Yog-Sothoth Soaps

When you’re all dirty from your head to your toes
and you’re icky-sticky like crabby Mi-Gos,
don’t go insane within your jar-pickled brain,
use the soap that can clean any ichor stain,
use Yog-Sothoth Soaps, the pure soaps with the most,
the most bubble-action, like the Dunwich host,
the gate and the key are yours to a new clean,
the suds with eyeball buds to see in between
what is here and there, to see everywhere
there are mortal forms fertile and full of milk
wherefrom it may beget more of its same ilk.
That’s Yog-Sothoth Soaps, the special soaps aglow
with the dark eldritch truth you dare never know.

Yog-Sothoth Soaps are world-renowned for their effective consuming ability.  They can clean whole stockyards of cattle (and their handlers) within minutes, leaving the stockyards spotless. Their bioluminescent bubbles make it easier to see where the grime is, and the eyes can see the grime where you can’t (such as in the mirror). For best results feed yourself directly to the soap when it is at full froth. It will grow and consume the entire house, leaving it not just clean, but one with the ONE-IN-ALL, and all with the ALL-IN-ONE. Yog-Sothoth Soaps are also great for bathing and showering your tenuous mortal flesh. Ladies may light ritualistic candles and take a bath while at peak fertility, but neither is required. Birth control does not interfere with the effectiveness of the soap because Yog-Sothoth does not believe in contraception and cannot be dissuaded by paltry biological contrivances. You WILL bear the effervescent seed of Yog-Sothoth.

Y’AI ‘NG’NGAH, YOG-SOTHOTH H’EE-L’GEB F’AI THRODOG UAAAH!!!

Cracks

 Cracks

 Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of his mom’s black-and-white television, eating a cup of Frosted Flakes as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.  Tyrone liked Frosted Flakes.  He liked Tony the Tiger because his name was similar to his own, and he liked to think they could go on adventures in their own cartoon together: The Tony and Tyrone Show.  Tyrone wished he could play with Tony like the kids did in the commercials, and he wished he could eat a bowl of cereal just like the kids in the commercial did.  But Tyrone always had to eat his Frosted Flakes without a spoon.

 Most of the time Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of the tv—so he could hear only the tv and not the noises coming from his mom’s bedroom—and he ate his cereal in a cup, the milk and the flakes crashing against his mouth in a mixture of sugary crunch and somewhat spoiled creaminess.  Sometimes he ate Frosted Flakes without any milk at all.  Sometimes he ate nothing all day but Frosted Flakes, and sometimes he ate nothing. Regardless how he ate, Tyrone never ate with a spoon.

 Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on.  Tyrone liked Mr. Rogers.  He was a nice White man.  He wasn’t like the landlord who was always threatening Tyrone’s mom for rent and calling her a “useless nigger”.  Tyrone wished Mr. Rogers owned this apartment building.  Things would have been different if he had. And Tyrone liked Officer Clemmons.  Tyrone sometimes liked to think that Officer Clemmons was his dad and that he would come home any day now.

 Every neighborhood, Tyrone thought, should be like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  There was never a single crack to be seen.  Tyrone hated the cracks that he saw around his neighborhood.  Each one scared him.  They glowed with a white phosphorescence in their jagged fissures, and things writhed within them, like wet snakes or homeless men rummaging through dumpsters, and Tyrone’s mom moaned when the crack in her bedroom writhed.  It was not a moan of pain or pleasure, but both, like she was dying, but was too happy to care about it.

 There were cracks all around the apartment building.  Tyrone saw the first crack in a man’s face.  It was a year ago, late at night, while his mom was asleep.  Tyrone had his window open and he heard a man singing as he came down the street.  Singing like he was drunk.  Singing, “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care” as loud as he could.  Tyrone had gone to his window and saw a man stumbling down the street, his clothes disheveled.

 “Jimmy cracked corn…!”

 The man had glanced up at Tyrone, his black face split with a glowing white crack that did not bleed.

 “What you lookin’ at?” the man shouted.  “First spooks jump me and now I got a nosy little nigger starin’ at me.”  He snorted, and started laughing.  “Hey!  Don’t you go hidin’ from me, boy!  They’ll fix you up right!”

 Tyrone had crouched beneath his window, trembling and praying that the man would go away.

 “Stupid brat,” the man said.

 The man left, but the crack he carried with him remained.  Later Tyrone saw some pale men in black suits standing on the street corner.  They were not like Mr. Rogers.  They wore black hats and black shades, hiding most of their fish-belly white faces.  Where they stood, a crack opened and grew larger, like a spider’s web ensnaring the whole neighborhood.  Soon Tyrone saw it spread in the walls between the apartment buildings, near the alleyways where the burn-outs slept, and along the cars and the streets, from the barbershop to the grocery store, ruining everything.  It crept into the apartment hallway, and the stairwell.  It was on people’s doors, splitting their windows and, soon, it was on every other face, their heads split down the center, or their chests, and so their hearts, and everywhere the crack spread Tyrone heard the tentacles writhing.  At night, as he lay awake in bed, he heard the tenants moaning like his mom.  Their moans reminded him of church hymns— back when his mom used to take him to church—only the words were all wrong, and weird, and frightening.  The gibberish roared in his ears sometimes.  His mom had stopped going to work, and, after a while, she did nothing but stay in her bedroom.  Sometimes a stranger would join her, and the moaning would be louder than before, and then the stranger left, but all the while Tyrone sat so close to the television that his eyes burned and overflowed with tears as Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons smiled on, pitiless in their perfect neighborhood.

 And so Tyrone watched cartoons, and ate Frosted Flakes without using a spoon, and waited until the day his mom would emerge from her bedroom, transformed, head full of burning white cracks, and reaching down to kiss him as her face split open to swallow him forever.

(The above was one of four stories I wrote to submit to The Root’s short story competition in relation to Lovecraft Country. Unfortunately this story 1) was too long by about 80 words, 2) had references to drugs (allusively to the 80’s crack epidemic in the US) and 3) was written by me, a White boy (insomuch as Melungeons are considered White). So, knowing I have been disqualified on three fronts, I decided to put it up here to rot.

Suicide Is Painless

(Explicit Warning Sexual Themes, Violence, Language)

 

 

 

That suicide is painless

It brings on many changes

And I can take or leave it if I please…

Johnny Mandel

 

 

 The man in the hooded robe escorted Austen through the dark underground corridor of ancient stone, holding aloft a torch that licked at the vaulted ceiling.  The robed man said nothing, nor did Austen say anything.  The latter held his breath in nervous excitement and existential terror, and a little embarrassment.  His dream was about to come true, in a certain fashion.  And then his life would end, but wouldn t it end while he was young and happy, which was more than he could have expected if he lived a long, lonely life?

