane men or women out of doors that night in Cornwall. A tempest was blowing in upon the Celtic Sea, like a raging dragon crashing aground in its wrath. The sea-borne gales blew and bellowed, as if the Atlantic itself was warring with the continents. I could not walk long without nearly toppling over with their belligerent wails. It was a black night illuminated only in flashes of lightning. All was hidden and revealed in spasmodic intervals, light and darkness frenetic in their struggle. Fearing that Virginia would lose herself in such a night, I called for her and hastened my own tentative tread, all the while frightened of the treacherous cliffs that dropped dizzily toward the throe-thrown sea.
I found Virginia soon enough. She swayed at the edge of the cliff. Jagged rocks gaped like a maw below her, as if she was a worm upon a hook. I called to her, pleading that she come away from that airy threshold. The winds howled in elemental rage, and the lightning flashed.
“I will never be powerless again!” she screamed beneath the tumult of the winds. “Neither Man nor God nor Devil will own me!”
I pleaded with her to step away from the cliff. I begged and shouted and sobbed for her return.
“If I am to die,” she cried, “then I shall decide when and how! No Man or Devil or God will decide it so! Only myself! I was not allowed to choose my life, but I will choose my death! I will have autonomy with my final breath!”
“Virginia!” I shouted, rushing toward her.
A wink of darkness and then a flash of lightning and she was no longer upon the cliff. I ran to the place of her disappearance and gazed down below at the terrible crags. There, sprawled limply, as if she had only recently been treated by hysterical paroxysm, Virginia Worthington lay broken and bloodied upon the teeth of the sea. I stared on in horror as the rain fell. Lightning flashed and crackled in triumph, its epileptic illumination brightening her body. I saw, then, that her belly undulated as if in unnatural contractions. Uncertain of my own eyes, I watched as there expelled from her body a mass neither human nor animal. It glistened, as if with scales, and crawled in agony with webbed fingers and coiling tendrils. Soon it slipped into the crashing surf and was carried out to the depths as if within a foamy cradle. Another flash and my eyes beheld something gigantic within the sea; something my mind could not comprehend and so merely blurred its form with a rush of panic. I staggered back from the cliff and ran headlong down the hill toward the village; toward any manmade dwelling wherein I could escape that terrible image and the maddening elements.

***

I proposed to Charlotte the next day, bitter with tears and fears and steeped in my own folly. She was repulsed and she vehemently declined my offer. In time she would marry a Cornish tradesman of relatively good financial standing and has never answered any of the letters I have sent her, nor have her sisters answered to my ink. Unable to abide the sea since that tragic night, I moved further inland, relocating to London. I never married and instead directed my life to plying my profession. I was therefore separate from Woman even as I treated Woman for her hysterical maladies. I became as a device used to exorcize excessive sexual retention. I later read the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the other psychoanalysts who pioneered the strange realm of Woman in all of its exotic terrors. It elucidated no more for me than the anatomical reactions evident in my patients. But perhaps it was willful misunderstanding on my part that led me to my continuing mystification in that realm. To dare true enlightenment seemed to me to be not unlike flinging myself from a cliff headlong into unknown crags and indifferent tides. Woman’s sexuality is as frightening, if not more so, than anything else the Sciences might reveal. Indeed, I thought of Freud as some pagan shaman summoning disturbing creatures from the depths of the psyche, and so, after a time, cloyed of his works, turning my attention solely to the pragmatic applications of my profession rather than extrapolating an overarching theory or revelations from collated findings. The latter was the road to madness, I realized, as was any memory associated with Virginia.
I still read literature from women in the East. Despite the insistence by so many in the West that they were barbarians, I could not help admiring their honesty and the pure, personal romanticism of their stories. It seemed to me that their view on Woman’s sexuality was both healthy and practical. Indeed, I never read once a translation indicating that they ever suffered from hysteria. Then again, had such a perspective been adopted by the West I would not have had a vocation nor have been steeped as I was in such lucrative petticoats.
Yet, as all things do, even this vocation came to an end. Nor did it end from retirement or the needfulness of my wanting health. In truth, I could have retired when returning from Cornwall, such were my finances. Yet, I remained devoted to Medicine because it gave to me a sense of purpose, and justified contact with Woman. And I walways wished to be of service to the fairer sex. It eased my soul knowing I helped Woman after Woman died birthing me.
But then a day came when a nervous husband brought his wife to the clinic, seeking la titillation du clitoris. She was no beauty, nor was she homely, yet there was in her complexion a familiar luminescence that staggered me with its lambency. I treated her for her catatonia, with some effort, and wished to think her glow an illusion of my failing eyes. Then came another woman, escorted to my clinic while suffering the same stupor and lunar luminescence. And another. And yet another. With each new patient my health waned and my mind became haunted with the same images that rose again and again within the realm of sleep. At last I could suffer it no longer and told these distraught husbands to bring their wives to someone else. I did not care whom, even if Dr. Severan was still practicing his butchery. I would have no part in it, either way. I merely wanted peace and solitude away from Man, Woman, God, Devil, and Sea.
And so now, as Death readies himself for his final visit, I only wish to unburden myself of what I have come to know, and what is soon to come. I do not believe the tide can be turned about, nor the infestation stymied. There is no cure for the Wandering Womb.

Hysteria (Part One)

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“Then when Lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it bring forth death.” (James 1:14)

Testimonial of Dr. Robert Grace. March 8th, 1908

The tired adage stating that youth is impulsive and lacks discretion is, I have found, contrary to reality insomuch as material gain is concerned, and indeed, youth restrains itself in matters potentially detrimental to an enterprise if the consequences are sufficient to foil the ambitions therein proffered. This is why I have, to my great shame, kept this abominable secret hidden for decades, clutching its monstrous revelations to my bosom until old age has rendered all other considerations irrelevant as I stand eye to eye with Death at long last. Having retired from my medical practice, I need not fear the incredulity which this account will invariably afford and which, regardless of the solemnity with which it is presented, will lend ridicule unto my previous practice and, ultimately, discredit my woefully sound mind. And I assure you my mind is sound. It is the world that is mad, though I fear it is too late to rectify it in any meaningful manner.
The Worthington family had always prided themselves on their breeding. All the English gentry do, of course, but the Worthingtons have always been of extraordinary descent. As a consequence, their long line practiced rigorous exclusivity of admittance until its final termination. When considering, then, the privilege of my family’s acquaintance with their illustrious family, I must admit privilege of social acquaintance. Not all can claim a social circle boasting their radius. Indeed, Johnathan Worthington employed my father as his physician throughout the entirety of his long life, as did his father my grandfather, and so our families had been allies against sickness for generations. Naturally, his son William had sought my medical advice concerning his wife and her illness those many decades ago. Of course, I must state that he had not sought my advice in the past, for I was not considered as respectable in my medical practice as my father and grandfather were, for I was a doctor that even they thought of dismissively, and, indeed, they so vehemently opposed in my chosen field of study that my father refused to speak to me even unto his death. I suppose it is ironic, then, that I feared so much the reification of medical business since it was, in the eyes of most British citizenry, a farcical field of medicine, even if it was lucrative.
I was, in short, a doctor dedicated to treating hysteria in women.
As I stated, it was very lucrative and I soon established myself in a rather large clinic in a seaside village in beautiful Cornwall. This clinic was more of a rambling assortment of thatch-and-stone cottages built long before my arrival. Using the money I acquired in London from my burgeoning practice, I moved thereto and renovated and repurposed those buildings. They were inexpensive to purchase, when compared to similar dwellings on the rural outskirts of London, and so I gladly claimed them.
Since we were so far South on the tip of Britain, many of our patients came and stayed with us for months. Their stay benefitted them not only with treatments, but with scenery and the fresh seaside air. Wealthy widows even wintered there, so greatly did the la titillation improve their physical and spiritual health during those frigid, snowy months. I was delighted by my work, of course, not withstanding the drudgery of it, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the betterment of my patients, which was ofttimes amply evident within the first treatment. Japes and snide remarks aside, I was very contented in that seaside village and would, in my free hours, go walking about the beaches and moors for exercise and to clear my mind. My life seemed idyllic, insomuch as a mortal man’s might be.
I was enjoying one such walk when I saw a ship with a familiar flag gently rocking toward the narrow beach. It dropped anchor soon enough and a small boat cast off from its bosom, carrying three figures which I could not discern at the distance. They rowed toward the beach up from which the seaside village was strewn among its shrub greenery, shouldered on either side by the rising hills. Realizing that the flag belonged to none other than the Worthington family, I set off at once downhill, hurrying through the winding streets of the village and down onto the beach. My attentions were rewarded by the grave smile of my childhood friend, William, as he and a servant unloaded the boat of its belongings, including his beautiful, yet strangely catatonic, wife, Virginia.
I hailed him and immediately lent my assistance in unburdening the small craft. We spoke as we carried the luggage ashore.
“This is fortuitous, Will,” I said, “to be here to greet you upon your arrival.”
“Fortuitous, indeed,” he replied, “even if in unfortunate circumstances.”
“What ails?” I asked, unable to prevent my eyes from wandering to his unresponsive wife. “Does the trade go well in the Americas?”
“Very well,” William said. “Dickens was wise to milk the Golden Calf. Following his example, I have gold enough now to profit in even a back-alley enterprise.”
“Does the Gold Rush persist, then?” I asked, having read in a newspaper an article chronicling the American obsession with gold in California. They swarmed that region, it seemed, like ants to honey, and many found themselves therein stuck.
“It is a Gold Rush of a different kind,” he said, bleakly, “and of a different coast. But, yes, I have struck gold, so to speak, and the enterprise turns more profit than I could dare dream of. Yet, I did not come to Cornwall to speak of base material things. Rather, I came to seek your assistance in a personal matter.”
“I shall help in any way I may,” I said.
“I hope so,” he said.
We had finished unloading the boat, except for its silent passenger.
William climbed aboard and gently raised his wife to her feet, guiding her from the boat as the servant and I steadied the boat athwart the puckish waves of the sea. The married couple stepped down onto the sand and William held his wife’s unfeeling hand. He turned to me.
“My wife, Virginia, is stricken with some unknown malady. I have gone to every creditable London doctor I could find, yet none prevailed in effecting a cure. Remembering your modest clinic here, at the tip of England, I thought it wise to seek your aid.”
“Perhaps you ought to have taken her to the Ivory Coast,” I jested. “My practice is in such ill repute that witch doctors are said to offer better counsel.”
William did not laugh, nor even smile. I realized, for the first time, that my friend was considerably pale and gaunt. I attributed this, at the time, to sea sickness. Yet, even so, I could not help but notice how ashen his face was and how hollow his eyes. Even his mustache was grayed, as if he had aged ten years in the two since I had last spoken to him. Moreover, he was balding, the spate of his head opening like the tonsure of a monk. His remaining brown hair had lost its composure and seemed to be unraveling in the Atlantic wind.
His wife, too, was pale, but it seemed that she was so pale that she had a glow about her, not unlike the Cornwall moon as it steered close to the Celtic Sea. What her blue eyes saw, in their vacant expression, I could not guess, but it was not the cliff-walled coastline or the green hills or the sloped beach, nor any personage within her immediate scope.
“Come,” I said. “Let me take you to my clinic. If your manservant will remain, I will send some of my employees down to help fetch the luggage.”
“Excellent idea,” William said.
We walked up the shore, its sand gradually giving way to shingle and rock and finally scrab grass, then to the heath that covered most of the hills and moors with its gorse and flowers. I was anxious that I take my friend and his wife to one of my cottages as quickly as possible. I feared they might require rest, for they both appeared so sickly. I obliged Mrs. Worthington, and William, in aiding her in the ascent to the village, thus unburdening one sickly personage of another. Contrary to her vacant expression and ill pallor, I could feel warmth emanating from Mrs. Worthington where I had expected to discover pneumatic clamminess. Indeed, the glow upon her was as much a trick of sensation as much as of light. Women often complained of being chilled, often owing to their fairer natures, yet I had known during the course of administering treatments that a woman’s temperature could easily rise to such ferocities as any overworked farmer in his field. And so it seemed now that Mrs. Worthington was ever in such a heat as those goatish labourers.
“I fear it will rain soon,” I said. “But that is bound to happen in Cornwall at some time or other.”
As expected, Mrs. Worthington said nothing in reply, her emptied eyes surveying the cobbled streets and cottages with as much recognition as they did the seaside cliffs. William, on the other hand, seemed to grow anxious.
“I fear a squall is to come,” he said. Then, more to himself than to me, he muttered, “It will likely chase us toward America once again. Or will it remain here in Cornwall? It knows all. Of course it will remain.”
Before I could inquire as to his particular reference, I saw three of my midwives carrying various supplies back to the house. They had went to see the baker, the butcher, and the local farmers. A consequence of so many boarders was a great need of food. Being that my patients paid well for their stay, I always granted my diligent employees the liberties of indulging in victuals if they were so compelled and the prices were reasonable. Since I deferred to their womanly instinct for fair prices, I had saved tremendously in terms of scatch-of-straw savings, and it inspirited them with affable usefulness. I hailed them as we crossed paths.
“Emily, Charlotte, Ann. If you are not otherwise preoccupied, please deliver what you must to the clinic and then hasten to the shore. There you will find a manservant with sizeable luggage in need of relocation to the unoccupied cottage.”
“Of course, Dr. Grace,” they said as one.
The three midwives curtsied and did as I bade them, joining my escort to the clinic and then returning downhill toward the shore to see to Lady Worthington’s effects.
Newly arrived at the clinic, I guided William and Lady Worthington to her personal cottage among the cluster. It was, I must say, much like the other cottages, albeit nearer to the sea cliff than the others. It was modest and cozy, warm and comfortable. There was a bed in one corner, a writing desk, various papers and a quill for inking such correspondence as might be needed, and an oil lamp. The hearth was not aflame, as it was midsummer and no want of fire was evident in the sea-blown winds. The windows were open, rather, and afforded a wonderful view of the greenish-blue hued ocean as it sang its lovely song across the moors.
“Are these accommodations adequate?” I asked.
“They are quite adequate,” William said with little more than a glance across the interior.
“Should I close the windows?” I asked. “I never know the preference of a lady, but I suppose neither do such ladies until they have been here long enough to appreciate the briny breath of the sea.”
“Opened. Closed. You are the doctor” My friend’s attitude was impatience bordering upon petulance. He seemed quite ready to leave. “I must away soon,” he said, stroking his mustache as if in vexation. “I should like to view a treatment, however, before I consign Virginia to your care.”
“As you wish,” I said. “But I must first inquire as to whether the lady has imbibed sufficiently today.”
“Water? Wine? Does it matter?” he said, growing perceivably agitated.
“Water would be preferable,” I said. “The treatment can tax a woman’s bodily fluids.”
“She has enough water in her,” William said. “Now. Please. Treat her.”
I acquiesced to his hasty request, thinking it would possibly reassure William and thus restore his health alongside his wife’s. I took him and his wife to the most isolated cottage among those I owned— my treatment cottage. By then, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily had returned and I requested that they prepare his wife. I always used this most isolated cottage for treatments because it was farthest from any neighbor whose sensibilities might be upset by the conclusion of a treatment. Indeed, one never knew how clamorous a treatment might be, especially in newly arrived patients whose reactions have not been properly gauged.
While William and I waited for the midwife to prepare his wife, I casually queried him about his wife’s condition and her former behavior prior to her current symptoms.
“Normally Virginia is a very prominent member of London society,” he said, trembling as he spoke. “She is a darling of many a drawing room and the heartbeat of every soiree she attends. I have heard many a well-bred lady remark that without Virginia in attendance a ball is a dead affair without a pulse. She has always had ample energies to pursue whatever aim was her intent, and she turned this innate vivacity toward endeavors beyond what was strictly a woman’s sphere. Often, whenever I would leave home to tend to business she would accompany me. The most recent adventure, however, brought us to America. Though it was a long, arduous journey, Virginia committed to it in earnest and soldiered through it rather impressively. But gradually the business itself debilitated her and soon she succumbed to her current quiescence. At first, it was mere ‘vapours’ and lethargy. The American doctors, while brutes in their manners, used the available London treatments as well as they could. Smelling salts. Bleedings. Opium and other various medications which I cannot recall. The same treatments achieved no better in London. Soon her fatigue gave over to malaise and then lassitude. Finally, she vacated herself and has been hollow ever since. She eats but little and does not respond to speech.”
I nodded to my friend’s concise history on his wife’s deterioration. “While some of these symptoms are certainly signposts for hysteria, I must administer a treatment and measure the results of the reaction to verify such a diagnosis.
“Thank you, Robert,” he said. “I only ask that you cure my wife, and do so with discretion.”
“Discretion is crucial, indeed,” I agreed. “In hearts, arts, and professions.”
It should be said that this cottage on the outskirts of the village was of a unique discretion in and of itself. To afford my patients privacy during our sessions the windows were covered by heavy drapes that allowed neither sunlight nor the scrutiny of curious eyes to penetrate the inner secrecy of the cottage. In place of natural light I employed candlelight which, even then, glowed in subdued illumination as Mrs. Worthington was denuded. My patients’ seemed to prefer this ambiance. It contributed positively to their therapies. Having inquired as to whether they might prefer more natural light, my patients all confirmed that the dim haloes of candlelight was more than sufficient and, verily, increased the effectiveness of their treatments. The only deviancy in fondness for this methodology was that my patients occasionally requested a nightly administration with the windows open, should the stars and the moon be bright enough in their illuminations so that the darkness not hinder my capacity to work.
The midwife aided Mrs. Worthington in donning the patient gown that all of my patients wore during their treatments. It was a thin white linen garment spun seemingly of gossamers. Its touch, I had been informed by my patients, was very pleasing and conducive to their treatment and subsequent rehabilitation.
It must be said that I often delegated the more menial labours of the treatment to the many midwives I employed. Yet, since this was my friend’s wife, and since he was present to observe the treatment, I felt it incumbent upon myself to reassure him of the treatment’s efficacy, as well as my professional pursuance of proper procedure and diligent care in regard to the patient. Thus, once Virginia had been laid comfortably upon the medical bed, I directed her legs apart and applied an olive oil from Greece—which had no known negative reactions—and, in occupational manner similar to the hundreds of other female patients I had serviced through the years, stimulated the petaled womb.
The reaction was immediate. Virginia’s breathing increased in rapidity and depth. Her eyes regained focus, her attention returning once again to her immediate surroundings and, in particular, her body. There even seemed to appear, in the corners of her lips, a smile that evoked not only presence of mind, but intense cognizance. Had I the boastfulness unknown to my character, I might have complimented myself on the change being akin to Lazarus waking from death.
Despite my attentive care and the positive reaction from Mrs. Worthingon, William turned away and refused to watch the remainder of the treatment. It upset him, I supposed, as it likely did all British husbands who viewed their wives as composed matriarchs of the household. The moans and the groans that accompanied such treatments were, for such men, irreconcilable with the notion of an angelic female presence premised to be of heavenly spheres. I had never been so susceptible to such prejudices myself, even in the beginnings of my journey into medicine. Rather, I assumed what was good for the Gander was good for the Goose, and, so, such so-called “secret pollutions” needed to be conducted so as to retain the sanity and the dignity of the matriarch in question.
At length, I brought Virginia to the culmination of her hysterical paroxysm— or as the French deem it, du titillation du clitoris—and she underwent the usual strong reaction, albeit much stronger than the usual patient. So strong were these spasms that she nearly threw herself from the bed. Anne and Charlotte had to restrain her until her gyrations and flailing subsided. When the spasms had ceased, she lay panting upon the medical bed, staring up at me with an expression of not only awareness, but of extreme gratitude.
And yet, like the tides at full moon, she gradually ebbed away, her presence retreating into.dormancy and unresponsiveness.
“It may take several treatments,” I confided to my friend.
“I suspected as much,” William said gruffly. “That is why I brought her things. She is to stay here with you while I am away in America. My business ventures are too important to neglect, even for the sake of my wife.”
William’s words seemed not only callous, but his tone was gruff and terse, as if he was suffering a moment of lockjaw. His mustache seemed to bristle with each word.
“You said you took her to several doctors?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “They tried bleeding, tonics, elixirs, laudanum, cocaine, and even sunshine. To no avail. If this…treatment…does not yield results then I shall have to seek a surgeon to exact the change. There is a surgeon in London who does such work. Dr. David Severan. Perhaps you have heard of him?”
I had indeed heard of Dr. Severan. He was a butcher of women. A savage with a knife. He believed that to cure hysteria, the female genitals needed to be removed. In particular, the clitoris. The barbarian had savaged many a lady, and yet, not surprisingly, he was held in high esteem among the medical practitioners of London, whereas I, in my minimal reputation, was largely derided as a charlatan and witch doctor. Much of this criticism seemed to me to be resentment toward not only the efficacy of my methods, but the affluence of my clinic. My patients enthusiastically endorsed my clinic among their confidential circles, so whereas my reputation was singularly repudiation among my colleagues, it burgeoned prosperously among my patients.
“It is best that you do not seek his…treatment,” I said, carefully. “Virginia has a greater chance of recovery here. More importantly, she has a greater chance of recovery intact.”
“I hope you are right,” he said. “There are some pioneers that would say that sacrifice is all that can attain certain results.”
I did not wish to imagine Virginia’s moans of relief rising to screams of agony as there passed along her womanhood not a warm, nudging hand, but a cold, cruel blade.
“Now,” William said, “your pay.”
Before I could protest, William brusquely shoved a rather hefty pouch into my hand. It was the size of a human heart and astonishingly heavy.
“It is not a conventional payment,” he told me. “But it is copious. This I assure you.” Without a further word, he headed toward the door as if he was in dire need of fresh air. He opened the door and stepped out of the dark cottage and into the blanching sunlight. His face was all sneering agony as he shielded his eyes. I followed after him, wanting to ask him a few more questions regarding Virginia’s condition.
“William!” I called. “Wait a moment!”
But by the time I had exited the cottage he had disappeared down a cobbled path around the cottages. His stride had been fiercely adamant and I had no doubt that he had heard me, but was willfully affecting ignorance. Discouraged, I let him go upon his way, turning my attention instead to the pouch still clutched in my hand. The pouch itself was of a rich velvet that glistened in the midday sun, like newly pressed veldt. Pulling at the drawstring, the pouch opened its mouth to reveal uncanny marvels and curios that astounded me. I do not write this lightly, for I had been party to many transactions that profited me greatly and which afforded me the keyhole to the vaults of some of the wealthiest Brits in the world. Yet, the contents of this pouch outshone all previous payments. There were opalescent pearls glinting within a clutter of strange green jewels neither like emeralds or diamonds, but hued as if like green ice. Looking at the former, I bethought to see bubbles frozen within that solidified liquid. Stranger than this were the ingots of gold. The ingots were strange of shape, spiraled and smooth like stems of coral, and their golden gleam was milky white, like honeyed cream rather than yellow yolk. A cursory glance revealed this, and I quickly drew the drawstring tight once again, suddenly suspecting my Cornish neighbors of covetous treachery.
Returning indoors, I found Anne and Charlotte were helping Virginia to stand from the bed. Emily was preparing Virginia’s bath. I was pleased to see some colour visible in Virginia’s face now, even in the dim candlelight, and thanked my midwives for what was, I thought to have been, an excellent treatment. This done, I went to my own private cottage to put away so much exotic wealth that had been so unceremoniously thrust into my possession.

