An Excerpt from a fantasy novel currently in progress.
CHAPTER V. Stones, Clouds, And Bogs
“Beware, Edmund. There is no stronger magic than the magic a wizard works upon himself. There is no stronger enchantment than self-delusion.”—Master Avon’s warning.
All poetry was fancywork. That was what Edmund thought (quite bitterly) as he walked across the heath in a general Eastward direction. He was staring down at the calfskin, reading the poem over and over again in the hope that he might come to understand it more clearly. Nothing came of this, however. He wondered, once again, if Master Avon was testing him, or having a lark at his expense. He had often been used for a laugh by the other squires. They told him at times that such-and-such maiden was asking about him. When he went to call on the maiden at her residence, the servants would fetch her, then return, telling him that he was not known at that residence. Edmund had fallen for this mischief more times than he cared to admit. Even when he knew he was being tricked, he could not convince himself not to seek out the maiden. Of course, the squires employed others to trick him as well. Even the knights had taken part in the chicanery, and laughed just as loudly as their squires when Edmund returned the next day, looking downcast and friendless.
The heath was vast. The night settled quickly, too, and the wind blew with a colder edge than in the Midlands. Edmund deduced from this that he was in the Northerlands. Thus, he was in the direction that the Black Knight took Princess Felicia, though Edmund doubted that Master Avon meant for him to rescue the Princess presently.
The sky darkened over distant mountains, and then overhead, and stars sparkled in the cloudless black dome. The night was moonless, however. There were shrubs aplenty along the heath, and pink-colored gorse, and occasionally larger trees that had managed to make a home of the vast solitude. It was beneath one such tree that Edmund decided to await the morning. He was not so cold to need a fire to be warm, but he did value its light. So, he conjured a fire and fed it some of the shrubs he gathered from the heath. Laying next to this fire, he fell asleep for a time.
He awoke late in the night. What woke him, he did not know. Not at first. Slowly sitting up, he looked out upon the heath. The stars were bright, but the starlight did not illuminate much of the heath. He did fancy he saw some of the gorse bushes trembling. The wind was still, yet the gorse shook anyway. He wondered why. He glanced about, then lay down closer to the fire. He was tired after a long, eventful day. He fell asleep.
It was a white night come the next morning. A thick fog blanketed the heath, reducing the sun to a white shadow in the clammy mist—more moon than sun—and sight was hindered. A ll things not within a stone’s toss were hidden. Edmund sat up and rubbed his eyes. The fire he had conjured in the night had extinguished. The cool air made him shudder, and not just because it chilled him. It seemed to cocoon around him covetously, as if it had been summoned from a witch’s cauldron. The sun was like a blind witch’s eye in the sky. Edmund feared he would see three witches approach him from out of the fog (for witches always worked wickedness in threes, as everyone knew).
Edmund stood up and stretched. Sleeping on the moor was no worse on him than sleeping on his mat at home. It had not been uncomfortable. What made him uncomfortable was the milky murk that swirled around him. He looked up at the pale sun and followed it Eastward, leaving the tree behind. As he walked, he peered at the calfskin in his hands and reread the poem. It did no good. No new meanings came to him. At length, he tucked the calfskin into the sleeve of his father’s tunic and walked with his eyes focused on the fog and the gorse.
At midmorning the fog parted, thinned, and then dissipated. Trees grew more frequent as he progressed across the heath. This did not comfort him as much as it should have. They were twisted willows with heavily-laden heads. Some seemed to swoon leftward or rightward, as if to fall, and some were bent doubly, as if groveling toward their own roots. The heath, too, changed. The gorse fell away, giving way to spidery grass and becoming soggier beneath Edmund’s shoes. Though the fog had parted, the sky was as much overcast as not. The mountains still seemed faraway and the smell of rotting vegetation grew. Edmund’s unease grew, too.
Edmund started to feel famished. He had not had anything to eat since the mushroom soup yesterday. Thus far he had not seen any animals except the occasional birds and mosquitoes, and a single heron flying overhead. It would not have mattered if there were deer and elks and sheep out here. Edmund had been raised as a weaver, not a hunter.
Still, his stomach would not listen to reason. It was empty and wished to be full. Having no other recourse, Edmund sat down on the grass and thought for a moment. Part of him wanted to tear open the All Ways, walk the path of the Betwixt, and return home. Obviously Master Avon had set him upon another trick quest. Much like with the books that proved to be less than crucial to his lessons, the poem must have been less than crucial to his quest.
Edmund’s stomach grumbled loudly. Such a loud complaint broached no debate. Knowing he needed to eat, Edmund spoke a spell, imagining the Betwixt and the threads on his mother’s loom. Shortly thereafter a cluster of mushrooms sprouted from the grass. However, he had been careful not to indulge the spell overmuch. The mushrooms were enough to feed him, and no more than that. They were also none of them poisonous. He then summoned another fire, gently roasting the mushrooms over the flame. He ate the mushrooms quickly, then stood up. It was as he stood up that he realized that there was a gigantic hairy hand outstretched toward him.
Edmund yelped, then leapt back. The hand remained where it was, straining toward him. The hand was as big as Edmund’s torso. The palm was peach-colored—not unlike Edmund’s own hand—but the hair on the knuckles and the back of the hand was thick and white. The arm to which the hand was connected was large and muscular and covered in white hair, also. It extended out from under a willow tree. The willow tree’s foliage bulged with the large figure beneath it. Edmund did not know what to make of the figure, for it was more concealed than revealed beneath the willow tree’s tresses.
Strangely, the figure could have easily emerged from the tree and overtaken Edmund, but it did not. In fact, the gigantic hand flinched back as a cloud parted above and sunlight speared through to lance at it.
“I mean no harm, surface dweller!” a voice boomed from under the willow tree. “I only need help!”
Edmund stayed warily away from the tree, but he did call out to the creature.
“How can I help you?” he asked, “and who are you?”
“Who am I?” the voice boomed. “I am Flint-Tusk.”
“What are you?”
The creature known as Flint-Tusk grumbled. “Have you no worldliness, surface dweller? Have you no etiquette? I am a troll!”
Edmund’s stomach turned to icy slush. He had heard of Trolls. They were, invariably, eaters of men. Though out of reach of the large hand, Edmund nonetheless took a few more steps back. He wanted to put the whole of the heath between them.
“Why should I help an eater of children?” Edmund said, turning away. “I must leave.”
Edmund paused, looking over his shoulder. The troll had withdrawn his hand back under the willow tree. His bearded face peered out from between the spindly tresses of the tree. He had sharp features in an apish face. His tusks jutted out of both corners of his mouth, vertically, near his cool-blue eyes. There was a white mane from the creature’s forehead, flowing back to either side of his bearded face. The beard and the mane were divided and bound into two tufts apiece by what appeared to be golden bracelets. Edmund wondered to whom the golden bracelets had belonged before the troll had taken them..