 A chill breeze wormed through the wet corridor, carrying strange whispers and echoes of times bygone and unguessed.  It smelled of damp earth and old bones and death.  Austen shivered, trembling in his hoodie and putting his hands in his jean pockets, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.  His ears were small, and underdeveloped, and unflattering, much like his chin or so he always thought.  To compensate for these weak features, Austen s nose was overly prominent, long and slightly hooked.  Pale blue eyes world-weary and insomniac stared sadly out from above that bold nose.  In highschool he was called Toucan  because of his nose.  The name stuck and when people thought of him, should they have thought of him at all, thought of him automatically as Toucan .  No one called him by his actual name; not even his teachers.  They did not talk to him at all.

 The stone passageway descended stone stairs.  Austen followed the hooded man until they came to a door.  It was an oddly modern door.  The robed figure beckoned Austen to the door, and so Austen turned the knob, opening of his own free will the door and leaving the ancient, dark corridor behind.  He entered a room bleached with bright white light.  Eyes adjusting as he stepped forward, he heard the door close behind him and went to meet his destiny.

 It was a waiting room, not unlike what he would have expected in a doctor s office or ambulatory care.  There were somewhat-comfortable chairs arranged around a room tiled in gleaming, checkered linoleum.  Some framed photos lined the walls, and paintings, depicting eldritch symbols and locations, such as the Plains of Leng and the tourist town of Dunwich and the Bermuda Triangle, and there were a few potted plants which breathed in the various corners of the room.  To the far wall was a door and beside the door was a large glass window behind which was partitioned the receptionist s desk.  To this Austen went first, unsure of himself (as always) and looking for reassurance.

  Hello,  he said meekly.   I…I m Austen Blackwell.  I have an appointment.

  Sign in,  said the hooded man behind the window.  He was busy doodling eldritch abominations on some scrap paper.  Without looking up he took a clipboard up and handed through the slot in the window.  A large stack of forms was bulging out from under the clip.   Take these and fill them out, signing where marked in green, and return them to me as soon as you are finished.

  Thank you?  Austen said, unsure what his response should have been.

 The hooded receptionist ignored him, focusing instead on drawing tentacles.

 Austen signed in on the arrival sheet, just in case, and then took the clipboard with its bulging stack of forms and went to a corner of the waiting room, taking a seat as far away from the other men in the room as possible.  There were several other men in the waiting room.  They were of various ages and ethnicities, but all of them seemed like they spent too much time stooped over a computer or a cellphone.  Several of them were stooping over their cellphones presently, or filling out the necessary forms.  Some were watching porn.  Austen could hear women moaning and gasping in various volumes while men grunted and groaned.  Others were looking through Facebook for women.

  Rachel Pennington was such a bitch in highschool,  someone said.   I can t wait to fuck her stupid.  Stick my dick down her stuck-up throat and cum till it comes out her nose.  See if she laughs at me then…

 Austen wondered about these men in this waiting room; wondered if he had communicated with any of them on the online forums and 4chan.  Maybe they were the faces for the familiar online names he had come to know on a daily basis.  Rejectotron79.  Incellularzzz.  Chadbitchboy45.  None of them posted photos online except when someone wanted to be roasted, and that was infrequent.  Austen thought about posting his own photo in the forum, just to confirm his own worst fears (that no girl on earth would want to date him, let alone marry him and reproduce with him), but he had chickened out.  He had scoured his own features enough to know, without phrenological debate, that he was a hopeless specimen.  He didn t need strangers to tell him what he had known since he was a child.

 Austen focused on the paperwork.

  Hey,  someone said.   What s yours going to be?

 Austen looked up.  A large man with freckles in a fat face smiled mirthlessly down at him, his glasses white circles of hot light.

  Audrey Hepburn,  Austen said automatically.  He wanted the ginger-haired man of an indeterminate age to go away.

  Classy and classical,  the ginger-haired man said.   But a little too skinny for me.  No tits at all, either.   He plopped down in the chair next to Austen s, pulling out a cellphone.   Look at mine,  he said, grinning slimily.   They re to die for, man.

 Austen humored him, hoping he would go away more quickly.

  See?  the ginger-haired man said.   I got several. You can have several, if you want. I m going to start off with Halle Berry.  Then go to Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and finish with Mariah Carey while she sings You ll Always Be My Baby .  See?  That s how you should do it.  Really go all out.  With a bang.   He smiled a far-off smile.   That s the way to go.  Go big.

  Man, shut up,  said another man in the waiting room.   Your spiel is getting old.   This man had a black beard, likely to cover what Austen suspected to be a weak jawline, and to make him appear older and more mature.   You re so beta you should have been born castrated.  Bragging like that, you probably won t even last past Halle Berry.  You ll cream your pants before you can even stick it in.  Then It will laugh at you, like all of the other girls who ve known you.

  Fuck you,  the ginger-haired man said.   You don t even want to share what yours is.  Probably because you re a pedo wanting to rape Shirley Temple.

  Fuck you, asshole,  the bearded man said.   I m no pedo.  You re just projecting.

 Another man creepier than the other two started chuckling.   I m fucking Veruca Salt,  he volunteered with a slanted grin.  He was in his fifties and bald with a large pate that rose like a hill atop his head.  He was overweight, his body swollen beneath his white T-shirt.   I don t give a shit who knows.  Won t matter afterward anyway.

  You re a sick piece of shit,  the bearded man said.

  A real sick piece of shit,  the ginger-haired man agreed.

  We re all sick pieces of shit,  the bald man said, unfazed.   I mean, It s not even human anyway, so you re all a bunch of sick fucks, too.  It s like beastiality.  You re fucking something that isn t human.

 There was an awkward silence in the waiting room.  Austen had tried to focus on his paperwork throughout this exchange, but now he stopped, his hand trembling as it held the pen above a list of check-boxes asking about allergies.  He was having second thoughts, not just about his singular choice of Audrey Hepburn, but the whole appointment.

 A hooded man appeared from within the inner door of the waiting room.

  Appointment #A4b269?  he called.

 A young man with dirty blonde hair rose, quietly, as if he could camouflage himself with silence as he hurried to the door.  He followed the robed man out of the waiting room.  Several of the men watched him go with a mixture of envy and dread.

  He s a hero,  someone joked, breaking the silence.  He whistled Taps for a moment, but lost the melody.

 The bald man resumed his argument from before, leering.

  It s not human,  he said, and so all of you are basically just goat-fuckers as far as I am concerned.  No better than me.

  It s not Shub-Niggurath,  the ginger-haired man said defensively.   Genetically, it can become anything.

  It can mimic anything,  the bearded man said.  He scowled at the bald pedophile.   Luckily for this sick fuck, otherwise I d fucking slit his goddamn pig throat for abusing kids.

 The bald fat man laughed.   Mr White Knight has a problem with me diddling little girls.

  I have a little sister, you asshole!

 The bald man smiled in oleaginous self-satisfaction.   But you re still going to fuck that Shoggoth, aren t you?