***

After the midwives had dried and dressed Virginia, I took her to her room and sat her down on her bed.
“Rest, if you like,” I told her. “I will have Anne or Charlotte bring some food and water for you very soon. Later, you will dine with me and the rest of my patients this evening.”
Remembering William’s request for discretion, and realizing that several of my other patients were doubtlessly inclined toward gossip, I corrected my error.
“To the contrary,” I said. “Perhaps it would be best if you dined in your cottage tonight. Gossip is an infectious disease for which there is no cure.”
I turned toward the door, but heard what seemed a muttered word among the cooing wind. Glancing back to Virginia, I observed that she seemed to be watching me— that she seemed to see me for the first time— but just as soon as this recognition appeared, it left her, and what was left were the most beautiful blue eyes devoid of soul that I had ever seen.

Coming again to the treatment cottage, I overheard my midwives feeding the air with their gossip.
“And his eyes never blinked!” Anne said. “Not e’en once!”
“Aye’ and what a stink he had to ‘im,” Charlotte said. “Like a mackerel left out all day in the sun.”
“His skin was what chilled me most to me bones,” Emily remarked. “No man should glisten green in daylight like that.”
“And the bulges of his neck!” Anne remarked. “Like he swallowed a chicken halfway down and it was tryin’ to climb out!”
They giggled like silly geese, but upon my opening the door they immediately tightened their tongues and went about changing the sheets of the bed and lighting incense to cleanse the air. No amount of incense could ever cleanse air tainted by mean words, as they well knew. I had had to lecture them many times on the needful discretion of my practice. They were industrious girls, much to their credit, but I have heard that siblings have always been loose of lips amongst themselves. Being a single child I would not know from personal experience, though, as I have said, William and I were as brothers when children.
“Of whom are you speaking?” I demanded, eyeing them all in turn. “It is most uncharitable, this characterization.”
“Pardon us, Dr. Grace,” Anne said. “It’s just that we dinna’ think it nat’ral is all. That man of his.”
“Mr. Worthington?” I asked, sternly.
“No, sir!” Emily exclaimed with a rolling sigh. “We mean only his manservant. He was a strange one, if e’er there were!”
“Speak no more of it,” I said. “William has been a friend of mine since childhood. Our families have been interwoven throughout history. If he has hired a manservant of strange aspect, then it is due to the generosity of his heart, and not because of whatever it is you are implying.”
“We meant nothing scandalous, sir!” Charlotte said. “And we’re sorry to offend. It just that he seemed strange, is all.”
“Is all!” agreed Anne.
I had no informed opinion on the matter, frankly, for I paid little attention to William’s manservant. Yet, if William employed him, then he must have been a man of some integrity and virtue, therefore I would not have him bandied about by the vicious winds of womanly gossip.
“Charlotte,” I said. “Prepare some small meal for Mrs. Worthington. Cheese and bread and some vegetables, perhaps. And bring her water. I doubt she has had enough liquids to compensate for the treatment.”
Charlotte curtsied and went to see to Virginia. Anne and Emily remained behind, preparing the treatment cottage for the next patient.

***

That evening was windy and warm and so I suspected a storm later in the night. Presently, I had already taken my seat at the dinner table and Anne and Charlotte were serving the food they had prepared. It is something to be said that while my midwives suffered from a vice of chattiness, they were possessed of other virtues that distinguished them brightly from the normal rabble of Cornish laymen. They were as diligent as the others, but they also knew how to please women of higher rank, whether it was their talents for cooking, their deferential manners, or their adroitness in applying my techniques during therapy sessions. Much to my satisfaction, there were some patients that preferred Anne, Emily, or Charlotte to administer their treatments. Charlotte, being the most youthful of expression—as well as years—and the prettiest among the three sisters, was a particular favorite among these discerning patients. I often compensated the three of them in generous measure, which assured their continued service to my clinic.
I had, at that time, four patients in my keeping, including Mrs. Worthington. Three of them joined me for dinner, whereas I sent Charlotte to bring Virginia’s dinner to her cottage and remain there, feeding her as much as she might. Earlier, when she had brought that poor woman’s food and water she said that the unfortunate patient had not eaten much, though she had drank when the cup was proffered to her lips. Her appetite was, thus, wanting.
It was, therefore, a great surprise when— as my three patients and I began our supper—that we heard a door open and the hurried rush of steps into the dining room. There appeared Charlotte, looking flustered. Behind her, Virginia followed, stepping in from the threshold’s shadows.
“Mrs. Worthington is feeling much better,” Charlotte said by way of explanation, “and should like to join you for dinner.”
“Excellent!” I nearly cried, rising from the table in my eagerness to make measure of her transformation. “Excellent! Prepare for her a place at the table at once!”
Charlotte guided Virginia to an open place at the table, next to the Widow Carter and across from Lady Falswell. I watched Virginia take her seat, studying her with a doctor’s meticulous eye. There had indeed been a remarkable transformation in her presence. Her walk, her gaze, her every movement was marked with cognizant deliberation. No longer was she an empty doll guided about by a changing escort; now she was inhabiting herself with volition and intention. It was marvelous and gratifying to me as both a doctor and as the lifelong friend of her husband.
Yet, there seemed to be in Mrs. Worthington a certain presence of self that was out of measure with the modest reserve of most women of her rank. How can I circumscribe my meaning when it is, by its very nature, beyond articulation by either word or image? She seemed a wine goblet brimming overmuch. She was a pagan vision. Her fair hair was loose upon her shoulders, unkempt like a farmer’s daughter, and she wore only a simple gown that belied her husband’s apparent fortune. While Mrs. Carter and Ms. Atwood tolerated Mrs. Worthington’s remiss sense of etiquette, Lady Falswell was quite obviously displeased, for not only had she gone through great strains to prepare herself for dinner, but having gone through such great strains proved futile in the struggle with Virginia’s natural beauty, however slovenly and negligent in aspect and presentation.
“Mrs. Worthington,” I said, resuming my seat, “it is a delight to see such a stark change. And after your first treatment!”
“It is as if I have woken from a dream,” she said, her voice a husky cadence that was not at all displeasing. It reminded me of an opera singer I had once heard in London whose notes did not so much twitter, but bloomed resonant and full in the ear.
“We must talk about it at length after dinner,” I said, “if it is not too taxing on you.”
“Of course,” she said, “but I doubt much revelation will come of it. I remember little after arriving in America. It seems like ages ago, and, if not for your kind Charlotte, I would have likely suffered an acute attack of the nerves upon coming to myself.”
Charlotte had, at the moment, been laying Mrs. Worthington’s plate before her, and she smiled obligingly. I resolved in that moment that I should increase Charlotte’s wages. I paid all three sisters well for their work, but I knew, by light of Virginia’s praise, that they deserved yet more than had been their recompense.
“It is no wonder your nerves should suffer,” Mrs. Carter remarked. “Such far travel would wreck my soul. Why, my journey from London nearly jostled me unto a frayed spool. I liked to have thought my seams had come undone! I could only imagine the hourly frights upon a vessel tossed by the capricious sea.”
“It was a frightening journey,” Virginia said. “We had thought ourselves taken by storms on more than one occasion. That we do not people the bottom of the sea is a miracle, I suppose.”
“I would have rather sunk to the bottom of the sea,” Mrs. Falswell opined, “than set foot in that barbarian land of Yankees. Who knows what setting foot upon such a savage shore could do to your soul? Would very likely work an uncouthness upon you and render you a savage yourself.” She eyed Mrs. Worthington’s long hair and minimal dress as she thus spoke. As tight as Mrs. Falswell’s braids were— pulling her high forehead yet higher—her frown was yet tighter with displeasure and disapproval.
“Pardon my saying so,” Virginia said casually, “but however uncouth I might be, I certainly know the etiquette of prayer and its preference to pugnacity. Indeed, it is particularly important at the dinner table where we have spread before us so much for which we should show our appreciation. Even the barbarians of America enjoy this insight.”
“And how do you pray, Mrs. Worthington?” Mrs. Falwell said, her scorn as evident as the wrinkles ringing her eyes.
“In like manner to yourself,” Virginia said. “As you pray in your innermost heart while having your treatments. For that is why you are here, too, is it not? Because you cannot pray. Because the thrill of speaking your Lord’s name in Church is not half so exuberant as when your loins are being manipulated . How many times do you call your god then? I should think the quantity of invocation and the quality are drastically superior in one situation rather than the other.”
Mrs. Falswell blushed deeply, her mouth and eyes gaping as if struck dumb. She balefully eyed Virginia throughout the remainder of dinner. Mrs. Carter and Ms. Atwood remained silent also, their eyes affixed sheepishly to their plates as they ate, daring not even a wayward glance in Virginia’s direction. As a doctor I was mortified to witness so much strife and trauma among my patients, but as a man I was so taken with Virginia’s refreshing candour that I could not but exhilarate in the combative exchange. It was quite promising, if not invigorating.

***

After dinner, the patients retired to their cottages. I took it upon myself to personally escort Mrs. Worthington to her cottage so that I might ensure that her recovery was lasting. I would have been aghast had she fell to a swoon as the rest of us blithely retired to bed, leaving the poor woman abandoned to the elements. The sun had nearly sunk into the sea and the moon rode high, proclaiming its dominion in the darkening sky. A ring around the moon prophesied rain.
“I enjoy nightly walks,” Virginia remarked. “Often I will take several turns about the courtyard when at home. Alone. Beneath the starry vaults of heaven.”
“Oh yes,” I said, remembering fondly the courtyard at the Worthington estate. William and I had learned archery within its columns “It is a lovely expanse of gardens.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Ideal for solitary moonlit walks.”
“I would suggest not taking such moonlit walks here,” I said. “For the land and the sea become as bandits at night, laying in wait to ambush any unwary perambulator. They can easily trick the eye, given sufficient shadows. The cliffs are particularly treacherous. There was a boy who went running out at night to seek an escaped goat, and the misbegotten venture resulted in tragedy. He fell from one of the highest cliffs. It took days before the family found his body.”
“A tragedy, surely,” Virginia said, “but I wonder if the boy did not feel like he was flying in that fleeting moment of suspension. Had he no point of reference, it must have been as if he had been taken suddenly from the ground and ascended into the dark chasm of night. That would have been a strange thrill. Do you not think so?”
“A thrill, perhaps,” I allowed, “until the fall reached its conclusion.”
“Yes, but the death must have been upon the instant, which means there was no lingering life with which agony might rake its talons. Pure oblivion ensued. He was freed from the suffering of this world at the moment of contact with the ground, like a sleeper upon a pillow. It is similar to your treatments, I should think, or so near as my limited knowledge might compare. There is an acute acceleration of sensation, culminating in a terminal catharsis, and then an obliterating cessation of all residual life. What remains is a hollow husk freed from its own nerves.”
“There is no thrill in plummeting to one’s death,” I said firmly, even as I admired Virginia’s eloquence. “Nor was it a ‘thrill’ for his parents to have to fetch his remains upon the shoreline and bury him in his terrible state.”
“Of course, of course,” Mrs. Worthington said. “As you say. But it cannot be denied that there is pleasure in it. Much more pleasure than in living a full life as someone else’s resource and means. And after oblivion…well, who knows? A new life? The afterlife? Is that where I am now? This afterlife without William or his infernal machinations…”
“I do not understand,” I said.
“Of course not,” she said. “You are of Man. I am of Woman. It is impossible for you to understand.”
“And what of the consequences?” I pressed on. “The boy is dead. The family grieves.”
“Are you saying my husband will grieve me because of these treatments? Does the worm mourn the apple?”
“Your metaphors are too enigmatic for me,” I confessed.
“What I will say,” she said, pausing at her cottage door, “and what will become more apparent as weeks pass and you achieve a certain clarity— and a certain prominence, as will I— is that the consequences of doing what one likes and doing what someone else likes are drastically different. But I suppose if I had done what I preferred, I would have never married William, and thus would never have been at the mercy of what he most wanted.”
This riddle given, Mrs. Worthington bid me good night and retired to her cottage. The admission shames me, but I lingered by her door for some time before finally retiring to my own bed. That night I could see nothing in my dreams but her bright blue eyes.

***

The coming days were filled with treatments. All four of my patients prospered. In particular, Mrs. Worthington improved considerably, though there were times when she seemed quite listless and I found her standing near the cliffs, gazing vacantly out to sea. She remained pale, and retained what I deemed to be her “lunar luminescence”, even when flush with her treatments. Occasionally, I had to employ the midwives in keeping Mrs. Worthington and Lady Falswell apart, for any interactions between the two would unerringly result in conflict. Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Atwood found no fault in Mrs. Worthington, but I did notice their reluctance to converse with her. I attributed this to Mrs. Worthington’s general aloofness, and occasional forthrightness.
The other patients never deigned to dine with me again, not so long as Virginia was afforded a place at the table. I could not understand it well, then, and dimissed it as feminine envy since she was the prettiest among all of the patients. Indeed, at times I wondered if she was not the prettiest woman in all of Cornwall. My present opinion on the matter, however, is that the other patients, being women, understood more keenly than I could what was so terribly wrong with Virginia, and so they shunned her; not in protest to her presence, but in abhorrence to her presence. Virginia seemed to take pleasure in the abhorrence she garnered about her person, and I wondered if what she said was true or was merely to achieve such a response.
She engaged me quite willingly in conversation, which I thought only natural since I was her husband’s friend. It was pleasant to converse with her, for she was a wit, truly, and a flavourful change from the common Cornish stock. Her blue eyes were beguiling as she spoke and I found myself quite carried away by her presence and personality. She was well-read, and opinionated in a very agreeable manner, even when she was being disagreeable.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” she said quietly, after a treatment, “how jaded Man is concerning his own sexual capacities, and yet how bewildered he can be at the slightest glimpse into Woman’s capacities for carnal pleasures.”
“I am not one of those men,” I said, checking her heart rate for any stumbling rhythms. “I pride myself on my extensive library and its works by Woman.”
“Such as?” she said.
“Scheherazade’s tales captivate me,” I said, “not for their fantastical elements, but for their revelations about Woman. And, indeed, Sei Shonagon pleases me, too, with her brief confessions, as does Murasaki Shikibu’s extended tale of her beloved ‘shining lord’. To be perfectly honest, I prefer to read works written by Woman to better understand Woman and what she most cherishes. For, it seems to me, that when a writer sets pen to paper, she is sacrificing life itself— moment to moment— to impart upon a feeble sheet so easily destroyed by rain, fire, or even a careless hand, and so, knowing this, she commits her most cherished thoughts, feelings, and revelations.”
“Do you believe writing to be a means of therapy?” she asked.
“Many do,” I said. “It is how Man, and Woman, copes with chaotic life.”
“And so you would think that poetry is a rein upon the world?”
“Or upon the heart to keep it from bucking wildly.”
“From horror,” she said. It was not a question, and her tone broached no argument.

***

Unlike the other patients, Virginia took treatment every day, sometimes twice a day. Nor did she ever seem to suffer the menstruations that prevented my other patients from taking treatments every one week in four. Virginia seemed such an immaculate creature in the this regard, and in many other aspects, that I marveled that she should be so untouched by the crucibles of Womanhood.
“I would prefer you administered my treatments,” she said, her pink lips curling ever so slightly upwards. “As I do believe you would prefer it, as well.”