“I am at your mercy, young surface dweller,” Flint-Tusk said. His tusks scraped against his teeth as he spoke, and sparks flew like fireflies, occasionally landing on his beard and singing it black here and there in places. “I had trusted too much in the fog this morning to assure my safety. As you may or may not know, trolls cannot endure direct sunlight. I was returning to my cave in the mountains when the sky suddenly parted. I flung myself beneath this tree, and here I have remained.”
“You sought breakfast…?” Edmund said. The realization that he could have been eaten dawned on him. He grimaced with horror. “You tried to eat me?!”
The willow tree shook with the troll’s clumsy form. “No, no, no! Indeed, not! Had I wanted to eat you, I would have eaten you. But you were too measly a morsel. I instead ate the bear that was sniffing about your campfire as you slept. Indeed, I saved your life, surface dweller.”
Edmund was overwhelmed. He did not know whether to believe the troll or to run away while he could. He took another step back and felt something beneath his shoe that was not gorse or shrub or spidery grass. Looking down, he saw a bear’s paw under his shoe. It was only a bear’s paw. Nothing else remained.
“You ate the fur, too?” Edmund asked, feeling disoriented. The world tipped sideways slowly, but he put his hands on his knees and breathed.
“That is the best part,” Flint-Tusk said, “besides the fat and the bones.”
Edmund steadied himself, then stepped away from the bear paw. “So you saved my life?”
“Inadvertently,” Flint-Tusk said, his tusks sparking on each syllable. A spark caught on the willow, and then the willow caught fire. “Oh no,” the troll said. “My cover is burning.” He tried to pat out the flame, but his words sparked more flames upon the willow tree. “I do not mean to hurry you,” the troll said. “But if you could somehow save my life, I would be forever in your gratitude.”
Edmund watched the flames wind up the side the willow, even as the troll attempted to snuff them with his big hands. The flames did not seem to bother the troll, but he was certainly squeamish about the sunlight, saddling away from the side of the tree that was burning away. Before he could stop himself, Edmund focused on the intermittent clouds, the Betwixt, and his own worded will.
“Clouds, become mountainous in the sky—
converge, overcast, spread far and high.”
The brightening morning suddenly darkened with clouds that grew thick and vast overhead. Shadows pooled and deepened all around the heath until the morning had become crepuscular in its tones and tints and hues. The willow tree continued to burn around the troll, but he still cowered beneath its flames until nought was left of it but blackened branches over his furry white shoulders. Flint-Tusk held his large hands over his head as if awaiting a pitiful end. After a long moment of cringing, he looked up, through his splayed fingers, and saw the clouds hanging heavily overhead. He lowered his hands.
“Ah,” he said, “you have saved me, magical surface dweller. Thank you.”
Edmund nodded. “You saved my life, too. It was only right that I should return the favor.”
“Indeed,” the troll said. He stepped out from beneath the smoldering remains of the willow tree, his white hair tinged with smoke. He was massive—far larger than Grenneth, Gwenneth, Stanneth, and Alfreth, though he certainly reminded Edmund of them as he approached the Apprentice. “That is quite some power. We trolls can move mountains, but could never aspire to move mountains in the sky.”
Edmund marveled at the feat, too. It was the most extravagant feat he had thus far accomplished. He wondered what consequences would be wrought from it, and he feared them.
“I believe they spread far enough that you may return to your cave,” Edmund said, looking at the clouds and their road toward the mountains.
The troll nodded, his giant fists on his hips, arms akimbo. Edmund realized, then, that the troll was nude, and so he looked away, embarrassed. The troll did not seem embarrassed. Being nude was natural for a troll, it seemed.
“Well, come along,” the troll said, starting toward the mountains.
Edmund lingered behind.
“Come along with me,” Flint-Tusk said, tusks sparking as he spoke. “I have not yet returned to my cave.”
“Why must I go with you?” Edmund asked, alarmed.
“Because I do not trust mountains made of air,” Flint-Tusk said. “They do not stay still like mountains made of stone. They are not as trustworthy.”
Edmund looked from the troll to the distant mountains. He opened his mouth to protest, but realized that the troll had, in fact, saved his life. Thus, Edmund was honor-bound to make certain that the troll returned safely to his cave. After all, it was not as though Edmund was obligated to enter the cave; only to see that the troll entered safely. He followed the troll, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. They spoke as they walked.
“Have you never met a troll before?” Flint-Tusk asked.
“No,” Edmund said. “I have read of your kind before. In tales of heroes.”
“Surface dwelling heroes?” Flint-Tusk asked. His muscular large arms swung at his sides as he walked. He could have smashed a tower down with such arms. “We have been maligned by such heroes. Not all of us eat children.” He shrugged. “Only a handful.”
The troll shook his head ruefully.
“Grah!” he growled. “That really burns my beard! We are not all of us eaters of men!” To prove his point, Flint-Tusk’s gnashing teeth and tusks sparked a flame that caught on his beard. “Oh! There goes my beard again!”
The troll pinched his beard until the flames were wisps of smoke.
Edmund let the point rest. Instead, he tried to recall what he knew about trolls from the heroic tales and from what the Gran Stone knights had told the squires. Generally, they were big and strong and dumb. They ate women and children and babies. They had to be slain. Yet, Flint-Tusk seemed articulate and uninterested in Edmund as food. He was certainly big and strong. He had read somewhere that trolls were Elementals born from rocks. Flint-Tusk seemed born of rocks. The troll’s face was seemed to be made of h mountainous ridges forced outward, extruding in an apelike exaggeration. There was nothing soft of such a face, nor did the white mane render him cuddly such as it might have for a dog or cat. His tusks extended up from the bottom lip, past the upper lip, and its under-bite, and up past the shelved-brow with its beady, nearly blind eyes. The troll’s nubby nostrils were slits angled downward and inward toward the lips. All in all, Flint-Tusk was just what Edmund had always imagined a troll to look like, only he did not seem to act too much like a troll.
“What is your name, surface dweller?”
“Edmund,” Edmund said.
“‘Edmund’? That is a strong name. It sounds like…like…mound. Like…bed-mound. Yes, much like the mound of rocks we trolls sleep on. Your name makes me feel refreshed, Edmund. It makes me feel as if I am ready for a new night of hunting.”
“And where are you from, Edmund?”
“I am from Gran Stone.”
“Grand Stone, you say?” the troll said, mishearing him. “A fine name for a strong city! But I doubt it can compare to the glory of The Behemoth’s Backbone. And the sea surrounding it! The Behemoth’s Blood could drown the earth with its waters! If you could only see it! Wide and vast and red as virgin blood!”
“Is it real blood?”
