Southern Gothic

The field spread, wan and wilted, wallowing
like a pale corpse before the front porch,
beneath a gloomy gray sky, swallowing
the sun like a fog-shrouded torch.

The old man sat in his rocking chair,
grinding the planks with a scraping screech
and his wife sat on the steps, hands in hair,
plaiting it as she ignored his speech.

“Don’t go runnin’ ‘round no more,”
he said, the rifle loaded in his lap,
“‘cause I won’t be married to no whore.
I’d rather be a widower than a sorry sap.”

The woman only giggled, and continued braiding
while he upbraided her with his threats—
at her back the house paint was chipped and fading,
the windows cobwebbed with dead insects and regrets.

The second storey window was dark, the kid’s room
empty, ever empty, since they were married—
and in the haunted silence of that gloom
all of the past and future and hope were buried.

With a sigh she said, “Nothing ever grows here.
None of my vegetables and none of my flowers.”
She blinked away a single bitter tear
and sighed again. “Ain’t nothin’ here really ours.”

“I’ve got some good roots here,” he said,
“and they got a taproot to our hearts.”
She scoffed. “But the flowers are all dead,
so who cares about the other parts?”

“You just think you’ll be happy flyin’ free,”
he said, “like a seed on the sinful wind,
or you think someone will pluck you from me—
maybe a rich fool wanting a cozy friend.”

He lifted the cold-barreled rifle in each hand
and felt the reassuring heft of the stock
and, with a curdling frown toward his wedding band,
he aimed it toward her, listening to her talk.

“Your gun don’t work no more,” she said,
“no more than the one between your legs.
Go ahead and shoot me in the head—
your gun ain’t nowhere near big as Greg’s.”

“Woman, you are tempting the Devil,”
he said, his voice as a whetstone on a blade.
She stood up, smirking, ready to revel
in the roughspun hatred they had both made.

Her dress was white as dandelion seeds
and clung to her body loose, a dress
hinting at the yet-youthful curves, and lewd deeds,
of a breeze fluttering higher at that airy access.

“Should have known you were a dead end,”
she said lightly, patting down her skirt—
she was a lithe flower, but she would not bend.
“You’d think after all this time it wouldn’t hurt.”

He smiled sourly and the porch’s light
drew a shadow mask down to his jaw line.
“All I gave you was cleaning vinegar, right?
And all you ever wanted was fancy wine.”

A cow lowed in the distance, a moan
carrying on for a long time, as if to splurge
upon the wide-mouthed vowel, maudlin, lone
as a farewell song, a Southern Gothic dirge.

“Think you can bolt from me?” he growled.
“I got your number, Missy, with this Winchester.”
“All you ever had were guns.” She scowled
and thought of the first time he had undressed her.

He could smell honeysuckle in the air
and it stayed in his mind, for a time,
but he also smelled lavender in her hair
and on her neck, soon to be a kissing crime.

His finger gradually weighed upon the trigger,
the muscles and sinew tightening with death.
“You think you can just leave me for some nigger,
but you ain’t.” The rifle exploded its gunpowder breath.

The world was deafened, silenced, slain,
and her eyes closed to utter void,
yet she did not blossom from her brain
and instead saw a doe, far afield, destroyed.

She watched in horror, and in relief,
as the doe collapsed, rose and fell and rose,
scrambling and moaning in its grief
before bleeding out among the fallow wheat rows.

“Go on, get,” the old man said. “Go to your buck.”
Wide-eyed as a doe, she hurried toward her car
hoping she would start a new life, with a little luck—
but she did not get very far.

He aimed the rifle and fired again,
a grin spreading across his empty-eyed face.
He said, “I wanted you to see how I’d win.
Did you honestly think you’d ever leave this place?”

He watched her crawl, her dainty daisy dress
now a crimson-and-white tie-dye,
and when she stopped moving he said, “God bless”,
lipped his rifle and kissed the world goodbye.

To Spite His Own…

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Disclaimer:  This story is written from the perspective of a slave-owner heiress in the 1800’s.  She is unapologetically racist, as they were back then, so if you have difficulties with divorcing what a character says and what a writer intends, do NOT read this.  There is rife irony throughout this story.  I honestly hate to put a disclaimer on it, but my fiancee has warned me that such things are not to be taken lightly, even in historical fiction, and so here is the warning.

Dear Dr. Lichtenstein,

I have entailed, as per your request, all relevant journal entries as provided by the patient’s wife. I thank you for your patience. Please note that any inconvenience endured during this protracted period of procurement was due in large part to Mrs. Rose’s inability to write of the night of the climactic episode. Due to the nature of the incident she has not been forthcoming until recently in recounting the event in detail or divulging her intimate entries. I hope this information serves you well in the patient’s treatment. Additionally, Mrs. Rose wishes to visit her husband in Switzerland whenever you deem it appropriate.

May 5, 1823
The most wonderful thing happened today. My beloved cousin Allan came to visit me at my little Summer chateau. I fancy it a chateau, even if it happens to be built in the heart of Virginia. Mon amour, how I missed you! Ever since childhood I had this preternatural sense that he and I were destined for matrimony. Mother dismissed my whimsies, of course, but father has always insisted that the family estate pass to “a Rose rather than to a local weed”. And Allan is the preferred candidate in my affections. No other campaign could sway my regards beyond him. He has, with the most effortless modesty, marched through the victory arch of my heart. Or so I fancy in my abundant joy.
Yet, there are deficiencies that darken what would otherwise be an auspicious prospect. I do not mean deficiencies in Allan, of course, for he is impeccable in his character and his upbringing, but rather deficiencies in circumstance. Of course, these deficiencies amount to nothing in my estimations of him. I have no need of bettering circumstances, the family estate being so prosperous in its cotton yields, but Allan perceives deficiencies in his own station which he wishes to improve before our courtship. It is his virtue of humility that is a vice to him, I believe. He would martyr himself to absolve himself of other people’s sins, I think. I do not mean to imply blasphemies, of course, only a saintliness in him that is akin to such a Passion as would render the world better in principle and pretense. It only reinforces my belief in him as my destined partner.
Yet, I do believe his virtue is taken to vice, at times, due to his overwrought Passion in regards to his virtues. Indeed, what a mercurial heart Allan sometimes suffers! Nor does he forswear the most rancorous moods when confronted by various trifles. It is his charm, I should say, but the offending agent in this matter was my house slave Betty whose dusting had unsettled “layers of Time” as Allan was steeped in his studies with a pencil and paper in hand. He nearly threw her to the floor for her thoughtlessness. I thought it all rather overwrought, but Betty escaped fairly unharmed, if a little frightened. But it is a matter of learning, I think. She will habituate to afford Allan’s moods with better jurisprudence in coming days, I think. I sincerely wish for coming days, too, and in plenitude. Having Allan around has markedly bettered my spirits since Daniel died only last year of that wretched disease. It has bettered my own well being, I am certain. Losing a brother is terrible, and while I do not expect Allan to offer himself as a substitute, nor attempt that premise of affection, having a young man in the house is comforting. I utterly adore him!
May 12, 1823
Allan has always been obsessed with details. It must owe to his instincts as an artist. When he saw the misplaced petunias among the Morning Glories— despite their moblike exuberance and abundance— I marveled at his eye, and shortly reprimanded Toby for his lax care in maintaining the garden. The Negro promised to replant them in better affirmation of their aesthetics, but Allan was not persuaded and lingered by, overseeing the Negro’s efforts. It is so good to have an honorable man at my side so willing to stand tall and right the wrongs around me. Father was quite pleased with Allan’s efforts as well. He tells me frequently that being a plantation owner is as much a matter of warfare as homesteading. I do believe it eases his mind to see that Allan will be as diligent in suppressing the more bestial elements always threatening to rebel against Order for the sake of Chaos. This is something those foolish Abolitionists do not understand. The animal must be overmastered lest civilization be trodden by the rabble. But the plantation presses on like a well-trained horse. It eases father’s mind, in his old age, to know that a man like Allan will be at the ready with the reins. And the riding crop, if need be.
I must recount but one image, however, from the whole wonderful day before I close this account. It was evening and we were soon to retire indoors for dinner. Allan and I stood upon the porch, beneath the eaves, watching the evening sun smoulder into dusk. Mother and father were away, preoccupied with other things, and those ebony personages were scattered about the sunlit fields like shadows to earn their keep. The whole world was holding its breath, I fancy to think, as it framed itself in gold, drawing a curtain about our lives together with the silken softness of velvets and blues. Allan then turned to me and took my hand, kissing it upon the cup of my palm. He then pressed it against his heart. So daring! So exhilarating! I could have lain myself down, will in hand, and written away my worldly possessions without a second thought, consigning my life to that moment’s intrepid ecstasy. He then asked me if I was happy in his continued presence, to which I replied without reserve or hesitation, and so he promised to stay as long as I would have him. I told him I would have him forever, if he so permitted me. It was then that our lips touched and the sun flared blindingly across the horizon one final time before settling in to shady peace of night.
We entered the house with our hearts still burning outside, traveling the earth in orbit of the sun like cherubim in attendance to Venus. Even as I sat down to eat I felt my heart racing in the upper spheres of the heavens. Allan sat across from me at the table, and yet the table itself was too great a distance from my beloved cousin. I fain think I should be shut within an acorn with him and still not be near enough. Father spoke of the going rates of cotton, as he was so often inclined to do, and mother pleased him by asking the same indulgent questions she always asked when he was speaking of his cotton, though she was as much an expert in the family business as himself.
I had wished to conclude this account with the triumph of my cousin’s daring act of love, but now that I write I find myself compelled to defend Allan in his behavior at the dinner table. It was not that he was rude or combative, even if his words were not the wisest in choice. He simply tired of hearing about cotton. He spoke tersely of the obsession of cotton in the Rose family line and said, in his direct manner, that he had no love for that occupation and instead desired pursuit in his artistic endeavors. Father was visibly agitated, but patiently spoke to Allan about the necessities for a comfortable life focused on family rather than the desires of a selfish life rooted in individual satisfactions. The two men exchanged subsequently thorny words, which pained me greatly, since they were the two most important men in my life. Mother, however, having a fair touch for pruning thorny flowers, gradually dulled the sharpness of the conversation and reconciled the two men as only a matriarch may. I was so grateful to her that I rose and embraced her as I once did when I was still yet a child. Allan apologized to father, then, and agreed, reluctantly, that tending to the plantation was the primary concern for a family such as theirs, and father, hoping to mend the broken bridge, confirmed his own assertion while also assuring Allan that he would have time to pursue his artistic endeavors if he is wise with his time. After dinner, Allan retired to bed early. Yet, I am certain I heard scratching and muttering from within his room last night as I passed his door. My poor cousin! I hope the later hours of the evening did not spoil its former joys! If only we could dwell within that sweet twilit hour for all time!

May 15, 1823
What else am I to write of today but Allan’s proposal? So sweet! So unexpected! Yet, I have no doubt that he and father had devised such a plan from the start, before his arrival. There were expectations in our family, after all, and so we followed them as we should. But to be so blissfully happy to follow them! We are very fortunate cousins indeed.
The proposal took place, naturally, in the studio upstairs which we have provided for Allan, far from curious eyes or any ear ready to echo in rumor of our binding of souls. He asked that I sit for a portrait. I had certain misgivings concerning this, due to his previous attempts at such portraiture, yet I wished to indulge him. He then painted my face for some time, his brows knitted with utmost concentration. It seemed, too, that he suffered some frustration with the portrait and its progression, expressed as a slightly vexed sneer in the corner of his lips, yet that only further threw my mind off any pretense of a proposal. He proposed most graciously, producing the ring from his box of paints. I accepted, of course, and brimmed with joyful tears. Nor did I mind when he became snappish afterwards as I fidgeted with joy upon the stool while he tried to rectify a perceived error in the portrait. I thought the image a lovely work and refused him the impulse to destroy it, as he did all of the others had ever attempted of me. He took umbrage at my insistence, but I am too happy to be rendered downcast by his sometimes irritable moods. I know he loves me, unconditionally, and will settle well into our domestic arrangements as they proceed with delightfully unfurling measures.