 The bearded man went silent.  He stared with a heated hatred at the bald man, but his scruffy jaw could not move in defiance of what he had said.  Austen watched it, rapt, feeling like he should say something on the bearded man s behalf, and on his own behalf, and to wipe that smirk off the bald man s face, but, as always, words failed him, his confidence failed him, and he went back to filling in information and signing his name in the green-markered sections.

  My little sister is not a bitch like most women,  the bearded man said at length.   She s like…what s her name?  Lucy from Narnia.  She s not a real woman yet, and so she s innocent.

  And that s why I like fucking them in the ass,  the bald man said.   Because they re innocent .

 The bearded man leapt up from his seat and dashed across the room, striking the bald man in the face.  His fist was small, and his wrist weak, and the bald man was large.  An audible smack slapped the air, but the bald man s face barely moved.  He stood up and grabbed hold of the bearded man s head within the crook of one arm.

  If I had a picture of your little sister,  the bald man said, I d show it to the Shoggoth and fuck It while It screamed your name.  You little bitch.  I might even show It a picture of you and fuck you in the ass.  You d like that, wouldn t you?  You little faggot.

 The bearded man struggled, red-faced and screaming in frustration and helplessness.  Eventually two robed figures entered the waiting room and separated the two men.  The bald man was relocated to one side of the room smirking with great satisfaction even as a welt rose on his cheek while the bearded man was relocated to the opposite side.  The latter stared in shame and humiliation down at his lap.  The robed men left.

  Hoo boy,  the ginger-haired man sighed.

 The next ten minutes passed in tense silence.  Austen continued filling out the forms.  It seemed like someone was playing a prank on him, so thick was the stack of papers.  He was on the page about deferrals for litigation and class action lawsuits when the inner door opened again.  A hooded figure called the next appointment.

  Appointment # 3R45u21.

 The bald man lurched to his feet, waddling eagerly toward the door.  He was sweating in anticipation.

  Veruca Salt s about to get it,  he said, leering.  He grinned at the bearded man.   I m going to fuck your little sister, too.

 He disappeared through the door.  A shiver of disgust went about the waiting room.

  Should be castrated,  the bearded man said, scowling.

  Pretty much will be,  the ginger-haired man said.   And then some.

  But he ll go out happy,  the bearded man said, which is more than he fucking deserves.

  Don t worry,  the ginger-haired man said after a while.   It s not really anything that can feel, anyway, whatever It s form is.  It s a biological construct.  It s like a Real Doll, but fancier.  More advanced.  A fleshlight made by the Elder Things.  It just…costs more.

  Yeah, an arm and a leg,  someone else said.   And everything else.

 The ginger-haired man nodded, his curly red hair bouncing.  He then shrugged with one shoulder, lazily.   None of us could get with a real woman, anyway,  They re too busy throwing their pussies away to Chads.  Dumb bitches.

  Fucking Nature, man,  another commiserated.   But at least I won t be involuntarily celibate  after today.

  Yeah,  said someone else.   You won t be anything at all, except, maybe, Shoggoth shit.

 Another fearful silence fell over the waiting room.  Austen s pen paused in the middle of a word.  He had forgotten what he was writing, his mind baulking at untold horrors.  The spell was broken all at once.

  I m going to fuck Tinkerbell,  someone volunteered, maliciously.

 The black-bearded man scoffed.   Man, your dick must be the size of a fucking peanut.

  It is,  the other guy said.   That s why no girl wants it.  But I bet Tinkerbell cries when I stick it in.  She better.  I wrote down that I want her to cry while I m fucking her.  And It s gotta do what you write down.”

Austen just so happened to come to the section concerning behavior.  He did not know what to write especially after hearing the guy talk about Tinkerbell so he just wrote Have a good time.

  Well,  someone else said.   I guess if you re going to go, you might as well go for weird freaky shit.  I mean, I m no Furry, but I was thinking about that one blue chick from that Avatar movie.  Ya know?  Or maybe one of the weird looking Star Wars chicks with the tentacles on their heads.

  They are fucking hot,  someone else agreed whole-heartedly.   But they re not Furries.  I mean, they re an alien race.  Not the same.

  There are aliens that are Furries,  someone else argued.   Chewbacca s race is nothing but Furries.

  They re Yorkie sasquatches,  the bearded man said.   So, yeah, they re pretty much Furries.

  But nobody wants to fuck them,  someone added, doubtfully. I hope they don t, at least.

  Oh, I m sure somebody does,  someone else argued.

  I think it s fucking nasty,  the ginger-haired man said.

  Don t kink-shame,  the bearded man said.   Mr. Mariah Carey.

  I m going with anime chicks,  another guy said, happily.   Rei from Neon Genesis.  And Lust from Full Metal Alchemist.

  That s a bit on the nose, isn t it?  the bearded man said.  But he was searching on his phone.   Maybe if I show It a video It can become Lara Croft.  From the old games, I mean.  But not the old, old games.  I don t like triangle tits.

  Yeah, I m going for Cammy, too,  the other guy said.   From Street Fighter.  And Chun Li.  That ass, man!  I ll probably go through the whole roster of Capcom women.

  Street Fighter sucks,  another guy said.   Dead Or Alive all the way.

  Tekken has some pretty hot bitches, too,  another guy said.

  Metal Gear Solid has the best,  a guy in glasses said.

  Jill Valentine!  the ginger-haired guy suddenly exclaimed, slapping his freckled forehead.  He feverishly tapped on his phone.   She s the polygon girl I want!

  Which version?  the bearded man said.

  All of them,  he answered.   Make a Jill sandwich  out of them.

 He waited, expectantly, for someone to laugh at his joke.  No one did.

  Five out of five S.T.A.R.S.,  he added, glancing around with a desperate grin.

 No one laughed.  They were too busy scouring the internet to add to their wish lists.  But Austen remained fixated on one woman and one woman only.  He signed his name several more times, dedicating his life to the Old Ones and waiving all potential legal recourse his family might attempt against the Eldritch Sect.  By the time he made it halfway through the stack, the man who spoke of Tinkerbell was called.  He went eagerly.  The remaining men watched him with a mixture of envy and dread on their faces.

  Oh hell,  the ginger-haired man said.   I might as well add Taylor Swift to the list.  I mean, you only live once, right?  It s not like I have to listen to her sing.  She doesn t have to make any noises at all, if I don t want her to.

  Yeah, the perfect woman,  a new arrival said, taking a seat.   Only talks when you want the bitch to.

  Only, she s not a woman,  the ginger-haired man said, smiling sardonically.  He adjusted his glasses.   Just a biologically engineered simulacrum.  None of us could get a real woman.  That s why we re here.

 Silent nods all around.