The troll frowned over his shoulder at Edmund. “What?! No! Course not! There’s some kind of mineral there which reddens it. Also heals sick trolls, or so my mother claimed. We trolls are considered the children of the Behemoth, after all, along with giants and ogres and orcs, so it would only make sense that we could be healed if we bathed in the blood of our mother.”
Edmund remembered, then, that he had read or heard somewhere that trolls had been born of the great Behemoth; a colossal beast whose bones had been burned to stone by Mathara’s flames, and it was the body of the Behemoth that formed the land on which the World-Unfurled unfurled.
“What about goblins?” Edmund asked. “Are you related to goblins?”
Flint-Tusk’s white mane bristled at the question, his tusks sparking as his teeth.
“Trolls and goblins related? Those lichen-licking elven half-breeds?! No. No, we are not. Goblins are of the Unseelie Court. Us trolls are of the Behemoth’s blood…the Behemoth’s bloodline, I mean to say, not the sea, though there are some who think we may have come from the sea rather than from the actual Behemoth. Personally, I don’t know what to think. I don’t get up in the morning to ask big questions like that. I get up in the morning and want to eat something, so I eat something, or someone, then I go to take a nap, and so I nap.” He nodded at his own words, ratifying their wisdom. “Eating and sleeping. Yes, a simple life is always best.”
“I was wondering about goblins,” Edmund said. “They live in bogs, don’t they? Or swamps?”
“They do,” Flint-Tusk said. “The muck-sucking half-breeds.”
Edmund could see a swamp spreading to the East, beneath the mountains. The soil beneath his own shoes had become soggier. Trees grew haggardly up from the peat, like the broken, gnarled fingers of witches. Moss hung from their twisted branches.
“Perhaps…” Edmund said, “…perhaps I must meet with goblins to come to an understanding of something.”
Edmund stopped by the edge of the swamp, looking out over its expanse. The misty murk seemed to dissolve everything at the distance, from the mountains to the sky. Edmund wondered if even the sunlight could pierce the dimness of that teeming-cauldron of mist.
Flint-Tusk stood beside Edmund, looking out over the swamp. He was twice Edmund’s height, and tenfold his breadth.
“You might reconsider, lad. A skinny boy like you is but slim pickings for a troll like me, but those goblins will make a banquet of your skin and bones. Or at least season their broth with the skin of you. They are not picky.”
“I do not know what I am supposed to do,” Edmund said. “Master Avon sent me here, but I do not know why.”
“Master Avon?” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master of All Ways?”
“Yes,” Edmund said, not knowing whether it was good or bad that the troll should know him.
“So you must be his Apprentice,” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master has not had an Apprentice in a long time…not since Master Avon was Apprentice Avon.”
When Flint-Tusk saw Edmund’s look of astonishment, the troll chuckled. It sounded like stones grinding in the back of his throat.
“Yes, I know Master Avon. I became acquainted with him shortly after hatching from my stone egg. He knew my father—may the stones rest his bones—and he was always welcome in our cave.”
“Who was the Master then?” Edmund asked, curious.
“There was no Master then,” Flint-Tusk said. “There was a Mistress. Mistress Lorne.”
“Oh,” Edmund said. He was confused. “The tales never mention there being a Mistress.”
“There were several,” Flint-Tusk said, pinching another beard-flame to smoke. “Men and women both have been Masters of All Ways.”
“I know so little,” Edmund said, shaking his head at his own ignorance.
“Most mortals know even less,” the troll said. “Which is why I tell you not to go into the swamp. Goblins are not to be trusted. None in the Unseelie Court should be trusted. They are wily by nature.”
The troll glanced up at the clouds again, then hurried off toward the mountains. Edmund lingered a moment longer, staring out into the swamp. He then followed the troll.
“Trolls are of solid making,” the troll said as they continued their walk toward the mountains. “We are made of firm stuff, of stuff that is to be trusted. You can stand on stones. They are grounded, so to speak. Your peoples make homes of stones and things, and use them for protection. I cannot say I agree with doing this, but I must say that it signifies a certain trust of your people in stones. No such trust may be placed in goblins. They are made of swamp roots and muck and such. They are not solid, but changing, shifting, like peat. They are like the bog itself. At a glance it seems you can walk on it, but all at once you fall in and are swallowed up! That is how goblins are.”
This was a lengthy speech, and so there was a lot of fire wreathing Flint-Tusk’s apish face after he had finished. He snuffed the flames in his beard and mane, both of which, by now, were more black than white. Edmund, meanwhile, was thinking about goblins and what he had heard and read of them. They lived in swamps and bogs and stole and ate children, and they were not to be trusted—that was about all he knew. He wondered, however, if all of this was true or if this was another situation such as with trolls; that the legends vilified them for the sake of a good story and to glorify the heroes that defeated them. Then again, he thought, Flint-Tusk did not trust goblins. On the other hand, Edmund had heard that a lot of Elementals disliked one another inherently. It was similar to how Gran Stone and other Midland kingdoms disliked one another on principle.
“So,” the troll said. “When do you return to this Grand Stone of yours?”
“Gran Stone,” Edmund said. “It is called Gran Stone, meaning ‘old’ stone, or so my mother told me.”
“Old stone?” The troll laughed. It was like the sound of a boulder rolling down a mountainside. “You humans always use more words than you need, thinking it makes you more intelligent. Worse than elves in that respect—though not so vain. All stones are old stones. They are the bones of the earth. Might as well say ‘wooden tree’ or ‘wet lake’. We trolls know how to name things in proportion to the thing in question. Take my name, for example. Flint-Tusk. Such a name as that tells you all you need to know about me without wasting any air. By the Behemoth’s belly! There I’ve gone and set my beard ablaze again!”
True to his word—and true to his name—Flint-Tusk’s talking had set his beard ablaze again. He batted at the mischievous flames with his meaty fists and eventually smothered them out with such force as would pulverize mortal men into pixie dust. He then yanked at his beard, pulling it up to get a better look at it and the damage done. As bad luck would have it, he uprooted more hairs than were burned by the small wildfire along his jaw line.
“See?” he said. “This is why it is good to eat the pelt of a bear! It helps me grow my hair back again.” The troll sighed and it was like a wind through an echoing cave. “Remember this, Edmund, if you remember anything at all: you never know when what you say may catch like wildfire. Better, then, to make sure when you speak you are calm and true so what you say is calm and true.”
Edmund agreed, though his eyes wandered up the slopes of the mountains. When had the mountains become so large? He had been so preoccupied with other thoughts that he had failed to notice the drastic change in their distance. They loomed larger now—reaching up into the clouds Edmund had summoned—and they ran from West to East, ostensibly without end. They were grayish blue, but dark blue where the clouds drifted over them. Where the pinnacles and crags cut through the clouds it was like the fangs of a dragon biting through the fleece of a sheep. The summits reminded Edmund of Gran Stone, but covered in snow and ice. For a while Edmund feared that he would have to follow Flint-Tusk up the mountain. This fear proved misplaced, for the troll soon pointed out the mouth of a cave at the base of the mountain.