May 16, 1823
Allan was not half so happy today as he should have been. Perhaps it was his pride. Wedding arrangements, regardless of modesty, have always consisted of costly demands, and Allan, having little fortune himself, has had to allow his betrothed to proffer the patronage to meet the expenses. But how can he not comprehend my devotion to him? What is wealth to me when I am possessed of abundance? Man is a creature governed by irrational laws, in my limited understanding of the mold, and grows livid at the frivolities that Woman would rather scoff than pillory herself within. Pride will sink the whole vessel, I fear, if it is allowed to overburden the enterprise. I tried to lift his spirits by speaking to him tenderly of our ensuing life together. I spoke of it in bubbly ambition and childish excitement. Perhaps I thought such enthusiasm would be infectious.
Nonetheless, Allan took to brooding in his studio while Mrs. Tenebaum accompanied me to town to procure the necessary festoons for the festivity and to aid me in writing the invitations. Allan made no list of recommended guests, being dispossessed of his family by the fickle tragedies of sea travel, nor had he friends to suggest, nor even any of his fellow artists to induce into attendance. To the contrary, he expressly forbid their welcome. Always and ever wanting to please him, I submitted myself to his surly demands, though it shaded an otherwise radiant day of hopeful plotting and whimsical planning.
The rest of the day was a whirl of delight. Never do I fail to enjoy perusing lace and flowers, and today I had reason to indulge more so than in mere trifling fancy. Perhaps I should marry Allan every week, if only for the excuse to rifle through the tailor shops and nursery gardens. In time it will be incumbent upon Allan to accompany me into town to we may have his new suit tailored properly. I know he will look so fetching in a new blue suit and white cravat! And myself, of course, shall radiate New England elegance in my lovely veil and gown! Oh, the joys of a wedding in Summer!

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May 17, 1823
Allan was not pleased today. It is woefully and wholly my own fault. Hounding him as I did, however sweetly, threw him into a darker mood. Mother warned me. I only wished to take him to town for measurements. But I pressed my pleasure over his own and interrupted his studies while he had managed great strides in rendering a vase of flowers in perfect verisimilitude. But hence after my unthinking selfishness I had ruined his attentions and spoiled the whole piece. He has been silent and sullen since and I do not know how to make right so much wrong wrought. I despair to think of it, wondering if I have ruined the picturesqueness of our marriage scene alongside his beloved vase. The paint clashes in my mind most garishly and I cannot smooth it into finer form and shades. I shall go to bed at once to cry myself to sleep. Perhaps, come the morrow, he will open his heart again to me.

May 18, 1823
Seeking amends, I went to town today and bought five new paintbrushes and brought them home. They proved needless since Allan greeted me so happily as I entered the house that he seemed to have forgotten all about his former fury from last night. He told me, most excitedly, that he had managed to salvage the vase painting, escorting me eagerly upstairs to testify to his achievement. Coming into his study, it seemed the vase sat next to its identical double, and I was very elated on his behalf. It was a rather very good piece, much better than any other he had heretofore produced.
Yet, my mouth betrayed me at the behest of my eye, observing aloud that in his concentration on form he had mismatched the shadows beneath the vase. Summarily put, the candelabrum’s light struck the vase upon the left side, yet in rendering the shadow he had used natural light from a window to the right, and so the shadow stretched oddly to the left, defying Nature. Seeing the tight line of fury into which his mouth pressed itself, I rushed to assure him everything else was perfectly captured in deft strokes.
“You are right, of course,” he said quietly in such a tone that frightened me more than any outburst. “I must correct it now. Please, Madeline, see to your parents. I will be down when I have finished correcting this foolishness.”
I turned to leave, but then remembered the brushes. I fetched them out of my satchel and presented them to him with the dearest wish to brighten his silent fury. He received them with a softening of his otherwise rigid face.
“Thank you, dear cousin,” he said. “These will help me to tend the task.” He leaned forward and kissed my cheek.
Thrilled as to an effervescence in my heart, I immediately went downstairs to see to supper, lest I should spoil Allan’s newly lifted spirits.
It was not but an hour later, when Betty had nearly finished preparing supper under my dictation that there befell such a clamor from upstairs that I thought a thunderstorm had loosed its abrupt chaos upon the house in the broad light of day. Rushing upstairs, I found Allan raging in his studio like a mad man, smashing the vase and flowers, and his easel, and the painting he had labored over for so many arduous hours. Such curses that escaped his lips I had never heard in my life! He was a beast as he clawed the air and kicked and wrung his hair as if to tear is scalp free from his head. I was retreating, slowly, when he heard my tread and turned his full fury upon me.
“Where did you buy those charlatan brushes?!” he bellowed, his chest heaving with his hellfire passions.
“From Mr. Caple,” I said, clutching my hem in hand to steady my heart. “Is that not whom you normally purchase your brushes from?”
“He is a self-eating, double-dealing swine of a Jew!” Allan roared. Or some such epithet of zealous hatred. I do not entirely recall even part of the curses he heaped upon the quiet, abiding personality of Mr. Caple. “He has outwitted you in his devilish trade, dear cousin. He has sold you swill where was wanted wine!”
I attested my ignorance, wondering at his transformed demeanor.
“I do not understand, Allan,” I said.
He then bent down and stooped among the wreckage, his hand seeking the broken brushes bought new only today.
“See?” he demanded, holding a jagged shaft aloft. “The shafts break so easily! And, a greater devilry indeed, these accursed bristles molt into the paint, polluting the work and ruining the image! A hundred or more of them are strewn ruinously throughout the painting! Like splinters in my own flesh they riddle my work, buried deep in my perfect picture!”
He screamed again, kicked the canvas, and then strode past me, out into the hall.
“I must walk” he declared, “or I will go mad with grief!”
The servants fled at his descent downstairs. Father attempted to intercept him, with a calming word, but Allan evaded him. The front door opened and then slammed shut, shaking the house to its brickwork bones. Betty came upstairs and inquired to my well-being. Shaken as I was, I nonetheless helped Betty clean the mess as it sprawled atop the Indian rug that laid out, as if in Christlike sacrifice, to catch most of the wet paint and turpentine left in evidence of Allan’s tempest.
The easel was yet unharmed, as were the tubes of paint. The canvas was torn asunder, and I looked upon it with a patient, scouring eye, meticulously noting its devastation. I could see no brush hairs, as Allan attested, in the yet wet paint, but the newest strokes had been feverishly applied in violently swiping swathes that worked to undo so many other layers of paint beneath them. The shadow of the vase had been corrected, but the vase itself had been seemingly destroyed by willful stroke. I could not account for it, and it upset me as much as Allan’s unnatural fit. I worried it might be a reaction to his prevalent diet, or perhaps from neglect of a proper diet. Mrs. Tenebaum attests to British doctors and their extensive knowledge on such matters and has told me that a simple “change of spices” can vastly affect one’s mind, either for the better or the worse. Being no expert, I wish I could consult a doctor now and improve Allan’s ailing temperament. If only our American doctors were as advanced as their British peers!
Mother and father sat with me for a while, consoling me. Father said Allan needed more sunshine, and purpose. He proposed taking my cousin under his tutelage in regard to the cotton harvest, but I begged him not to. Mother concurred with my counsel, saying that we had all imposed upon Allan’s nerves overmuch. He was “chilled to his soul upon the precipice of a new life”, mother said, and needed to climb down for a moment and get a good foothold again. A bird must fly when it is ready, or it will fall. I remembered these words of wisdom because they stung me so, affirming in my own heart my apprehensions. I feared I had pushed my dear cousin too quickly into matrimony.
Allan returned late that night, long after my nerves had frayed in concern over him. He was drunk and stumbled in after having drawn a bottle of whiskey he had purchased from God-knows-where. Mother and father had retired to bed— thank God!—so I had Toby and Betty help me direct Allan to the couch. As he lay there, delirious with drink, he asked my forgiveness, which I readily gave. Soon after, however, his blood rose and he commanded me to never again purchase brushes on his behalf, but that we together would visit Mr. Caple on the morrow and he would see that we were not thrifted again. He succumbed to his drink and fell asleep. I fretted over him the rest of the night, sitting in a chair by his side. Occasionally he stirred, and swatted at some unseen thing upon his face. He cursed an “apparition” and I feared he was hag-ridden. In time, however, he settled and was accosted no more.

May 26th 1823
The wedding was beautiful. Allan was handsome. All went as a fairytale. And our wedding night was strange, marvelous, beautiful. There was pain, of course, as my mother warned me, but there was such an awakening, too! My eyes see more clearly than ever before, and all they see is Allan. Gentle, loving, considerate Allan. I would give it to him all over again, whatever pain might come. I am his and he is mine. The world is made upon that promise, and unmade with the breaking of such vows.

May 29th 1823
What can I make of this strange turn in his mood? He seemed as euphoric in our union as I ever did. But now he broods and grumbles. He says he is haunted. I know not how or by whom. I have lived in the chateau for years and never witnessed evil spirits. Perhaps it is a consequence of our union. He has retreated again to his hermitage in his studio. Mother and father have left to return to their house, entrusting Allan and I to honor ourselves and themselves in our solitary habituation. Mother convinced father that perhaps we ought to live without overbearing accompaniment, as it might acclimate us more readily into marriage. But now I wish they had stayed so they might help me discover the answer to this riddle-some mood that has befallen the love of my life.
Occasionally I visit him in his studio, when he willingly opens the door to me. He draws and paints all day, nearly working himself to death for the sake of his aspirations. He does not attend to the Negroes. It is no matter to me, as I can compel them toward their duties on my own, but I long for his presence out of doors. Nor does he join me in bed, as he has since our marriage. I overheard him screaming in the night. He screamed in rage, and when I peered into his studio I found him pointing seemingly to his eyes.
“Can you not leave me be, apparition?! Damned specter! Unsightly intruder! You harry me in my higher calling! You haunt my diviner vision! How I wish to be done with you!”
When I inquired after him, he slowly turned about, looking at me with a most frightful look of apoplectic rage. He did not seem to recognize me, but saw me as an intruder and stranger. He then paled, and swooned. I went to him and steadied him in my arms. His skin was as a cold, wet slab of uncooked meat. I feared for his well being and begged that he come to bed with me. Breathing heavily, he set his paintbrushes aside as I led him to our bedchamber. He sleeps now, uneasily. I fear he has some illness. I will send Toby for the doctor in the morning.