Not many weeks passed until, one by one, my other patients departed unexpectantly from Cornwall, claiming to have had regained themselves miraculously from their bout of hysteria. At that time I was dumbfounded as to their precipitous exodus. On the other hand, I am ashamed to confess my pride complicit in dismissing their departures as a result of my improving methodology, for I was enamored of my own skills and deluded myself with my own efficacy.
I fancied no complaint when they left. The truth was that William had given to surfeit in his payment and could have likely bought my exclusive services for years to come, and the whole village itself. This situation also allowed my total divestment of all concerns except his lovely wife. This proved both enlightening and problematic, for she was a strange creature and had notions wildly divergent from most London ladies.
And yet the storms brewed on, even in the absence of my previous patients. Soon my midwives, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily all conspired to suggest something disagreeable about Mrs. Worthington.
“There’s something strange in her airs,” Emily said to me one day, while I was overseeing their chores around the cottages, “and I donna’ mean how freely she wags her tongue. Most uppity ladies speak to impress, even if it means being salacious, but she’s not speakin’ for sake of twistin’ knickers. She jus donna’ care a’ tall!”
To my chagrin, I must admit that I was more concerned with studying the widwives at that moment than I was their insinuations. Nor was my attentiveness in any way obscene or lecherous. The truth was that I was having another epiphany concerning the world of Woman. You see, I had always suspected that the corset, and indeed all such fashion, had much to do with the “vapours” that had hitherto beset the ladies of high society. The poor never seemed to suffer these noble illnesses inherent in the female sex, or else they abided it in silence as they did all other burdens they had been born to. Perhaps, then, it had as much to do with attire as it did with gentle breeding.
“Dr. Grace?” Charlotte said.
I realized that I had been studying the unencumbered bent in her abdomen as she stooped over the wash basin and cleaned some undergarments upon the washboard. Had she a corset she would have been too constricted and breathless to perform such strenuous labours.
“I am sorry, Charlotte,” I said. “I was lost in thought.”
Emily whispered something to Anne, upon which the latter giggled. Charlotte smiled broadly at me and I could not help thinking that I was the center of some jest. But Cornish women have always been given to delighting in jests.
“Perhaps you ought to assist Charlotte in her work,” Emily said, snickering.
“Hush, Emily!” Charlotte hissed.
“Aye,” said Anne, “she is getting her dress all wet! Dr. Grace could hold back her bloom!”
Anne and Emily burst into laughter and Charlotte brightened red, swearing worse than a Yankee sailor.
“Do you need additional assistance, Charlotte?” I asked. “I could afford to hire another midwife, if necessary. Perhaps you have a cousin in need of work?”
The three sisters became silent and wide-eyed upon the instant, but soon all three gave over to laughter again, leaving me feeling quite confused. I must confess that, even now, having aged with lifelong study, Woman is an enigma beyond my understanding.
I left them to their chores, their laughter growing louder as I closed the door. I heard Charlotte swear at her two sisters, and so I lingered by the window, listening to them speak.
“We know he knows what to do already,” Emily said. “Or as much as we know what to do. Why donna’ you see if he knows the rest?”
“He’s our employer,” Charlotte said. “And it would be improper. He’s a doctor, besides, and what would he want with a low working girl like me self?”
“You are too harsh on yourself,” Anne said. “He looks on you fondly enough, I think.”
“Not so often enough now,” Charlotte said, her tone suddenly reluctant. “Not so since she arrived.”
“Ack!” retorted Emily. “She’s no matter to mind. She’s married, anyhow, and so is no fair game. The strange witch.”
“You got to make ‘im see you more, Charlotte,” Anne said. “Donna’ let ‘im forget how pretty you are, too.”
Charlotte sighed sadly. “I donna’ know how.”
At that moment I saw Virginia walking along the heath. She wore nothing but her white undergarments. They billowed about her body as the wind blew around her. She seemed to pause in her wandering, and cast a distant look at me. Divining that she wished me to accompany her, I went to her forthwith.
“A beautiful day,” I said.
“It is,” she said.
“Are you in need of a treatment today?”
“Later,” she said. “Perhaps after dinner.”
“The sisters will be too preoccupied to assist me, then,” I said.
“I do not doubt that you can handle the treatment alone,” she said. “And the truth is I would rather they not be in the room when I am receiving my treatments. That Charlotte girl carries a petulant expression throughout, and it only distracts me from enjoying the treatment.”
“If it is your request, then I will happily oblige,” I said. “As a doctor I must ensure that my patients are at ease if it is to work. I did fancy observing a reluctance in your previous treatments. If such conditions advance the efficacy, then I submit to them full heartedly.”
She looked out upon the sea, her hair fair like cirrus clouds touched by dawn. The wind caused it to stir and ripple around her, glinting in sunlight like an aureole.
“I think I am a poet,” she said. “Like Sappho, but not in her affections for her fellow Woman.”
“I deduced that from your having married William,” I said.
Her smile was thin and wry with amusement. “Nor do I speak of William, or of Man. But that is neither here nor there. Your treatments have helped me, but they will not save me. It is no matter. All true poets live short lives. Keats. Shelley. I shall live a lifetime’s worth of feeling within the span of a year.”
I did not understand what she meant, nor did she give me time enough to ponder it. She walked straight toward the cliff and I feared, momentarily, that she should fall into the sea below. I rushed to seize her, but she paused and she stood at the brink, staring out at the glimmering green-blue sea. She then recited some small fragment of poetry:
“When fruit hangs before Woman’s eyes
and a snake slithers toward her budding thighs,
the restless fangs are both sharp and sweet,
clutching forbidden fruit to eat.”
This spoken, she turned toward me. “Do you know who wrote that?” she asked, her blue eyes mirthless even while her rosebud lips smiled.
“I am unfamiliar with it,” I said.
“What do you think of it? Enlighten me as to your opinion.”
I scratched my head in a look of abject incomprehension, and she laughed.
“Did you not like it?” she pressed me.
“Oh, it has imagery,” I said. “It is just so…suggestive. I am unaccustomed to such poetry.”
“Indeed,” she said, “and to think it was composed by a woman. Who would have thought a woman could be so suggestive?”
“When was it written?” I inquired.
“Just now,” she said. “In the light of a new sun.” She smiled again, and there was a genuine sparkle of mirth in her eyes now. “Are you surprised?”
“It is quite evocative,” I said.
“No more than what you do,” she said. “And much less shameful than what most men do when they believe no one else is looking.”
Her smile disappeared and she headed toward her cottage. I tarried a moment longer, unsure how I should feel about Virginia’s “poetry”. She was a strange, marvelous creature, and reminded me of the Oriental women whose literature I had read to better understand the myriad minds of Woman. Yet, she was of decidedly British stock, replete with fair hair and blue eyes. What a strange dichotomy! She did not conform to the dominant paradigm. She was a singular variable among the great British experiment, and she fascinated my analytical mind.
This baffled me, however. Why would William abandon such a woman? I gazed out upon the vast sea and wondered where on earth he might have been and what was so urgent that he was forced to put the Atlantic between himself and his intriguing wife?
I was turning away from the cliff when my eye chanced upon something unusual in the sea. Even in the warm Summer air I felt a chill take hold in my bones. Momentarily, my heart seized upon itself. Squinting, I peered down at the rippling green expanse, attempting to discern what had so unsettled me. Seastacks rose from among tossing waves like the granite pillars of some forgotten kingdom. As my eyes lingered upon them I thought I beheld a great appendage encircling one of the rock pillars. It was in semblance similar to the boneless limb of a Kraken or some other infernal creature of the depths. The entwining limb had to be massive, for the seastack it encoiled was of a titan’s height.
Fearing for my sanity, I rubbed my eyes forcibly to clear away the ostensible illusion. When I glanced again, shielding my eyes from the misleading sun, I saw but granite stone jutting as a primordial pillar—ancient, silent, and glistening with a fetid slime.

***

The Cornish village offered much of Nature’s delights, yet it was bereft of Man’s conveniences. There were no modern accommodations— no plumbing nor that fanciful novelty, electricity— yet my patients bore these comparatively barbarian conditions without complaint. As for myself, so long as I had my work, and my library, I was contented. Gladly did I enjoy Cornwall’s natural splendor as well, and the quietude offered by its walks. Walks in London had always proven stressful to me, for it was a fetid place of squalor and crowded unease among its cluttered streets. Nor did I care to happen upon colleagues, for it inevitably led to conversations that always proved contentious in spirit, even if they appeared outwardly cordial and courteous. I was, in the medical circles, something of a pariah.
Virginia’s health improved greatly in the coming weeks. I noticed that she gained a healthy fullness to her figure and her “lunar luminescence” intensified in such a complimentary way that that I doubted there was ever a debutante in soiree, ball, or court that glowed so radiantly. Her odd aloofness remained, and when she was not talking to me or being treated, she wrote copious poetry which she insisted I read. Gladly did I read her works, for they elucidated much for me upon two fronts: one as a doctor ever needing to understand his patients, and one as a man exulting in the ever-surprising mysteries of Woman’s inner depths. If only my father could have read Virginia’s poetry. It might have dissuaded him, and the rest of England, from their antiquated notions concerning female sexuality. I suspected that she wished me to somehow promote her works— perhaps with a former academic friend that I knew in London who was involved in a newspaper—but I did not think that such rapid bursts of creativity were signs of any stress deriving from sickness. Rather, Cornwall seemed to me to be the perfect location for those moody aeshetes whose genius thrived upon atmosphere.

***

It was as I was enjoying an early morning walk that I heard Emily’s scream. I rushed toward the direction of her issuance, the echoes of it deceptive in the strange acoustics of the bluff-valley Cornish coast. My sense of direction has always been wanting, but fortunately she found me and fetched me toward Mrs. Worthington’s cottage.
“It was a man peepin’ in on Mrs. Worthington!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide to the whites. “When he saw me, he went hobblin’ away! I thought him a seaman, for he limped so!”
We hurried to Virginia’s cottage, finding it absent of any suspicious men. Virginia had emerged by then, roused by the ruckus, yet she did not appear agitated. Rather, she looked almost amused.
“Virginia!” I called. “Have you been harmed?”
“Of course not, Dr. Grace,” she said, an easy smile upon her face. “The ruffian only fancied a glance, and I accommodated him.”
Emily’s astonishment gave way to fury. “A most improper vixen, you are! Where is yer sense of decency? I’ve known coquettes with better sense for modesty!”
“Emily, that is quite enough!” I said, firmly. “Return to your sisters. I am sure there are chores to be done.”
Emily did as I bid her, though she cast a dark scowl in Virginia’s direction.
“You will have to excuse Emily,” I said, turning to Virginia. “It is just that you do not seem upset about the occurrence.” Indeed, I seemed more upset than Virginia had.
“A man wanted a glimpse,” she said, casually. “Why does it matter? What is Woman’s flesh, after all, but gift to Man?”
I went to her, taking her hand and entwining her waist with my arm. I escorted her toward the treatment cottage. “I believe your sense of self-preservation has been addled,” I said. “You must take treatment.”
“As you say,” she remarked. “Perhaps that man would care for a peek into that secrecy as well.”
As we went to the treatment cottage I could not help casting my eyes about the village, the moor, the cliffs, and the sea. I saw no trace of that hobbled man that had encroached upon Virginia’s privacy, but I swore to exact punishment if I should ever spot him.
The treatment went well and Virginia’s hysteria was once again purged through my pragmatic methods. As I worked the treatment upon her, however, I could not help noticing that, beneath her treatment gown, Virginia’s belly had swollen to a pronounced protuberance. At first I mistook this protuberance for a healthy appetite. Yet, I deemed it of medical interest and so dared trespass my hand upon that swell, finding it firmer than most fatty tissues tended to be.
“Virginia,” I said, “are you with child?”
Virginia luxuriated upon the treatment bed, her eyes like the eyes of a cat having satisfied itself upon cream.
“Of course, Dr. Grace,” she said. “Why do you think William abandoned me here?”
I was taken aback, yet felt I had to reassure her to the contrary. “He has not abandoned you, Mrs. Worthington. He would not do that to his wife, or to his child.”
Virginia’s smile reigned laxly upon her face, but her blue eyes were mirthless in the candlelight. “And why, pray tell, did you conclude it to be his child?”
I was so disturbed by her question, and its implication, that I could only gawk like an imbecile. She remained upon the treatment bed, reclined gently in her self-righteous obscenity. She seemed all the more beautiful through her self-deprecation; like Aphrodite steeped in the foamy wash of her father’s loins. She savored my stunned silence for some time before speaking once again.
“I must intimate something to you,” she said. “My family has become very much like the Cornish mines they own,” she said. “Barren of yield after too many eons of mining. Do you know who I was before marrying William? My maiden name is Harlow. My family was once very prosperous here in Cornwall. But sooner or later, as all things do, it went to rot. The copper mines ceased producing and we had only our ancestral name to boast of. But since a family cannot sup on name alone, it was decided that I should marry a wealthy Londoner, and so I was spirited away to London to hunt for a husband. Your friend proved amicable, if a little trite, and I proved accommodating to his presence in the laudable circles of London, if not ingratiating. I had always possessed a natural knack for endearing myself to dull people, if need be. And so I embosomed myself in your friend’s esteem. It was more of a business transaction, our marriage, as most are, and we found it a largely agreeable arrangement. I was his guiding angel in society, and I was his mare in the breeding stables. Yet, he did not ride me so often as you might have thought. William never has been an attentive husband. Whether in society, the household, or the marriage bed. He was utterly negligent and indifferent to me. Oh, I tried to sway him, but it was for nought. Business was all that mattered to him, whether it was business in America or business in the plebeian alleyways of London.”
“You do not mean that he…?” I could not bring myself to say it.
“The business of working women has always had his heart,” she said, a wry smile upon her face. “And the truth is that though I was young when we first wed I was not so young as he often desires when he walks those dirty alleys in search of comfort. His passions are quite particular, my dear Robert.”
I wished to muster the words in defense of my friend, but Virginia’s eyes arrested me with their openness and their candour. All I could say was an offhand remark pertaining to William’s business affairs. Even as I spoke I knew it was from cowardice. I wished only to steer this conversation in some other direction; a direction of less sordid roads. Virginia, being so shrewd, and yet being quite tactful, observed and allowed this course change, though the mockery in her husky voice lost none of its sardonic edge.
“Despite William’s obsession with business,” she said. “He is not possessed of the acumen for business. His fleet of trade ships are impressive, but without cargo they were like a revered name without means: materially meaningless.”
“He eventually gained substantive trade, though,” I said. “Did he not?”
“He did,” she allowed. “Though I doubt he, as a self-proclaimed gentleman, would ever admit to trade of such a detestable nature.”
“Detestable?” I was utterly shocked. “Do you mean to imply an illegal trade? To what degree illegal?”
“To the degree of illegality as determined by most prevailing laws except, perhaps, by those of Hell.”
I could not deduce what trade she might be implying, nor could I bring myself to ask of its particulars. I could only look away from her, lest her gaze entrap me within the tethers of my own complex being.
She seemed pleased by my agitation. “Imagine the irony of seeking wealth in London only for it to bring me round again to the poverty of Cornwall. Life is a slippery staircase which you climb only to slip and fall down again. The higher you climb, the farther you fall.”
“But your husband is prospering,” I said, recalling the strange gems and jewels and gold hidden away in my bedchamber. “And he will return for you. I have known William throughout our childhood. He is the same honorable person he has always been.”
A wry smile played again upon her lips. She sat up, at last, and stretched toward me, raising her pale hand and cupping my cheek. She drew me to look at her, eye to eye; unguarded.
“You knew William when he was yet wealthy,” she said. “You did not know him wracked by financial strains. He was a different person. Or perhaps he had always been that person, but was too appeased by wealth to free his ignoble creature from its cage.”
Her hand slipped from my face, and I was ashamed to think how pleasant a thing to have it placed there once more.
“It is difficult for me to accept this characterization,” I said, with some strain to foster my thoughts as a cohesive whole.
“Of course it is,” she said, laying back once again in a suggestive sprawl upon the bed. “Every person upon this earthly sphere has a creature upon his or her peripheries, and we fight to prevent ourselves from seeing it in others lest we see it, too, within ourselves. Man and Woman rarely indulge it, but when they do it can overtake them.”
“I believe your condition has rendered you melancholic,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Only philosophic. Even you, my dear doctor, are not immune to the inheritance of Man, or his inner beast. There is a part of you, I am certain that delights in this occupation, and not solely for the sake of your patients.”
“What do you mean to imply, Mrs. Worthington?” I asked, warily.
“That you are a man of Man, and so surely take interest in Woman that is not purely of a medical nature.”
“My profession is the only Mistress I court,” I said, alarmed by Virginia’s insinuations. “She is a demanding Mistress with many faces. And as for other ‘beasts’, I am sufficient with techniques to tame them.”
“But there is no especial face among the multitude you fancy?” she said. “Is there not a young woman’s heart you have been hunting?” She smiled slyly, knowingly. “That envy-eyed Charlotte, perhaps?”
“No,” I said. “I am afraid that apart from my patients and my employees there are no women I interact with enough to intimate myself into their acquaintance without a proper distance of professionalism between us.”
“And yet women are your expertise,” she remarked with a coy smile. “And your world, it would seem.”
“True,” I said. “But of personal relationships with women, I have none. Nor have I many friends in men, either. My mother died in the birthing process, and my father considers me dead since I took up my present profession.”
She rolled to one side, luxuriating in my embarrassment.
“Is there something wrong with Cornwall that prevents you from acquiring acquaintances?”
“It is less varied in its personages than London, to be sure, but I find these seaside people to be rather agreeable. True, they lack the refinement of their city superiors, but they compensate for this with open-heartedness and serene countenances. There is nothing like hard work to inspire gratitude and joviality in life. Of course, I am sure the lovely landscape aids their moods and tempers considerably. It has bettered my own.”
She sat up and leaned forward, her hands clasped together and her elbows resting on the bedside table. I was embarrassed to find that her bosom exposed itself from within the hanging fabric of her gown, and had she not been a well-bred, innocent lady I would have presumed the display of a licentious intention. Truth be told, her coquettish smile undermined my presumptions of her innocence.
“I cannot help but think that your other patients should become smitten with you,” she said. “A handsome doctor with good breeding and ample means would be the talk of many a lady’s boudoir, and a comforting dream on the pillow of every cold marriage bed.”
I cleared my throat, and my chagrin, with a discreet cough.
“That is the rub, Mrs. Worthington,” I said, once I had cleared my throat.. “That the majority of my patients are married, or have been widowed. True, they frequent my clinic often in pursuit of my treatments, but it is purely in the intention of remedying their prevailing maladies. It is of no personal affection toward myself.”
“And so none of your clients have confessed any secret attachment in regard to your person?”
I became anxious. This was not a conversation that was appropriate for a doctor and his patient, and indeed it was unpleasant to me, as it should have been to any decent lady of breeding. Yet, Mrs. Worthington’s blue eyes sparkled with curiosity and intrigue and, despite my loathing the topic, I admitted to some repercussions from the treatments that smacked woefully of emotional attachment. Even as I was chagrined by my confession, and indeed horrified at the rupture of patient confidentiality, I was too taken by her eyes to restrain myself.
“There was a widow whose attachment to my treatment succumbed to emotional investment,” I confessed. “She was of a considerable age, but handsome enough in her own right, and not so deteriorated by age to not be a viable wife for any man seeking a wife among his peers. When she was roughly your age she had married a man of means who was of disproportionate years. Though such gossip displeases me, I must confess knowing that she had married him for his wealth and his age, thinking that the latter would grant her rapid access to the former. Yet, he lived much longer than her designs presupposed, and so by the time he had passed on, she had progressed in age to an extent that she would likely remain a widow for the remainder of her life. This did not fret her as much as spinsters half her age, for she had inherited a comfortable life with freedom to pursue any lover she desired. These lovers, however, were of the kind that knew how to hunt the societies of London, and knew how to dress down what they succeeded in trapping for themselves. Game was theirs for the taking, yet, as with real hunters, there was no pleasure to be had in it for the prey themselves.”
It shames me to admit it now, but I rather prided myself on this play of words, and particularly delighted in Mrs. Worthington’s approving giggle.
“Thus, she suffered her own form of hysteria, like so many women at her age, and found herself restless and irritable and desirous of what could not be named nor accepted in the minds of so many doctors among the Empire. She came here every two or three months, seeking treatment. Truthfully, I worried that she was spending all of her means in treating her hysteria. Then one day, after a particularly enthusiastic treatment, she begged me to marry her. This I could not do. It was inappropriate enough that she refused to allow any of the midwives to perform the ministrations, always insisting that I be personally involved in the procedure, but then she began to insist on further improprieties.”
“And what were those?” Mrs. Worthington asked, her mouth a perky moue of expectation.
I took a deep breath and silently debated whether I should indulge the account further. “She wished that I should kiss her. And touch her elsewhere, beyond the region of customary stimulation.”
Virginia’s expression was vulpine. “Such as?”
I hesitated, but her eyes, and her bosom, propelled me onward. “Her breasts,” I said. “And her anus. These things I refused, telling her that I would not mock my profession with perversions. She left the next day, sobbing, and has not returned for treatment since.”
“You sound as if in remorse,” she remarked.
“I regret only that she was a patient that needed aid,” I said, “but because of her confused emotions and personal traumas she had to forego that which rectified her illness.”
“Why do you believe she wished you to touch her breasts and anus?” Virginia asked.
To hear such words uttered by a lady like Mrs. Worthington not only baffled me, but horrified me. I immediately stammered some clinical response about a neurosis in the older woman, stating the predominat medical beliefs in regard to the breasts and the anus: that they were purely functional and of no secondary purposes— such as a means of carnal catharsis.
“You do not really believe that,” she stated, leaning away from the table and letting her gown shelter her bosom more conservatively. “Have you Men never thought to question what areas of a body pleases a Woman?”
“I only relate what I have read and implemented,” I said, deferentially.
“But you do not believe it,” she said firmly, “do you?”
I fancied a glance at the clock. “I believe it is time that I should have my tea,” I said. “If you will pardon me, Mrs. Worthington.” I stood up, bowed, and headed toward the door.
She called to me as I opened the door. I turned and she stood, the sunset flaring across the gossamers of her gown, her body silhouetted within the fabric.
“Sleep well, tonight,” she said. “Say a prayer for me. You will be in mine, comforting my pillow.”