 

 Austen finished his paperwork, then turned it in at the receptionist window.  He was given an appointment number on a ticket and told to wait until he was called.  He found another seat in another corner, farther from the gregarious ginger-headed man.  As he passed one man he happened to glance at someone s phone.  The man was scrolling through images of reptilian women and vulpine women and bovine women, all quasi-humanoid and naked and bestial.  He felt embarrassed on the stranger s behalf, btu the stranger did not seem to care who saw.  Even so, it made Austen feel more disgusted with himself.  He sat down and watched clips of Audrey Hepburn and her various movies.  He had a bad taste in his mouth, and throughout his whole being.

 The bearded man was called back, and then the ginger-haired man, and various others.  Refreshments were offered by hooded acolytes, as well as alcohol and drugs to ease the normal nervousness of the appointment.   Austen took no drugs, but he did drink water.  His throat was very dry.  His stomach was full of frenzied butterflies.

 And then the inner door opened, and the hooded acolyte called Austen s ticket number.

  U352j6t?

 Austen found himself frozen in his chair.

  U352j6t?  the hooded man repeated impatiently.

 Austen s body rose stiffly and he went to the door, feeling a strange sense of detachment from himself.  It was not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather the same disembodied feeling he had whenever he had been humiliated in school or rejected by a girl he had asked on a date, his tongue fumbling over the words.

  Me,  was all he could say.

 The acolyte escorted Austen down another stone corridor leading deeper into the earth.  The air became chillier, and the smell of soil stronger.  The walk was long, and the corridor had a few doors along its walls, some open to reveal other hooded men sitting around, smoking and drinking and talking.  Thee corridor and these rooms were illuminated by modern lighting.

 At length, the corridor terminated at a single door.  The acolyte opened this door and, without further ado, beckoned Austen in.  Austen went in, more out of obedience than real desire, and the door shut behind him.  He was alone in the room, or so it seemed.  There were no exits.  It was a dead end.  Dark and cool, it.  No trace of the others that had come before could be seen.  There was a king-sized bed in the middle of the room, and nothing more.

 Except yellow eyes.  They glowed in the shadows of a corner. They reminded him of owl eyes.  They came forward, presenting a perfect facsimile of Audrey Hepburn s slim, petite, and utterly graceful personage.  It smiled  that small, restrained, pixie-sort of smile that Austen had seen in many of her movies and he felt his heart melt within the credence of the illusion.  Her chocolate brown hair was pinned back in a  ponytail, her bangs modest above the bold strokes of her eyebrows, all accenting her lovely forehead and her elfin features.  She wore a simple white blouse, a rippled Midi skirt, and a silk scarf tied around her fawn-like neck, much like on the movie Roman Holiday .

  Hello, Austen,  It said with perfect intonation.   How do you like me?  AmI not simply the most picturesque idol of fancy and form?

  Yes,  was all Austen could say.

 It smiled with Audrey s small, almost-secretive smile.   I love how polite you are,  It said, starting to strip off It s white blouse.   And so well-mannered.

 He had specified It s attitude, It s dress, and her loquaciousness on the forms, but there was a note on the form that said It would respond in realtime to whatever whim or suggestion demanded of It.  And so Austen spoke up.

  Not so fast1″ he said, waving his hands.   Don t…don t undress yet.  I just want to…to talk for a while.

 He took It by the hands, awkwardly, and led It to the bed, sitting It down.

  As you wish, Austen,  It said, smiling that pixie smile that had left him staring idiotically so often when watching Audrey Hepburn s old films.   What would you like to talk about, dear?

 Austen baulked.  This was the same feeling of crisis he had felt whenever he had ever wanted to talk to a girl.  It was like being plunged into the middle of the ocean, and not knowing how to even doggie-paddle.

  What…what do you want to talk about?  he asked, desperately.

 It titled It s head to the side, arching her slender neck like a curious bird.   Oh, but whatever you wish to talk about, dear!  Very much so!

 Again Austen was flummoxed.  He was no Humphrey Bogart.  He had no natural rapport with women, or most people for that matter.. He did not possess the cool, casual ease of conversation that Bogart, and most other Hollywood men, seemed to possess.  He would have rather spoken to a hungry lion than a pretty woman.  Either way, he told himself, he would have been torn to shreds, but at least the lion would seem happy about it, and satisfied.

  How…?  he began.   How do I talk to women?

  Well, that is quite the question!  It remarked, batting its eyes in mock-astonishment.   With your tongue and your mouth and your vocal cords, naturally.

 Austen sighed in frustration.   No, I mean how do I talk to them copesetically?  Competently?  How do I speak to them without feeling all flustered and knotted up inside? And without fucking everything up?

 It s yellow eyes never blinked fully, but It batted It s eyelashes again and reached for his belt buckle, starting to strip off his pants.  Austen pulled away from It, standing up.  Pacing back and forth across the dimly lit room, he stared at the floor.

  Is there any woman that would want me?  he begged the air.   I don t even want to be me.  That s why I m here1″

 The thing imitating Audrey Hepburn silently watched him pace, her head rotating automatically as she followed him with her yellow eyes, like a cat watching a mouse.

  It s so unfair!  he moaned.   There are guys born to look better than me and stronger than me and smarter than me!  I can t even roleplay with you because I am still me!  I don t even want sex!  I just want to have tea with you and maybe dance together!  Maybe kiss.  But I can t dance, and I definitely can t kiss worth a damn!  I ve never kissed anyone before, except my grandma!

 It stood up, then, and took him with a powerful grip by the shoulders, pulling him to It, and kissing him.  He started to cry and tried to push her away, but It was too strong.  It pulled him toward the bed.

  No!  he yelled, yanking himself away from her.   Audrey wasn t like this!   He shook his head, and wiped away the tears in his eyes.   She wouldn t…she wouldn t have liked me at all!

 Anger flashed across his face and he shoved It onto the bed, It s skirt undulating open to reveal pale legs and white panties.

  Maybe I should fuck you!  he snarled.   Maybe I should just bang your brains out and let it end all at once!  No one would miss me!  I wouldn t even miss myself!

 His anger dissolved into self-pity and sobs as he staggered back, leaning against a wall. He did not even see It take off It s panties and lay back, gyrating It s hips gratuitously.  Austen glanced at the intimacy revealed in all its falsity and turned away.

 Still crying, Austen headed to the door.  The acolyte was surprised to see him.

  Sir, you cannot leave without…   He saw Austen s tears and snorted.   What a beta.  Go, then, you little simp.

 Austen headed down the long corridor, weeping as he went.  He came again to the waiting room.  Opening the door, he saw new faces through his tears.  They sniggered, cruelly, and mocked him.

  Little limp-dick.

  Baby.

  Beta bitch.

  Simp.

  Couldn t even go through with it.

  Go suck Chad s giant dick, you fag.

Austen left through the long, stone corridor eventually emerging into a moonlit night.  He walked slowly, staring over his hooked nose at his penguin-shuffling feet.  His belt was still unbuckled and jingled as he walked.  He was too sad to care.