June 2nd, 1823
Allan has made a complete recovery from his illness. Doctor Haycraft and I have attended him for the last few days. I feared the worst. But he gradually overcame the chill, and then the fever, and has grown stronger day by day. He sits up with me occasionally and I read to him. His appetite will return soon, I hope, and then we may once again attempt a child. Though I have slept every night by his side, it has been lonely with this febrile divide between us.
June 8th 1823
Allan surprised me today by not only walking about with vigor, but also asking me to accompany him on a flower hunting expedition. I eagerly acquiesced, aspiring to be of the utmost benefit to him and his recovery. The sun would do him good, I believed. Moreover, I thought of how delightful it would be to roam the wild countryside with my beloved husband. Yet, this great joy soon succumbed to distress as Allan rejected all of the flowers I had collected for him. Each flower was either too short, too wilting, too colorless, or too young in bud for him. But I have always prided myself on my eye for distinguishing flowers among a field! Being something of a proficient gardener, I presumed he would gladly accept each flower my discerning eye favored among the untamed multitude. But I suppose that was the root of my grave mistake, for he desired wild flowers for his vase, due to some clever pretense the work was intended to convey, and I was so much inclined of tastes toward domestication that I could not see the traits inherent in the wild breeds that exemplified his motif. In short, I had not the eye wanted, so the flowers I plucked went unwanted. Yet, I did not squander them. I retained each and every spurned specimen and returned home with them, granting them the salvation of my own choicest vase. They look rather nice in the parlor, next to the window and softening the stern gaze of father’s old cabinet clock.
Nor did I take umbrage at Allan’s fastidiousness. I consoled myself with the observation that he was no less merciless in his rejection of the flowers he had personally plucked from the full-bosomed fields.
“They are all wanting,” he lamented. “None are possessed of that transcendental quality I seek to translate and vivify upon the canvas!”
Having found no flowers worthy of his attention, he asked to use my hand-mirror. It is an heirloom that has been handed down through the centuries since the court of the king, to whom my distant ancestor was a loyal nobleman. Naturally, I let Allan use it, and indeed though it needful, for his appearance needed a good deal of reflection. Handsome though he always has been, he is yet a bit uncouth with his untrimmed beard and eyebrows. His hair, too, has grown overlong and could be advantaged with a scouring by scissors. Yet, he did not use it to groom himself. Rather, he simply stared at himself for a long moment, a contemptuous scowl upon his face. He turned his head to one side, staring balefully into the mirror, and then the other. I knew not why he should be so offended by his own face. I thought it the loveliest face I had ever known, as akin to the sun itself, for it brightened my life when it shone on me. But Allan studied it with scorn as his teacher. Simultaneously, his eyes seemed to be looking at something that was not in the mirror. It was almost as if he was staring at something along the peripheries. It was as if his eyes were staring sideways at his nose.

June 11th 1823
At times I fear I may be suffocating my dear Allan, as the climbing ivy does a young, beautiful oak. Today I interrupted his artistic studies three times to inquire after him, and each time he greeted me with less and less amicability and patience. Upon the third interruption I fret to think I saw a dark cloud descend over his expression, even as that expression concerted itself into a smile of affable mockery.
“My dear Madeline,” he said. “I will accomplish nothing today with your lovesick rendezvous. Give me time and we shall abscond properly. I promise you.”
I am as impulsive as a child sometimes! Yet, if there be any fault of this, it is Love’s, for being with him is as growing young once more. The Fountain of Youth lies not to the South, but inward wherein dwells the heart. Or so I fancy to think. I shall reprimand my inner child accordingly, otherwise I fear I may ruin Allan’s patience further. Love may endure anything, but a Man’s patience is ever whittling with winds, wishes, and worries.

June 15th 1823
I had long postponed confronting Allan with the Tenebaums’ invitation. Since his illness, and his mercurial moods, I feared he might not be of the capacity to attend a social gathering of such renowned personages. Yet, when I spoke to him of it, circumspectly at first and then directly, nudging into it with hesitant half-steps, he conceded to my wishes to attend abruptly, affording me no time to ease myself into joy. I was so overcome with gratitude that I kissed him a hundred times and then beckoned Betty to make ready an early dinner. Indeed, we would sup early and then retire to privacy where I would make my gratitude toward him much more evident in its fullness.

June 18th 1823
How the brightest days cast the darkest shadows, and the happiest balls the most dejected of men. Such was it at the Tenebaums’ gala. Allan was sullen for most of the event, his dark demeanor never changing once, even as we danced to a lovely waltz afforded by Manderly’s deft niece, Clarissa. True, Allan’s foot was light enough to keep pace with the rest of the dancers, but how sincerely I wished him to be lighter of heart! As the night wore on, and dancing bowed out to give the floor to idle gossip and debate, Allan grew restless. Several guests engaged us with the utmost amicability only to be dissuaded from further acquaintanceship by Allan’s gloomy reticence. While I attempted to compensate his recalcitrant aloofness, it proved mostly futile as many of the guests exchanged a few pleasant words and then retired elsewhere to escape Allan’s dreary gaze.
Toward the middle of the night, Mrs. Tenebaum directed the attentions of the guests toward a new acquisition for her parlor— an impeccable painting by the renowned painter, Samuel Cartwright, who happened to be in attendance at the event. She requested that he indulge them in discussion of the piece, which he did to a round of enthusiastic applause. Bowing, he thanked his hostess and began to discuss the methods whereby he was able to accurately capture the extensive detail of a field and forest landscape. As he spoke, smiling pleasantly, there arose an occasional giggle or guffaw from someone to the aft of the gathered audience. This inconsiderate individual interrupted Mr. Cartwright several times, causing the poor young man embarrassment and obvious offense. Yet I did not dare a backward glance in the offender’s direction, or else gratify his rude mischief. “Never pay a jester with laughter,” father always says, “if the joke is at cost to an innocent.” And Mr. Cartwright was an inborn innocent.
Toward the end of Mr. Cartwright’s speech Allan appeared at my side. I had not noticed his absence. When I inquired where he had gone he said to see that the preparations for our imminent departure were undertaken by Toby. We left shortly afterwards, though my heart still lingered in sympathy for Samuel Cartwright. He seemed a fine fellow, and a proficient painter. Allan, despite my best efforts, would not proffer his own opinion at to the young man’s talents.

June 20th 1823
The day was hot, and so I have excused Allan’s behavior on account of the weather. After all, it is said that while Woman cannot abide the cold, the reverse is true of Men. The heat seems to impart upon them an arid fury that does not abate except in seamless shadows and cooler winds.
I came upon him in his studio, pacing and raving in a restless state of agitation. When I inquired as to his affliction, he spoke indignantly of an apparition intruding upon his concentration, beggaring his attentions to the subject matter at hand.
“How it overlays haughtily upon the still life!” he roared. “Unwelcome scourge upon vision! Superimposition most conceited and vain, blighting clarity of detail and translation! To impede and impugn! It mocks me! Do not doubt it mocks me! Profligate ornament!”
I knew not what he meant. True, my ancestral home was old, and had overseen the deaths of many among my ancestral line, but I had never reason nor rumor to believe it haunted.
Before I could detain him to ease his rage, he stormed downstairs, raving wildly and making his hands as palsied talons that rent the air impotently. When I implored him to tell what aggrieved, he rancorously decried “involuntary interruptions” upon his vision, which he claimed ardently to be impeding his studies. I knew not what he meant and despaired to think my ignorance was somehow the cause, yet he refused to enlighten me when I pleaded that he inform me so I might remedy the interruptions. He stated, upon a tone so pitched it might have been a lunatic’s, that there was nothing to be done to cure it except the most radical of procedures. He would not unburden himself of more detail, and went for one of his late night walks while I wept, thinking myself the encumbering interruption, as I always feared I might be.
Later, when he returned from his walk, he was still rancorous and seething. I attempted to soothe him, but he in turn rounded upon me, wroth and relentless in his admonishments, accusing me of being a hysterical harpy perched upon his unmarked tombstone, waiting gleefully for his death in obscurity.
I was so overwhelmed that I nearly fainted. Betty helped me to the couch while Allan disappeared once again upstairs, locking himself in his studio.

June 27nd 1823
As a hermit he has become! He entertains no guests and often upbraids anyone who so much as sets foot upon the landing. He requires absolute silence and stillness of the whole household whenever he paints. Often I venture upon walks lest I upset him, taking Betty and Toby to escort me. How often I hear him cursing his own appetite and the need for sleep! He says that such needs distract him from his aspirations. Father has attempted to coax him down, but he nearly threw father to the floor the previous time this happened. It was an accident, of course. Allan became overly passionate and tripped over a rug, falling into father. That is what happened, of course.
The only times I have succeeded in drawing Allan away from his studio are with some other diversion of an aesthete’s predilection. An art exhibition in Richmond, for instance, piqued his interest briefly. He then dismissed the idea that any of the art would be worthy of such a long trip. He said only Europe possessed art worthy of recognition and no American artist had achieved imminence yet. He then swore that he would be the first. He then laughed, and his laughter frightened me. I had never heard him laugh so strangely before. He then set himself to disparage European artists, also.
“To think such masters squandered their hard-earned genius upon rendering fallen women as the Madonna and the Greek heroines of Beauty! Fallen women and mercenary hearts for hire! But I will pay homage to tales of yore with an adequate vestal embodiment. You, my love, shall be my Aphrodite and my Diana. I need only skills mastered, at last, to render eye to hand the visions of you that I would taunt the world with. Method and medium mastered…”
He then became quiet and would not talk until we lunched later that day.

July 3rd 1823
I told him this evening that I had arranged for a trip to Rome. This elicited fervent praise and he kissed me as he once did of old, before his melancholia gripped him in its vulture’s clutches. I have made my mind on the matter and wish for nothing but Allan’s happiness. Therefore, the trip to Europe is a fine thing in my valuation. The change of scenery— particularly, to be apart from that stifling studio of his—will be conducive to his recovery from this wild ailment of the spirits. Money is no obstacle, so I will see to it that it is a fine trip; one of which we shall think fondly long into our old age together. Mother and Father volunteered to accompany us, and I gladly accepted them along. This dark cloud will be obliterated by the bright torch of European civilization.

July 7th 1823
Allan suffered another fit today. He screamed at an unseen assailant, vowing to rid himself of the offender once and for all. I knew not what to do and sent Toby for Doctor Haycraft once again. Betty and I restrained Allan, for he attempted to harm himself with his hands, wrenching at his face. I am so frightened. I know not what affliction holds him—whether it is a disease or a demon—but I vow I will help him however I can. He is my one true love. His well-being is all that matters to me.

July 10th 1823
Doctor Haycraft has diagnosed Allan with a severe reaction to a bee sting. I did not know bee stings could cause such great harm to a man so as to overturn his mind. And to think we view them so gratefully for the honey they make for us! Doctor Haycraft reassured me that Allan will recover from the sting with all of his faculties intact. I pray that is true. My husband has been recovering since the return of his ailment, and the Doctor has seen him through the sickness twice now. I am eternally grateful to him. He assures me, also, that Allan should recover well before our trip to Europe, so long as we shield him from further bee assaults. Despite this wonderful diagnosis, Betty had to prove herself an uppity ignoramus by questioning the Doctor in front of us all.  The audacity! The cheek! I was so furious I beat her myself, which is never a thing a woman ought to do. Yet, she apologized, as she should, and the Doctor assured me he took no offense from the stupidity of a Negro. “Might as well take offense from an animal,” he said. So true, I think. What do they know, being so uneducated and bestial as they are?

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July 16th 1823
I was overjoyed today when Allan announced to me the need of a jaunt into town to purchase a new razor for the trip to Europe. I thought it only natural that he should want to shave, particularly since he had neglected his grooming for well over a month and looked utterly a wild man with his unruly whiskers and beard. I proposed we make a day of it and go visit the Tenebaums while in town. I was doubly overjoyed when he acquiesced, and seemed to do so in genuine earnest. Thus we took the carriage to town, the day being bright and generous with its summery warmth. Birdsong accompanied our lover’s chatter and it seemed a lovely life to live. Nor did town upset Allan’s normally sensitive sensibilities. Often he is aloof and reclusive, acutely suffering agitation in social settings. Yet, he seemed convivial as we were hailed by our various neighbors in town. Furthering my delight with his new turn of mood, Allan spoke quite amiably with Manderly Tenebaum whose acquaintanceship he so oftentimes resisted, and even resented. How transformed Allan was in his manner and tone! The whole of life was richer for it. It is as mother always says: “Heaven smiles upon those who smile upon it”, and Allan was smiling affably throughout this eventful day. How could the angels not smile in return?
That being said, he has yet to use his new razor. His smile shall be even more pleasing to Heaven once he has shorn his uncouth excess. So given to high spirits was he that night that he toiled in his studio well into the night. It seems I shall retire to bed long before he condescends to join me. But a productive man is a happy man, and a happy man makes a happy woman. And I am so, so happy!