***

That night I was visited by a nightmare. I had never before then been a man at the mercy of his dreams, though I have since then spent many restless nights comforting my haunted imagination with laudanum and insipid mantras of Reason.
I dreamt of a great flood in Cornwall. The rivers brimmed and broke over the land, and yet the rain continued to fall, drowning whatever land lay left except for the highest cliffs of the Cornish Coast. These, too, were steeped in the rising sea. I stood there, upon that drowned ridge, the waters hemming me in on all sides. It seemed that all the continents of the earth should be drowned in the rising tides. The moon was full in the night sky and ten times its reasonable size, like the great skull of a dead god leering garishly over the submerged earth. Soon only the ridge upon which I stood remained. The rest of Cornwall, and seemingly the world, had submerged in the gluttonous sea.
Beneath the moon, where its light glossed waxenly upon the turbulent waters, I saw a vast surge of water, as if something cresting along the Celtic Sea. A terrible fetor subsumed the salty air, and it reeked of stagnant life and profuse death. The thing that rose was as broad and high as Carn Marth rising from the Cornish countryside. I trembled to behold it and, as its ghastly head emerged, I screamed for the mercy of silence and oblivion and death. And though I wished to wake, I remained upon the crooked spine of a drown world.
I awoke with a start, sitting up in bed and drenched in sweat. The moon shone through the window, its roundish face half-concealed. It was not so large as it had been in my dream, but its illumination was ghostly within my bedchamber. I stood, then, and walked about the room, attempting to becalm my thunderous heart. Sweat, and tears, too, had taken to my face, and these I wiped scornfully upon my sleeve.
I did not return to sleep that night, and it was well into the morning before I banished the image of that island-sized head rising from the brine. It was fortunate that I had only one patient to treat, for I was too exhausted and haunted throughout the day to adequately treat any others. Nor was I the only victim of a stormy-headed night. The three sisters appeared taxed by restless nights. Even the pretty-faced Charlotte was pale and trembling throughout the day.
“Charlotte,” I said. “Are you and your sisters not feeling well?”
Her eyes darted about the treatment cottage as she and her sisters cleaned it after another treatment for Mrs. Worthington. Charlotte, and her two sisters, looked about them as if expecting demons to come clambering out of every shadow-pooled corner.
“Pardon my saying so, Dr. Grace,” she said, “but we donna’ feel ya’ shou’ ‘av taken that woman in.”
Whenever the sisters were under great duress, their accents became emboldened. I had attempted to correct such failings, but I was helpless to rectify it under present circumstances.
“You have a problem with Mrs. Worthington?” I asked.
Charlotte looked to her sisters, all of whom were as flighty in expression as bewildered does.
“Yes, doctor,” she said, casting her eyes upon the floor. “There’s some’ing terrible wrong ‘bout her, sir. She’s chased away yer oth’r patients ‘n put in ‘heir stead terrible dreams.”
“And she’s no’ right!” Emily said, coming forward to support her sister. “The winds donna’ sound the same since she come! The waves move strangely. Even the clouds are all wrong!”
“And the dogs bark at night!” Anne said. “They but rarely did afore, but now ‘ey bark all night as if keepin’ the Devil ah’ bay! An ill wind passes wit’ ‘er.”
“And ‘he dreams!” Emily said, rallying with great feeling. “We all ‘ave ‘he same wicke’ dream come flown to us from ‘cross an evil land! The Great Flood, wit’ Noah on its crest, and somethin’ risin’ from out o’ the waters! Leviathan perhaps!”
“Or Satan ‘imself!” Charlotte said. “Come new ‘pon the world!”
I did not care to hear my own fears voiced in plaintive, womanly notes, nor the plainly superstitious absurdity of it in my ear, particularly since it renewed resonant feelings from the night before. My susceptibility to their panic infuriated me.
“All of you come here,” I commanded. “Come and abide me a while, for I fear I must lecture this nonsense away lest it grow more beyond measure.”
I waited for the three of them to line up in front of me, their heads bowed, and their hands crossed before them, as if covering their Eden nakedness beneath their humble gowns.
“Mrs. Worthington is our patient,” I said, reproachfully. “She is to be treated with kindness, civility, and all of the attentiveness that conforms to the professionalism of our work. You are not to speak of her in belittling tones, nor through gossip, nor even salacious suggestion. Our work depends upon utter confidentiality. A wayward wag of the tongue could destroy the whole enterprise.” I took a deep breath and calmed myself, softening my tone. “You are each an excellent worker that I am proud to have in my service, but if you persist in feeding each other’s fears with whatever fancies take hold in your heads, I will have to reconsider your employment. Do you understand?”
“Yes, doctor,” they said together, their tone a collapse of dejection.
“Now,” I continued. “Finish cleaning and then retire home early to clear your heads and rest. Tomorrow I expect you to return without such fanciful shadows clinging to your eyes.”
Their accents lessened, reassuming genteel annunciations.
“And supper, sir?”
“There is food left enough for Mrs. Worthington from today’s lunch,” I said, “and I shall seek the tavern for a meal. It has been a long time since I attempted to acquaint myself with my Cornish neighbors. It seems as fit an occasion to condescend as any.”

***

Virginia requested another treatment before taking her supper. I acquiesced, knowing the sisters would return early next morning to clean. As for myself and retaining my own cleanliness, I had methods and tools available that minimized my own involvement in such treatments and their untidiness. To spare my hands menial labour, and subsequent cramps, I not only employed the three midwives regularly in treating patients, but also various devices that quickened the conclusion of a treatment while also sparing my hand. The truth was that after a lady’s hysterical paroxysm, I found that my hands were rather soiled with the natural scents of the lady. Not in all cases was this undesirable, for the brimming tides that came with the excitation were not altogether unpleasant, but there were those select women from whom the odors were rather displeasing and, moreover, clung long after a treatment, despite repeated ablutions. Thus, I employed the phalllic constructions depicted in the more obscure ancient Greek relics of art, and more recently in Oriental cultures. Had I the modern conveniences of plumbing I would have used douches as well, for I had read about their widespread use in France and it seemed not only beneficial to the patients, but to the doctors. Streaming water would have spared my hands and meanwhile cleansed a lady of her impurities.
“An excellent treatment, Dr. Grace,” Virginia said, panting as she lay sprawled upon the treatment bed. “That is a curious device you have created. I have no doubt that you modeled it after the natural design.”
“Indeed,” I said, “but I cannot take credit for its creation. It has existed for many centuries prior in the Orient.”
“Then I must say that Oriental women are more fortunate than Occidental women.” Her smile was small in measure, but large in suggestion. “I wonder, however, why you do not simply forego such medical pretenses and utilize what Nature has given you.”
“I am afraid I do not apprehend your meaning,” I said, wiping the device clean with alcohol and then setting it upon a shelf to dry.
“It is no matter,” she said. “Those naturally inclined will surrender in time.”
Only Mrs. Worthington could be provocative even as she demurred on a subject.
“How are you enjoying our accommodations?” I asked, hoping she approved. “Are they adequate?”
“Completely contenting,” she said, remaining sprawled about the bed. She gave no indication that she was ready to leave the treatment cottage.
“Do you miss London? It’s society? I have come to understand that you were a personage as respected as the queen herself within certain circles.”
“I was,” she said, “but I do not believe I could endure crowds now.” Her gown was still spread apart most immodestly and I wondered if she was quite conscious as to her unladylike position. Granted, most women seemed to forget propriety after a successful paroxysm, but they gradually realized their lapse in bearing and remedied it quickly. Virginia seemed quite aware and yet unconcerned. “And you? Do you miss the peopled streets and the breathless air?”
“Even while I lived there I tended to avoid crowds,” I said, turning away from her. “I prefer quiet contemplation and solitude, such as is afforded here in this village.”
“You enjoy being steeped in yourself,” she said, “like Narcissus at his pool, transfixed by his own reflection.”
I could not help but laugh. “Indeed? And who is my Echo, abandoned and forlorn?”
“Charlotte, of course,” she said, standing up from the bed. “You pay her no mind at all except in how she tends to me. That poor girl longs to please you.”
“If I am Narcissus, “I said, “and Charlotte is Echo, then whom might you be?”
Her smile withered like a rosebud in hoarfrost. “Of my twin there are many,” she said. “Galatea, Leda, Ariadne. Countless others, I am sure.”
“All women with unhappy fates,” I remarked grimly.
“Because all women have unhappy fates,” she said. “There is nothing unique or aberrant in such stories for women. Rather, the story of Woman has always been one with an unhappy fate.”
“To be mortal, you mean?”
“Partly,” she said. “But mostly by simply being of Woman. By being bearers of the wombs of the world.”
She did not bother to don her clothes, but returned to her cottage wearing only the treatment gown. The indecency of the action did not seem to bother her in the least. I escorted her to her cottage, fearing that some rake might observe her unconcern for propriety as an invitation toward mischief. When I asked if she should desire her supper, she asked only for a wheel of cheese. I inquired how much and she said, quite decidedly that she desired the entire wheel. I acquiesced to her request, fetching a wheel of cheese, but I also took the liberty of bringing a half-loaf of bread and two apples. These she graciously accepted and bid me a good night.
The sun was setting into the sea, gilding the green waves and blending shadows across the moorland. Fearful that I might miss my supper, I hurried downhill toward the tavern where many of the local Cornish men gathered to drink and talk after a long day of work. The tavern was a stalwart building with a thatched roof, its walls constructed of solidly stacked stone. It was the only building made of stone in the village that I had not purchased for my medical practice. Besides the church, of course. The majority of the other houses were wattle and daub.
I entered the dim establishment and went immediately to the owner manning the bar. George Friggs was the man’s name and he was as portly as he was friendly, especially to paying customers.
“What might a man hope to eat this evening?” I asked him.
“The best tasting mutton this side of the Celtic Sea,” George said. “And some potatoes, if you should care for them.”
“I shall have that with whatever your best drink happens to be,” I said.
“Just a stout, Dr. Grace,” he said. “Unless you thirst for an Irish or Scottish Whisky. We also have rum, though I donna’ think you would like it much. Better for those already swaying upon the sea. We landlubbers are too accustomed to the flat earth, I should think.”
“Give me a stout, then,” I said. I paid him for the food and the drink, then slipped him another coin and leaned over the bar, my back to the rest of the men in the tavern. “Perhaps you have heard of a seaman lost at sea. Or, rather, lost from the sea. He has a hobble and two eyes that roam where they should not.”
George rubbed his bald pate, thinking. “There are many sailors that come and go here, Dr. Grace. But if you’re talkin’ about one who’s got word out about him, then I would suggest you wait a while here and watch that corner over there.” He pointed to an empty table in the corner near the window. No candles were lit there, and it was farthest from the heat of the hearth, so only moonlight through the window lit its murky spaces. “I’ll get me wife to make you a plate. In the meantime, here’s your drink. Wait a while and you’ll see a man that sure is jumpy as if he been lookin’ where he was’n supposed to.”
I took my mug of beer, thanked George and waited by the bar, watching the door for the agitated seaman to appear. George knew his business: many sailors frequented his bar. It was the only place for miles where they might drink their sorrows and sea sickness away. Many men came and went, sharing drinks and stories and smiles and scowls. There was a bout of fisticuffs at one point and the two warring men were thrown out by their own compatriots. Blood may have been thicker than wine, but it was not so thick as warm beer spilt upon a wasteful floor.
It was as I had finished eating my meal that the lowly seaman came staggering in. I knew at once that it was he, for his unkempt beard and agitated eyes bespoke of mischief. He was a bedraggled specimen of knave. I could discern by his hobble that he was a seaman. He had the bowed hobble of a man that had spent more of his life on a tottering deck than on the still land.
Having witnessed the previous two men being thrown out, I knew better than to engage the man in a physical struggle. Nor was I a man predisposed to brutish means. That said, I could have easily handled him, however, since he was so much smaller than myself and was, moreover, crippled in one leg. His gait was so contorted by his pained leg that I wondered how he was managing to walk at all. A grimace of pain betrayed his hindrance with every step.
“Ale,” he said to George. “Your strongest.” George poured the man his ale, and had the sense of mind not to look to me until after the seaman had retired to his dark, solitary corner.
“That the man?” I whispered.
George only nodded.
I slid another coin across the bar, which disappeared in George’s large hand. Thereafter, the empty plate disappeared and I ordered two more ales, both of which I held, one to a hand, as I approached the seaman in the corner. They say that it is easier to catch flies with honey, and so I followed that adage toward whatever wisdom it might deign to offer me.
“Hello,” I said to the man. “Do you mind if I join you?”
The man looked up at me shrewdly, his eyes darting from my face to the beers in my hands.
“If one of those drinks is mine, you can join me twice,” the seaman said. He took the mug I handed to him, and watched me in amusement as I sat down. His amusement became a smile as I slid the other ale to him. I had decided that more honey could not hurt. “You must be wantin’ to loosen my tongue,” he said. “There hasn’t been a man handin’ out unsolicited drinks lest he wanted to cure a case of the lockjaw in his fellow man. What do the gentlemen say? In vino veritas?”
I was taken aback by his keen perception of me. Clearly he was no fool, even if he was a knavish cripple. Having no pretense to shield me, I decided toward candour to cope for this disastrous encounter.
“Yes, I suppose I am seeking truth from wine,” I said.
He grinned and took a swig of his mug, sighing in a contrite fashion. “Then it is a good thing I am only drinking ale. I do not believe you would want the truth you are seekin’. No, I believe you would come to lament it, as I certainly do.”
“Why were you peeking on my patient?” I demanded. “Why were you looking in through the window?”
I expected him to deny it, or to grow furious and threaten me, but my expectations were promptly dismantled by this strange seaman.
“I am a man of the Crow’s Nest,” he said. “On account of me bad leg, you see? Can’t be tying no nautical knots or mopping the deck when your leg’s all sideways. It may seem like an easy duty, but watchin’ out for the storms loomin’ on the horizon is always more difficult than most realize. Every crew member dreads the Crow’s Nest. It swings you about like a child her doll. Being such as it is, it’s the job no one wants, and being a cripple that no one really needs, I am the one told to climb myself up there and look out for trouble. All these years of it and my stomach still sloshes back and forth upon steady land, so used to the sickening sway of the sea.”
He rolled his shrewd eyes through the memories, his eyebrows eventually lifting as if in surprise at having found himself here.
“Even now I do no different,” he said, draining his mug. “I’m on the lookout for a storm. But this storm is already ashore. It’s made landfall and we are all in the middle of it. I promise you.”
“I do not understand,” I said. “Are you to be a lighthouse keeper?”
He appraised me with a frown, obviously unimpressed with my ability to follow his ranting. “I know who you are, Dr. Grace,” he said. “I know you have been lookin’ after Virginia Worthington. There’s no need for for alarm, though. What we are doin’ is the same. I’m lookin’ after her, too, as William asked me to.”
“You are one of William’s men?” I said, astonished.
“Yessir,” he said. “Name’s Henry O’ Toole. William asked me to make sure Virginia was seen to. I told him I may be a crooked man, but I’m no crook. I’ll see to what needs doin’, when the time’s right. Better than being stuck up in that Crow’s Nest for another season.”
“What is it that you are supposed to do?” I asked. “And why did William not tell me of your presence?”
“William did’n want to worry you,” Henry said. “He wanted you to put your time and effort into makin’ Virginia feel comfortable. Before he returns.”
I had expected a confrontation. I had expected a man of perversions in need of punishment. Yet, this antagonist that had provoked Charlotte’s scream seemed to be charged with a similar duty as myself. Nonetheless, his nervous mannerisms disturbed me. He appeared a man beset with his own neurosis. I rationalized it as a consequence of his occupation in the Crow’s Nest and his debilitation.
“What is this ‘storm’ that you speak of?” I demanded. “What has it to do with Virginia and Will? Can you not speak more frankly?”
Henry O’Toole leveled his eyes at me, even while his shoulders rocked slowly side to side with seaward memories.
“I’ve been a sailor me whole life,” he said. “Seen many strange things in the sea, but nothing so startlin’ as what was on land. Often we were allowed freedom of the cities we visited when we did trade. But Mr. Worthington did not let us stretch our legs too much in America. Least not when we were some of those more questionable docks. Not that I’d of wanted to. Strange noises you could hear at night there. Like a bunch of bloated frogs and fish splashin’ ‘bout in the water. We are hardy men, and never you mind how mean, but even we kept our breath shallow when he heard ‘em things roamin’ about the ship. Devil’s Reef is not place for a Lady. I couldna’ understand why Mr. Worthington brought his pretty wife there, but when he returned you could see the mischief it had worked on her. Silent as the grave, that wretched woman was. You’ve done her some good, it may as much seem, but I wonder for how long. And I wonder if she might’n’ ought been better off with her soul closed in a clamshell rather than brought to the ravin’ light.”
He perplexed me to no end. “Elaborate. Please. I cannot follow your meaning.” I slipped another coin across the table. It disappeared as a cloud passed over the moon, darkening the table for an instant with its doubt. The seaman sighed heavily. He took a swig of beer and snorted.
“While we huddled and shivered in our quarters, Mrs. Worthington accompanied her husband ashore on a night of a great tempest.” His eyes jittered in his sunken sockets, flitting here and there like nervous flies. “Such screams we heard amidst that storm. But whether in agony or joy I could not rightly say. Perhaps it were both.” He took a deep breath, and a deeper drink, his hand trembling and spilling the pungent liqour down his beard. “I hear those screams in my dreams at times, and I wish them to cease. Sometimes I wonder if they will ever be silent so long as that bedeviled womb stirs in its sleep.”
“Womb?” I said. The word struck me eerily and I felt the world slipping beneath amniotic waters. “What does that mean?”
“I can’t knowingly say,” he stuttered, trembling all over. “It’s just such a thing that no man can rightly understand. Like the sea itself. We can read the signs, but that don’t mean she isn’t plotting our destruction below the waves, or far out over the horizon. She’s a perilous lover. You make no mistake.”

***

I left the tavern feeling estranged from the earth. My adoptive motherland, Cornwall, menaced me with moonlight and shadows and countless mysteries whispered upon the leaf-tongued winds. It was an affliction of frayed nerves and a frenzy of half-fancied phantoms. There crouched in every nook and nestled within every root of a tree a thing best left unseen. Behind the moon and beneath the Atlantic waves there lurked what would undo me to witness its existence.
Returning to my living quarters, I wondered at the gulfs of ignorance surrounded Man, and in the immeasurable bosom of that darkness the horrors. Perhaps the seaman’s madness had caught in me. He had brains addled by too many storms at sea, and I had too many beers and too little sleep to fend off the apparitions of another man’s mind. So, hurrying home, I retired to bed and let the aqueous realm of sleep carry me whichever way their waves willed.

Hole-Heartedly

Hole Heartedly

There was a hole in Jenny’s kitchen. It was not a normal hole— not a hole corroded from water damage or dry-rot or punctured by Jenny accidentally dropping a heavy pot on the floor while trying to rearrange the kitchen because she was so sick of how her apartment looked.
No, it was a perfectly round hole, smoothly circumscribed and excised as if by a god’s compass. It was the size of a single person, and that person was Jenny herself.
What was in the hole was not normal, either. You could not see the layers of linoleum, wood, concrete, and steel beams stratifying the perfectly smooth circumference of the hole, nor the kitchen of Miss Abbergast, the crazy cat lady, down in the apartment below Jenny’s. The hole was simply black; plunging, impenetrable black. No light or gradation of shadow shown in its depths whatsoever. It was a smooth well of black ink. It allowed no light and gave no light. If Jenny dropped something down the hole it would not return, nor would it make a sound. There seemed to be no bottom within the realm of the hole.
But there were voices coming from the hole. Whispers, groans, moans, wails, hateful laughter, screams, shouts. They but rarely remained quiet for long. When these voices did stop, the singular and friendly voice of a man would speak to Jenny.
“Jenny, it would be so nice if you could stick your head down here so we could have a look at you. We just want to say Hello.”
When Jenny said nothing, and backed away out of the kitchen, there would be a silence from the hole for a moment, and then the cacophony of overlapping voices would return, loud and urgent and incomprehensible. At such times as these, Jenny would turn her television on and sit and watch Wheel Of Fortune on mute. It was like the noises from the kitchen were coming from the game show’s audience. She was not of a settled mind as to why she did this. It was like embracing the hole and disavowing it at the same time.
Jenny told no one about the hole. She was glad she had no regular visitors. She was also glad her mother was confined to the nursing home where she could not visit her daughter anymore. That old hatchet would have blamed the hole on the fact that Jenny never married. In particular, she would have blamed it on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Her mother blamed a lot of things on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Jenny’s middling job as a secretary was because she had not married into the Witzman family trust. Her father’s early death was because he was stressed from fear that Jenny was a closeted lesbian in denial of her own natural inclinations. Her mother’s failing health also stemmed from Jenny’s relationship status, as did the Yankees not winning the Super Bowl. When Jenny pointed out to her mother that the Yankees were a baseball team that could never play in the football championship, her mother blamed her single status for that as well.
“No grandchildren to keep our name going,” the old matriarch would say on the phone. “No grandchildren to keep your father going. I’ll be passing soon, too, and then my poor baby will be all alone.”
“I’m fine, momma,” Jenny would say. “I am happy alone. I really am.”
“You should have married that nice boy, Arty. He would have been good to you. He would have made you happy.”
“He would have been good for you, momma. He would have made you and dad happy.”
“But now who are you going to marry? Nobody! Maybe you should have been a lesbian. You would have found someone then and been married. It’s legal now.”
“Mom, I’m fine being alone…”
“And you could have been artificially inseminated. That’s legal now, too! You could have chosen any father for the baby you wanted. Tom Selleck! Your son could have looked like Tom Selleck!”