“That is the opening to my home,” Flint-Tusk said. “I would not trust any surface dweller with the knowledge of it—for I would fear for my clan’s safety—but you are Apprentice. I trust you as I would trust Master Avon.”
“Thank you,” Edmund said. “Speaking of trust, Flint-Tusk, why did Master Avon visit you when you were a…um…hatchling?”
“He was not Master Avon then,” Flint-Tusk said. “He was the Apprentice. And he has visited us many times since then.”
“Right,” Edmund said. “But why?”
“To speak to us about the rumblings,” the troll said. “To make sure they are brief and not frequent.”
“Rumblings? Of the mountain?” Edmund stared up at the mountain. It was beyond the scope of his experience for comparison. It blocked out the sky. “Is the mountain a volcano?”
“No,” said the troll. “It is the Behemoth’s Backbone, as I told you. And the Behemoth sleeps. Master Avon wishes that it not waken.”
Edmund was taken aback. “You mean it is the actual backbone of the Behemoth?”
“Of course,” Flint-Tusk said. “Did you not hear me when I say that we trolls name in proportion to the thing being named? We do not waste time or air on superfluities.”
“I see,” Edmund said, feeling quite nervous. “And, so, the Behemoth is sleeping? What would happen if it were to awaken?”
The troll threw up his hairy hands in a gesture of non-commitment. “I suppose the Behemoth would tear the All Ways asunder and everything would fall into chaos. It would be as it was before the Behemoth went to sleep.”
“And…” Edmund hesitated. “And Master Avon fears it will awaken?”
“Eventually it will,” the troll said with less gravitas than the truth warranted in Edmund’s estimation. “But I will not live so long that it would matter to me!”
He laughed again and it seemed that the whole mountains shook with his laughter. Edmund nearly told him to be quiet lest the Behemoth wake, but he was himself silenced by the sight of the other trolls huddling near the mouth of the cave.
“My family,” Flint-Tusk said. “My wife, my daughters, and my son.” He held up his fists in a gesture, knuckles to knuckles. The trolls did likewise, all smiling—or smiling as much as trolls might smile. They all had white manes and white beards like Flint-Tusk. “They are pleased. So am I.”
Flint-Tusk suddenly halted and turned to Edmund.
“Apprentice Edmund,” he said. “You have aided me in my time of need.” Edmund attempted to interject, but the troll would not allow him. “For what you have done, I should invite you into my clan’s cave tonight and feast with us. However, it is the time of the Great Grind. This is a volatile time for trolls—a violent time—and would certainly prove deadly for any outsiders.”
“This is all finely thread,” Edmund said. “You saved my life first. You owe me nothing. There is no need for tassels and lace.”
At this, Flint-Tusk scratched one of the tufts of his beard. “I was not entirely truthful, Apprentice Edmund. I ate the bear that would have eaten you. That much is true. But that was only after I noticed the bear. Before I noticed the bear, I noticed you. And I was seeking to devour you.”
Edmund felt the blood drain from his head down to his feet. He had no idea where his blood had gone.
“You were going to devour me?” Edmund asked.
The troll wrung his gigantic hands in discomforted penitence. “Yes. But only because I was very hungry. Normally I would not deign to eat such a hairless, fatless creature. Fur and fat and bones are what we trolls value in our meals.”
Edmund felt himself grow very queasy and nearly swooned. However, the thought that the troll might still eat him—especially if he were to faint—sobered him.
“I…I thank you for not eating me,” Edmund said.
“But you see,” Flint-Tusk said, “this is why I still owe you a debt. I did not save you from the bear. The bear saved you from me. And you have saved me from the sun. Therefore, I owe you a debt.” The troll knelt, then, on the soggy heath and pushed his fists together. “I, Flint-Tusk, vow to aid Apprentice Edmund in his time of need. So long as the mountains touch the sky, I am indebted to you.”
Edmund blinked rapidly, still trying to overcome the shock of knowing that this troll had nearly devoured him.
“I accept your vow,” he said.
The troll rose to his feet.
“Thank you, Apprentice Edmund. And when you see Master Avon, recall me to him. I know he will remember. He bandied me upon his knee once. I was his favorite among my parents’ hatchlings.”
The troll then went to the mouth of the cave, under cover of the clouds Edmund had provided. He rejoined his family with much celebration.
Edmund wondered if he had abetted someone who might eventually eat an innocent man, woman, or child. Then again, he knew Master Avon and Master Avon was not concerned with these trolls; only in the Behemoth. Edmund told himself he should, perhaps, concern himself with world-ending events, too.
And yet…what if the trolls ate children? What if they stole into a village at night and devoured every villager, young and old? It was a horrible thought, as was his own culpability in the potential scenario. Edmund’s mercy today may have doomed countless innocents tomorrow.
Edmund looked at the cave again. Flint-Tusk was with his wife and children. They embraced him as any human family might their own father. Relief faintly softened every hard-chiseled face. Notwithstanding their tusks, their fur, their apish faces, their strength, and their size, they were almost like any family in Gran Stone. Their nudity, too, ruined the resemblance, but that was negligible. Perhaps Edmund had done some good in the World-Unfurled. He did not know, but he hoped so.
The hymnal song throbs against the vault
of my bonework cathedral, my flesh,
and I feel the quake of hunger along the fault
of my enshrouding bestial mesh.
I have seen those mushroom-minded men
in their chthonic, labyrinthine lairs,
their minds sprouting fungus, aglow, and lichen
as they clutch phantasms and mutter prayers.
The Eldritch Truth costs too high a price
and when I see them, I see not divine grace,
so I will choose not virtue, but so-called vice
and find sacred rapture in the beast’s embrace.
I feel the centipede coiled in my throat
chittering and twisting in want of blood,
my mouth a ravening vermilion moat
that beckons the onrushing flood.
Why would I wish to be other than I am?
Why be as them, as an entombed scion,
neutered and docile, a sacrificial lamb,
when I can hunt and feed, instead, like a lion?
Better a lycan-hearted beast beneath the moon
than a lichen-brained imbecile, however wise;
better to drink blood to slake a crescent rune
than sprout a Lumenwood’s cosmic eyes.