 

      ***

 

 Austen met Becky one day while at the public library.  They were looking through the Graphic Novels at the same time, and by a strange chance struck up a conversation.  Neither could remember who spoke first, but they found the conversation easy and addictive.  Becky was tall, and a little chubby, and had a round face with flat lips.  But her smile was pretty and she was nice to him.  She did not mind his hooked nose or his scrawny arms.  She liked his voice, she said, and his eyes.  She looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn, and Austen was all the happier for it.

Confessions And Silence

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

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

 That was, all except for Tilda.

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

 She hated Confessions most of all.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Know you lemongrass, my little fawn?

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

  And what of belladonna?

 Again Tilda nodded.

  And hemlock?  Wolfsbane?  Yarrow root?

 Tilda nodded to all three in succession.

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

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

 

      ***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  What are they?  Tilda asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

  Hello, my little lamb,  the witch said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  They are dead?  she ventured.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Tilda s father vanished into the Silence.

 

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

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

A Corvid Coven

Ravens have been the thoughts
flitting through my brain
as I walk the gravestone lots
of this misty moonlit lane.
Poe walks to one side of me
and Lovecraft to the other,
and, above us, Hecate,
our midnight, moon-eyed mother.
Twain mutters to himself
a joke, the sardonic satirist,
and Le Fanu summons an elf
from the moor’s veil of mist;
Goya sits in a chair
and paints the mad dance
of us lunatics who dare
the Devil at chance,
and a bright bonfire burns
near the deep, dark woods
around which there turns
a trio wearing hoods:
Jackson, Carter, Bowen,
each and all mesmerizing
as they glow when
the vesper’s rising.
Wearing stygian cloaks
and Protean masks,
these cavorting folks
drink from Lethean flasks,
gathered as one together
in a Sylvan court,
birds of an inky feather
seeking magic and sport.
Time will always outlast us,
even when seeking salvation
on the summit of Parnassus
and the imagination,
yet what a nice stroll
is to be had among them all—
to be a kindred soul
and answer the Raven’s call.

Love-Craft

I glimpsed my Love’s other face,
a visage out of Time and Space
while exploring her outer voids
with a craft through the asteroids,
and seeing those gulfs I went mad,
or else, in the afterglow I was sad,
yet she soon smiled again at me
with the human face I wished to see—
it is hard to love what is so unfeeling,
but what choice have I, her glamour peeling?
I must gaze upon her prettier side,
never where her dark truths hide
or I will fall prey to the vertiginous whirl
of her truths, my inhuman girl
and hag, as well, and witch beyond—
mother from which we have all spawned.
There are predators beloved in her heart
that would gladly tear me apart,
and every bug, too, and microbe, amoeba,
for she is fickle as the Queen of Sheba,
but mostly her bosom is empty, cold,
the gulfs of space without form or mold,
her chest expanding with a Big Bang Breath
until Entropy brings about her death,
yet for all such Space, no safe spaces
for creeds, religions, or any races.
She is just as likely to destroy the earth
as let us live for eons in peace and mirth;
she has her tantrums, yet they are indifferent
as if her fury is never really felt or meant
as she throws her random meteor showers
or vomits lava when her stomach sours
or swallows planetary systems whole
in the pregnancy hunger of a black hole.
Whore and horror, mother and wife—
with her, there is Death, without her, no Life.
And so I must work on learning to love
what is beautiful and terrible, below and above.

Broken Upon The Wheel (Part 1)

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A Bloodborne Tale

 

“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’”