Sometimes things came out of the hole. They walked on two legs, mostly, but sometimes they crawled on their hands, too, if they had hands. Jenny could not see their faces. Male or female, their heads were blank and bald. They tried to speak, but their mouths were muffled. They stared blindly at Jenny from the kitchen. Mute and blind and deaf. Eventually they would crawl back into the hole— not unlike rats into tunnels— and speak from there. Of course, they would all drown each other out until their voices died away and that one singular voice spoke up again.
“We really would like to meet you, Jenny. We could be such wonderful friends.”

Jenny had friends, despite what her mother believed. They were work-friends, of course, but friends just the same. They would invite her to parties, or ask her to go out with them to bars after long shifts at the Firm. Jenny declined everytime, but it was nice to be invited. That they thought of her at all sufficed for her.
When not working, Jenny spent much of her time watching true-crime television programs and being grateful she had not entered into an abusive relationship, or had been murdered for an insurance policy. Life was simpler on this side of the television screen, and it made her grateful for the simple life she had. Things always became complicated when there was more than one person mixed into Jenny’s daily routine, like a whole handful of extra cogs in a clock that did not need them. That was one of the many reasons why she stayed away from her mother. That old woman had no life of her own, and so she sought to control Jenny’s life. Even when her mother had her own life— before the nursing home— she had sought to control Jenny’s life.

Jenny lived in New York, but she did not feel like a New Yorker. Walking the streets was like navigating an alien landscape with hostilities lurking under every passing face. She had been born in New York— in a taxi, no less, while her father cussed the afternoon traffic— and yet she felt like an illegal immigrant trying daily to trick the “true” New Yorkers into believing her faulty facade. She feared that, sooner or later, they would deport her. Her paranoid mind paraded delusions constantly. A bus full of witch-burners. A flash mob at the park ready to crucify her to a tree. The other New Yorkers—the true New Yorkers— would all turn as one and scowl at her, then grab her roughly, telling her she did not belong here, and then take her to the outer city limits and heave her into the Atlantic with a face-breaking splash into that cold, briny water.
That was why Jenny stayed home in her small apartment when she was not stuck behind her secretarial desk. Her apartment was a refuge from the alienation of her birthplace. Her mother knew how Jenny felt, how Jenny had always felt, and had scolded her for it her entire life.
“You are a New Yorker, Jen, and you need to start acting like one. This meek and mild nonsense has got to stop. The city would eat you up if not for me protecting you.”
“I’m fine, mom,” she said. “I’m okay with being alone.”
“It’s not healthy, Jen,” her mother said, disapprovingly. “It’s not natural. You need someone to protect you when I am gone.”
“I’m okay with being alone.”
The faceless figures nodded in the kitchen.

Jenny had done what she could to reinforce her apartment with her own identity. As a result, it was quite bare and plain. The truth was that Jenny did not know what she wanted. She had vague inclinations, like bran cereal and the urge to watch gameshows with the sound off and the subtitles on, but she did not know what she wanted in life. Her mother had crowded Jenny’s head with many expectations and admonishments that the old matriarch deemed crucial to a happy life. Since moving out on her own, Jenny had followed a scorched earth policy to those mobs of nagging expectations. Yet, in the burnt-out void of her mother’s demands Jenny found herself standing amid nothingness with little conception of which direction to go, or, indeed, which direction lay where.
Jenny was forty-three years old and she did not know what she wanted in life.
She did know what she did not want in life. She did not want to listen to her mother. She did not want to go out in the city after dark. She did not want to talk to people outside of work. She did not want to open the blinds of her apartment windows and look out upon the cityscape, whether it be day or night, dark or light. She kept them shut, and thus kept the alien sprawl of the city out of her wary head.
Jenny feared the silent, sullen-eyed skyscrapers as much as the people milling around them. Those glass-and-steel monoliths loomed over her like overbearing parental figures, silently mouthing criticisms and demands while she tried to live her life the quiet way that suited her sensitive nature. The giant buildings told her that she had become pudgy, that men were disgusted by the way her belly bulged over the buckle of her belt. They said she should stop eating pepperoni pizza and cherry cordial ice cream because it pitted her face with acne. They warned her that she was getting older and uglier, that one day she would wake to find herself in dread of her future and in regret of her past, having squandered her life by living like a solitary nun.
She wished she could shout the skyscrapers down, topple them with a word, create an expanse of silent land echoing all around her, the rubble swept away in the outward sweep of the pronunciation, only herself remaining where once an overwhelming multitude of busily bustling mobs and machines battled daily for meager inches of breathing space. Sometimes she wished she could shout herself away, too.
And through all of this the hole waited. It babbled and it waited.

Then one day Jenny saw an advertisement while reading some online articles on her computer at the Firm. It was an ad for a matchmaking site called “Reel Love”. The site’s logo had a fishing pole with a heart-shaped hook on the end of its line. It boasted of having united over “One Million People In Matrimonial Bliss”.
It was Jenny’s lunch break. She was eating leftover spaghetti that she had brought from home. The spaghetti sauce was cold and wet and salty on her lips. For some reason— she did not know why— the combination of licking the cold spaghetti sauce and seeing the “Reel Love” logo made her eyes start to water. She dabbed at her cheeks with her paper napkin and then, on impulse, clicked on the advertisement.
She gasped. This was a company computer. Now she feared that the ad might have been a viral portal and she felt a heart-quickening terror at having infected the entire network. The whole business communications array would shut down and her boss would be furious. They would trace it back to her computer. She feared she might even be terminated.
Within a moment, however, she was brought to the main “Reel Love” website. It was a free dating site, evidently. She did a quick Google search for its ratings and reviews, all of which seemed to regard it as an authentic website. Out of curiosity, she perused some of the profiles and blushed to think of all of the men on the site that she found herself wanting to know more about.
Telling herself that it was all for fun, she hastily filled out a profile for herself and used her old employee ID photo in the Human Resources file as her one and only photo. She was skinnier then, nearly eight years ago, and her hair was not so faded or thinned as it was now. Her glasses in the photo were a bit thicker, though, and her brown hair was shortly cropped, unlike her drab, poorly straightened longer hair she had nowadays. Still, she justified the innocent subterfuge with the excuse that she had no other photos and, telling herself that she was making the profile only as a novelty and not with any serious interest or intent in dating.
Her profile completed, Jenny logged off and finished her bowl of spaghetti before she had to get back to work.

Later that day, when Jenny was ready to turn her computer off, she received an email notification. Going to her inbox she found a message from Reel Love stating that someone had commented on her profile. Jenny dithered for a beat, not knowing whether she wanted to ignore the message and forget about her profile or to open her profile to read the comment. Curiosity prevailed briefly and she started to log into the “Reel Love” website. But then she stopped. She feared what she might find. What if someone had written something mean-spirited and captious. She could barely handle criticism from her mother anymore; criticism from a stranger seemed worse.
Another email alert popped up in her inbox. Her curiosity won out, at length, and she finished logging in. The two comments were from the same person. With great expectations she read them, her heart in her throat..
“Go kill yourself, Velma!”
The secondary comment was from the same anonymous person.
“Seriously, Scooby Doo’s not the only dog in your show!”
Crying now, Jenny logged off and turned off her computer. She went home.

Riding the bus while crying was embarrassing, so Jenny pressed her face against the bus window and pretended to watch the streets and people pass by. It was midwinter and the days were short, shortened further by the tall skyscrapers that huddled together to block out the setting sun. The busy streets were already swimming in gray shadows, threatening to darken to night just as Jenny stepped off the bus and entered her apartment building.

When Jenny arrived at her apartment, she immediately went to the kitchen and began washing dishes in the sink. Jenny enjoyed washing dishes by hand. She never owned a dishwashing machine and she never would. It wasn’t that she enjoyed playing in the hot water— though she did— nor the simple reassurance that she would have clean dishes available when she needed them. No, instead it was the gratification of personal liberty and personal responsibility. It was a ritual of independence and self-reliance and an exercise in self-motivation and maturity. It was much the same as what a bachelor might feel as he was washing a beloved car just before a night spent cruising town on a Friday night. It reinforced ownership and strengthened the idea that these were her dishes, her apartment, her life. She belonged to herself, for better or for worse. No one had a say in how or when she washed her dishes. Her mother was not there, like some nagging supervisor, to shovel her bank-load of two cents down her daughter’s throat.
Jenny also liked playing in the hot water, and the simple joy of submerging a dirty plate, scrubbing it, and then lifting it from the water, squeaky clean. If only the city itself could be so easily, magically cleaned— cleaned of all the people who ignored her like some trash caught in a sewer grate.

After washing the dishes, Jenny ate a peanut butter sandwich for supper and watched tv on mute. As she sat on the couch— listening to the voices in the hole—she heard a chime. It startled her and she glanced around, confused. Her eyes alighted on her cell phone. She picked it up and glanced at the screen. She had an email from Reel Love. She pushed the icon, but then set the phone down. She did not think she could handle another hateful message from another stranger.
Jenny continued to eat her peanut butter sandwich. She continued to watch tv on mute. She continued to listen to the voices coming from the hole in the kitchen. Occasionally she glanced down at the phone, fighting against her own curiosity.
Curiosity eventually won and she picked up the phone. Opening the email, she saw that she had a “Catch” and, so, logged onto her Reel Love profile. She did not open the message, though. She was still fearful that it would be another mean text. Instead, she set the phone aside and went to the bathroom to take a shower. She took a long hot shower, letting her pudgy body pinken in the steaming water.
When she came back into the living room, she watched the evening news. Figures were getting out of the hole in the kitchen. They stood around, arms hanging laxly at their sides while they leaned forward, as if ready to fall. The faceless people stared at her while she watched depressing reports about the world. The volume was turned off and the subtitles were on. The apartment was completely silent except for the softened noises of the sleepless city beyond the blinds and drapes. Eventually, Jenny picked up her phone and checked her online profile.
The “Catch” was a man under the username of “Ken-Do Attitude”. He had sent Jenny a message.
“Hi! I just wanted to say Hi!”
The redundant message did not seem to be sarcastic. When Jenny checked on “Ken-Do Attitude’s” profile she found him to be an average sort of guy whose only flaw was a fondness for not smiling in his pictures and having a combover that drew more attention to itself than it would have had the man simply let the bald pate show through.
Still, there was a familiar sentiment in Ken-Do Attitude’s eyes that made Jenny want to respond to him. She typed something simple and unadorned.
“Hi! It was nice of you to say Hi!”
A prompt message returned to her.
“Thank you!”
“You’re welcome!” Jenny typed, not really knowing why he was thanking her.
“My name’s Kenny,” came his next message. “You seem nice. I like that you like game shows. I like Jeopardy, even if Trebek is a little bit haughty.”
“You’re right!” Jenny responded. “He is a little bit haughty.”
“My favorite show is The Price Is Right,” Kenny said. “When I get the chance to watch it.”
“I like it too!” Jenny responded, not really sure why she was using an exclamation point to punctuate every sentence. “I don’t get to watch it often either. I’m always working when its on.”
The faceless figures watched Jenny from the kitchen threshold, staring blindly as she texted on her phone. They stood and stared for a long time. Then, with what appeared to be reluctant resignation, they loped back to the hole and crawled back in.

Through their online conversations Jenny and Kenny learned basic things about each other. Kenny was a computer programmer and networker for a local company. He said he worked twelve hour days, on again and off again every three days with a fourth day being allotted for an eight hour shift to even out the forty hour workweek. His schedule was a mess, typically, and he did not have a lot of free time to pursue social activities. Nor did he have the “knack” of social interaction. This confession only reinforced Jenny’s fondness toward the idea that Kenny was her soulmate since she, too, failed at being adequately sociable. She told him, often, that she felt like a hermit crab looking for love, and he, being a like-minded introvert, shared the sentiment and assured her that he was willing to come out of his shell if she were willing to come out of hers.
So, before either one knew what their fingertips had done, they had agreed on a time and place for their first date.

The day of their date Jenny gussied herself up like never before. She put on her best white blouse and did up her hair with a brush and a red bow. She even was so cavalier as to wear a red skirt, albeit with black stockings to warm her against the Winter winds. Looking at herself in the mirror, she knew she would not have been most men’s first choice— she looked like Minnie Mouse on second glance—but she liked to think she was Kenny’s first choice, and that sufficed enough for her modest confidence.
Meanwhile the faceless figures in the kitchen languished by the hole as Jenny left her apartment, turning the lights off as she went.
They were to meet at a casual restaurant a few blocks from Jenny’s apartment. As she rode the bus her mother called.
“Mom, I’m going on a date!” Jenny blurted into the phone.
Strangely, there was a long silence on the other end, and Jenny thought, perhaps, that her mother had accidentally “butt-dialed” her. But then she remembered that this was her mother and she never did anything accidentally. After a moment, her mother spoke. Her tone was as stiff and blunt as a burnt baguette.
“What kind of man is he?” she asked.
“A nice guy,” Jenny said. “He works a lot of odd hours, but he’s nice. I mean, I haven’t actually met him yet. We’ve talked online, but he seems nice.”
“You haven’t met him yet?” her mother said, incredulous. “Jen, of all the nonsense you’ve ever done! Met him online? Ridiculous! He could be a serial killer and you wouldn’t know!”
“He is not a serial killer, mom,” she said. “He’s a computer programmer.”
“Computer programmer?” Her mother sighed raggedly. “I suppose I should be relieved he is employed at all. But did you know that Arty Witzman has become a doctor? A surgeon no less…”
“A computer programmer is a very important job, too,” Jenny said.
“Not like a surgeon,” her mother grumbled. “What’s his name? I bet I know his family.”
“Kenny,” Jenny said, glancing around self-consciously at the other passengers on the bus. She felt like they were watching her; judging her. “Kenny Mahoney.”
“A Mahoney? There’s no good that comes from a last name like that. Just imagine what the children will be called in school! Mahoney bologna. He was probably called that in school, which is why he never became a doctor.”
“Mom, you can’t judge people on their last names…”
“Yes, you can, too! It tells you what kind of family they come from. Whether they are respectable or not. In New York you know everything you need to know about a person by their last name. And Mahoney is not a good name. Not like Witzman…”
“Bye, mom,” she said, and then turned off her phone.