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September 21, 1825
The doctor wishes that I write what happened, in detail, so I might help the others better their understanding of Allan’s affliction. But to relive that day again is to die once more. For what was revelation but a death to my former self and the happiness therein inspirited? To have been so blinded by love for Allan so as to not intercede for love of him; to help him when the alarms sounded all around, everyday, as watchmen in throes of panic, and yet to be so deaf. It is a shame and guilt I shall harbor deep within me, unto the grave and perhaps ever after.
I woke upon the night of the incident to Allan’s shout. So drowsy was I that I cannot say with certainty that it was a shout of triumph or a shriek, for there seemed to have followed a laughter that serrated the edge of that bladed cry. I bethought him to have finally achieved the success he so desperately desired in his studies. Perhaps, I was fain to believe, he had completed a masterpiece at last and could reconcile himself with his previous failings.
I blame my naivete for what I presumed to be the Summer of our mutual bliss. I deceived myself into thinking it a chrysalis opening to a season of warmth everlasting, little seeing that the emergent butterfly was to unfurl its wings to the bitter winds of a cruel, icy season.

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Taking up a candle, I walked out into the hall and down the corridor, toward his studio. The door was ajar, and candlelight split open the shadows of the hall with a sharp, yet wavering, blade. I opened the door further to peer in upon him. His back was to me, and he was holding my family’s heirloom mirror in one hand, and something else in the other. I interpreted him as if in preparation for a self-portrait. The canvas in front of him was barren of paint or graphite sketch and leaned baldly against the easel, its clean whiteness unsettling. His paint palette, in contrast, was a mess of what I presumed to be spilled paint. As I neared him I saw the paint glisten dully to the dim light of a candelabrum, the wicks of which were mostly extinguished as it stood upon a stool. In this fluttering illumination he seemed to study his features in the looking-glass. I saw his face in the mirror, partially marred by obscuring shadows. His eye caught mine and I think he smiled. But it was all wrong.
“To bleed for one’s mastery of Art is a needful thing,” he said.
In the mirror he looked so much like a…(illegible)…memento mori. Only, it was his face. I hoped it was a trick of shadow and light and glass, but then he turned toward me and…(the account ends in blotches of ink)

 

Lesser Known Horror Classics

Halloween is approaching and there are lots of horror classics that people read for the sake of indulging the season.  As for myself, while I often revisit horror stories that have pleased me in the past, I really enjoy discovering horror stories that I have not read, particularly older stories that are largely neglected in this era of Stephen Kings and Clive Barkers (thought there is nothing wrong with either of those gentlemen).  For the sake of alleviating my own guilt at long neglecting the writers below, I have compiled a short list of short stories that are, for my tastes, in equal merit to the more celebrated icons of Horror. Many of these are in public domain, so you can read them online for free.  That said, there is nothing better than holding an actual book in your hand in the Witching Hours and reading by candlelight (or lamplight, if you must).

“The Phantom Rickshaw”, By Rudyard Kipling

A horror story and simultaneously a black comedy, this tale concerns a man who abused a young woman’s affections for ungentlemanly ends, after which he abandons her— rather callously— so that she dies of a broken heart. Just when the narrator believes his life is changing for the better (with a new fiancee), he becomes haunted by a rickshaw and the young woman who had only recently pined away. The story is at turns funny and tragic. While Kipling has become more well known for The Jungle Book, I am of a mind that he should be equally regarded for his other works, including his horror stories. He was, in terms of skill and imagination, equal to Poe, utilizing his understanding of human psychology and society to concoct excellent stories to please the most jaded reader.

“Strange Event In The Life Of Schalken The Painter”, By Sheridan Le Fanu

While many people are aware of Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal work “Carmilla” because of its themes of lesbian eroticism and vampirism, Le Fanu wrote several works of equally interesting topics, as well as macabre atmosphere. The abovementioned story is perhaps my favorite horror story that Le Fanu wrote. It is masterfully told, of course, with all of its lyrical writing, but what is most impressive about this morbid story is what it implies throughout the tale. Le Fanu was an expert of exactitude and could write so as to provide the reader with the scantiest clues to circumscribe what is happening within the story without forthrightly stating it. And the story is all the more powerful for what it withholds as much as for what it explicitly reveals.

“Toby Squire’s Will”, By Sheridan Le Fanu

A moral tale that is neither ham-fisted or tedious, “Toby Squire’s Will” is a story about morality (or the lack thereof) among several unpleasant characters. The cast of people are so unlikeable that the reader finds it difficult to favor any one side over the other among the contentious factions. The story is told very skillfully and with proper pacing that is never sluggish or bogged down in its own prose. As with all of Le Fanu’s works, it excels as an experience when read in silent solitude or spoken aloud.

 
“A Madman’s Manuscript”, By Charles Dickens

Perhaps the most well-known horror story penned by Charles Dickens (besides A Christmas Carol) is “The Signal Man”. Yet, “A Madman’s Manuscript” deserves more attention than it currently receives among the laudable literature of Dickens. It is written from the perspective of a man obsessed with a woman. Any reader with even a little bit of familiarity with the double-life that Dickens lived will wonder immediately if the narrator is not some wry caricature of Dickens’s own darker desires and latent madman. Even if it is not a fantastic story, it is interesting for its insights into Dickens’s brilliant, and neurotic, mind.

“The Ash Tree”, By M.R. James

While M.R. James is still read today by a large audience— more so than most other classic Horror writers except Lovecraft, Poe, and Stoker—the mention of his timeless stories is nonetheless justified. This is by far my favorite among his many excellent yarns, for it weaves together a story born of supernatural conceit and scientific rationalization. It is for the reader to decide which explanation best suits the misadventure of the subject in this story. Perfectly written with an excellent eye for detail, an ear for rhythm, and a discernment of diction, this story is both brief and bountiful in its atmosphere. It is a masterwork and deserves credit not only as a flight of fancy, but, contrarily, a pointed tale compelling with its plausibility.

 
“The Mezzotint”, By M.R. James

Although “Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is James’s most often celebrated story (or, at least, the most remarked upon), “The Mezzotint” is one deserving more recognition as well. Without saying too much, it is hard to believe the memorable Night Gallery episode “The Cemetery” would exist without this tale, for it is likely the inspiration of that excellent television episode. While not an actual page-to-screen adaptation, it is undoubtedly the thematic basis for that episode, at least in conceit.

“Twilight”, By Marjorie Bowen

I only recently discovered this lush, disturbing story by Marjorie Bowen. It is a beautifully written short story that is as decadent as Lucrecia Borgia herself (insomuch as the story is concerned). And like Borgia, the story takes a very eerie, nightmarish turn toward its final act, hinting at all of the debauchery which Borgia was accused of in her life (whether deservedly so or not). Bowen’s command of language and imagery has motivated me to seek her other stories wherever I might find them. Why she is not celebrated more, I do not understand.

“The House Of The Nightmare”, By Edward Lucas White

Despite its admittedly generic title, this horror story is memorable for many reasons. Oddly, while it is explicitly a ghost story, its truly horrific implications could categorize it loosely as Body Horror, much like his other, more famous story “Lukundoo”. A fear of pigs has never been more justified.

“The Kennel”, By Maurice Level

Written in a more Modern vein, and with a wry Black Humor slant on extramarital affairs that only a Frenchman could conceive and achieve without coming off as Melodrama, this story is full of sound and fury, but without signifying nothing. Atmospheric, briskly paced, and sly, there is no supernatural element in its design: only basic human nature and all of its darkening complications.

“Gavon’s Eve”, By E.F. Benson
An adroitly painted vista of Scotland folklore mixed with horror, this tale combines old mythical motifs with modern sensibilities for storytelling. Excellent descriptive passages. Excellent atmosphere. Benson is another unsung hero of literature.

“The Case of Lady Sannot”, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Widely known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle also dabbled in other genres. This story combines his love of the macabre with his love of human trickery and crime. A revenge story without a whiff of the supernatural, it excels on the merits of its narrative and its devilish ending. Like Maurice Level’s story, this one is concerned with human nature and the demons inside our hearts. Simultaneously, it is a case that would have pleased Holmes, if only in its criminal machinations.

“The Giant Wisteria”, By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman is best known for her psychological allegory “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which concerned itself with injustice toward Women. I must be in the minority because although I acknowledge “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a superior work, her story “The Giant Wisteria” is, in my estimation, a superior story. It is, of course, well-written, but not only well-written in its sense of craft, but its sense of restraint. Gilman does not reveal overmuch, nor wallow in melodrama. If anything, there is a sense of detached condemnation in the story rather than an explicitly vociferous pursuit of a message. Like the characters in the story, the writer pieces together the past events to reveal an act of terror as if a historian recounting a period of history. It certainly reflects on the suffering of Women throughout history, but does so subtly, without impairing the narrative.

Additionally, I would recommend anything by Lafcadio Hearn. The traditional Japanese tales he recorded for the sake of posterity are all excellent stories in and of themselves, but are also keen portals into the culture of Japan (if you happen to enjoy Japanese culture, as I do).

Fear The Light

Fear The Light
Screenplay By Stephen Marshall

The opening shot shows a little girl sitting at a little tea table with toy tea saucers and a flower-printed kettle. She is wearing a white princess dress and is talking as she pours water from the kettle into three plastic cups. Behind her is a brightly lit room designed obviously for a little girl. Sunlight is shining through the windows. There are stuffed animals all over the bed, frills on the skirt of the bed, posters of Disney princesses on the walls, a vanity mirror with fake jewelry hanging from it.

Little Girl (Meredith): “Mr. Wiggles and I are so glad you could join us, Father Thomas. It is so lovely to have a guest for teatime.”

The camera remains on Meredith as she pours the tea (water) into the cups. A strained, suspicious voice speaks from off-screen.

Father Thomas: “I am glad you let me come, Meredith. It’s…a shame your mother and father can’t be here to join us.”

The camera remains on Meredith. Her body goes rigid, pausing as she continually pours the tea, staring down at the table as if confused. The water spills over from the cup before she nods and begins to pour in the next cup.

Meredith: “Mr. Wiggles said they’re in a better place now. I’m just glad you’re here, Father Thomas.”

Father Thomas: “I am too, Meredith. You seem like a very good little girl. Are you a good little girl, Meredith? Do you believe in Jesus and God and say your prayers every night?”

Meredith smiles broadly as she stops pouring water in the three cups. She slides one cup to her left and then the other to her right. No one else is seen in the single, fixed shot.

Meredith: “Every night. I pray for mom and dad and everyone. I even pray for my stinky, smelly cousin Jess that pulls my hair in church.”

Father Thomas: “That is very big-souled of you, Meredith. You really are a little innocent girl, aren’t you? You are a sweet little, innocent soul. But a big soul, too. A big, attractive soul.”

Meredith looks to her right, staring up in wonderment at the figure off-screen.

Meredith: “What does a ‘big soul’ mean?”

The camera rotates to show a middle-aged man leaning over the table, sitting in one of the child-sized chairs at Meredith’s tea table. He drinks from the water she has given him, draining the plastic cup in one gulp. There is sweat all over his face, and he is wearing the habit of a Catholic priest. He looks disturbed. He pulls at his clerical collar, as if he is having a hard time breathing. His face is red and strained, almost as if he is holding back from doing something, and it is taking all of his energy.