—John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad

Feverish I have been; feverish near unto frenzy, for the blessed blood taints me, as it has done so many among us who Hunted upon the sprawling snowfields and spiraled spires of Cainhurst’s haunts. Too much spillage. How were we to avoid the Vileblood corruption when it rained down all around us in our bladed symphony and wheel-broken mayhem? Were I a stronger man I would not have feared beasthood. Yet, though thrust among the Healing Church’s ranks, I have always known myself to be more a failed scholar of Byrgenworth than an Executioner imbued with strength equal to my faith. Indeed, I had learned too much from the gaping-mouthed ghouls and dull-eyed scholars to have faith in the insidious Church, even whilst beneath the tutelage of Master Logarius, the purported paragon of faith. If I were to fault anything, it would have to be having been in such company as so many revered men. For my heroes have been revealed to me in all of their deficiencies, from Willem to Logarius, and even my most admired confidant, Nicolae.
But how had I come to this land of Vilebloods and its tantalizing heresies? Even now my mind is mingled with pasts and futures not my own— with lives belonging to the sanguine dregs of others and all the temptations that inhabited such individuals. Some things are more clearly branded in my mind than others. The rationale for my restless resettlement has always remained fairly pellucid. Even then I suspected that my addition to the Executioners was Willem’s scheme to rid himself of a scholar too flawed to be of use and too strong-willed to be obedient. After all, I was arrogant, naturally, and increasingly so as my sojourn at Byrgenworth proved my own insufficiencies as a scholar. I had been a feeble practitioner of the arcane arts. Laughably so, I must confess. I had no more eyes on the inside than the common Yharnamite. And the smirks and sneers of my fellow scholars further incensed me, tempting my transgressions. When I had stolen the Chalice and entered the Pthumerian tombs, Willem had no doubt been inclined to let me wander there until my death. But when I returned— my sword broken and my body on the verge of death— I held within my possession a valuable relic hitherto undiscovered. Willem ordered that I be treated well, so I might recover, and then he sent me to the Church, saying I needed to atone for my sins by becoming an Executioner. Knowing that to refuse was to forfeit my life, I obeyed him. I had seen the experiments conducted at Byrgenworth and had no desire to be likewise mutilated.
What an unsuspecting imbecile I was! A naif and fool. I wandered into Yharnam as a lamb unto a slaughterhouse. That is not to say that I was unaware of Willem’s intentions. As I have said, I was a disobedient young man disinclined to conformity. To send me to the Church, it seemed, was as to send an unruly charge from an overwrought governess to a military general. Either I should be disciplined or destroyed, and no additional course was to be considered. I suppose it helped in my “reformation” that Yharnam struck me so overwhelmingly when I first beheld it. It overawed me in a way that not even Byrgenworth and its many secrets could. Indeed, to see it was as to see a grim, black-hearted wastrel lurching out of an alleyway and looming large, his shadow dark and fetid and wholly encompassing you. It intimidated me, in short, and inspired in me a festering resentment.
Yharnam—what can be said of that dizzying edifice of vertiginous hypocrisy? One can see how the edifices and gables and spires of Yharnam rear upward toward the heavens like desperate supplicants to their lofty gods overtopping them. Thus city and citizenry are unified in their desperate conceit for deliverance. It was built upon Old Yharnam, as upon a fuming crypt of cremation. So, too, Byrgenworth was built upon the dead; that venerated seat of learning but a lectern whereat fools in dunce caps preach atop the bones of more learned sages of the Eldritch Truth. There are secrets in Oedon’s Chapel that would drive mad the Yharnamites huddled below it like stupid, blood-glutted farrows at a sow’s teats. I do not embellish when I say that Oedon’s Chapel is a cannibal mother to those of us clear-eyed enough to see it.
Yet, I had little time to accustom myself to that dizzying array of compounding architectural complexities. It was not long after I arrived in Yharnam and was introduced to my compatriots that Master Logarius led us upon the proverbial warpath. I was not yet settled into my quarters in Yharnam when I was rushed along Hemwick Lane with the others, ill-fitted with my clothing and my ridiculous golden helm. It was upon that road that I acquainted myself with my brethren. I had no formal introduction, nor even sufficient time to habituate myself to our cumbersome wheels. Hoisting the weapon upon my back, I wondered if it was merely a contrivance born of absurdity whereby to mock me as the newest recruit. But soon enough I saw that all of my brethren strapped the unwieldy weapon upon their back.
It was, in my opinion, no small amount of tomfoolery that we walked the entirety of the way to the threshold of our enemy’s domain. How ironic that we should walk while bearing upon our bowed backs the wheels wherewith we could outfit enough carriages to carry us. But it was as much a walk of Faith as it was a bonding exercise among our ranks. Master Logarius was, if anything, a man of certain principles. Adversity was his tempering stone. A hard man, he nonetheless inspired faith within the Executioners; perhaps because of his difficult temperament.
There were many of strong faith among the Executioners’ ranks. I felt misplaced among them, and unworthy. They welcomed me happily, and yet despite their camaraderie, I knew I was placed among them too late to be counted brotherly. I was, as a nuisance to Willem, expendable and likely soon discarded. For what was the reason for my swift induction into such venerated ranks except as a sacrificial goat? True, I had proven myself of some worth in the Pthumerian tombs, but much of my survival impinged upon wise retreat and selective killing. But this was war. The Vilebloods were warrior nobles of renowned prowess. They had imbibed forbidden blood and had gained horrendous strength from its occult legacy. How could an unseasoned scholar such as myself fare against such bloodlusting monsters as what enumerated within Cainhurst Castle?
The march was long and hard. I felt half-dead as we approached. Blood was made available upon the journey, to enliven us, and it helped to invigorate me, though it seemed to me to be lacking of essential vigors to compensate for my innate apprehension. My prevalent sense of dread only increased within me as we passed through the woods. It was truly odd, considering I had braved the Pthumerian tombs with nothing but my sword to accompany me. Yet, I would later discover in such apprehension the latency of a conflicted nature and inclination that would, inevitably, elucidate such fears as mere ambivalence arising from divided allegiances. Given time, of course. In the meantime, however, I was as a blind man groping in a hallway, confused as to which direction to go.
Thus, I turned to Nicolae, in whom I believed a trait of amicability presided and whom therein I might confide my apprehensions without derision or flippancy.
“I do not know if I am of merit or mettle to be among you,” I confessed.
He gave the most good-natured smile and patted my shoulder in a familiar way unknown to those cold-hearted minds of Byrgenworth.
“No one knows the worth of any untested tool,” he said. “It must be measured, as they say, when blade bites bone. Only then do we know if any of us are worthy of our call to serve.”
We came, at length, to the sleepy village of Hemwick. Here, in this backwater village, and on any misty morning, the fog rolls up from the sea and mingles with the ashen smoke of those charnel houses and mills, inseparably, as if a great fugue over the land; a forgetful dream rising up from the unplumbed depths. What a dilapidated sprawl of cottages and windmills! They were derelict not unlike the corpses they stripped and burned to fuel the Vileblood’s ambitions.
Women and men both worked united in this purpose. Yet, when they saw our arrival through the woods, they ceased immediately in their efforts. Initially I feared an altercation between our small army and that gaunt peasantry. But this fear did not manifest to form. Though its citizenry were enslaved to their masters, they did not contend our passage. Rather, they fled indoors, among their macabre labors, and did not emerge until we were well beyond their smoky village. Master Logarius commented that such an enterprise would benefit the Healing Church greatly. Ash marrow bullets were much coveted in the Church’s arsenal. Such an arsenal, he vowed, would help pave the road to the Church’s true ascension. Even now I cannot help but see a road cobbled in skulls and pooled with blood when I recall his words.
When I first saw Cainhurst Castle I was mesmerized by its forbidden beauty. Its ancient legacy was attested in every old stone upon which the towering edifice exulted itself. Its spires rose upward from the mountainous island, surrounded by the briny depths of the sea. A pale moon glossed the icy pinnacles and I felt a strange familiarity with such a forlorn image. Nor could I remember such a familiarity in my life. Byrgenworth’s insights had stripped me of my previous life. What memories I had were shattered glass shards. The attempt to summon to mind my past was, and even now is, as futile an endeavor as to draw out the blood from one’s own veins. It cycles, and determines who I am, yet I cannot harness it as upon a spool for closer reflection. What I knew, without one whit of doubt, was that Cainhurst meant more to me than either Byrgenworth or Yharnam could. At the time, however, I did not know if it meant my death or, perhaps, a new awakening.