I am currently still writing and illustrating the Bloodborne short novella (?) and just wrote and illustrated these pieces to motivate myself toward the completion of the novella. My primary concern is consistency of quality in the illustrations and the prose, as well compatibility between the two methods of storytelling. I don’t know why I am sinking so much time into it when I still have other novels/short stories/poems to finish (and I am not even certain anybody except myself will care for it at all). Perhaps it is just a mania whose prognosis is terminal. Then again, all Art is something of a mania. It is obsession and possession. It is the irrational, futile scream into the abyss. On the other hand, very little of my work has ever been for anyone except myself. If anyone else happened to care about it, cheers; if not, I would still be compelled to pursue it. It is my one neurosis; well, it and my affection for foxes.
I don’t know which one to use for the cover. Maybe I can use both images, front and back for the book. Originally I had intended to use a watercolor painting, but I wanted this book to have the same aesthetic as my first book of poetry, “Ars Goetia: The Devil’s Advocate” so they look nice on a shelf together.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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)
Disclaimer: This story is rife with sordid things meant for an adult mind…and likely a puerile mind, too. Manners are herein detailed, as well as etiquette, and many a Victorian pretense. And nudity. There is nudity, both textual and illustrated, though mostly for comedic effect. This is a short story concerning juxtaposition and contrasts between overt behavior and latent compulsion. Consequently, it is a story about Freudian suppression and the “return of the repressed”.
The rain fell heavy and the Thames breathed its fog in heady sighs through the glistening gaslight murk of London. Despite the dark, misty labyrinthine streets, her red dress and overtopping hat exploded with colorful distinction like a crimson carnation bountiful with bloom in a wet grotto. She was a walking fire embodied and emboldened by her own self-regard. The rain itself struck her umbrella but apologetically. Perhaps it knew better than to provoke the grudge of Jane Augusta Petticue. Most Londoners seemed to know such things.
Jane entered the restaurant with her hoopskirt swishing left and right, such was her haste to meet Sarah at the dining table. Brusquely, she shoved her small umbrella into the unprepared arms of the nearest waiter, ignoring the waiter’s protests and bounding buoyantly toward the usual corner of the restaurant where she and Sarah exchanged their fruitful gossip. Her demoness stood upon her shoulder; a small, impish pinkish creature with a large-lipped mouth, always puckered in relish of wry mischief. At that moment the demoness was wringing her taloned hands in excitement, eagerly eyeing Sarah as Jane navigated the other tables in the crowded restaurant— tables clustered with patrons and their own demons— and sat down in her habitual chair. Her cup of tea awaited her obediently, its steam swaying as if a cobra mesmerized by the piping of a flute.
Jane’s eyes, and the eyes of her demoness, glimmered with glee. A very fine, thin, and long silken thread laced the demoness’s neck, tying her to Jane. Diamonds gleamed there, studded like stars.
“You will never guess what mayhem I have accomplished today,” Jane said, sipping from her tea. She was an older woman, and graying, whereas Sarah, sitting across the table from her, was to her a protege—young, pretty, unmarried as Jane once was.
“Do tell me it was of the provincial sort,” Sarah said, eyes sparkling in near equal sheen to her idol’s. Her demoness was sitting upon the floor beside her chair, chained to the garter high upon her thigh. Her demoness was voluptuous and tempting, as if following the precedent that was herself, despite horns and naked disregard for convention; which is to say, a literal naked disregard for the convention of clothing. As men glanced toward Sarah, her demoness spread her legs in a most vulgar display while tugging at the lacy hem of Sarah’s petticoats as if to invite them in for a grand show. Several men looked away, talking amongst themselves at their table, yet their own demons sported priapic extravagances, standing in a circle around the table to compare and measure the most manly among the present competition.
“It is mayhem of the lordly sort,” Jane said, smiling broadly with deep satisfaction.
Sarah gasped in pleasant shock. “You do not mean Lord Clovenhill?”
“The very same,” Jane said, her smirk so taut it could hang a man in its noose. “It will come out soon enough, but for now there are only four individuals who are aware of his great misfortune. Him, myself, yourself, and the young lady Anna Lynn Maywell.”
Sarah’s eyes were agape. Even her demoness ceased spreading legs and sat up, listening intently.
“Have you spoiled that courtship through…bold means?” she asked. “I should have liked portion of such a delicious endeavor. Lord Clovenhill, for all of his stuffy and stiff bearing, is a handsome man, and I do not doubt, when coaxed sweetly enough, a beast abed.”
“No, it is not a carnal matter of drama,” Jane said, shaking her head and thinking her protege too hedonistic in some ways to be proficient at true sin. Her graying ringlets brushed against her demoness, who was too pleased with their accomplishments to notice.
“Then did you induce him to take liberties with Lady Maywell? Surely not. The innocent little creature keeps her demoness in a canary cage, feeding it on crackers, instead of vice, and teaching it choir songs. It is the cutest of things, for a demoness, and so…unfailingly harmless. Why, it is almost as small as your demoness, Jane.”
Jane nodded only once, but did not afford her own demoness an appraising glance, knowing the smile on her small face the selfsame smile upon her own.
“Nor is it in that particular area of interest,” Jane said, “though the broad topic is keen to the happenings I have devised and set into motion.”
Before she elaborated she raised a gloved hand, signaling a waiter hereto.
“A bit of crumb cake, please,” she said to the waiter. His demon’s head was bowed, but muttered discourtesies and insolence toward all of the patrons in the room. When the young man turned to inquire after Sarah’s wants, however, and upon seeing the bulging bosom heaving up and down within her bodice, his demon sprouted his own absurd priapism.
“And the young lady?” he said, blushing.
“Nothing so delicious yet, dear sir,” she crooned with a coy smile.
The waiter hesitantly went to fetch the cake. Jane’s demon, taking umbrage at the waiter’s choice of distinguishing Sarah with the pretense “young” and not herself, whispered in Jane’s ear. Jane smiled, less pleasantly than before, and waited until the waiter returned with a plate of her cake, and a fork. She accepted it with a broad, beaming smile and inquired after his name.
“Jonathan, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded, once, dismissing Jonathan from the table, yet her small mouse-sized demoness glared balefully after him until he receded to the other side of the restaurant. Jane began to vengefully eat at the cake, cutting it spitefully with her fork and chewing as if relishing her own vexation.
“Why would you seek such ploys to undermine a pillar of London society?” Sarah asked, hoping to press Jane toward unforthcoming details. “Why, Lord Clovenhill is praised every day for his charities. There has yet to be a philanthropist in measure to him. And the legislation he has put forth in the House of Lords is famous for its social reforms. Truly, even I know of their commendable nature, though I find politics exceedingly tiresome and banal. Moreover, he is neither arrogant nor a boor. I have met him upon multiple occasions, in balls and soirees and such, and never had a disagreeable word with him. True, he is, as I have stated, stiff in his manner, but so are many young men of his rank. He is…”
Sarah fell to a sudden, embarrassed silence, noticing at last Jane’s icy smile of patience, which, like ice, could crack and dunk the unwary traveler at a moment’s glance. Jane set her fork down, next to the half-eaten cake, took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled.