Jenny stepped off the bus and walked down the street toward the restaurant. The evening pedestrian traffic was thick. Normally Jenny would have shunned the streets at this time, staying at home and watching tv and listening to the hole in her kitchen. There were innumerable people walking with and against her, but she felt she could cope with the crowded sidewalk because she was going to meet who would, in her mind, be her soulmate. In fact, this hopeful thought made her feel a little less alienated from the city tonight. She felt like she finally belonged here, or at least would belong here once she and Kenny bonded together like all of those other couples that Jenny watched and envied on the street everyday. Together they would be stronger. Together they would be happier. Life would have greater meaning. Every day would be like the Yankees winning the World Series, except without the cheering and the clapping because ruckus like that upset Jenny’s nerves.
There were several people crowding the restaurant’s entrance. For a restaurant operating under the pretense of being casual, it sure appeared to be the “must-be” place. She wondered if they would need a reservation to get in. So many people were crammed together at the door that she thought it must be a fire hazard.
Overwhelmed by the crowd, Jenny lingered away from it. She did not want to try to infiltrate that shoulder-to-shoulder mob. It would have been worse than riding the subway train at rush hour. And she hated the subway, whether at rush hour or not.
“Jenny! Jenny, over here!”
It was Kenny. He was deep in the crowd, near to the doors and waving his hands frantically above the other prospective patrons’ heads. Jenny peered at him, and peered through the crowd around him, wondering how she was going to get to him.
“They’ll let you through,” he said, his optimism not quite believable. “Don’t worry. C’mon in.”
Against her better judgment, Jenny waded into the crowd. She got quite a few glares and grumbles as she bumped into people and slid between them and tripped over their feet. Eventually she arrived next to Kenny. She tried to return his smile, but found herself annoyed and frustrated and quite captious.
“You should have chosen a different restaurant,” she said.
Kenny’s smile faltered, like a captain feeling coral on the underside of his ship as soon as he spots land on the horizon. He looked embarrassed and penitent, but instead of softening Jenny’s attitude, his hara-kiri smile only exacerbated her irritation.
“You’re right,” he said, nodding like a berated schoolboy. “Normally when I eat here it is 4 in the morning. It’s easier to get a table then.”
“It’s not 4 in the morning now, is it?”
“No,” he said.
“Most sensible people are in bed by then, anyway,” she continued.
“You’re right,” he said.
The wind was cold this evening, even with the people barricading the two of them from all sides, and that bitter wind seemed to invade Jenny’s lungs and heart and make her bitter and cold also. She suddenly wondered if the hole in her apartment was cold or warm or felt like nothing at all.
“You really should plan ahead for these things,” Jenny said. “You’re a grown man, after all.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling nervously. “You’re right.”
They waited in silence for a couple of minutes. While they waited, Jenny reflected on her behavior and wondered why she was so waspish. Kenny looked like a beaten dog. As she stole glances at him she realized that she should apologize. Yet some hard stone in the back of her throat refused to budge on the subject. The harder she tried to dislodge it to let an apology through, the deeper and sharper and more embedded it became.
And then Kenny— like a hopeful jester walking the steps up to the gallows— tried to tell a joke.
“Hey, want to hear something funny?” His hopeful grin was beyond naive. “What did the taxi driver say when the knight got into his cab with his jousting stick?”
Jenny did not say anything. She was not certain she wanted to hear the punch line.
“‘I’m afraid there is going to be an additional sir charge.’”
Jenny did not laugh. Her face became taut and she turned away, crossing her arms and tightening them around the pillar of irritability she had become.
“I hope we go in soon,” she said stiffly. “I will get a cold if I stay out here much longer.”
Kenny opened his mouth to say something— again with hopeful naivete somewhat brightening on his face— but then his face fell into an expression of glum impotence. Another minute passed in silence. The minutes seemed to last forever right now.
At length, Jenny and Kenny entered the restaurant and, after a few more minutes of waiting, they were taken to a small table in the corner. A waiter brought them menus, and took their drink orders, then left them to their frigid silence. The window beside them offered a view of the brick wall belonging to the building next-door, as well as the dumpsters. It was not exactly romantic, which irritated Jenny even more. With no good view, she could only look at Kenny, or else at the crowded restaurant and all of its livelier patrons— laughing, smiling, chatting in ways that Jenny did not know how to even parody. When she looked at Kenny she found herself analyzing all of his flaws, her mother’s voice categorizing and elaborating on them indulgently.
Kenny was pudgy the way Jenny was pudgy. He was not unhealthy, and certainly not fat, but he had relaxed too much into his sedentary job, slouching in front of his computer. Jenny could tell. Like herself, Kenny had forward-neck syndrome, his neck angled against itself at the nape and the shoulders instead of rolling smoothly up to the base of the skull. Looking at him, she knew the most exercise he had daily was equivalent to her own: stepping up and down from a bus and walking a block to get a coffee and a doughnut at a café.
Yet, Jenny was irritated by his pudginess. In her mind he would have looked quite fetching had he lost a couple dozen pounds. That there was potential made her all the more captious. It was like the healthier, handsomer Kenny was a bully mocking Kenny behind his back, and he did not have the strength of spine to confront him.
Finally, she spoke.
“You should exercise more,” she said. “It’s not good for you to be overweight.”
Kenny smiled sheepishly. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to go to one of those Cross-Fit gyms. I just feel so exhausted whenever I get off my twelve-hour shifts.”
“But all you do is sit in a chair,” she said, more outraged than she meant to sound.
“You’re right,” he said, blushing.
“Well, then you can go to the gym before going to work, and then rest while you are sitting in your chair at work. I bet you have restless leg syndrome, don’t you?”
“I do,” he said, cringing at the onslaught. “Sometimes.”
“Going to the gym would get rid of that problem. You should start tomorrow.”
“You’re right.”
Jenny assumed Kenny had restless leg syndrome because she suffered from it constantly at work also. She had tried to join a gym and make a habit of exercising before work, but never really took the first step. She knew, even now, that she was admonishing herself through Kenny, and yet she could not stop.
Kenny glanced around for the waiter, and adjusted his glasses.
“And you should change your glasses,” she said. “They don’t really match your face.”
“You’re right,” he said, deflating in his chair.
“And sit up straight.”
He straightened his back and pressed his chest out, though the look on his face seemed less determined than his tucked-in gut. He looked like might pop his gut.
“Don’t hold your breath,” she said. “You’ll give yourself an aneurysm.”
Kenny tried to laugh it off, but his laughter fell dead from his mouth. “You should have been a drill sergeant. You could make a supersoldier out of anybody.”
Instead of laughing, Jenny scowled. She knew it was a joke— moreover, she knew there was truth in it— but she could not smile at it. So, she scowled. She wondered if she was looking more and more like her mother right now. If she had caught sight of herself in a mirror she probably would have ran off screaming to the nearest skyscraper and thrown herself off. Her eye glanced at the window, but instead of seeing her own reflection she saw faceless figures strangling each other in the side-alley. They seemed to get no satisfaction from the throat-crushing skirmish.
The waiter arrived and took their orders. When he left, Kenny tried to talk to Jenny more. He spoke of his family in New Jersey, his upbringing, his job.
“Eventually I hope to move to first shift,” he was saying. “Maybe live less like a vampire and more like a normal human being.”
“You should get a new job,” Jenny said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“My boss said I’m making good progress,” Kenny said, his tone more hopeful than boastful. “He said he wants me to be in charge of my own code team when we get the next contract. I’ll be the primary coder.”
“But do you get a raise for it?” Jenny countered.
“Well, no, but it would go toward my favorability with the higher-ups. And would look good on my resume…”
“So do it and then get another job,” she said. “A better job. Right now you’re basically a computer physician. You should be a computer surgeon.”
“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” he started to say. Her glare made him stare down at the table. “You’re right,” he said. “I should be a computer…um… surgeon.”
Time passed. The other diners came and went, all of them much happier than Jenny felt. She was becoming impatient. She was hungry and still cold and, above all, she was irritated with her soulmate for not being more perfect. The faceless figures stared through the window in anticipation, no longer strangling one another.
“What is taking them so long?” she complained. “We’ve been here for almost an hour.”
“There are a lot of people…” Kenny said, but then shriveled under Jenny’s withering look.
“Thank you, Mr. Obvious, but that doesn’t excuse bad service. Next time you should to take me to a better restaurant. Maybe some place less ‘casual’. It will cost more, but there will be less people and better service.”
The waiter eventually returned and apologized, saying that their order had been misplaced among what was an avalanche of orders from the other patrons. Apologizing several times, he took their orders again, and promised the meals would be free of charge. Kenny was delighted, but Jenny was furious.
“If we had come earlier we wouldn’t have been forgotten,” she said.
“We’re getting our food free, though,” Kenny said sheepishly. “I mean, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“We should have went somewhere else,” she said, her eyes daggers that stabbed every person in the room with merciless deftness. “And you’re just relieved that you don’t have to pay for me.”
“That’s not true,” Kenny said. “I like you, Jenny. I…well, I would take you to Hawaii for a pork roast if you wanted me to. I’d do anything for you.”
“I don’t like pork,” she said, dismissively. “And Hawaii’s too hot.”
The waiter brought them their food within quarter of an hour, with a healthy heaping of sides and apologies and well-wishes. As they started to eat, Jenny resumed criticizing Kenny.
“You shouldn’t eat mozzarella,” she told him. “It’s bad for you. It will give you a heart attack. My father died of a heart-attack.”
Kenny paused, the mozzarella stick suspended in front of his shocked face, poised between his pointer finger and his thumb. Some of the Italian sauce dripped onto his white shirt, red and promising a stain.
“And now you’ve gone and dirtied your nice shirt,” Jenny complained. “You really should be more careful when you’re eating. You’ll ruin everything you touch if you don’t follow etiquette and pay attention to what you are doing.”
The faceless figures in the side-alley nodded furiously in agreement.
“I was paying attention,” he said, sadly. “You just distracted me…”
“That’s no excuse to be a slob about your food,” Jenny said, horrified by her own words and yet unable to stop herself. “You’ll never correct your own bad behavior if you don’t own up to it. You have to acknowledge a problem before you can solve that problem.”
“You’re right, but…”
“And you seem very reluctant to find fault in yourself. That’s a bad sign. Maybe that’s why you’re in your forties and still trying to go on dates instead of being married with kids.”
“You’re right,” he said, devastated. “You’re right, Jenny. I hate being alone, if you must know the truth. I work so much and then I come home to sleep or watch tv. Sometimes I go out, to places like this, by myself, to convince myself that I’m ‘happy’. But I’m not.”
“You need to get over it,” she said. “Be a man. Grow up. Life sucks, but you’re your own problem. Deal with it.”
The remainder of the date was spent in silence. Kenny did not eat any of his food. When the waiter asked if anything was wrong, Kenny only said that he did not have much of an appetite today. Jenny did not eat much, either. She felt too angry to eat— too angry at Kenny and at herself and at New York and all of its happily bustling, chatty people— and so she just sat and fumed, a migraine coming on in earnest due to her anger and her hunger.
“Are you finished eating?” she said.
“Yes,” he said, not looking at her.
“Then it’s time to go.”
Stepping outside, they slipped through the crowd still waiting for their chance to dine. They walked down the cold, loud, scintillating street.
“You’re not walking me home,” she said. “So don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then I guess I’ll say ‘Good night’ now. Good night.”
“Just like that?” Jenny snapped. “That’s a bad way to end our date.”
“Well…” said Kenny, slowly and flabbergasted. “Do want a want hug or handshake or…?”
“No kissing,” she said quickly. “But you can hug me, if you want.”
“Okay,” said Kenny. He stepped forward, with a self-consciously awkward smile, and gave Jenny a brotherly hug.
“You do need to go to the gym,” she said as she released him. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said, sighing like a tire on a nail.
Jenny and Kenny went their separate ways. He walked with a glum shuffle toward the subway terminal. She walked with a determined stride toward the bus stop.
It was only when she had halted at the bus stop that her mother stepped out of her— so to speak— letting Jenny see things clearly again and gain perspective on her own behavior that evening. Cringing at the painful reflections, she wondered why? Why was she so critical? Why did she badger and brutalize him so much? She was embarrassed. She was ashamed. Tears came to her eyes and she wished she had never gone on a date with Kenny. At least then they would still be on good terms with one another, and he would not think of her as a judgmental nag. Were there enough apologies in the world to tend to the wounds given to him?
Nearby, the faceless figures slouched despondently, as if ready to collapse in a pile on the street.
Acting on impulse, Jenny took out her phone and called Kenny. Miraculously, he answered.
“Hey,” he said, sounding like he was dying.
“Kenny, I want to apologize,” she said. “I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did.”
“No problem,” he said, his tone lightening.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted. “I was a real…a real bitch today and I want to tell you I am sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“No, it’s not okay,” she said, feeling her temper rise. “I normally don’t act like that. I am normally a quiet, kind person. Not bitchy. But you messed up and it irritated me to have to wait out in the cold around a bunch of strangers. And then they forgot our food, which is why you should have never brought me there. I mean, what were you thinking bringing me to that restaurant?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dropping like an anchor into the deck of a boat.
“No, you’re not supposed to apologize,” she said. “I called you to apologize. Though you do owe me an apology for messing up our first date.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Well, you can’t just apologize for it and act like it never happened. I mean, it was our first date, and it’s been ruined, and all because you didn’t have the foresight to plan on the restaurant being busy in the evening. That should have been obvious to you. You know everyone eats out and drinks in the evening.”
“You’re right,” Kenny said.
There was a long, silent pause from Jenny’s end.
“Um,” said Kenny, “Jenny, are you still there?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “I am waiting for something.”
“Waiting for..?”
“Waiting for you to accept my apology,” she said, irritated.
“Oh! Right! Apology accepted,” he said.
“And I accept your apology,” Jenny returned. “Just be more thoughtful in the future.”
“The future?” he said, the wariness in his voice as obvious as if he was being trained for a new job involving New York sewers and alligators.
“Our next date,” she said. “Be more thoughtful about it next time. Think it through.”
“I…well…see…um…”
“What?” she asked, sharp as a filet knife in the ribs.
“My job is just so…untimely,” he said. “I don’t know when I will get my next evening off.”
“You said you worked four days a week,” she said.
“Yes, but one of our programmers quit so I might not be free for a while. Overtime work. You know?”
“Then we can text each other,” Jenny said. “Until your next day off.”
There was a long, silent pause on Kenny’s end now. “Right,” he said. “Sure.”

***

It had been two weeks since Jenny and Kenny went on their first, and only, date. Jenny had been texting Kenny, but he was not texting back except infrequently, and even then tersely. When Jenny logged onto Reel Love she found that his profile’s status remained as “Floating” whereas Jenny had already changed hers to “Hooked”. When she asked him why he had not changed it yet, he told her he just forgot. At least he had not changed his status to “Bobbing”, which was more or less an admission of getting “Nibbles” from other girls online.
Meanwhile, the faceless figures gibbered in the kitchen, staring after Jenny while hunched over in stances expressing uncertainty and anxiety and duress.

As time passed, Jenny became more and more determined to find Kenny and talk to him in person. Lately he was becoming so reticent in his texts that she could hardly expect more than a few words in his replies. So, feeling both peeved and anxious, Jenny wrapped herself in a long coat and headed to the restaurant where they had went on their one and only date. It was had been three weeks to the exact hour since that date and, she reasoned, that Kenny should be there since, according to her reasoning, he was not an especially creative guy when it came to dating.
The restaurant entrance was crowded. The patrons pooled out into the street in a chatty rabble. Jenny could not see Kenny among them. Yet, she had her suspicions. She walked down the alley beside the restaurant and looked in through the windows. Her heart and face both fell when she saw Kenny sitting at the table with a girl very much like herself— only cheery and blonde and glowing with joy. Kenny looked like a different person as well: he was not so hangdog and gloomy as he was on his date with Jenny. He smiled, quite a lot, and when he smiled he became very handsome. There was a good rapport between Kenny and his mysterious friend, which only stung more sharply in Jenny’s heart. This dinner date seemed to be everything hers had not been.
Turning away from the window, Jenny left the alley and walked back to her apartment. She did not feel like taking the bus. Feelings of alienation and loneliness overwhelmed her. Again came the irrational desire to scream the buildings down to rubble and blow everyone around her away. At least if there were no people around she would not be so starkly reminded of how alone she really was.
Except for the faceless figures— they followed her closely, like a marching parade without music or merriment or smiles or sounds.

***

As Jenny entered her apartment her phone rang. Thinking it might be Kenny, she hurriedly struggled to take it out of her purse. She was in such a rush that she did not look to see who the caller was, and instead answered immediately.
“Hello?!” she said.
“Jen, you haven’t called me today,” her mother said.
“Oh,” said Jenny, dejected. “Sorry, mom. I’ve been…busy.”
“You are never too busy for the woman who brought you into this world, Jen. That is quite disgraceful, you know. What would your father say?”
“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for a lecture. I just saw Kenny with another woman.”
Her mother did not miss a beat, but was at the ready like a gunslinger at high noon with a pistol aimed at the heart. “I tried to warn you about men with the last name of Mahoney. You cannot trust them. No good comes from that name. Now Arty Witzman would have never treated you like that. If you had just let him take you on a date you would have seen…”
The phone fell from Jenny’s ear, regaling the floor with all that could have been while Jenny walked into the kitchen.
“I don’t like my life,” Jenny said, staring down at the hole. Several of the faceless figures were crouched around it, and looked up at her expectantly. “I hate my life. I hate being me.”
The faceless figures nodded with unnatural rapidity and speed. Then they each, in turn, climbed into the hole. A voice called from the hole.
“Come home, child,” it said, “and be at peace.”
The hole was quiet now. It was dark and devoid of longing and of hopes and fears and expectations. It asked nothing, but gave everything; everything Jenny thought she desired. Solitude, peace, silence, nothingness. She slipped off her shoes and socks; she shrugged off her long coat and blouse; she let slip her skirt and pantyhose and undergarments. Then, after a long moment of standing bare in the stark fluorescence of her kitchen, she took a couple of steps and dropped into the hole, plunging soundlessly out of sight.
Voices rose from the hole afresh: laughing and shrieking and crying and shouting in unrest. And a moment later they hushed. The hole was gone, as if it had never been there.

***

Kenny returned home to his small apartment. It was nice to see his sister again and to take her out for dinner, especially since she was now eating for two. Knowing that he would soon be an uncle also made him feel happy.
As he took off his shoes, the thought of the coming workweek hit him hard with the dread of all of its grinding overtime and computer-code isolation. He tried to remain positive, but it was difficult, especially after his disastrous date with Jenny, which continued to haunt him weeks later with its humiliations and disappointments. He vowed to learn from it, however, and tried to remind himself that it had been his first date in years and that he would do much better with the next girl that responded to him on Reel Love.
Suddenly optimistic, Kenny checked his phone to see if he had gotten any “Nibbles” today.
“None,” he said, sighing.
He set his phone aside and stretched, feeling his gut swell around his belt buckle. He did need to lose weight. Suddenly all of the happiness he felt for his sister disappeared, leaving him feeling deflated and insignificant. He went into the living room and sat down on his love seat. What an ironic name for his couch, he thought: love seat.
To distract himself from his cynicism, he turned on the tv and played a videogame. It was an action-adventure game with a bikini-clad warrior woman fighting demons and other hellspawn. It embarrassed him to admit it, but if he went into a game store his eye would inevitably drift toward games like this one, featuring a female protagonist endowed with special powers and a special figure. That said, he knew that if he ever won a woman’s heart he would never need to play such games again. What would be the point? He would feel fulfilled. Complete. Whole.
Kenny played the game for an hour or so until it was almost time to go to work. He checked his phone once more and found no new messages. Standing up, he felt like he had been dissected by aliens, piecemeal, and they had chucked him into their waste disposal and jettisoned it into space. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a tv dinner from the freezer, putting it in his lunchbox alongside a thermos of coffee and a plastic-wrapped doughnut. He was about to close the lunchbox when he stopped, took the doughnut out and put in a bag of baby carrots. He almost closed the lunchbox again, but hesitated, throwing the doughnut in for good measure.
“I’m going to be there for sixteen hours,” he told himself. “Better bring all of the food I can.”
Turning off all of the lights in his apartment, Kenny went to the door. Hesitating, he looked back, surveying his apartment and its glum silence and brooding shadows and meaningless emptiness. Defeated by this perpetual bachelor’s lifestyle, he stepped out and locked the door behind him, then went to start another long, code-crunching, screen-staring workday.
And in the living room, next to the playstation and between the tv and the love seat, a perfectly round hole opened. Echoing from its black depths were voices that laughed and cried and screamed and moaned, and they waited patiently for Kenny to return from work so they might welcome him home.

Chilled To The Bone

The frigid wind wound through the eaves of the old townhouse, humming abreast of the French windows and quivering the finely shaven slivers and powder scattered about the porch where Arnold sat, notching another flute with a cold knife and a colder eye. The wind helped him tune it with each nick of the knife, breathing into the flute steadily so his old ears could hear the note changes accomplished by a millimeter adjustment, his knotty fingers pressing and lifting from the holes intermittently. Leaves trembled in the yard, beneath the old oak tree, and the homemade windchimes that adorned his lawn rattled like bones. It was near suppertime, and the sun was setting over the gable roofs of his neighbors’ houses. In Summertime the sidewalks were always busy with people walking dogs and joggers running in twos and threes. Now, with Autumn rusting and disrobing the world, nothing walked the sidewalks except the tumbling leaves.
And the livid figure of Mrs. Harper.
“Arnold,” she called from the landing of his steps. “Do you have a moment?”
Arnold did not look up from his flute, his old face etched with concentration and age. He knew what Mrs. Harper looked like, and did not need a reminder. He had seen her enough times in the town hall meetings, scowling at everyone while decreeing herself the eminent member of the Leewood Historical Society. And he did not say anything in reply, for he knew she would take it upon herself to speak to him regardless of whether he had a moment or not.
Naturally, Mrs. Harper walked up his steps without his invitation, her clogs clopping hard upon the wood. She wore a black bonnet over her silvery-blonde hair, and a black coat that hung down to her knees. Beneath it her white dress clung snugly to her skeletal frame. She was in her late fifties, but her makeup and her designer purse belonged to a socialite of a younger age. She had been a rich man’s trophy wife once upon a time; now she was a rich man’s widow.
“Arnold,” she said in the same condescending tone with which she spoke to everyone, “you cannot have those windchimes on your lawn. They have not been approved by the Historical Society.”
Arnold said nothing. He continued scraping away at the flute; listening to the winds through the narrow instrument.
Mrs. Harper pursed her red lips in vexation.
“Do not ignore me, Arnold,” she said. “We will be pressing for fines if you do not have the windchimes removed by the weekend. Do you understand? The garish things cannot be allowed to stay!”
The only sound from Arnold was a snort, and the scrape-scrape-scrape of knife against flute.
Mrs. Harper crossed her arms, shifting her hips to one side. Often this had an effect on people around town. It was the same as seeing a tiger crouching, ready to pounce. But it had no effect on Arnold.
“We have already been very generous,” she said. “We could have started the fines last week, but some of us chose instead to give you one more warning because we like to be perceived as fair about these sort of things.”
“Fair, huh?” he said, his voice as rough as a blade on bone. “And was it fair when you all killed her?”
Mrs. Harper sighed with impatience. “We did not kill your wife, Arnold.”
“The chill got in her bones,” he said. “And once it got in, it never left. It will never leave.”
“That has nothing to do with us…”
“You would not let us put in a new heating system last year,” Arnold said. “She died of the cold.”
Mrs. Harper appeared unmoved. “We all have the same heating system, Arnold,” she said. “None of us have passed away from the cold. Anne was simply sick.”
“And the cold made her sicker,” Arnold said, still not looking up from his flute and his knife. “She died because you are all too mulish to let anyone live the way they want. You’re all arrogant and self-righteous.”
More slivers of flute fell as the knife quickened along the sleek white instrument. The knife’s blade looked like black glass. Mrs. Harper eyed it distastefully.
“If you didn’t like it, Arnold, you could have simply packed up and moved away.”
Arnold did not have to look up to know that a disdainful scowl creased her face— the same knowing scowl that she wore as her customary attire for town hall meetings.
“And how could we do that when no one was willing to buy this house?” he said. “We didn’t have the money to move if we couldn’t sell the house. We were both retired. We were both living on a fixed income. And no one wanted our house because people like you wouldn’t let them have any control over it.”
“It is a historical residence,” she said simply. “You knew the complications when you bought it.”
The wind hummed against the house, piping in the flute; scattering dead leaves. Mrs. Harper shivered and hugged herself. Arnold breathed in deeply, and exhaled, as if matching the wind’s restlessness.
“Who can really know the complications that come in life?” he said; more to himself than to the unfeeling woman in front of him. “When we bought it, Anne was young and healthy. But as she got older, the cold got in everywhere. This old house…you didn’t even let us weatherize it. And the chill snaked in from wherever it could. And all because you are all too…” He took another deep breath and exhaled. The wind teased some notes from the flute, as if taunting someone. “Well, there is no mercy in this small town. No one cares about anything but power over their neighbor. People like you think that if you can control someone’s house it means you have the world by the ass. But you don’t know anything about power. You may be cold-hearted, but my heart’s grown colder over the last year. Colder than any of you might want to know…”
Mrs. Harper shook her head impatiently. “Just remove the windchimes, Arnold. If you don’t, we will fine you. And none of us want that unpleasantness.”
“The windchimes stay,” Arnold said. “She always liked to have some, but you high and mighty fools never let her have any. Now she can listen to all the music she wants.”
Mrs. Harper clopped forward angrily. “Then you better make sure you have enough to cover the fines,” she said. “Because we’ll be fining you every day for the rest of your life!”
He finally looked up from the flute. He did not see her, and yet saw her well enough as he remembered her through all of the town hall meetings. His hands continued scraping away at the flute with the knife.
“I am willing to pay any price,” he said. “Any price it takes.”
Mrs. Harper staggered back, nearly falling down the steps. “What did you do to your eyes?” she asked in horror.
Arnold listened to the winds, and the flute, and scraped another sliver from the flute. White dust fluttered from the knife’s edge, like snow. “Any price it takes,” he said. “The windchimes stay.”
His frostbitten eyes looked down again at the flute and the knife, seeing neither. Mrs. Harper left the porch, feeling stricken. Clopping unsteadily along the walkway, she paused to look at the rattling windchimes. They were strangely proportioned things, and rattled with strange music. Some were small as fingers, whereas others were long as a woman’s arms and legs. They were lacquered dark brown, yet there was something wrong about their texture and shape. They did not seem to be made of wood, and the ends of many of them were knotted with joints. They reminded her of something, but she could not think of what.
Halloween decorations, she suddenly realized.
The shock was too much. She hurried away from Arnold’s house and went down the street. She could hear the piping notes of a flute faraway. The music followed her home, and no matter how many layers of clothing she wore she could not warm herself against the chill of the rising winds.