Father Thomas: “It means you have big, delicious feelings, Meredith. It’s a good thing, and a bad thing. It creates a…a hunger.”

The camera remains on Father Thomas’s disturbed face, and Meredith speaks off-camera. Her voice becomes heightened, as if she is afraid.

Meredith: “Mr. Wiggles says you’re a bad man. Are you bad, Father Thomas?”

Father Thomas nods once.

Father Thomas: “I am a bad man, Meredith. I have sinned, and I sin often. I do not pray for my own soul. I am damned to Hell.”

Father Thomas reaches out to take the kettle from the table, putting it down between his knees and whispering something inaudible. He then hands it back to Meredith. The camera rotates back to Meredith who takes the tea kettle.

Meredith: “What did you do?”

Father Thomas: “I asked for forgiveness, and blessed your tea.”

Meredith: “That’s the right thing to do. Dad says Jesus died for our sins so we can be innocent again. If we don’t ask for forgiveness the angels won’t let us into Heaven.”

Father Thomas, off-screen, sets his tea cup down on the table.

Father Thomas: “May I have some more tea, please?”

Meredith: “Certainly. Mr. Wiggles, would you like some more tea?”

A pale white hand sets the tea cup down in front of Meredith, letting her pour more water into both of her guests’ cups. Meredith hands Father Thomas his tea cup, and then Mr. Wiggles his tea cup, the camera following the tea cup to the left. A pale, hairless Angel sits in similar manner to Father Thomas, too tall for the child-sized seat. The androgynous creature is bald, lacking even eyebrow hair, but has large white wings that arch over either shoulder, shimmering with sunlight. There is blood on its pale lips, and it is staring at Meredith hungrily, ignoring Father Thomas completely. Its eyes are milky white and without pupils, almost as if it is blind like a deep-sea fish. The camera then shows Meredith, Father Thomas, and the Angel in succession as they drink from their cups.

Father Thomas: “I don’t believe in Jesus. And neither should you, Meredith. He is a fairytale told to dying men to ease them on their deathbeds. Reject Jesus and save yourself.”

Meredith wrings her hands anxiously.

Meredith: “Don’t say that, Father Thomas. You won’t be able to go to Heaven.”

Father Thomas chuckles mirthlessly.

Father Thomas: “At this point, what is the difference between Heaven and Hell? Either place will eat your soul for eternity.”

The Angel suddenly drops its cup of water, grasping at its throat and staggering up from the table, knocking it over and stumbling about as if choking. Meredith tries to run to the Angel, but Father Thomas pulls her away and holds her back.

Meredith: “Mr. Wiggles!!!”

The Angel falls to its knees, shrieking monstrously, its fanged teeth exposed now, bloody and littered with human flesh. Meredith screams and reaches out to the Angel, but Father Thomas picks her up and flees from the room. The Angel withers and cracks in the bright light of the girl’s room, its shriek fading to a moan and then a dusty sigh as the Angel disintegrates into ash while the sunlight from a window radiates around it.

The camera follows Father Thomas and a traumatized Meredith out into the hall. Her aunt and uncle await them, looking fearful.

Meredith’s Uncle: “Is it gone? Is it dead?”

Father Thomas nods and gives Meredith to her aunt. She sobs and wails for Mr. Wiggles.

Uncle: “What was it? A demon? Her parents…” His voice drops to a confidential whisper. “Her parents’ remains were never found. The police…the police gave her to us to watch over her while they investigated. They said this talk about Mr. Wiggles was just her way of coping with the loss of her parents. An imaginary friend that would never leave her. We thought we could help her… We thought…”

Father Thomas: “It was a good thing you contacted me.”

The uncle sighs heavily.

Uncle: “To be honest, I thought you were a scam artist. We knew it was a demon, but…”

Father Thomas: “Angel.”

Uncle: “What?”

Father Thomas: “It was an angel, not a demon.”

Uncle: “It was a bad angel, so it was a demon. That’s how it works, isn’t it?”

Father Thomas: “Not always. The difference between them is only their post code.”

Uncle: “Is that supposed to be a joke?”

Father Thomas: “The whole universe is a joke.”

Uncle: “What kind of thing is that for a priest to say?”

Thomas loosens his clerical collar.

Thomas: “I’m not a priest. I’m not even a Christian.”

The uncle becomes confused and furious, his tone rising.

Uncle: “What’s that supposed to mean? Your ad in the paper…”

Thomas: “I just pretend to be a priest so people will contact me and trust me to do what I need to do. It’s all a sham, of course, except the results.”

The uncle hurries to the girl’s room, pausing at the threshold and cautiously looking inside. The Angel is nothing more than white ash upon the carpet.

Uncle: “You got rid of it, though, didn’t you?”

Thomas: “I did. But if you want to keep her safe from others you have to do what I say.”

The aunt, holding Meredith to her stomach and weeping alongside the girl, speaks up in desperation.

Aunt: “What do we need to do?”

Thomas smiles wryly and looks to the side, briefly. It is the facial equivalent of “Here we go”.

Thomas: “All of you must renounce Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.”

The uncle and aunt look shocked, stunned to silence. After a moment, the uncle’s rage swells.

Uncle: “Never. We will never do that.”

Thomas shrugs and starts to walk away down the dark hall. He speaks as he goes, his voice echoing.

Thomas: “Then the Angels will continue to come for her, and for you. For her sake you better start to doubt things. The Angels are hungry for innocence and they will have it through whatever earthly vessel is harboring it. The Rapture is almost upon us. Save your souls by refusing Salvation, otherwise a murder of crows will be pecking at your souls for all eternity. If you are wise, you will fear the light of Salvation, and reject it, otherwise all of those Angels will seek the body and the blood of Christ in you, and you and all of your loved ones will be a feast. Just as that Angel did to her parents.”

Isaac Thomas leaves the house and walks down the gloriously sunlit street, shielding his eyes against the bright sun with a saluting hand. He looks off into the distance, and sees pillars of light spiraling up into the sky. Figures rise within the pillars of light, and are set upon by winged figures. It is like watching sparrows being attacked by hawks. The Angels swoop down and clutch at them, carrying them off to the Empyreal Sphere where they tear and eat at them like carrion. Isaac Thomas speaks, his voice grim with a sneer upon his lips.

Isaac Thomas: “When the cat’s away the rats will play.”

Knot

I texted Kristy again, and waited, having little else to do. We weren’t supposed to text at work, but it was one in the morning and nobody was at the golf course except me, and I was in the Security Shack, by myself, with only a small lamp and the moon through the window to keep me company. If they complained I would tell them to find someone else willing to work twelve-hour graveyard shifts on a Saturday night in Miami. All of their money wouldn’t mean for shit then. They wouldn’t watch their own exclusive golf club, would they? Trust-fund geriatrics.
Through one window I could see the desolately empty parking lot, and behind it the bright light pollution of party-city creating a festive aureola arching over the top of the dark palm trees; and through another window I could see the gentle waves and dips of the golf course itself, dim in the blue wash of the moon. I could see little else, which was why I was so startled when Buck opened the door suddenly, seemingly coming out of Nowhere.
“Jesus-fucking-Christ, Buck!” I cussed, nearly falling out of my chair. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Had to go to the doctor,” he said, plopping down in his chair. The chair squeaked under his portly body. “I have this knot on my back. It’s the size of a tennis ball. Blue and purple with a white head of pus as big as…”
“I know, Buck, I know!” I growled. He had told me about it five times in the last two days.
“Do you want to see it?” he asked.
“No!” I said, just like the other five times he had asked. “Wait—you said your doctor’s appointment was this morning. Why are you late to work? Did they…?” I couldn’t say anything in regard to the nasty growth on his back. I was sick of hearing about it, and imagining it.
“They didn’t cut it yet,” Buck said. “Doc put me on antibiotics. They’ve gotten me down. Overslept. Sorry.”
“It’s no problem,” I lied. I turned to look at him and saw how sweaty his forehead was, and his neck, and his arms; the wirebrush hairs were smeared with sweat. “Buck, you don’t look so good. You should go home.”
“Nah,” he said, running his meaty fingers over his bald pate. The remaining hair on his scalp half-encircled his head, and gleamed with sweat in the dim lamplight. “Nothing a little walking on the green won’t fix. Clean Florida air.”
He tittered breathlessly, and reeled a little in his chair. I worried he might pass out any moment, smacking his thick skull on the desk and floor and getting a couple of concussions on the way down. I should have known there was something wrong with him as soon as he entered the Security Shack. Normally he would have flipped the switch, turning on the blinding fluorescent lights, which I kept off because, one, they hurt my graveyard shift eyes, and two, they caused every window in the outside world to turn into oddly accurate mirrors. As if reading my mind, Buck lurched up to his feet, with a grunt, and staggered to the light switch, turning the bleach-like lights on. One moment I was looking at the golf course and the next I saw only my reflection, and Buck’s reflection, his corpulent body stuffed into his white shirt, the back of which was distorted with a large protuberance in the center of his back.
“I’ll go on a round,”I said. I hadn’t been on one yet, and I also needed to walk off the image of that thing on Buck’s back, and how it stuck in my brain like a bad dream. A tumescent dream, I thought, and shook my head. “You stay here and rest a while.”
“I can go,” he said, tottering to and fro as if he might pass out any moment.
I stood up and slid his chair to him. He plopped down in it like a dying man.
“I’ll take the radio,” I said, clipping the walkie-talkie to my belt. “If you start feeling really bad, say something.”
As I went to the door, Buck turned toward me.
“Hey,” he said. “Do you want to see my knot?”
I walked out quickly, without another word.

I brought a flashlight with me, and a golf club. We weren’t supposed to have weapons, like guns, but I didn’t trust the areas around the ponds. Alligators were breeding everywhere in Florida then, and pythons, too, and I didn’t want to come across something while unarmed. Or someone. Druggies were bad around there, too.
I looked at my phone to see if Kristy had texted me back. She hadn’t, so I texted her again. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how desperate so many texts looked, queuing up on her phone, but I didn’t know what else to do. I fucked up. I told her she needed to grow up. I told her she was immature, and bratty. She said I was like an old man, even though I was in my twenties. I worked with old men, like Buck, all of the time, and I worked all of the time, so I couldn’t party like she wanted to. I was an old fuddy-duddy, I guess. Slept during the day. Bleary-eyed in the sunlight. Working nights, and being around old people, made me prematurely old. She hated it. Maybe she hated me.
The golf course was a nice one. I walked it a bit, and then took our Security golf cart around, the headlights like puncture wounds in the otherwise sleepy murk of the green. It took about an hour to make a full perimeter sweep, and I always took my time to enjoy the mild night air.
When I returned to the Security Shack, it was vacant. The bright lights were still on, but Buck was nowhere to be seen. He probably went to use the restroom, I told myself. I checked my phone again to see if Kristy had texted me back. She hadn’t. She was too busy drinking and dancing in a rave club somewhere. I turned the fluorescent lights off.
Buck returned, then. He did not bother to turn the lights on as he entered the Shack. Instead, he plopped down in his chair and wheezed as if he might die. I really hoped he didn’t. I would have hated the paperwork that would have entailed.
“You all right?” I asked him.
“Just winded a bit,” he said. “Needed something to eat. Blood-sugar dropped.”
Even in the dim light from the lamp I could see how awash with sweat he was. His white shirt was drenched as if he had went swimming in one of the ponds.. Something glistened around his lips. It almost looked like blood. Before I could ask him about it, he raised his fat arm and wiped it away. I told myself it was just jelly from one of those nasty doughnuts he was always eating. Buck was suicidal in his treatment of his diabetes.
“Guess it’s my turn to go on a round,” he said. He tried to stand, groaning as he leaned his upper body forward to drag his butt out of his chair. His body remained in the chair, though, and his mouth gawped with fatigue. Every sweat pore in his forehead was dripping like a leaky faucet.
“I’ll go on another round,” I said, standing again. I really didn’t want to, but I also didn’t want to witness an old man go into cardiac arrest. “It’s no big deal.”
I went to the door, and paused. I almost told him to take it easy, but he spoke first.
“Hey…” he said, his forehead a mass of sweaty wrinkles and his eyes lolling. “You wanna’ see my knot?”
I opened the door without a backward glance.