“But that is the precise reason for my plot,” Jane said quietly. “He is praised for so many superficial services to society, and to the Crown, but I know his embosomed secret. I know what poison grows in the bloom of his heart.”
Sarah leaned forward, rapt. Her demoness stood beside her, leaning forward, too, their bosoms swelling against the edge of the table. “Do enlighten me, Jane.”
Jane glanced about the room, seeing that they were unattended by unwanted ear or eye from the overcrowded restaurant. There were too many conversations for eavesdroppers. Even the rain was speaking to itself as it splattered loudly against the windowpane, chatting away in inane elemental jabberwocky. When Jane was satisfied that the dining hall was too clamorous to overhear her, she spoke. Her eyes glittered like a wildfire happily betaken to woodland.
“Lord Clovenhill is beholden to a massive personage,” she said. “Indeed, his demon is positively gargantuan. It is the ugliest, foulest, most infernal creature I have ever seen. Jack the Ripper would give pause to witness it. It is so dangerous in its appetites that he has partitioned half of his countryside estate to imprison it.”
Sarah gawped in incredulity for the longest moment. The men at the nearest table grinned to one another, to see such an expression upon her visage, and their demons scrambled to satisfy themselves to the wanton image.
“But he seems such a fine gentleman!” Sarah remarked. “How does he retain servants in his manor if such a creature resides there?”
“They seem to not fear it,” Jane said with a lax shrug that made her demoness sway indifferently. “I suppose they are foolish enough to believe he can contain it forever, and I suppose they can somehow separate the man they know from the demon they should rightly fear. But I saw in it the truth. However strong the shackles placed upon it, it exists, and so the man is owed needful comeuppance.”
“And how did you manage such divine retribution?”
“By simply calling on him,” she said, her smile broadening again, “while in the company of Lady Maywell.”
Sarah gasped. “Surely you did not.”
“Surely I did. I could see it chafed Lord Clovenhill considerably, that breach of etiquette, but moreover I could see the fear behind his stoic mask while he hastily bid his servants to ‘prepare the house for guests’. As if any preparations could be made to spirit away his unsightly secret! My delight was devilish and deserved, especially when—in the Lord’s fleeting absence to see to a domestic matter—I led Lady Maywell to the secret he so feared in its discovery. The poor delicate girl was a crumpled pile of fright by the time Lord Clovenhill retrieved us. He attempted to console her, and chastise me, but the revelation proved beyond his powers of excuse or explanation. It was a triumphant hour, and my greatest pleasure. All of London knows he has long been courting Lady Maywell in the hopes of ascertaining the childish-minded girl as his bride. She has no fortune, but she has infinite prospects to resettle her to her advantage. After all, where wealth is wanting, beauty and obedience may suffice. Now she will assume the worthier bond of another attachment and all will be happier for it. Except Mr. Clovenhill, of course.”
“Pardon me, Jane,” Sarah said, “but they have been the talk of town of late. The men all wish to be Lord Clovenhill and the women all envy her natural, innocent charms. Nor is he bereft in endowments. She will not overcome the attachment easily. It was only a month ago that he startled the Wickfield Circle by holding Lady Maywell’s demoness in his hands, stroking it affectionately as no one ever has another’s demon. The darling little imp purred in his care. As a cat. No one has ever seen the like!”
“Yes,” Jane said irritably, “but had his demon been there I assure you he would have devoured her little imp, the Lady herself, and all among that presumptuous gathering. Forgive me, Sarah, but you are ignorant of his truer nature. You have never seen his demon. And I would not allow him the pleasure of parading about, lauded by everyone, while he hides his demon from the light of day.”
“But Jane, even you leash your creature,” Sarah observed. The scowl rewarding this observation was twofold— madam and demoness, both— and Sarah cringed, but yoked her tongue to truth. “I only mean to say that is it not commendable that he should take such precautions? Is that not what we all do?” She lifted the golden chain that bound her demon to her garter. “That his demon is so large and frightful, as you say, should he not be applauded for countering its potential transgressions with such elaborate means? Sometimes to acknowledge one’s foibles is as divine as not possessing them in the first, for you may remedy them with greater exercises of volition.”
“That it exists at all is proof enough of his wickedness,” Jane said, snorting in contempt. “But even so, I should have done as I have done were he not beholden to such a large demon. It passes the time, you know, in this widowed age. Errors and etiquette can only do so much to entertain me in my waning years. At times it requires a bit of mischief to embolden the flavors of life.” She reached down under her petticoat and produced a flask, the contents of which she poured into her tea. The aroma of liquor wafted across the table. “The milk of human kindness cannot spice my tea. It only dulls and dilutes, and produces in me a most awful stomachache.”
She set her teacup down on the saucer abruptly, porcelain biting on porcelain sharply, like teeth clamping shut upon bone. She lifted the plate upon which her half-eaten crumb cake sat.
“Excuse me, Sarah,” she said. “I must do something about this cake. It is…too sweet.”
Rising from the table, she walked the length of the restaurant, navigating the crowded tables with her hoopskirt. The other patrons in the restaurant naturally avoided her gaze, and inched their chairs away from her expansive garments. She came, briskly, to the manager of the restaurant. He was an older gentleman, his demon sitting upon his shoulders, one leg to either side of his head, in piggyback fashion, while its protuberant belly pressed down upon his nape, bowing his head forward under the unwieldy weight of its appetite.
“Sir,” Jane said.
“Mrs. Petticue,” the proprietor said, bowing lower while steadying himself with a hand on a window sill. He always stood next to the window, commanding a view of both his restaurant and the bustling London streets. “How is your evening seeing you?”
“Most inhospitably,” she said, tucking a curly tress behind her hair with the affectation of unrest. She set the cake down “Indeed, one of your waiters has been uncharitable in his service. When I asked him for a slice of cake he saw it a happy mischief to bring me but a small, worn morsel of which he had taken liberty to satisfy his own stomach. As you can well see, there is scarcely a mouthful left.”
The old man reddened instantly upon the charge, his eyes flaring spitefully as if to catch his white whiskers aflame.
“I see,” he said, in a tone belying his ire. “Do tell me the scoundrel’s name.”
“Jonathan,” she said.
The old man nodded once, then took the proffered plate of half-eaten cake from Mrs. Petticue. “I will have a fresher slice brought out to you, my dear, of more generous portions. And Jonathan will be brought out, as well. He shall be made to apologize.”
“Oh no, no!” Jane said, affecting a flight of swooning. “I cannot abide the sight of him, even were he groveling to me as Judas to Christ. He has already abused my good nature with his supercilious airs. When I asked him, begging his forgiveness, what happened to the cake he assumed a derisive tone and told me…” She affected to wipe away a tear. “…told me I was of figure not in want for cake.”