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When we arrived at the Cainhurst Castle’s bridge we were met by silence. There were no forces awaiting us on that long stone bridge. Nor were there forces hailing us from the castle’s many windows. The wind skirled sibilantly against its tottering beauty, but apart from the elements we heard nothing. Snow fell, as if patting down the silence with its own immaculate hush. My unease grew in such silence. Yet, I was not certain what I was truly uneasy about: my own life and its potential loss, or our imminent disturbance into that silent, stony mistress that lorded over this land. It seemed sacrilegious to intrude there. This excited in me dread and euphoria, as one would feel in taking pleasure from one of Yharnam’s many whores— whether from her gaping thighs or her gaping veins.
The Castle was silent. The moon reigned above it like a skull-crowned monarch, glowing pallidly with its endless life.
“Have they alighted?” an Executioner asked, voicing what we all thought at that moment.
Master Logarius said nothing. He instead pointed wordlessly toward the portcullis. There was an audible gasp from someone among the Executioners. Perhaps it was from myself. Regardless of its origin, the gasp was justified, for the portcullis mocked us with its Pthumerian gawp, it being lifted— as if in betrayal—to invite us in to ravage the castle it was intended to protect. Perhaps, I thought, the Vilebloods had indeed alighted from the castle, seeking sanctuary in a distant land, or some distant sea. I hoped so, for I was in no mood for bloodshed upon such alluring grounds. We followed Master Logarius beneath the portcullis and into the moonyard of the inner walls. There was a water fountain there, frozen in the wintry wastes, and statues allotted here and there in intermittent clusters. To one side I saw the land fall away into a descending hollow that appeared to have been a cave once upon an age. The crush of rocks at the bottom indicated a concerted effort to close that passage. It begged the question as to what had been discovered there, and why it was feared.
The silence was unsettling. Indeed, it reminded me of still waters wherein a predator lurked, circling a fool oblivious to the teeth at his ankles. Instinctively, I drifted toward the center of our army, sheltering myself within our ranks. I feel no shame in admitting myself in want of advantage by their insulating numbers. They were, so far as my untested mettle was concerned, a mobile bulwark within which I might protect myself.
It was as we passed halfway between the portcullis and the Castle’s large, imposing doors that the sinister silence erupted into a clashing cacophony. Two large bodies of Cainhurst knights rushed us from afore and behind. It was a trap! To one flank gaped the hollow of crushed rock and to the other were the sheer walls of the Castle itself. Master Logarius was in front, and met the knights with his scythe, cutting them down like harvest-ready wheat. I had never seen such a terrible bloodletting before. His soldiers did no less in their efforts, crashing into, and smashing, the Cainhurst knights with their heavy Wheels. The Cainhurst knights were fast with their swords, but the Wheels overpowered their thrusts and slashes, turning them aside. Those whom were mounted upon horseback advantaged themselves of their height, slashing down at the Executioners below them. However, the Executioners were trained well— discounting myself—and soon overcame these knights by forming a phalanx with their wheels. Like a carapace of spokes and rims and hubs, they moved together, protecting each other while Executioners beneath them used their swords to cut the horses to stumps, thus throwing the knights for efficient dispatch. My brethren were coordinated and calm, even while surrounded in ambush. I had neither the collection of mind, nor the training of arms, to be of use in such a chaotic fray. I cowered among the Executioners, as a worm among armored beetles. Their power was matched only by their ferocious animosity toward the Vilebloods they smashed and mangled and mutilated. And their hatred was fostered by their faith in the Church. I was not possessed of such faith. I was an apostate.