I was walking, the flashlight in one hand and my phone in the other. Using my thumb, I called Kristy since she had not replied to any of my texts. To my surprise, she answered.
What?” she said, tersely.
“I was just calling to check on you,” I said. Behind her peevish voice I could hear the din of a dance floor flooded with music and twenty-somethings enjoying life.
“Aren’t you nosy,” she said, not unkindly. “Just out with Beckie and Sarah.”
“Well, I won’t be home until tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “One of the guys called off so I have to work a twelve. Split his shift with Gary.”
“Uh huh,” she said, not really listening. “Have fun.”
She was ready to hang up— it was always easy for me to anticipate her— so I said her name, loudly.
“Kristy!” I said. She paused. “I…I love you.”
There was a long, impatient sigh on the other end. “That’s not really true, Brian,” she said. “And you know it.”
“I do know it,” I said, frantically searching for the right words. “I think we could work this out. I mean, it’s never too late…”
“We’re growing apart,” she said. “We should take a break. You know, for personal growth.”
She was just repeating whatever bullshit she had read online. Nothing she said was genuine, except when another background voice— male— asked her who she was talking to.
“Nobody,” she said.
I hung up and shoved my phone into my pocket, foregoing the impulse to throw it into a nearby pond. It was difficult. I stared out at the moon-shimmering water and really wanted to drown my phone—and Kristy— in its dark depths.
But it was as I was scowling at the pond that I noticed a head grinning up at me from the water. As soon as I recognized what it was, I leapt back, afraid the alligator would come shooting off the bank and grab hold of me, dragging me into the shoals. Instead, it just sat there, grinning into the halo of my flashlight. It had a blank stare and, after staring back at it for a few seconds, I realized that it was dead. Very dead. Its body appeared to have been gnawed by something even bigger than itself. Probably tried to mate with a female alligator that outsized him in every way. That was what happened when you attempted to mate beyond your depth: you were eaten alive. Kristy, I realized, was my own cannibal alligator. My galligator. I must have been very sad to be making such a bad joke.

I returned to the Security Shack. Buck seemed to be doing better now. He wasn’t sweating anymore. I sat down in my chair and unpacked my lunch. I was half-finished when I realized I didn’t have an appetite. I started to put everything back in my lunch containers.
“Not hungry?” Buck asked.
“Not in the mood for food,” I said.
“Girl troubles, huh?” he said.
I looked at him, frowning. Buck was shrewd, in his own way, and knew some things, having lived so long. All of the old men that worked with me were the same in that regard. But instead of inspiring reverence in me for all of their “wisdom”, it only made me irritable.
“There’s somebody out there for everybody,” he said. “It took me a long time to find a good woman, but I found her. God rest her soul. I wish she was still alive so she could be a part of my life again. We were inseparable, you know?”
Buck was a widower, and I really didn’t care about his sob-story. I didn’t care about anyone’s sob-story, at that moment, except my own. He misinterpreted my silence as a need for wisdom, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t want his advice, or anyone’s. I just wanted to brood in the dim lamplight.
“You know,” he said, “when I went to see the doctor for the first time about my knot, he said it would be an outpatient procedure. I told him that was great. I would get Judith to drive me home.” He chuckled lightly. “But then I remembered Judith had been dead since last Spring and she couldn’t drive me anywhere anymore.”
He had told me his sob-story about a hundred times by now. I really did not want to hear it anymore. It wasn’t that I was a heartless, callus prick; I just didn’t have the emotional energy for sympathy at that moment. I felt disconnected from everything and faraway; on a dance floor in a club in Miami, somewhere just over those dark palm trees.
“Are you lonely, Brian?” he asked.
“Everybody’s lonely,” I said.
“Well, that’s why we got to look out for each other.”
He put his meaty hand on my shoulder, and I leapt to my feet as if I had been struck by lightning.
“I don’t care about you or anybody!” I growled.
Buck looked up at me with a stern, piercing gaze. “Hey,” he said. “Do you want to see my knot?”
I walked out of the Security Shack, slamming the door, and went on another perimeter round.

Without Kristy, I felt as if I was coming undone. Unstrung. The disentanglement of our lives began slowly, and then accelerated with Kristy’s busy, picking fingers. We lived in the same apartment, but were more like roommates than lovers. Actually, I had seen so little of her lately that she was more a rumor than a roommate. As I walked across the shadowy green, I was as far from her as the man on the moon. Whatever threads of life ran between us had been severed by her meticulous, clinical scissors. We were like two spools of thread thrown together in a cabinet’s drawer, loosely touching at best, but not at all entwined.

I returned, reluctantly, to the Security Shack. Buck stood, without a word, and held up his hand. It took me a moment to understand that he wanted the radio. I handed it to him, and the flashlight. He then walked through the door. As he left I thought I saw something odd happening within his shirt. It looked like it was wiggling.
I sat down, sighing, then rubbing my hair angrily. I was stressed out. I was tired. I hated my job. I hated my life. Everything was squandered now, it seemed. All was spoiled. Maybe Kristy was right: maybe I was just an old man. Maybe I belonged here, working with all of these old people until my age finally caught up to my lifestyle. I had tried to compromise with Kristy. I had tried to go out with her to party scenes and clubs and the densely populated bars. But the music gave me headaches. The flashing lights hurt my eyes. Being shoulder-to-shoulder with people stressed me out and made me anxious. I always left early, whereas she stayed behind, eye-fucked by ten guys on the dance floor. It was obvious, even then, that everything between us had been frayed. Maybe nothing had been entwined in the first place. We were mismatched strings, slipping away from one another.
I sighed again, and looked at the computer monitor, its screen sectioned by various camera angles. Most of them displayed poorly-lit areas of the green. One showed the door of the club complex itself, where we were not allowed to patrol since the yuppies feared we would sully their expensive Persian rugs. What was strange to me, however, was that the door was open. At first, the alarm bells went off in my head and I reached for the phone to call the police. But then I saw Buck walking out of the door, carrying armfuls of food from their kitchen. They kept racks of ham and lamb and everything else that yuppies liked to eat in between golf games. Buck was eating at them as he left. I didn’t call the police because I didn’t want to get Buck in trouble. Instead, I waited until he returned to the shack, hoping he had a good explanation for taking all of that food that belonged to those yuppies.
It was an hour or so before he returned. He was wheezing again, and sweating all over.
“Buck, what is wrong with you?” I demanded. “Why were you in the club building?”
“Had to…eat…” he said. “Have…to…grow…connections…”
He toppled down into his chair, head lolling as if he was having a stroke. I reached for the phone and called 911.
“911 dispatch,” the woman answered. “What is your emergency?”
“It’s my coworker!” I said, feeling myself lost in a frenzy of fear and concern. “He’s having some kind of attack…!”
I realized, then, that Buck was standing over me. I looked up and saw that he was shirtless, the largess of his gut spilling over his belt, slick and hairy like a fat pig’s. His eyes rolled up behind their lids, the whites sallow and sickly. The dispatcher was asking me questions, but I couldn’t comprehend them.
“Do you…want…to see…my knot?” Buck asked.
“No,” I whimpered.
“IT WANTS TO SEE YOU!”
He turned his back toward me.
I screamed.

***

I needed to find Kristy. I wanted to see her. To reconnect with her. Buck agreed. We went to see her together, running awkwardly at first, still learning how to move together, but soon we reconciled ourselves with the change. We would never be alone again, and neither would Kristy, or anyone. All would be connected. No one alone. Knotted together for eternity.
Hey.
Do you want to see our knot?