“This is an outrage!” the old gentleman said. “I shall have him flogged through the streets!”
“No, I shan’t have his bruises on my heart,” she said. “Just…just show him to the streets, if you could be so kind, and in the Christian fashion. I should like to forgive him, in time.”
The old man nodded fervently. “You are a dear sweet lady, Mrs. Petticue,” he said. “Such sweetness is rare in this world.”
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “As rare as cake, but not so easily crumbled when engaged.”
He escorted her back to her table, sending another waiter to fetch a larger piece of cake, untouched, and two waiters to fetch Jonathan. Jane sat and ate her new slice of cake silently, relishing the sweetness and the view as she watched the old gentleman reprimand a perplexed Jonathan by the door, shortly before shoving him beyond its threshold and out into the misty, cold, dark London street. Jane’s demoness waved goodbye, a serrated grin between her lips. Sarah, whose back was turned to the whole incident, asked Jane if the cake was truly so good as to have second servings.
“Absolutely, Sarah,” Jane said. “And a third serving, and a fourth, and endless until my time is done and my eyes, and mouth, close forever.”
A tremor abruptly shook the restaurant, rattling plates and teacups and constitutions. In the ensuing silence the patrons at the restaurant gawped toward one another for an explanation, only for another tremor to seize that fine establishment. After its echoing tremble, all visages were nervous, quivery, their demons jumping up and down like disquieted apes in a zoo. Only Jane sat still, and her demoness, too, a self-satisfied smile slowly spreading across her face and giving it dimples such as she had not donned since a young woman.
“No doubt lightning,” the proprietor of the restaurant said, chuckling nervously. His demon nearly tore his whiskers out at the roots in fear.
Another tremor and several patrons stood.
The proprietor raised his hands, trying to calm his patrons. “Just a disgruntled storm,” he tried to reassure them. Another tremor shook him and he steadied himself with a hand on a chair. “My, but they do seem to strike close, do they not?”
The tremors followed one another in rapid succession, drawing closer to the street. The rain had stopped and the windowpanes were rattling themselves dry in the quakes. A decisive concussion to the earth caused the lights in the restaurant to flicker, blinking ominously. Another tremor struck, stronger than the others, and rattled teacups and teeth alike, echoing through the restaurant and the patrons. A few patrons rushed to the door in a frantic crush of struggling bodies, shoving and scrambling out into the misty tumult of night. Others looked to one another, oscillating in indecision and the demands of properly comported etiquette.
“My word,” Sarah whispered. “What is that?”
Jane’s eyebrows arched as the corner of her mouth twisted with wry humor.
“Why, Jane, I do believe that is the true Mr. Clovenhill come to call.”
A roar, like that of a tempest’s gale, rent the uneasy silence, deafening the cries of panic as the patrons in the restaurant fled to the door, crushing together in a struggle to exit and flee down the street. Another tremor shook the clog loose at the door, and so the trickle of patrons became as a gush. Even the waiters and the proprietor joined the exodus. Only Jane and Sarah remained, Jane clutching her demoness in her lap as she watched through their corner’s window, seeing a river of people hastening helter-skelter down the street.
“Do not fret, Sarah,” Jane said calmly. “He would never condescend to visit this establishment. It is, as you know, beneath him.”
The gigantic demon stomped down the street, roaring and rattling the bones of London. It was only as it passed by the window that Sarah realized that there was a bewailing tone to the creature’s roar; as if it was in great pain.
“The poor creature is wounded,” Sarah remarked.
“Quite,” Jane said. “And perhaps it is a mortal wound, though I dare say I would rather it live on, enthralled to its suffering.”
As the demon stomped and moaned, buildings and streets crumbled around it. It was as if another terrible fire was destroying London.
“What devastation!” Sarah said, her face a paler shade than any French makeup could ever accomplish. “What mayhem!”
“Thank you, my dear,” Jane said quietly. “Being the busy socialite that I am, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce London to the true Lord of Philanthropy in his most esteemed form. Mark how destructive he is. Mark how self-conceited with his woes. What an utterly bestial personage. What catastrophe in his wake. What a monstrous demon with which to share a heart.”
But as Sarah looked from the clamorous devastation beyond the windowpane to the quiet satisfaction on Jane’s face—and the selfsame smile imprinted upon her imp—she marveled at how so much mischief and mayhem could be wrought by such a small, petty demon.
It came with the fog, rolling off the creeks and lakes and the river and assembling from the mists in the dark hours, disappearing at the touch of morning light, like a terrible dream. It prowled the farm, always seeking the cattle in the pen, feasting until it was glutted, roaring and then circling the cabin while the boy and his mother trembled in each other’s arms, clutching dreamcatchers to their hearts. At dawn they would leave the cabin and count the heads of the remaining cattle, calming them and attempting to milk them as their eyes lolled in their sockets. Even after the mother and son had cleaned up the gore that splattered the ground, the cows trembled and lowed in fright. They all awaited nightfall to once again endure the dark hours and their bloody horrors.
The boy’s father had tried to stop it once, and had been buried the next morning. He had been a tall, silver-blonde Swede with an easy smile and big hands. He had been a good shot, too, and was certain he could slay the beast with his rifle. He had faced what he thought to be worse beasts on his travels Westward: the fickle ocean, the duplicitous crew, the thousandfold mendacities of those awaiting him on the American shore, the selfish wagoners with whom he ventured Westward, and the wilderness itself. He had, against the odds, forged a trail and met his wife among the welcoming Cheyenne. Together, they had settled in this valley between the mountains. Now the Swede was buried here, far from his home and his old gods, and his wife and son remained.The day after the Swede had been killed, a man appeared. He strode casually across the field, naked, his face smeared with crimson wetness and his eyes white-rimmed, his teeth set in a bloody grin. His black hair was long and full of twigs and briars and sticktights. Upon his breast he wore a leather-strung necklace. A single, large bear claw hung from it, curved like a crescent moon over his heart.
“Cheyenne whore,” he said. “Send the blue-eyed child to me. Let me feast on his misbegotten flesh. He is an abomination in these lands. His presence is blasphemy. I will feed on him and turn him into filth, as I did his father. And where his filth falls the land will celebrate with flowers, for his life is a slight against the Spirits.”
The boy’s mother kept her son behind herself as the man spoke.
“Give him to me now,” he said, “and I will give him a quick death.”
“Never,” the mother said.
The man’s grin only widened. “Then I will come dreaming,” he said, “and I will devour the womb from which he sprang.”