Ghillie Dhu

GHILLIE DHU

It was the first of Spring when lonely little Juliette began writing letters to herself and placing them under mossy rocks and in the rotten crowns of dead tree trunks and in the intermingling branches of the forest bordering her family’s farm. These letters were often simple of nature and pretty of hand. They said things like “Have a splendid day,” or “May the sun shine be bright in your heart, and the shade be cool on your head,” which was a popular saying in the village. She would even write, most indulgently, “Rainbows above and flowers below, grow nothing but love in all that you sow.” These messages this fair-haired girl wrote in whatever little spare time was afforded to her between chores, for the girl desperately longed for a playmate of her own.
And then, on the morning of March 32nd, while going to fetch these letters she wrote to herself (just after milking the cows and just before feeding the chickens), Juliette found that someone had taken her letters she had written and had replaced them with letters in a strange, scratchy hand. She was shocked, and delightedly so, but also confused, for in each answer there was but just one little riddle that, once woven together, meant so much more:
“Where the birch trees seem to lurch
and the owls pause in poise to perch,
come find me beneath the old oak tree,
for there you will see what games may be.”
Juliette knew of this old oak tree among the birches. It was but a five minute walk from where she presently stood. She started toward the spot at once, but then hesitated, thinking of all of the dreary chores she had left to do before breakfast and how angry her parents would be if she skirted them. Nonetheless, the desire for a playmate won out in her hopping heart and so she walked deeper into the forest, seeking the old oak tree among the white-skinned birches.
When she arrived at the oak tree she saw a little boy of her own size and age, but strange of feature. He had light green skin, like the leaves of saplings, and green hair with tendrils growing around his temples, gemmed with berries only birds may eat. A thin layer of pollen coated his hair and shoulders like dandruff. He wore leaves and moss around his waist. As she came closer she found that he smelled of a forest after a generous rainfall.
“Hello,” she said. She sneezed, then laughed. “My name is Juliette.” She did a little curtsy, lifting the frills of her dress. “What’s your name?”
The boy smiled, showing teeth bucked like a rabbit’s, and bowed.
“One name is as any name the same,
but Ghillie Dhu is the name I presently claim.”
“Ghillie Dhu?” Juliette said. “I like that name. May I call you Ghill?”
“My filly may what a silly sally do
for it is as lovely to say Ghill as Ghillie Dhu.”
Juliette thought on this for a moment, then smiled as it dawned on her that he had given her permission to call him what she wanted. He was all rhyme and mirth, she thought happily.
“I am nine years old. How old are you?”
Ghillie Dhu’s tawny fawn ears twitched, as if in amusement to hear such childish questions.
“As old as the forest and as constant as the hills,
young as Sunday’s rest and as wandering as the rills.”
“You look like you’re nine, too,” Juliette said, helpfully. “Do you like to play games?”
The young boy dressed in moss and leaves and poison berries smiled.
“Oh yes, I must confess
that I like best the games that test.”
Juliette’s rounded brow creased innocently and she put her fists on her hips, squinting one eye in confusion. “What kind of games do you like?”
“Like a squirrel whirling in a world of leaves
I play my games, whether it pleases or it grieves.”
Juliette did not want to understand the particulars of the statement, only that Ghillie Dhu wanted to play games, which was a sufficient enough reason to be overjoyed.
“Oh, I always wanted someone to play with!” she cried in glee. “All I have on the farm are cows and chickens and they are no fun at all!”
“Then a game we will play,” Ghillie Dhu said, “unto the darkening of the day,
come what may, whether you will or will it not to stay.”
He held up a letter in a hand mottled like a fawn’s hide. The letter looked just like the ones in Juliette’s hands.
“What’s that?” Juliette asked.
“The game at hand,” he said, “in my hand,
but yours at your command.”
“What’s a letter got to do with any game?”
Ghillie Dhu grinned, pointed at his own temple— wreathed in poison berries—and then in some wayward direction.
“As a church sermoned by a roguish unseelie elf, I’ve done gone and lost me’self.”
“Lost yourself? How can you lose yourself?”
The boy in moss and leaves and poisoned berries shook his head, scattering pollen in a gentle shower.
“That is neither here nor there, land nor sea nor air.”
“Fine,” Juliette huffed, becoming impatient. “What am I supposed to do with the letter, then?”
“If ye’ will be my friend tonight, then take this letter and set me right.”
He held the letter out to Juliette and she took it without hesitation. She was about to open it when the forest boy quickly snatched it away.
“Nay, bonnie lass, ye shall never read
this important letter of mine to mine, ye heed?”
Juliette frowned, flabbergasted, but, wanting so desperately to play this mysterious game, nodded after a moment of consideration. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t read it.” She took it carefully as he held it out to her this time.
The little forest boy grinned again, the rabbit whiskers on his cheeks fanning out. He nodded, shaking pollen everywhere in a cloud that made Juliette sneeze again.
“Gladdened to my heart, I am, that ye are game
for the game of all games, known by the Huntigowk name.”
The word struck Juliette as strange and unfamiliar, and ultimately as gibberish. But since she thought most old children’s games had gibberish names, it seemed a very appropriate name. Furthermore, she liked it, even if she didn’t know how to play or what the rules were. She asked about these, and Ghillie Dhu answered.
“Of rules, there be many, and yet none be at all,
as to how ye play, may well ask why hatchlings must fall.”
“That’s rather vague,” Juliette said. Yet, she just shrugged and was happy to have a game to play, and a playmate to play it with.
“Now ye must go to where the waters willn’t flow
and there ye will find me, whom ye yet know and don’t know.”
This said, a sudden breeze snaked its way through the trees and, upon touching the little boy, dissolved him to nothing more than leaves and moss and berries and pollen, all settled onto the forest floor as if they always had been thereon strewn.
“Where the waters won’t flow?” Juliette pondered aloud, then sneezed. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “But it isn’t Winter now. None of the creeks are frozen! Even the ponds move because of the wind.”
She looked down at the moss and its thick mane. A frog crawled across it, dark green and large. In its mouth was a mouse, still struggling while half-swallowed. With one final jerk of its head, the frog engulfed the mouse and sat contented.
“The bog!” Juliet exclaimed with sudden revelation. “That’s what he meant!”
The bog was a few miles away, yet Juliette walked the trek quickly, without a single thought of her farm or family falling behind her and the playful clutter of the forest. She had a playmate now, and a game, and she was devoted to these two things singlemindedly. She did not stop to ask the weeping washerwoman why she cried at the waterfall. Nor did she dare walk near that strange horse with its goggling eyes and wet mane. Nor did she aid the man of bones in finding his sharp teeth. She cared for little else except the game. She did not even care that it was nearly lunchtime when she finally arrived at the bog and saw her playmate knee-deep in the peat. Nor did she care that behind him arched a perfectly rounded hill that stretched from one side of the bog to the other, partially submerged in the peat and duckweed and lilypads like the corpulent belly of some dead bog giant.
The little boy in the bog said, “Who goes there with so little care?”
“You know me,” she said, smiling. “I am your Juliette.”
“What a dare for someone so fair to travel so far!
Or is it a snare that puts ye where ye are?”
“I saw no snared rabbits,” she said, blinking away her perplexity. “I have a letter for you.”
She walked to the edge of the peat, grabbed hold of a leaning elm with one hand, and outstretched the other to pass the letter to the boy in the bog. He took it and she pulled herself back upright again, and just in the nick of time, too, for the elm was upended from the fickle soil from which it grew and fell over into the bog with a sigh. She dropped the letters he had given her earlier and they, too, fell into the bog. The bog swallowed all.
“Oh fiddlesticks!” she said, and instantly slapped her hand to her moue of a mouth, lest her mother and father suddenly appear and flog her good for swearing.
“Those letters are of no material matter,” said the boy, watching the other letters sink,
“for the message of concern is in this, the latter.”
The boy in the bog unfolded and read the letter, nodded (dislodging a snail from his ear), then quickly folded the letter again.
Meanwhile Juliette looked at Ghillie Dhu for the first time with eyes unclouded by excitement or exhaustion. She saw that he was different. He was shorter and squatter, and fatter, too, like a frog, and bowlegged. His eyes bulged from their sockets as if engorged with putrid water, and he was darker of hair and of skin than he was near the oak tree. Much of his wet, slimy skin was now patched in morassy vegetation. He looked as young, but as he grinned his opossum teeth at her there ran wrinkles in his dark, moss-mottled skin. Around him was wrapped a clingy wet robe of lichen and toadstools. Snails and earthworms writhed in his hair. His tongue, so very long and pink, dangled from his impishly round face with its toady jowls. When he spoke his voice was guttural and resonant.
“Me dear sprightly elf, ” he said, “I must have plumb forgotten me self
for I was going by some other name on some other shelf.”
The little girl wiped her muddy hands on her frock and frills. “And what name would that be?”
“If it pleases, while in this swampy muck,
I shall be that age-old adage, Puck.”
“Puck?” Juliette said, trying not to stare at him. “As you say, Puck. I have two names, too. Juliet Fooley. What is next in our game?”
Puck Ghillie Dhu hobbled forward through the peat and handed the letter to Juliette Fooley. The bog did not slosh or ripple as his rotund body waded through it, but remained solidly flat and undisturbed beneath its heavy decay.
He handed the letter over to her and she took it, trying not to gag on his rotten stench.
“Go ye’ to where the crowned rivals joust
in the courtyard where they are out to oust.”
Juliette pondered this oblique riddle, then gasped when Puck abruptly sunk beneath the peat, the vegetation spreading thin across the bog as if he never was.
“Courtyard and crowns?” Juliette said, confused. “Am I to seek Arthur and his knights of Camelot, or some fairy knights in the company of Queen Mab?”
As if in answer to Juliette’s question there rose from amidst that thick layer of decaying vegetation a small skull, peeking through as if in a game of hide and go seek. In its hollow eye sockets there squirmed nightcrawlers entangled violently with one another. The fawn did not mind, for its days of minding were far behind it.
“The glade!” Juliette cried, as if struck with a giddy spell. “Where the bucks fight!”
Away she hurried at once, for the deer glade was very far and she had to make haste if she was to pass the bog and arrive there before suppertime. Unlike lunch and breakfast, Juliette did not forget supper, for she was sorely famished by now, as her stomach was eager to remind her. Yet, she told herself she need not worry about supper, for it would be always waiting for her, warm and welcoming upon the fireplace when she should return. And as for chores, well, it would do no harm to neglect the farm one day in a year. Her parents might flog her, but she thought it would be punishment received with little regret, especially after this delightful escapade.
Juliette sang to herself as she went. She felt like singing, for she was happy and because it distracted her from the hunger in her belly.
“A turn of the stick, a burn of the wick,
a spurn of the prick, and learn to be strict.”
She slowed her hasty pace and ceased her singing. A new scene opened within the woods. She saw a beautiful maiden whose lily-white arms cradled a rusted suit of armor. Within the armor a shriveled man lay, blind with love. In a field of flowers they sat, and the maiden sang to the armor, much more than to the man, and the man lay in both ecstacy and agony that he should be built of mortal stuff. Behind them there was heaped a flower-tangled pile of ancient armor leaning against one another, some bodied with bones and some with dust; all long since rusted.
Further along, where the forest motes danced in the beams of light, Juliet heard flutes piping and bells ringing and felt the sting of acorns thrown from above. Her eyes skittered from bole to bower to bough, spotting only flickers of diaphanous wings in infrequent sunlight.
“Nary a fairy was ever merry,” Juliette recited, then continued on.
The sun was nearer to the horizon as the trees parted to reveal the hoof-stomped glade. The wind breathed harder and colder, teasing her with its dreadful promises. Shadows stretched long and deepened while mists rose from their cold mouths. Dappled grass glistened as if gilded, then cooled dark in the gloaming’s gloom.
Like sheep the mists herded themselves around her, expecting feed. She kept to her heading and came to the clearing. Once there, in the glade, she saw her friend, Puck Ghillie Dhu. She called out to him and he turned, raking the overhanging branches with his antlers.
“Ye address me as a familiar while masked as a stranger,” he said,
“Present yourself, heart to hart, lest you seek danger.”
“I am ever your Juliette,” Juliette said, still somewhat winded from the long hike and the deep hunger. “I am playing a game with you, Puck Ghillie Dhu, and have brought this letter as you told me to.”
The boy walked toward her on hoofed legs like a deer’s, nor was he truly a boy now. Nearing her, his shadow showed how much he had grown since last they met, for it unfurled itself over her from his new height like a banner upon a turret. He was barrel-chested and had forearms as thick as a goat’s thigh. She handed him the letter and waited as he read it. She looked at him, and admired him, even if he scared her a little now with his size and his features.
Sharp antlers jutted out of his head, felted at the base and with sandy brown bone branching outward and upward. Big honey-locust thorns were tangled in his hair. He smelled heavily of animal sweat and dung and musk and wore about his waist a kilt of prickly weeds and nettles and barbs. On his fingertips were hawkish talons, crimson-stained, and his tail was that of a polecat, and his dark brown skin was ruffled and scarred with many fights. A curly tuft of hair dangled from his chin, nettles and catkins tangled in the tresses. Her eyes watered as she stood near him; her eyelids stung and swelled. Still, she had a playmate to play a game with, and that was all that mattered to her as the sun slunk away beneath the Western side of the forest. Now the sky was bleeding like a cut hide hung up next to a fireplace to dry. The red liquids ran fast, then blackened.
“I had forgotten me name,” he said, “and me birth claim,
but with this little dame I will make full on the promise of the game.”
He smiled, and his teeth were those of a wildcat’s.
“I don’t know if I can play much longer,” Juliette said, her stomach rumbling. “I am hungry.”
The boy—that was not a boy—just smiled. Juliette grew uneasy. His eyes were eyes as black as a stag’s, and as impassive.
“Can we finish playing tomorrow?”
“But ye have come nearly to the end,” he said,
“and never need worry beyond tomorrow’s bend.”
“Really?”
“As I am known as Pan, and Puck and Ghillie Dhu,
know ye now that I speak to ye true.”
He returned the letter to Juliette and Juliette stared down at it. There was a little cut on her hand now, made by one of his talons, dripping droplets as red as the sunset. He spoke with a voice hoarse and thick, not at all mellifluous as it was when she first met him.
“Where the earth yawns satisfied in its appetite
the womb welcomes all to sleep through endless night.”
Pan stretched down on all fours, then, and went galloping away, twisting upon himself and tearing himself apart unto a multitude of animals that fled and paid chase to one another, this way and that.
Juliette watched the animals disappear into the woods. She then rubbed her aching belly and found it hard to concentrate, or to even remember what the riddle was. Her eyes stung, her nose was red with sneezing, and she was sore all over; especially her feet. She had walked so long, today.
Just when she was about to turn back and head home— hungry and frustrated with herself— she saw something. It was a snake slithering along the glade. A young rabbit was in its mouth. The snake carried its prey toward a small cairn Juliette had not noticed before. It slid on its belly with all of the patience that a certain meal provided, then slunk beneath the stacked rock edifice.
“The cave,” Juliette said quietly.
It was that time that good children should be in bed and that bad children could be misled. Juliette started to feel drowsy. The fatigue of the day, and the hunger, and the game all settled upon her like many heavy quilts weighing her down and begging her to sleep. Yet, she pushed on, spurred by the excitement of the game and its nearing end. She told herself she could sleep afterward, perhaps even lingering in bed tomorrow morning and neglecting her chores again. After all, she had neglected her chores today and the world did not fall to ruin. What did it matter that the chickens were not fed or the cows went unmilked? She pressed on, deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the cave.
A terrible wind came from the East that was not a wind. Juliette heard it before she felt it, and so felt it in her heart and blood before she could feel it on her skin. It was a choral moan of lost souls. Icemelt quivered in her heart and flowed through her veins. She knew the sound of the Sluagh, for she had heard it the night her grandfather died. Her mother and father had fought it from taking her grandfather’s soul the only way they knew how: by closing the windows and doors to their home while the elderly man died in his bed. The Sluagh was a terrible thing to hear, and even worse to behold. As it slithered through the air, seeking Juliette in her quest for her newfound friend, she saw its multitude of spirits all openmouthed with moaning and pain. So many faces in a breeze— like a murder of crows tumbling over each other in a violent eddy. It encircled her for a whirl, as if in anticipation, and then, seeking dead or dying prey elsewhere, left her to her game.
The cave yawned wide before her, blacker than night above. He saw her long before she saw him. He was staring at her as she walked toward him, his hairy back to her and his neck twisted around backwards, like an owl’s. His yellow-lobed eyes burned wildly in the twilit darkness of the forest. The look on his face made her stop walking, halting her like a rabbit halts before the fox. She could not move, save for her eyes which darted up and down him like squirrels up and down a tree . An ursine mane of fur ran from his head to his tail. He was grinning, and the wolfish fangs gleamed between the retracting gums. The pelts and hides hanging around him stank, and many of them were hairless and pink and wet with scarlet. They had human faces that moaned wide and silently.
“I…I have a letter for you,” Juliette said.
He looked stretched, like a shadow at dusk, gangly and lithe, elm-limbed from joint to joint, and his gaunt stomach was riddled with trenches of ribs. Withered to waste by Winter he was, and yet he had a fierce power as he stood outside the cave, welcoming her within that darkened womb of the earth. He seemed to fill up the cave, its inner darkness, and then the outer darkness of the darkening sky.
With a clawed paw he took the letter from Juliette, glanced down at it as if he knew what it said before looking at it, and then returned it to Juliette. The cave seemed to expand and contract behind him, and Juliette quavered.
“What now?” she asked. “Is the game finished?”
His voice was a low growl, like a beast wanting blood.
“Down has come the life-giving sun,” he said,
“as the shadows darken and bleed and run
here to there, from horizon to horizon,
and so, yes, our little game is done.”
“It’s over?” Juliette said, surprised. “Who won?”
The beastly man stretched taller, looming high— as high as the night beyond the cave.
Juliette gasped. “So…you won?” she whispered, barely above her breath.
He grinned down at Juliette, showing his wolfish fangs and his burning eyes. He said nothing.
“Ghillie Dhu,” Juliette mumbled.
He said nothing, but loomed larger.
“Ghillie Dhu?” she asked, pleaded.
He said nothing, but loomed larger still.
“Ghill? Puck?”
He said nothing, but loomed larger and branched out all around her.
“Pan? Please.”
“Oh my dear foolish little one,” said the cave, “with each of those names I am done,
for now I am but Far Darrig, which all good children shun.”
“Far Darrig,” Juliette said. The name was familiar, though she could not remember from where or what. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve heard your name before. From a nursery rhyme, I think.”
He only grinned more widely, and loomed more largely.
“How did it go?” she asked aloud. She then remembered:
“‘Hey bonnie girl, which way is home?
(Red Man wants to skip along too)
Hey bonnie girl, why do you roam?
(Red Man wants to shadow you)
My bonnie girl, you know better
than to let the Red Man get his cape wetter
by dipping it in the ink of you,
so beware of Far Darrig and his letter.”
Far Darrig, she thought.
The Red Man.
Juliette turned and fled. He did not chase her. He did not have to. He was all around her. He was the forest and the earth and the cave and the swamp. He was the eyes in the darkness that watched her run, and the creatures that scattered before her. She was in his slowly yawning jaws all along. She was lost in the woods, and the woods was his gullet.
Clouds had stolen over the starry sky casually, like a hunter sure of his quarry, and now Juliette could not tell which way she had come. In the last wink of moonlight, she opened the letter and read what it said.
“Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.”
She collapsed on the ground, weeping.
His voice spoke all around her, in the rustle of leaves and the howl of wolves, and every other sound that haunts the wilderness.
“By the game ye have willingly bet
I shall have ye, my Juliette.”
“I want to go home,” she whimpered.
“Had you stayed you would not have strayed,” he said. “The unbridled wild is no place for a child.”
“Please let me go!” she moaned. “My parents will be worried.”
“Nay, vanish such thoughts from your foolish head
for even now a changeling sleeps in your bed.”
Juliette pulled at her hair desperately, weeping. “My parents will know the difference!”
“A difference, indeed, and one most welcome too,
for the changeling is a good child, unlike you.”
“I am not bad,” she said, trembling among the dead leaves. “I just wanted to play today! I wanted to play with a friend! I wanted to have fun in the woods, away from the village and the farm and everyone telling me what to do!”
“In the woods there is much fun to be had,
but by whom is the question, little girl gone bad.”
Far Darrig opened his mouth wide all around her. It was as a cave fanged with trees and tongued with a bog and as black and bottomless as the night sky. Juliette ran again, but it did no good. Wherever she ran, she ran toward the giant mouth. It was as inescapable as the wide, woeful wilderness and its ancient shadows were always eager for feast and for fun.
***
Juliette awoke in the woods. She sat up, shivering, and rubbed her eyes. Glancing around she saw through the trees that it was yet morning. The morning mists were a herd of sheep rummaging across the forest floor. Juliette stood up and saw that she was still dressed in her night gown. She must have went sleepwalking, she told herself, as she was apt to do from time to time.
“All a nightmare?” she said to herself.
The tittering of a bird unnerved her and so she quickly stood and returned to the path leading toward home…
…toward home and its endless chores and boredom and her desperate need for a playmate.
As she turned, however, her eyes alighted on a little figure in a red coat and cap hobbling away into the far-flung mists. It turned and watched her, waiting with a sharp grin on its wizened boy’s face. He gestured for her to follow.
She did not.