Frog Legs

Hey there now. A fellow frog-gigger, I see. This pond has some good pickings, but it ain’t nothin’ like the waters of Suamp county. No, not Swamp County—Suamp County. Never heard of it? Course not! And I bet you ain’t never heard of Joseph Willet, neither. Lucky you. He was what Suamp County was known for, among its locals, anyway. There weren’t no knowing worth knowing unless it was knowing of Joseph Willet.
Joseph Willet was known as the handsomest young man in all of Suamp County. He had a hammer chin, dark black hair, the straightest teeth ever known in that tobacco-chewin’, moonshine-chuggin’ bottomland. He had his choice of women, and consequently had the choicest women, and he was envied by every man with sense enough to think of his own shabby lot in life in the shadow of that sunny son-of-a-buck. But young Joseph had his troubles, too, and, like himself, they weren’t your ordinary run-of-the-pondmill troubles. They were damn near biblical.
It happend one day that he was out near the swamp, gigging for a living, as we all did back then. I was with him, and a couple of other boys, in his ol’ pontoon. We had quite the haul that night, and stayed out till mornin’, fillin’ our buckets and bringin’ ‘em back ‘n’ forth to the dock. It was as daylight broke that we reckoned we had had enough and so docked one final time. Me and the other boys were estimatin’ how many pounds of frogs we’d gotten ourselves while Joseph was securin’ his pontoon to the dock with his rope. Ain’t nobody ever wrapped cord fast as Joseph did. Some of ‘em women in town would have fainted to see his biceps flexin’ as he worked ‘em on that needsome task.
Nonetheless, he was only half-done securin’ it when he happened to see a frog perchin’ on his boat. The audacity of the frog was what halted him. I reckon he didn’t know if it had hopped up there when we docked or had been perched there all the while we was busy in our humble profession. Whatever the case, ol’ Joseph looked at that frog with ire in his eyes, and also with mischief.
“Look here,” he told us, and we obeyed, because you always obeyed Joseph Willet. Back then, anyway. “How much you wanna’ bet I can knock that frog off with a spit?”
We knew better than bettin’ anythin’ against Joseph, so we just grinned and told him to do as he liked. And he did. He hacked up a loogy— never mind you how big— and reared back and spat at the frog, knocking it clear off the rim of the boat and we all startin’ roarin’ with laughter. And then we stopped, cold in our chuckle-headed idiocy. For the frog landed on the deck, and consign me to the nuthouse if it didn’t go and suddenly bloom into a woman! Or half-bloom, so to speak, for the naked girl weren’t but half and half, frog and woman. I swear by the three nails that Teed Jesus it did! She was something to see! Faintest nub of a nose with slitted nostrils always flaring and closing as she breathed through ‘em, and lank black hair, slimy and matted and clingin’ to her wide head, and whatever else it happened to touch, like pond algae, and nearly so green, and bulging golden eyes that locked onto Joseph as if he was Christ come again. Her fingers and toes were webbed, the latter being so long she could have skied with ‘em, and all of her body either lime green with dark stripes, or pale white, such as her chest and neck and belly.
Me and the boys was all dumbstruck as a pair of donkeys that up’d and kick each other in the nuts. But not Joseph Willet. He saw her layin’ there, naked and all a’sprawl on his boat as if God had just made her— in a fit of indecision— and he ran inside his house and fetched his other pair of coveralls. I should say that— and not unkindly, you see—while he was seein’ to her, his boat’s rope unwound itself and his pontoon drifted out toward the salt marshes. I guess you could have said his ship had lit’ally sailed out to sea. But he didn’t mind none of that then, even if he did later on. He just took his time and gently put her in ‘em coveralls, though they was too big and long for her strange body. That cumbrousness didn’t stop her none, though, after he had let her go from dressin’ her. She squatted down, contractin’ her doubly-long legs, as was her wont, and she hopped about, just like a damn frog. From then on, that woman was inseparable from Joseph, even for all his tryin’. Her eyes bulged, as I might ‘ave said, or might not ‘ave said, and were golden, the pupils more in proportion to a normal woman’s as they rolled about in those large round whites, and they ever went anywhere with half so much light as they went to Joseph.
And why wouldn’t they? It was the fairytale come true! Or half come true, as it were, and inverted as a snake-skin boot inside out and backwards. It was all sorts of muddied up, on account of Joseph breakin’ her curse with his spit instead of a kiss. Course, I don’t reckon I can say where she came from, neither. There ain’t no kingdoms ‘round there, and never had been. It’s goddamn swampland and river bottom! She must have floated a long ways away.
Anyway, Joseph tried to kiss her afterwards, and make her wholly woman by pressing his lips against her wide, lipless mouth, but Fate wasn’t havin’ any of it. The girl’s eyes bulged in loving admiration of him all the same, and she hopped after him, as I said,, with her long legs foldin’ and springin’ under her and standin’ up like a real woman only when she was of a mind to hug him.
She had no human speech, her human brain but only halfway transformed, but we all knew she likely been turned by a witch long ago, or some such moonshine. And now Joseph was obligated to her, as these things were, and so him being a young man of honor he did her right, putting her in some clothes borrowed from his sister and takin’ her to Preacher Tinnell’s chapel for a brief ceremony. She did not stand most of the time, squatting down next to Joseph’s feet instead. Preacher Tinnell had some reservations, as we all did, but Joseph was a man set upon his path and so the goodly Preacher carried through it anyhow, hoping to sanctify the two of ‘em before it was too late and this abomination should stick in the craw of God overlong.
Only a few of us attended the wedding, it being so slapdash, but rumor always flies fast when the word is peculiar, and soon everybody was talkin’ about it. The women were downright vicious with their gossip, as it was they resented the frog-girl for what she happened to have: Joseph, with all his straight teeth. The men, also being resentful of Joseph, laughed at his luck and congratulated themselves on his being out of the way, now. I often heard them talkin’ unseemly when I visited them, sayin’ there was a lot of good “frog-giggin’” goin’ on near Joseph’s pond. They’d make gestures and faces and I laughed along with the rest of ‘em, though it shames me to say so today. I knew Joseph well, and knew he hadn’t touched that frog girl one bit other than tryin’ to kiss her right. He had married her out of tradition, and tradition was strong and ‘onorable in these parts. Least, once upon a time it was. Nothin’ stronger to compel a man than tradition.
That is to say, other than, perhaps, the need of settlin’ an eye for an eye.
But the sad truth was that his new bride disgusted Joseph. Not only did she look like a frog and a woman all mixed up, but she acted like it, too. She caught bugs all the livelong day with her tongue, snatchin’ ‘em out of the air like a sniper. The human side of her would try cookin’ for Joseph, only she’d do it with the whatnot the frog-side favored. The other boys laughed about this, too, when they heard him complainin’ one day about her cookin’, but I’ll tell you one thing: you never saw no mosquitoes and horseflies around Joseph’s land much after she came. Who could think meanly on that? I know I don’t like havin’ my ass bitten by bugs every minute of every hour of every day! No, sir!
And no one could say Joseph and his bride didn’t try to do right by each other. They looked after one another, which is more than what I could say about the rest of ‘em two-timin’ lovers in Suamp County. Even Joseph forewent his womanizin’ for his new bride’s sake. Whatever else might be said, he tried to be a good husband to her. And the more’s the pity! I noticed— and I don’t doubt Joseph noticed— that his new bride was aware of what was wrong with her sometimes. Often she kept her lank green algae hair draped over most of her face, as if she was keen aware how her eyes and nose weren’t “right” and bothered people. She rarely went to town, stayin’ instead on Joseph’s marshland and waitin’ for him to come home. She never leapt so high as when he come back from town. And how many husbands can say that of their wives?
And I’ll say one more thing on the matter of her love: her eyes shined bright gold beneath her slimy dark bangs whenever she looked upon her husband. There weren’t no fakin’ that shimmer. No, sir! And here’s another secret: Joseph, the pride of Suamp County, didn’t give her cause to fault him, for he smiled at her more often than he had any reason to.
Still, Joseph liked to drink, as well all did in Suamp County. There wasn’t much else to do there, really, other than workin’ and survivin’. One night he and I was drinkin’ on his porch. Nobody else was there, except his wife, but she always stayed in the cabin when he was drinkin’. She didn’t like the smell or somethin’. Anyhow, Joseph got to drinkin’, and so got to hankerin’ after a woman, as he always did when he was drinkin’. He hadn’t touched a woman since marryin’ his frog-girl and he was damn restless. The problem was that there was no willin’ woman to take him on account all of ‘em in Suamp thought the lesser of him for takin’ the frog-girl as his wife (and not any of ‘em). And, as I said, I don’t think even drink would have compelled the self-righteous fool to break a religious vow (even if plenty in the Bible did it all the time).
As I said, he was restless like a bitch-cat in heat. Nothin’ was holdin’ his hankerin’ back but opportunity. But then his girl came out on the deck, offerin’ him a pie made of fish and mice, and he got to lookin’ at her— more than he ever could of looked at that godforsaken pie—and as his drink turned to lust he saw she had haunches more or less like a woman’s, never mind the elongated ankles and toes and the green of all that, and she had pale breasts, even if the nipples stuck up in the air like toadstools and were as dark green as her algae hair, and her webbed fingers were dainty enough, and she had no teeth, which, I suppose were all the better for it when indulging the carnal flesh, and so she was well enough a woman, besides all those peculiar exemptions, to be hankered after. So, he hankered after her, and took her to bed while I left to mind my own damn business and drink myself into oblivion over what was happenin’ then and there at that moment. Yet, I don’t blush to say that even now I imagine him hunkerin’ down on her, as a frog might another frog, and she received him willingly enough, and even gave it a go with her own hunchin’ on him, and, in sooner time than he would have thought, how he begot child upon her, the two of ‘em layin’ down in whatever sweat and slime was conducive to their fornicatin’.
And from then on, every night was one where Joseph took his passions to her, never needin’ again a drink to grease his gears, for he never bought none from me no more! Hell, he rarely invited me or the giggin’ boys over again after that. Don’t know if it was from embarrassment or from not havin’ the time or energy to entertain company with a friendly word. What I do know is that his frog-woman birthed several hundred eggs in that pond of his, away from predators. I seen ‘em. Clear as day through the swamp canopy! They startled me near to an early grave, comin’ upon ‘em without warnin’. But I thought they was cute enough when they hatched and took to the water. You could say they was all happy there; happy as tadpoles in a mud hole. But it had to end. Every blasphemy has to end sooner or later, even Eden.
The bad business started when the kids grew legs and lost ‘em tails and started comin’ on land. Really it started before that, with the envy and jealousy of Suamp County, but that weren’t the trigger of it. True, that place had always been backwards—backwards and back-looking and backwoods and backwater. It never had no tolerance for things that were different. And boy were those kids different! They could do all sorts of things the other kids couldn’t. Out-swim gators in the swamp, leap from one tree to another, play Tag with their tongues from waaaaay far away. Unlike their mother, these kids could talk and they talked to animals just as good as they did any people tryin’ to speak to ‘em. They helped their daddy catch fish in the deeper parts of the swamp, like gar and carp and whatever other big fish they could get their webbed hands on. They also found pearls for their momma, divin’ deep into the sea and comin’ up with a fortune’s worth of precious things. Joseph gave such things to his wife, or sold them to outsiders, and though he had lots of wealth, on account of his wife and his children, he never moved away or flaunted it to the rest of us. He even gave a hefty sum to the Preacher Tinnell’s Church, all the while grinnin’ his straight teeth as if he never deviled nobody.
All the same, my fellow Suampians became wroth with resentment. It seemed to ‘em that his wife and children were spawn of the Devil, and that good-lookin’, straight-toothed Joseph was the Devil in question. Not that I ever suspected it. No, sir! Not me.
Then came the day that one of Joseph’s many sons got his leg caught in a bear trap that had never existed in that part of the woods beforehand. It was right suspicious, those circumstances, and because his bones hadn’t fully hardened, the poor boy lost his leg in a single snap of that rusty gator. His brothers and sisters carried him home. While Joseph and his wife were tendin’ to their dyin’ son, the bear-trap, and the boy’s leg, disappeared. Don’t ask me how. I won’t give you nothin’ but soft morass to stand on. I’m not one for conjecture, neither, or gossip. All right! All right. Some say Joseph’s long-time Suamp County rival, Cleetus White, was the one that set that trap and took off with that leg. It certainly makes enough sense to me. But the worst ol’ Cleetus did to Joseph and his family was to come after they had already buried that boy in the soft, muddy ground.
What a mind for vengeance Cleetus must have had. Was it conscious, though, or subconscious that led him astray like it did? I imagine it was a little of both; like seein’ a gator’s head in the water and watchin’ it float over to you, and goin’ out to meet it instead of fleein’ in the other direction like any sensible person would do. But Cleetus was strange even by Suamp County standards. He had a mind for vengeance. Slow, like that gator, and then springin’ forth all at once. Once he got you in his death roll there was nothin’ helpin’ for it.
I can even imagine him now, lookin’ at that leg and sayin’ “That looks just like a frog leg,” and then he starts thinkin’, “That’s an awfully big frog leg,”, and then he thinks,”I bet it taste just like a frog leg”, and so he heats up his deep fryer and chops that poor boy’s leg up, and eats it. The hankerin’ for it then got hold of his head like a gator and wouldn’t let go. He had to eat more of it, and he had to share it so others could know what he knew. It would get ‘em on his side. And so he did just that.
That’s how I imagine it. Maybe Cleetus was jealous of ol’ Joseph and his wealth, as he was jealous of everythin’ Joseph had. Maybe Joseph never thought to see Cleetus as nothin’ but another well-meanin’ neighbor, too beneath him to be a threat. And maybe Cleetus wanted revenge for that slight. However it really happened, it happened that several people got a taste of that boy’s leg during the Church Sunday lunch. And when they got a taste of it, they got a hankerin’ for it, just as Cleetus did. And by hankerin’ for it, I mean they wanted to eat it more badly than any fried catfish they usually slapped with grease and breading and threw in a fryer for Jesus. I’d even wager that their hatred of Joseph and his family was what imparted such flavor. Frog legs never tasted so good to me before I had me a bit of that leg. I’ll promise you that!
The night of the raid was spontaneous and without a leader. We all just sorta’ converged on Joseph’s land in the middle of the night, surrounding the pond, where his children slept, and lettin’ none of ‘em escape. We took his wife, too. He tried to stop us, but shotguns had better say than anything he tried to do that night. We left him in a pool of blood on the porch, and so far as I know he is still rottin’ there. A lot o’ good his straight teeth did him that day!
As for the rest of us Suampians, we fried up every one of those children and ate ourselves stupid. Afterwards, the hankerin’ remained, but since we had no frog-people to satisfy it, we tried regular ol’ frog legs. They didn’t do no good for it, so we thought plain ol’ people would do just well enough. We began to snatch each other’s children, in turns, and then the elderly, and finally each other. It was cannibalism run amok, and it didn’t satisfy nobody at all, yet we was set in it. At the end of the year only one person remained, and he left Suamp County for good, tryin’ to leave the whole fiasco behind him.
So. That’s why you ain’t never heard of Suamp County. I don’t miss it much, to be honest, but I feel real bad ‘bout what happened to Joseph and his family. If we had only left a few alive to breed then we could ‘ave eaten ‘em special frog legs from now to kingdom come. But when you get a hankerin’ for something, you never can control yourself much. You eat till there ain’t no more left. And now there’s nothin’ left.
You donna’ believe me, do you? Well, I promise by my great-great-great-grandfather Louis Clay White that it happened. Sure, there are things I ain’t so square on no more. As I said, I donna’ know if Cleetus just forgot that he put that bear trap out there, where the Willet children always went playin’, or not. I also don’t know if Cleetus got the idea in his head before or after eatin’ that leg. Maybe he just hated Joseph for all the wealth he brought to Suamp County with his devil-spawn kids, and thought he’d get him good. Maybe the frog fairytale comin’ true was the last straw, even if it only came half-true. Maybe it was the way Joseph’s straight teeth grinned as if God himself wasn’t makin’ a fool out of him with his half-frog wife. Who knows? I donna’ know, myself.
Slim pickings tonight, ain’t it? Real shame, too. I got a hankerin’ for it somethin’ fierce. By the way, you got a nice set of legs on you…

Sweet And Salty

Forewarning: This story is quite graphic, both in terms of sex and violence, and should not be read by anyone at all.  No one whatsoever should read this.  This is your warning.