When the man left—sprinting across the fields and up into the mountains— the mother took her son inside the cabin and told him to stay hidden while she worked outside. She was a small woman, but strong and determined and wise. She cleaned and oiled her husband’s bear trap. That day she slaughtered a calf and put its meat upon the trap, setting the trap near the cabin, its chain nailed to the porch’s thickest post. She then went inside and comforted and reassured her son until nightfall.
That night the man came dreaming once again, and so the beast returned with the fog. He ignored the cattle and went instead to the cabin, circling it and snarling and growling and laughing. His laughter was suddenly cut short by the sharp clang of the bear trap; of steel teeth on bone, and a terrible scream. The mother told her son to stay silent and then she ran outside with her husband’s rifle raised.
But haste was her master, and haste was an incautious master, as was desperation and, too, hope. The beast was no ordinary bear, and so the bear trap was not crafty enough to ensnare him. He had lived for centuries learning the wiles of Man. Rather, he snared the mother with her own trap, having fed it a branch as thick as a bone and then having feigned a yowl of pain. The mother realized the ruse too late. She fired once, and struck true, but he was no ordinary beast, and so the bullet pierced without wounding. He stripped her of her gun, pressed her down to the earth, and breathed charnel mist into her face.
“Before I kill you,” he said with a grinding growl not unlike thunder. “Know that I will feed upon your son at next nightfall. I will eat him slowly, and shall relish his blood and meat.”
He then silenced her anguish with his large maw.
The boy cried all night, trembling in the lonely dark. When morning came, still he cried, and he heard the man calling from beyond the cabin.
“Half-breed,” he said. “Count the hours. Mark the moon. I will come for you at midnight, and then my land will be cleaned of your filth once and for all.”
The man left, and the boy emerged from the cabin. He buried the remains of his mother and went into further mourning. He drank little and ate nothing. At length, he was exhausted and fell asleep beneath the shade of the porch. The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was a spiderweb gilded with the rays of the sun.
The boy dreamt of his parents beneath a starry sky. They waved to him, then ascended to the stars. He cried in his dream and an old woman came before him, her wizened face smiling. She had black eyes that gleamed, but they did not frighten him. Her smile comforted him. She took his hands in hers, and put her hands on his shoulders, and on his cheeks. She had many hands; many arms. She was Grandmother Spider.
“What is wrong, child?” she asked.
“My parents are gone,” he said, “and soon I will be killed by the beast, too.”
“Must you?” she asked. “Must it be so?”
“What else can I do?” he said. “Father’s rifle did nothing. Mother’s trap did nothing. He will kill me! Why does he hate me?”
“Because of both sides of your blood, child,” the old woman said. “Because he fears what you could be.”
“I don’t understand,” the boy said.
There came the caw of a raven up above, flying overhead, and he tried to watch it go, but the old woman kept his head firmly forward; her eyes peering into his own.
“Embrace both sides of your blood, child,” she said. “Reconcile your heart or perish. Dream awake, child, as the beast cannot. Dream awake, for it is the only way to save yourself.”
She let go of him, then, and he began to drift away from that stelliferous, eternal night.
“I wonder,” the old woman said, her voice fading. “Will you dream of blood? Or will you dream of something more…?”
When the boy awoke he saw that the sun had nearly set. Dusk flared across the mountains, red as blood and furious as fire. He sat up with a start. He had slept near to nightfall! He leapt up, ready to run inside the cabin. But he paused, his eyes alighting upon something in the spiderweb. It was a raven’s feather: black as midnight, but shimmering like starlight. He took it from the lithe strands, with a gentle hand, and went inside. The old woman’s words echoed in his head, crisscrossing like spiderwebs until their spool wove an idea in his mind.
Going to his father’s escritoire, the boy sat down and took a sheet of parchment from among the small stack that his father had kept for writing lists, mail, and journal entries. There were books along the wall, too. Included among them were Almanacs, old Nordic Epics, vocabulary words translated by his mother from Cheyenne into English and Swedish. The boy had been taught all three languages by his mother, and she had taught him how to write. Using his father’s whittling knife, he sharpened the feather’s quill. He then dipped the tip into his father’s inkwell, blackening it with ink as the shadows stretched from the mountains to blacken the valley. He wrote for a few minutes, as the valley darkened, and then lit a candle.
Feverishly, he continued to write. He wrote the same story in every language he had been taught. It was a simple story, direct and to the point; practical and economic because he needed it to survive. With each iteration of the story he envisioned the story more clearly. He wrote until he could at last dream awake. Thus, he dreamt of a small raven, the quill in his hand scribbling to swirl the mists of the creeks and lakes and the river together, wherewith was manifested the bird. The raven was sharp of eye, and sharper of beak, and swift and light and small, and so it formed from the valley’s mists quickly. With a flourish of his quill he sent it over the valley, toward the mountains, even as the dreaming man dreamt his bear from the same waters.
The raven saw a cave with its keen eye. Swiftly, it entered the cave on silent wings. Within the cave was a flat slab of rock, and laying upon this slab was the dreaming man. The raven alighted upon the dreaming man’s chest. He did not stir, for he was dreaming deeply, his soul roaming in the form of the bear. The raven therefore snipped the leather necklace, untethering his soul from his body, and flew away with it, flying out of the cave and into the open air once again.
The misty beast below saw the raven, and his necklace, and so he roared and paid chase. The raven led the bear far afield, as was written, coming to the center of the mountains. There was a tarn at the center of the mountains, for it was the navel of the world, and this tarn was where the raven dropped the necklace: on an island in the center of the reed-rimmed tarn.
The beast roared, racing upon all fours even as he was left behind by the raven, and yet knowing where the connection to its human body resided. The beast ran all night, but when he finally arrived at the tarn and parted the reeds, the sun was climbing the mountains. The beast clasped the necklace in his bloody maw and fled across the tarn’s crystal-blue waters.
But the sun surmounted the crest of the mountain, illuminating the navel of the world. The light struck the beast and that terrible dream faded in the burning glare of dawn, as did its terrible soul so that beast and man both dissolved forever, never ascending to the stars as the boy’s parents had done.
The necklace fell from the dissolving beast and sank into the waters. The waters were fed with countless eons of bloodshed, darkening to a fetid crimson. To this day the tarn resides in those mountains, red with all of the bestial hungers of its cursed treasure.
There had been temptation in the beastly claw when the raven held it. The boy had sensed its bloody power and its beckoning guile. He could have taken it for himself and lived forever, as the dreaming man had done, feasting on the flesh of whatever, and whoever, he desired. But he did not write that story. His story, he decided, would not be written in blood.
The boy grew up, on his own, as both a hunter and a farmer, caring for the farm and the wilderness, and writing into being the things that needed to be. And, though the loss of his mother and father was great, their blood wrote on with his own, living on in his words and deeds and the narrative of his life. He learned the power of dreams, and of the written word, for what is reading and writing but dreaming while one is awake?