Imposter Furniture (Part 1)

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“I swear this couch eats my change,” he said, digging his hands into the seats of the sofa. “And then it disappears and I can’t ever find it again.”
Little Tommy watched his father shove his hands into the recesses of the cushions of the living room couch. Tommy was an impressionable toddler— which was a description he would have agreed with if he had any idea of its actual meaning. If someone had impressed the term upon him, however, he would have sworn to it as his central trait, just as he believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jesus, and God because they had been impressed upon him from an early age.
“How many pens have I lost to it?” his father exclaimed. “How many socks? It eats them! The damn thing is bound to.”
“I know what you mean,” answered Tommy’s mother from the kitchen. “I’ve lost so many hair ties in it that I believe it is planning on opening a hair salon.”
“With the money it’s eaten it could!” he replied.
Tommy was certain of it: the couch was eating things. It was eating coins and pretzels and socks and hair ties and pens because it wanted to grow stronger, and it wanted to grow stronger so it could eat bigger things.

The family dog, Weinee, did not trust the couch either. It barked at the couch all throughout the day and night.
“Damn it, Weinee!” Tommy’s father griped. “Shut up!”
Weinee was a Dachshund. He had stubby little legs and an overlong body. He looked ridiculous as he hopped around the couch, barking and growling.
“Must be a mouse underneath the couch,” Tommy’s father said. “Guess I better put another glue trap out.”
He went into the kitchen, his footsteps booming thunderously around Tommy. When he returned he had a glue trap with a peanutbutter cracker stuck to it. Kneeling down, he slipped it in between the couch and the living room wall. He walked away and Tommy watched the glue trap disappear beneath the couch. It made Tommy sad. He wanted to eat the peanutbutter cracker.

Tommy’s parents had to put Weinee into Tommy’s room at night, otherwise the silly dog barked all night at the couch. Tommy liked having Weinee in his bedroom. The dog always laid at the foot of his bed, curled up and quiet. It reassured Tommy, especially when he heard his mother and father making noises. The noises frightened Tommy. Sometimes he dreamt that his father was turning into a Wolf-Man and attacking his mother. He often woke up crying, but then would reach down and pet the Dachshund and feel better. Even though Tommy was a toddler, he knew dreams weren’t real. They could not harm you.
The couch, however, could.

Late at night Tommy sometimes heard the couch moving in the living room, too. He knew it wasn’t the squeaky sound of his mother and father moving their bed. It was the scraping sound of the couch moving through the living room. Weinee often heard it, too, and would run to Tommy’s door, trying to stick his long, narrow snout under it, growling and barking. Weinee would have probably ran into the living room if Tommy’s door wasn’t closed. In the morning Tommy’s parents would ask Tommy what he was doing at night. Tommy could not articulate anything that satisfied them, since he was still a toddler, and so they assumed it was their son playing with his toys in the middle of the night.
“You need to go to sleep when it’s nighttime, Tommy,” his mother said, making a bowl of cereal for him.
His father sat at the kitchen table, eating waffles. “He’ll be fine. As long as he’s not having nightmares…or bothering us.”
“But he looks tired,” Tommy’s mother said.
“Doesn’t look tired to me,” his father said. “I wish I had half so much energy.”
Tommy’s mother put the bowl of cereal in front of Tommy and handed him a spoon. She then ran her fingers through his blonde wisps of hair.
“If you are scared you can come and sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed, okay?” she said.
Tommy’s father nearly choked on his waffles. Coughing, he shook his head ruefully. Tommy feared he might turn into a Wolf-Man. “No, Christina. No. He’s old enough to sleep on his own. If you make it a habit for him then he’ll never be able to sleep alone. He’ll be a sissy.”
Tommy’s mother had one of those looks in her eyes— the look that made Tommy want to cry.
“Eric, that’s not what you’re afraid of,” she said. “You just want…me time all of the time.” She picked up his empty plate and took it to the sink, rinsing the maple syrup off the ceramic. For a moment Tommy did not know if it was the faucet or his mother that hissed so loudly. She turned back to her husband, the morning light through the kitchen window burning in her blonde hair. “Eric, you’re just being selfish. And, quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be in the mood tonight. Not if you keep acting this way.”
Tommy’s father stood up and went to his mother. “Come on, Christina. Don’t be like that.” He slipped his arms around her hips and pulled her to him. They kissed and he grinned. “Are you sure you won’t be in the mood?”
She shrugged a little, then began tightening his tie. “Maybe,” she said. “Depends on how you behave yourself when you come home later.”
He kissed her one more time, but she pushed him away.
“It’s almost time for you to go,” she said.
Tommy’s father checked his cellphone. “Damn. You’re right.” He stole one more kiss, then headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He left for work shortly thereafter.
“Come on, Tommy,” his mother said. “Eat your cereal so you can grow up big and strong like your daddy.”

Weinee was in the living room, running around the couch and growling at it. Tommy’s mother set Tommy on the carpet in front of the television. She turned it on, the black screen exploding with bright colors from the early morning cartoons. She was about to leave the living room, but paused in the hallway and glanced over her shoulder at Weinee’s antics.
“You really are a silly dog,” she said. She went down the hall into the kitchen.
Tommy watched cartoons. He liked cartoons. He liked the colors and the noises and the characters as they bounced around inside the television screen. He also liked the commercials showing other kids playing with toys. Even with Weinee growling and running around the couch, Tommy could not look away from the television.
And then he heard Weinee yelp. It was a startling sound. Tommy had only ever heard Weinee make it once, weeks ago when Tommy tried to pick Weinee up, but accidentally dropped him.
Alarmed, Tommy looked away from the television and toward the couch. He did not see Weinee anywhere. He knew this was not right. Rolling over onto his hands, he gradually pushed himself up onto his feet and toddled closer to the couch. He did not get too close to it, however. He knew it was not to be trusted.

His mother came into the living room a few minutes later, sitting on the couch to read a book. Tommy tried to tell her that Weinee was gone.
“Momma,” he said.
“Yes, baby?” she said, looking at him from over her Harlequin Romance novel.
He pointed at the couch. “Doggie,” he said.
“No, baby, it’s called a ‘couch’.”
Tommy frowned and tried to babble some more.
“I see you, Tom-Tom,” his mother assured him. “Now sit down and watch your cartoons while mommy rests. In a little while I have to make supper.”
His mother was now wholly engrossed in her book, and while Tommy was only a toddler, he knew enough about his mother to know that unless he was wailing she would not pay attention to him for some time. Babbling to himself, he sat back down and thought about Weinee for a while. It made him feel sad. But then his favorite cartoon came on and he forgot all about the couch and Weinee and his own bad feelings.

The couch was bigger than Tommy. Tommy knew his mother and father were large, too, since they towered over him and could easily pick him up. But he knew the couch did not care how big they were. All that mattered to it was its hunger. And the dark. When sunlight reached into the living room during the day the couch remained dormant. Sunlight hurt it. That was why it moved around at night, looking for things to eat. That was why Tommy never went to use the restroom at night, no matter how much it hurt to hold it.

The next morning Tommy woke up to a wet bed and wet clothes.
“Tommy!” his mother exclaimed, picking him up and taking him into the bathroom. “You peed the bed again!”
She stripped him down and seated him in the bath, filling it with foamy water up to his waist. While he played in the water and foam she pulled all of his blankets and sheets off his bed and washed them in the utility room’s washer. She then took Tommy out, dried him, put him in fresh, clean clothes, and set him on his way.
“You know how to use the potty, Tommy!” she said.

Tommy’s mother smoked. When she went for a smoke she did so outside, on the backporch. Nonetheless, Tommy had watched her from the kitchen many times. He knew what a lighter did. It created fire. Tommy also knew what fire was. It burned. It hurt. That was why he thought he could use the lighter to hurt the couch.
When his mother went to the bathroom, Tommy waddled into the kitchen. He climbed a chair and then climbed on top of the table. He grabbed the lighter and then carefully climbed down. When he tried to climb down from the chair, however, he lost his balance as his feet touched the kitchen tile. He tumbled over and bopped his head on the floor. He started to cry, without meaning to, but his mother was now taking a shower and could not hear him. Still crying, Tommy toddled into the living room with the lighter in his chubby, little fingers.
Coming to the couch, Tommy fumbled with the lighter for a while, trying to get the flame to stick its tongue out. He turned it upside down, shook it, babbled at it, and rubbed it against the couch. But the lighter never lit. He heard the shower cut off and his mother emerged, coming into the living room. She wore a robe and had a towel wrapped around her head. When she saw Tommy holding the lighter, she snatched it away from him.
“That is not a plaything, Tom-Tom,” she warned him. She sat on the couch and crossed her legs, sighing as if exhausted. “I need a vacation.”

By the time Tommy’s father came home later that evening, Tommy’s mother had changed into jogging pants and a T-shirt and had cooked dinner. They all sat down at the kitchen table and ate together.
“More overtime?” his mother said.
His father had not even taken off his suit yet. “More portfolios to look over. The economy is up, so interest in investments is up, too.” He shook his head. “I hate that pun. Simon says it at the office all the damn time. I could throttle him.”
Tommy wanted to be heard, too, so he babbled a few sounds. His mother wiped the mashed peas off his chin.
“Eat your food, Tom-Tom,” she said. “Stop playing in it.”
Tommy’s father sawed off some gristle from the edge of his steak. He pinched it between his fingers and held it under the table. After a moment of waiting a look of confusion crossed his face.
“What’s wrong?” his wife asked.
He glanced around the kitchen. “Where’d Weinee go?”

They spent the last hours of daylight looking for Weinee. Tommy tried to tell them what had happened, but he only confused them. When they returned inside, his mother printed out Lost posters with Weinee’s picture on them. She vowed to canvas the whole neighborhood tomorrow.

The next morning, Tommy and his parents ate breakfast in the kitchen. His father was in a playful mood. He pinched his wife’s butt as she bent over to pick up a fork that fell on the floor. She stood straight up with a jump and a gasp. She smacked her husband’s arm, grinning.
“Your libido is incorrigible,” she said.
He grinned. “Tonight we should go dancing.”
She crossed her arms and tossed her head lightly left and right, weighing the idea. “Maybe.”
“Come on,” he said. “We haven’t gone out on a Friday night in forever.”
“We’ve had other things to worry about,” she said. She glanced at Tommy, but her husband rushed up and hugged her from behind.
“Which is why we should go,” he said. “I have a clubfoot that is just itching to bust a groove.”
His wife laughed. “That’s not what a ‘clubfoot’ is,” she said.
“Then what is it?” he asked.
“It’s when your foot is abnormally shaped,” she said. “Like Lord Byron.”
“Oh ho,” he said. “Lord Byron, huh? Is that one of your lovers in your Romance novels?”
She sighed yearningly—melodramatically— and gazed up at the ceiling as if lost in passionate daydreams. “I wish,” she said.
“You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?” he said. He tickled her until she laughed. She struggled against him, pulling away, then coming forward to hug him, face to face.
“You’re a ne’er-do-well,” she said, beaming up at him.
They kissed. Tommy began to cry. His father went to him.
“Now none of that, Mister,” his father said. “You’re king of the house while I’m gone, so you have to man up.” He picked Tommy up, and Tommy cried even louder. His father looked crestfallen. “He never likes me picking him up,” he complained.
Tommy reached toward his mother, bawling. She took him from his father and Tommy immediately stopped crying.
“All little boys prefer their mommies,” she said. “Isn’t that right, Tom-Tom?”
Tommy nestled against his mother’s neck.
“Maybe Freud was right,” his father said.
“That’s not funny, Eric,” she said. “And don’t be jealous. You’re always at work. I have to spend more time with him.”
“Yeah, but you like being a a stay-at-home mom.”
“Stay-at-home parent,” she said, a little snappishly.
Her husband looked confused. “You are a mom and you stay at home,” he said. “So you are a stay-at-home mom.”
“That is patriarchal bullshit,” she said, her former humor hardening into anger. “The connotations are demeaning.”
“Well excuse me,” he said, his own expression hardening. “I didn’t take any Gender Studies classes to know the difference. I was too busy taking Business classes. You know, so you wouldn’t have to go find a job with your Gender Studies degree.”
His wife’s face reddened, her eyes gaping in incredulous fury.
“Just leave for work already,” she said, coldly. “Get out of here before I take Tommy and go to my parents and never come back.”
Tommy’s father opened his mouth as if to say something else. Instead, he sighed angrily and went to the door. The door slammed behind him. Tommy could hear the minivan roar to life and leave down the street. His mother set Tommy back in his chair, then went to the corner of the kitchen to grab the broom. She began to sweep the floor, then threw the broom down, startling Tommy. She went back to Tommy and picked him up. She tried to smile at him, but there were tears in her eyes.

Toward lunchtime Tommy’s mother took Tommy outside. They went up and down the street, taping the print-outs of Weinee on telephone poles and lampposts. Occasionally she said hello to a neighbor she knew. Tommy became tired and his mother had to carry him, which in turn made her tired.
“That’s enough for today,” she said, hauling her son back to their house.
When Tommy’s father returned home that evening he had a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. Tommy’s mother took them reluctantly, setting them down on the couch. The two of them then went into the bedroom, leaving Tommy alone on the living room floor. While they talked, Tommy watched as a long tongue emerged from the cushions of the couch, dragging the flowers and the chocolates down into the cracks between cushions.
Tommy’s parents returned a few minutes later. They seemed to have forgotten about the flowers and chocolates. His mother bent over Tommy, forcing herself to smile.
“Tommy,” she said, “your daddy and I are going out to dinner. Madison is coming over to watch you. I want you to be good for her, okay?” She brushed her fingers through the wisps of his blonde hair. “We’ll be back soon.” She looked up at her husband. “No dancing tonight.”
Her husband nodded stiffly. His grimly gray suit was happier looking than his humorless face.
Tommy’s mother went to their bedroom to get ready. Tommy’s father sat down beside Tommy on the living room floor. He tried to play with Tommy, rolling a red rubber ball to his son. But Tommy was disinterested in his father. The ball bounced off his chubby knees and he let it go wherever it wanted.
“Come on, Tom-Tom,” Tommy’s father said. “Try to give me a chance.” He fetched the ball himself, then rolled it toward his son again. It was a futile gesture. His son did not pay it any mind as it bounced once more off his indifferent knee. Instead, Tommy tottered up to his feet and started toddling toward the bedroom. His father scooped him up. “Your mom is getting dressed,” he said. “You have to give her space. And time. We both do.”
Tommy began to wail. His father set him down on the living room carpet once again, sighing in defeat.
“Maybe I’m not cut out for being a dad,” he said.
Madison arrived shortly thereafter. She wore a skirt and a tanktop with a football varsity jacket over her bare shoulders. It was dark blue with white sleeves. Tommy’s father frowned at it as he opened the door to let her in.
“You a fan of the Quakers now?” he asked.
She smiled sheepishly. “My boyfriend is. He’s part of the team.”
“He goes to the University of Pennsylvania?” he remarked with disbelief. “Aren’t you still in highschool?”
It was Madison’s turn to frown. Instead of answering his insinuation, she walked over to Tommy and kneeled down beside him. “Hey, Tom-Tom!” she said. “Look how tall you are now! Wow!” She smiled up at his father. “He’s going to be tall and handsome, just like his dad. I know it.”
Tommy’s father closed the door and pretended not to hear that.
A few minutes later Tommy’s mother emerged from the bedroom, glittering darkly in a black dress with sequins. Her black stilettos clicked sharply on the hallway tile.
“That’s a pretty dress,” Madison observed.
Tommy’s mother pulled at the dress, smoothing it out over her hips. She grimaced and fidgeted awkwardly. “I haven’t worn this in over a year,” she said. “Does it really look good on me?”
“You look beautiful,” her husband said.
“Yeah,” Madison said. “You can’t even tell that you were ever pregnant. I mean, not if you didn’t know already.”
Tommy’s mother eyed the younger woman coolly. “Thank you, Madison.”
The couple gave Madison instructions and phone numbers, in the event of an emergency. They paid her, too, in advance, and then headed out to dinner. Madison watched them leave from the living room window. When their taillights had disappeared down the darkening streets she called her boyfriend, Dave, on her cellphone. He appeared at the door a little while later. He glanced around nervously as they went inside.
“Why didn’t you drive?” she asked him.
“I did,” he said. “But I parked down the street so no one would know I was here.”
“You worry too much,” she said.
“Are you sure they won’t be coming back for a while?” he asked. “What if they forgot something?”
“Don’t be such a baby, Dave,” Madison said, flippantly. “Even if they do come back, they won’t really care. Not really.”
“I’m not worried about them,” Dave said. “I’m worried about your dad. And why are you wearing my jacket? I told you to keep it a secret!”
Madison pouted, taking his jacket off slowly, playfully. “Boo hoo,” she said. She let the jacket fall to the floor, then pressed herself against him. She kissed him on the lips—a long, lingering kiss. “Don’t worry so much. You’ll give yourself hemorrhoids.”
Dave seemed to perk up a little. He plopped down on the couch and smiled nervously at Tommy. “Hey, little bro. How’s it going?”
Tommy made a cooing sound of uncertainty, then stared at the couch. Dave was taller and bigger than Tommy’s father, but Tommy wondered if the monster would be afraid of Dave. Looking out the living room window, he saw that daylight was draining quickly from the neighborhood. It would be dark soon.
Madison plopped down beside Dave. They clung to each other for the next couple of hours, watching television as the sun went down. At length, the last wink of dusk flashed through the window and the embers settled to cool ash. Madison took Tommy to the potty one final time, then put him to bed.
“Good night, Tom-Tom,” she said. She pecked his forehead with a kiss. “Sweet dreams.” She turned on his nightlight and turned off the overhead light. As she closed the door she wondered aloud where Weinee was. “I like that silly dog…”

Tommy laid in bed for an hour, listening. It was not long before he heard Madison and Dave making noises in the living room. They were the same noises his mother and father made in their bedroom at night. He did not like hearing those sounds. They made him think of werewolves and beasts and other creatures snorting and growling and prowling the darkness.
“Hey, watch where you’re sticking it!” Madison warned. “I don’t like it that way.”
“I haven’t even put a condom on yet,” Dave said.
“Then why are you trying to do that?” she demanded.
“I’m not,” he exclaimed.
Tommy could hear them struggling to rearrange themselves on the couch, and then their gasps of confusion. Then he heard their screams. Their screams were soon muffled, and abruptly silenced.