 

Final warning.

 

I warned you:

Candy sipped from the glass of lemongrass-and-ginseng tea, aswirl with an overabundance of sugar, and occasionally nibbled at an unsalted pretzel. She could not tolerate salt between jobs and, so, worked her hardest to sweeten her breath and wet her throat on days when she was scheduled to meet with her clients. Being a highly sought, highly expensive escort under contract to Madame Stamos, Candy did not have to work often. Still, the “money-shot” cloyed and she had developed a subsequent aversion to salt.
And penises.
But penises were her business, and tonight she had a client coming over for his weekly appointment. She did not mind Stanley, though. His penis was small, quick to expectation, and did not yield much in its output. So to speak. His wallet, on the other hand, was always thickly engorged and ready to erupt like Mt. Vesuvius. (Candy had visited Pompeii during one of Madame Stamos’s employee vacation retreats. Madame Stamos was Greek, and something of a Greek mother to her girls. She had no daughters of her own, and doted and indulged her girls quite extravagantly…if they performed well and pleased the clientele. Candy found it humorous that a whole civilization had been wiped out by what was essentially ejaculation from the earth. She had a dark sense of humor, even if she did have a sweet tooth.)
As a consequence of her sweet tooth, Candy liked candy. She ate it all of the time, alongside sodas and sweet tea and whatever else had unhealthy handfuls of sugar in it. If she started to put on weight in regions where it was unwanted, she simply did a little extra yoga, and induced a lot of vomiting. Madame Stamos demanded top-tier escorts for their top-tier pay, and Candy did not want to risk her profession for a few extra Twizzlers and Kit-Kats. She could have both, anyway: eat sweets and be in tiptop shape. The balance was easy in this business where a throat was willing.
Candy was wearing her cheerleader outfit already, replete with red pompoms and a short skirt with red and white frills. Stanley had a high school hang-up and Candy purchased the uniform especially for him, using his money. She had two or three uniforms for each of her clients, ranging from cavewoman to nurse, from bitchy lawyer to cliche dominatrix. She had only one name for each client, however, and no two were the same. Tonight she was Candy the Cheerleader. Tomorrow she would be Helga the Milkmaid, and the next night she would be Rosemary the Nun.
The hotel room in which she drank her tea and awaited her client was 5 star quality and 10 star expensive. That was fine for her, however, since Stanley had already prepaid for it himself. It came with complimentary champagne, a two-person jacuzzi, King-size bed, and a full-sized bathroom with a shower as expansive as the bed. Her suitcase was in the walk-in closet, already unpacked of its client-specific effects. Candy knew how to please her clients, for that was her job. She took her business very seriously.
Candy had gone to Business School for a year and a half, back when her name was still Sarah Hackman, but she found tuition costly, and time scarce, whereas she found she had quite the knack for the world’s oldest profession. Sex was just business in her mind: labor for wages. Tit for tat and tits for tax. That said, she never thought of herself as a prostitute. There were too many stigmas and too much devaluation in that title. She was a high class concubine, a manager of her own body’s department store.
Or some such euphemistic pretense.
She spooned another heap of sugar into her glass of tea in anticipation of tonight’s work. Stanley, like all of her clients, loved fellatio the most. It was her fault, really, since she was so good at it. She hated it, but it was her specialty and it kept them coming back for more, which meant job security and an expansion of her franchise. Pleasing them pleased her, as any job someone prided herself upon, and it pleased her in letting her enjoy the finer things in life. The sweet life. She may not have graduated Business School, but her clients were always cum-de-loud.
That was her own silly joke she told herself when she was feeling soured or embittered.
There was a knock at the door; a gentle, hesitant knock. Stanley was early. Normally that would have irritated her, but Stanley was such a sweetheart (in his own creepy way) that she did not mind. She downed the rest of her sweet, sweet tea to sweeten her smile, stood up from the edge of the bed, swiped her frills down over her honey-tanned thighs, and then went to the door. She dimmed the room’s lights, with a radial dial, until the room was as dark and as bright as any of the street corners several storeys below, in the heart of New York. She then opened the door, speaking like a bubbly cheerleader still in love with youth and life and the high school quarterback.
“Stan!” she chimed. “Where have you been? I missed you!”
He shuffled inside as if he was expecting to be upbraided. She closed the door and bounded around him excitedly, raising her pompoms in the air and kicking as she always did when beginning their roleplaying session. He turned away from her, though, his sagging shoulders in a greater slump than usual.
“What’s wrong, Stan?” she asked, still maintaining her faux cheerleader effervescence. “Do you need me to give you a pep rally?” She assumed a cheerleader stance, pompoms raised, fisting them into the air. “Stan! Stan! He’s our man! If he can’t do it, no one can! Gooooooo Stan!”
She rolled the pompoms around in a flourish and leapt in the air, arching her back. The excess sugar helped energize the performance. Usually it was enough to have him creaming his pants in a couple of jiffies. Easiest three grand ever.
“I couldn’t come last week,” he said timidly. “Because…because…I went to see…someone else…”
She furrowed her brow in teen-aged histrionic mock-anger. “You cheated on me? Stan! How could you? That’s not keeping with the home-team spirit!”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, staring at the floor.
Stanley looked pale— paler than usual— which would have been impossible in her mind had she had to imagine it. His pallor was always like milk. It was a natural consequence of his lifestyle. He was good with computers, but bad with people, especially girls. A tech company engineer, he spent all day and night in front of a computer screen, his body melting into his chair and never but accidentally glimpsing the sun in between the New York city skyscrapers. His paunch protruded over his pelvis so profusely that Candy believed she had probably seen his penis more in his adult life than he had, concealed as it was by the overhang of his gut.
“A friend recommended a girl to me,” he said, sheepishly. He referred to every woman as a girl. “She was…unique.”
“I’m unique, too, Stanley!” Candy said, pouting and putting her hands on her hips, puffing her cheeks out as if having a bratty high school temper-tantrum.
“You are!” he said, looking away from her and recoiling as if he expected to be struck. “That’s why I came back. This girl…she wasn’t anything like you. She wasn’t like anyone at all…”
Candy could see that he was not into the roleplaying like he should have been. He was distracted, and agitated. In fact, he looked sad and pathetic and lost beneath the dimmed hotel lights. If he had been a child she would have comforted him with a motherly hug, but he was a grown man paying a grown woman for a high quality sexual experience, so she was confused by this maudlin scenario so far. Instinctively, she threw her pompoms aside, walked over to him and started loosening the overstrained belt holding up his brown slacks. The buckle popped open eagerly enough, as the gut slipped forward and fell farther down over his thighs, dragging his pants down with its largess as if to help Candy usher the slacks along.
She paused a moment, reeling.
He smelled of the sea, and of putrid fish.
“Yucky!” she said, staying in character despite her revulsion. “You stink! You need to hit the showers before we can have our extracurricular activities!”
He did not respond, but did not resist as she took him by the hand and led him toward the bathroom.
Entering the bathroom, Candy helped Stanley strip and then led him into the large shower. She took off all of her clothes, too, but left her blonde hair up in its twin pigtails. Using her own honey-and-lavender body wash, she lathered his pudgy body up as the water rained over his porcine rotundity. She had brought the body wash along with her other things, just as she always did when working. It was her necessity to smell sweet and clean after an appointment. Always sweet.
“That is a really strong smell,” he said with a sigh.
“Sweet, isn’t it?” she said, trying not to be irritable as she cleaned him, head to toe. This was too much like menial work. “Sweet just like me. Right, Stan?”
He stood silently in the suds and the water, demure and still looking away from her like a self-conscious teenage boy naked in front of a girl for the first time. Normally she worked him in the dark, to ease his self-consciousness, and she knew she would have to do so tonight, after this embarrassing work was done. Pleasing her client was her primary goal. She had to make him want to return next week, otherwise a sizeable chunk of her income would be lost. That was Business 101: preserve the customer base.
When Candy had finished, and Stanley smelled sufficiently of honey and lavender, she dried him off, and herself, and led him to the bed. She laid him down and began working him with her mouth. Her mouth was a miracle worker, after all, and would salvage him from this melancholy that had hold of him. She did not care that he went to see another girl for sex, just so long as he returned to her, too, with payment. Why would she care about that? They weren’t married. They weren’t anything except businesswoman and consumer.
Stanley was so weird, she thought, and weirder than usual. His penis was also saltier than usual, almost like a pickle, and engorged much larger than the sad four inches that she remembered. Had she not felt it swell in her mouth she would have thought he had slipped an ultra-realistic dildo on in the dark. His penis grew, in her professional estimation, to about eight inches, which was double and, moreover, impossible.
And it tasted like seawater.
She gagged on it, which never happened with her clients, and she started to suffer a case of lockjaw as she worked him. She had to use her hands, to give her mouth a break, but he shoved himself deeper into her throat, pounding away at a faster rhythm toward climax. She started to choke, and suffocate. This was not characteristic of Stan. He was passive; always passive. Bewildered, and breathless, she looked up at him in the half-light as he leaned against the headboard, his face blank of expression; as if everything upstairs was detached from everything that was happening downstairs.
“She was Malaysian,” he said quietly. “Or maybe Taiwanese. I don’t know. She was a thousand years old, but only looked fourteen. She was beautiful and ugly at the same time.”
Candy had heard weirder sex-talk than this, but there was something in Stanley’s tone that disturbed her more than the thought of dying with his newfound penis impaling her throat.
“She said I would help her bear children. She said I would father her line upon a woman. She had a strange body. My Fiji mermaid. It felt so good. I haven’t felt anything like it before, or since. I haven’t felt anything at all since. Even now I don’t feel anything. What are you doing down there?”
His lower body convulsed and Candy felt something give way in her mouth. She fell backward as she came free of him, yet she still could not breathe.
“I’m sorry,” Stanley said softly. His head lolled to one side, onto his shoulder, and remained still.
Candy would have screamed in horror, but Stanley’s penis was still in her mouth and throat, and it began to wiggle and move of its own accord. She stood up, flailing her arms and running around the room, sobbing hysterically. She tried to reach into her mouth and grab it as it slithered further down her esophagus, but it was too slippery and strong. She tried to vomit it out, but years of bulimia and blowjobs had ruined her gag reflex. She clutched at her throat and chest and stomach in vain as the thing traveled further and further into the depths of her body.

***

She could not eat anything now except salty foods. That was what it wanted. It controlled what she ate and what she did and who she fucked and who she implanted while fucking. It devoured their penises and gave them new ones, thus spawning more of its own kind to colonize and propagate. It was an invasive species. The home-team advantage did not help at all against it.
It also did not like sugar.
She never got the salty taste out of her mouth and throat again. No one did.