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Neither was sheer strength my forte. I was not an Executioner imbued with brute force, nor were the arcane powers mine at easy beck and call, as I had learned alongside my peers in Byrgenworth. Something else was my acuity, though it would be some time before I learned of my latent talents.
The ungaily Wheels we used by the Executioners were cumbersome for me, and so I carried mine only as an observance of my newly acquired duty, preferring my blade in such butcher’s work, as I had during my exhumation of the Pthumerian Catacombs. Speed was an endowment advantaging me, and clever, furtive hands. While I could never wield the Wheels as my brethren did, I made use of the blade in an efficient manner when I could not longer cower behind my brethren. I was surprised at my own bloody work. The Pthumerian Catacombs had not been an ordeal like that of war, and here, in the moonyard of Cainhurst Castle, I discovered that when confronted with annihilation I had, at my disposal, a natural deftness for swordplay. I suppose this should not have astounded me so greatly. Though a thorough skeptic concerning the legacies of the Church, and the first Ministrations of the Old Blood, I still claimed for myself a certain pantheon of figures whom I admired. Ludwig, the Holy Blade, and his strange sword, had always intrigued and inspired me, even when I was an inept scholar at Byrgenworth. My admiration for Ludwig was why I allowed myself the use of the Holy Blade, despite it being a pale imitation of that great glowing moonlight sword of legend. To my shame, however, I must admit my inability to wield the imitation’s secondary form with any aptness or dexterity of hand, my strength being inadequate. Rather, the sheathe remained exactly that: a sheathe. I did not partake in such cumbersome additions when my natural disposition toward speed would have been disadvantaged for no particular betterment.
My inadequacies were mirrored, fortunately, in Cainhurst’s forces as we destroyed the ambushing forces and entered the Castle’s great hall. They had neither strength of numbers nor quality of strength in their warriors to hold the tide. As we ascended the central staircase, and killed whosoever was unwary enough to intercede our path, it became increasingly apparent how minimal their forces truly were. Indeed, they had supplemented their forces with the many stone statues that adorned that gigantic complex, arranging them like farcical imitations of the forces they lacked. It would have been laughable had the circumstances not been so serious. Perhaps they were desperate. Perhaps the were mocking us with their stolid-faced statues. Perhaps it was both.
There were more knights within the castle, and upon every level of its tottering heights, but they fell before us as do sand idols before the thrashing tides. Their armor, forged of thin silver in pompous fashion, offered little protection against the blunt impacts of the Executioners’ Wheels. Rather, the refined finery of those silver plates collapsed inward alongside ribs and skulls, inlaying the crimson pulp with smeared silver wrapping— nothing more.
I was not unaware of the stories concerning the servants of Cainhurst. The nobility had quaffed much of the forbidden blood, and, consequently, were given to inhuman transformations should the blood have provoked their more bestial natures. It was not unlike the Beast Plague in Yharnam, and, as such, these unfortunate circumstances necessitated the employment of Hunters. Only, here in Cainhurst the servants of the nobility were often trained to cull the nobility of the affected among its ranks. The knights, too, engaged in these culling efforts, but I found it endlessly fascinating that such duties should fall to inferiors and subordinates among what I presumed to be an arrogant aristocracy. Perhaps, I thought, they were not so arrogant after all. Perhaps there was a bond between them quite to the contrary as that of the Healing Church and its legion of unsuspecting naifs. Here, the nobility inspired fealty by laying their napes beneath the blades of their servants. The Healing Church, on the other hand, promised salvation with their ministrations, all the while opening veins to greater, more terrible infections than mere Ashen blood.
The Cainhurst servants engaged us as heartily as the Cainhurst knights had. They were formidable with their rapiers and unassuming, slinking ways. Ultimately, they were smashed like the many scores of other bodies left in our wake. Yet, I felt a keen sorrow for them as they ran to meet us on behalf of their masters. The small, withered men and women were half the height and stature of their betters, and still managed a certain nobility in their brave, foolish deaths. Apparent as their mistreatment was at the behest of the nobility, the servants nonetheless were— or wherefore became— dedicated to that ancient bloodline.
I have oft wondered what went through the minds of our victims that night. I would have thought it strange to see a siege led by men in golden helmets and carrying those impractical Wheels about. But I did not doubt that, once the battle had been engaged, whatever mirth might have assumed itself in their minds at such a ridiculous sight rapidly transformed to horror. Having never seen a Wheel utilized in such a barbarous fashion, I was myself quite shocked to see the butchery that followed. Broken bones, smashed guts, caved-in heads— for being such an absurd weapon, the Wheel manifested shockingly gory proceedings. Vileblood blades were either turned away by the cumbersome rims or arms were snapped by the ensnaring spokes. The small, hunkering servants were pulverized to steaming heaps of meat and bone within moments. It was horrifying.
But I noticed a more horrifying phenomenon beyond the mere spectacle of slaughter. Following behind my brethren, like a gosling in the currents of its parents, I could see much what they, in their murderous frenzy, could not see. And I am grateful that I had enough sense, at first, to fear for my well-being. Moreover, I was appalled by so much rampant carnage and delayed enjoining my own blade in service to the Church except in instances where my own life would be forfeit. Yet, among the visceral nausea, there came, parallel and intensifying the former, an Eldritch abhorrence. At first I merely dismissed it as the fanciful notion of an overwrought mind. Yet, thinking back on it now I know it to have been no mere fancy born from the violence arrayed around me. What I saw had indeed transpired: as the Vilebloods perished, their blood circumscribed those abominable Church weapons, girdling them like a torrential stream upon a waterwheel. I do not claim to know if it was a crimson curse of the Vilebloods in the throes of their deaths, or some diabolical upon the Executioners’ Wheels imbued by the Church. But what I saw, as my brethren smashed knights and servants alike, was a literal cyclical curse.
That is not to say that the scholar in me was not intrigued by the apparent phenomenon. My mind subsequently rifled through its admittedly limited tomes of knowledge, seeking a corresponding phenomenon or similar account. The nearest similitude readily recalled was a brief overview of Pthumerian sanguinomancy and an anecdote concerning an incident in a fishing hamlet. Regardless of the unfamiliarity of the phenomenon, I understood it for what it was: a bloody curse. Nor was it superstition that deemed it so in my recognition. The more my brethren killed, the more blood-drunk they became, and consequently the more blind they were to the vengefulness of the spirits harnessed about the rims of their Wheels. Even mild-tempered Nicolae was besot with the crimson lunacy. His countenance was disquieting to behold.
The resistance within Cainhurst diminished by degrees of quality and quantity. Soon the knights were all destroyed, and the servants rapidly fell in succession. We came to a dining hall, and there within it were noblewomen armed with daggers. Attired in flowery dresses, beautiful and damned and damning a man with their winsome beauty and false frailty, they gave me pause. Even the blood-crazed Executioners looked upon them with some hesitation. Yet, Master Logarius had iron in his soul sharper and stronger than any manmade blade and, so, bade us bind and blind those that did not immediately fall in the ensuing violence of disarming them. This, I knew, was to spare his own flock the temptations of their beauty. Indeed, the noblewomen tempted the cloistered scholar in me with their seductive eyes. I felt pity for them, and knew it to be a failure in my human flesh, or perhaps a foible of my beast’s blood, and therefore a vermin of soul to be silenced with a merciless boot. When my brethren slit their throats I felt a great pang crying out to those wretched beauties, even as I abhorred their power over me.
We ascended the Castle, coming to a vast library that would have shamed Byrgenworth with its collection. The scholar in me bemoaned so many unread works. Who knew what arcana inhabited that vast, many-storied library with its labyrinth walkways and oaken staircases and tiers upon tiers of shelves? And yet, even here great butcheries were perpetrated in the name of the Healing Church. Master Logarius was like the Wheels with which the Church armed his followers: ever grinding inexorably onward in his bloody path.
‘Twas easier to gain entry into the depths of the Pthumerian labyrinths than the upper reaches of Cainhurst castle. Battle was bloody up its heights, with both knights and maidens raising arms against us. They all fell, however, as we wound our way upwards, led by Logarius and undauntable Nicolae. The castle was as a puzzlebox, demanding due vigilance and keenness of mind. Many times we found ourselves confronted by dead ends, and barbarous traps, but Master Logarius and Nicolae both persevered, leading us upwards, never once stonewalled for long. I marveled at our progress, for I felt quite heady and troubled by the entire foray, my mind bucking me like an obstinate stallion. The castle itself held some sway over me, it seemed, though I dared not voice such misgivings to my brethren.
One thing was certain, though: the Vilebloods were ill-prepared for our assault. They had not expected the Church to be so bold, or perhaps their pride assumed themselves too strong to be overthrown. We slaughtered their horses and laid waste to their servants long before they could muster a defense.
Logically, I thought of it as no massacre, but merely as an impersonal culling of the beastly herd. It was no secret that the Vilebloods had partaken of filthy blood and in so doing doomed themselves toward the plague of beasts. The ashen plague was of their making as well, and would undo them in time without the Church’s machinations.
Or so I had been told.
We ascended to the very heights of the castle, finding ourselves upon its windy roofs and snowy turrets. The frosted crown of the castle was as treacherous as its inhabitants. A chance misstep and I nearly lost my foothold as we scoured the rooftops for the remaining beasts and royalty. Master Logarius must have had a keener eye than myself, for he led us along the precarious catwalks and spires toward some unseen . I almost thought him mad, for a time, and wondered if he was chasing cold phantoms from the foggy sea.
We were met by the Vileblood King upon the rampart of the remaining expanse of the castle. When he arrived, with his heretical Chikage, we thought our revenge near its end. He was unaccompanied, standing solitary against a score of us. His last stand was hopeless and vain.
Foolhardy as I was, I was caught unawares when the King thrust his sword into his own body. I mistook his actions as a final act of defiance, and aristocratic arrogance to deny us the killing blow, and so I dropped my guard, struck thereupon by his blazing blood as he withdrew the blasphemously steeped blade. I fell and did not rise until after the King had been slaughtered by my brethren. Nicolae knelt over me, surveying the damage. I could see only with one eye, the other benighted by the vileblood fire.
I attempted to stand, but Nicolae ordered me to rest, and so I rested. When I awoke later, I felt delusional, for I saw my brethren manifesting from thin air upon the battlements of the castle. Their demeanors were grave, despite our victory. I rose unsteadily to my feet and asked them what was the matter. They informed me that Master Logarius had been slain during the execution of Queen Annalise. I felt a great pang of guilt, thinking that my absence might have forfeited our Master’s life in the final confrontation. Yet, my remaining eye alighted upon the bloody head of the fallen Vileblood King, and I wondered at his missing crown. It was curiously strange, but I said nothing of it, knowing that discretion in Church matters was holy in its own way.
And yet I recalled it vividly, intimately, as if I had known that crown my entire life. It had been embedded in its long, slender turrets with jewels of jade, amber, ruby, sapphire, and amethyst. It was a garish piece of ornamentation, and yet I had sensed within it a jewel beyond equal; a jewel yet unseen, except perhaps in dreams, and a jewel to which access was granted solely through such a strange crown.
We left that forsaken castle and returned to Hemwick Lane, greeted by its residents as heroes. They were all of them now liberated from their ancient bondage to Cainhurst and its Vileblood dynasty. Nicolae assured us, with his naive smile, that the residents would find salvation in the teachings, and the ministrations, of the Healing Church. Yet, even then I could discern the ravages of the Ashen Blood in their gaunt faces. They were dying slowly, painfully, and cheered us with agonized grimaces. What would the Church do if Hemwick should succumb as Old Yharnam had? Its weaponry against evil was maintained through the blessed work of Hemwick. Without bone ash the Church would lose power, despite having just conquered its greatest enemy.

chikagefinalsize

 

Hysteria (Part Two)

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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