Imposter Furniture (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take It Easy

Take It Easy

Floyd did not mind much that his trailer was floating down the Mississippi river. He had put it on the flood plain when he first bought the land twenty years ago and so he knew the risks involved. Moreover, the river had risen by the grace of God. Who was he to question the Lord? The ride was quite relaxing, in its own way, especially at night when he went to bed. During the day he would catch a cockroach and hook it to his fishing line, casting the line out his front door. More often than not he caught a catfish or a carp. They had muddy flavors, of course, when he cooked them on his kerosene grill, but Floyd didn’t mind. Floyd didn’t mind much of anything, really. He was as easygoing as the river. Whatever the Lord willed, he accepted. He was by himself, anyhow, and so he needn’t have bothered to worry what anyone else thought or believed. Not that he was contentious. Throughout the year of marriage to his exwife Mabel he had been the most accommodating, agreeable husband a woman could have asked for. The only reason Mabel divorced Floyd was because he “had no ambitions”. He only wanted to exist as he had done for years, neither wealthier or in a better neighborhood. He aspired toward nothing and Mabel resented that aspect of him. Mabel never once thought that, had he ambitions, he would aspired for someone better than her. Not that Floyd ever thought such things. He was too easygoing for grudges and insecurities and the other petty emotions of Man.
The trailer swayed gently in the current. It was like living on a houseboat. Floyd did not mind it at all. He thought himself possessed of no reason for unease or upset as he was swept downstream. If the trailer sank, it sank. If not, that was fine, too. It wasn’t that Floyd was suicidal, passively or otherwise. He just accepted things the way they were. On the spot. At face value. It had galled his exwife somewhat. It also galled his coworkers at the rock quarry. Sometimes they thought working the rock had softened his brains. But Floyd had always been the way he was. His mother always said he never cried once when a baby, even at his birth. She attested that it was because of his “Cajun stock” that he was so mellow. Their long line of New Orleans ancestry had lived in places where others dared not, and consequently their blood found life easy nowadays no matter how stressful the modern world could be. After all, wrestling gators and eking out a living on the bayou with mosquitoes always at your neck was a good way to condition the blood to flow slower when other bloodlines would gush in a panic. If gators taught a bloodline anything, it was patience, tolerance, and abidance.
The river widened and rushed onward, faster. Yet, the trailer did not sink. Naturally, Floyd had no electricity since becoming unmoored, but he lived in Louisiana, and it was Summer, so he didn’t need electricity. It wasn’t cold. When it was hot he simply sat at the door with his feet in the water. For entertainment he watched the trees and the banks roll by. Occasionally he saw a riverside town or city. Gobsmacked people watched him with gaping mouths, pointing incredulously. He waved at them in easy friendliness. Sometimes he would climb up on the roof of his trailer and lay down beneath the sun. So long as he was on the Mississippi, he had a source of water. He drank it without much caring about germs. He knew they existed, but, again, he thought it up to God whether sickness killed him or not.
It was on his fifth week of his journey that land disappeared altogether. Curious, Floyd climbed atop the trailer and gazed out over the horizon. End to end without end, the horizon was only oceanic water. The trailer had floated out to sea. Not even a smudge of land shadowed the horizon. Floyd put his hands on his hips and gazed out to sea. It was beautiful. Nor did he feel overpowering dread, nor fear for his life. Instead, he caught another cockroach and went fishing. He caught several fish over the course of the next month or so. He did not know any of their names. He cooked them on his kerosene grill and ate them calmly while the briny scent of the ocean filled the trailer. Nor did he lose one wink of sleep knowing that he was adrift at sea. Sometimes when he woke up in the early morning hours he saw shark fins through the front door. This caused him no alarm whatsoever. Rather, he fished as he usually did, and if a shark stole his catch he would hook another cockroach on his reel and try again. There were plenty of fish in the sea for Floyd and the sharks. Eventually, they all ate their fill.
And then came the storm. It started as choppy waves that tossed and shook the trailer like an impatient child trying to open a tin of chocolates. The winds howled like beasts incensed by blood-thirst and madness. Calmly, Floyd closed the front door and sat on his sofa, wondering what would come next. He had never been in a storm at sea before and it was a novel experience he accepted as he had accepted everything else in life.
The trailer tossed left and right. Floyd’s sofa slid to and fro with the direction and momentum of the waves. He accepted this, too, sitting at ease upon that sofa as it paced back and forth restlessly like a caged animal.
The storm lasted for three days. Floyd did not have much to drink, since the sea was saltwater, and he could not catch fish, since the sea was a jagged-toothed shark in frenzy, but he accepted all of this rather easily. It was easy to accept, too, since his trailer was like a bronco in the bug-bitten madness of a rodeo. His stomach was queasy; his lips parched. His body accepted this as much as his mind, however, and so he was only mildly sick from this incessant rollercoaster ride.
On the fourth day the sea laid down to rest like a child after a terrible tantrum. Still feeling queasy and dizzy, Floyd climbed on top of his trailer and sat there for a while, beneath the cloudy sky, letting his stomach and brains slow in their churning spin. In time he saw an island toward which the trailer drifted. Had he been anyone else he might have thought it a delusion brought about by dehydration and hunger and fatigue, but Floyd accepted it for a real island. So, when the trailer struck the white sands, he climbed down and stepped foot on dry land.
It was a tropical island. There were palm trees and mountains and exotic flowers abloom everywhere. Birds flew above, and he heard boars rummaging through the bushes. He saw coconuts and accepted everything he saw as it was. He even accepted that a band of short men in boarskin loincloths were approaching him, holding their spears out as if skewer him like a kabob. When they pointed their spears at him, and then pointed up at the mountains, Floyd understood and followed them through the forest and up the slopes. All of this he accepted, too.
There was a village on a foothill leading up into the mountains. Clay huts roofed with palm leaves huddled atop the flat crown of the foothill. Women and children waited there; the children playing while the women cut fruits and cooked stews in large stone pots. The men motioned for Floyd to sit. He did so. The women brought to him clay plates filled with fruit. He ate it obligingly. They also brought him stew, which he accepted in turn. While he ate he looked around the village and saw artwork made of bones— marine bones, boar bones, bird bones, and even human bones. Actually, there were lots of human bones. There was a pyramid of human skulls tucked away in one corner of the village, behind what seemed to be a stone altar. Blood had stained the stone.
Floyd accepted all of this as easily as he had the storm and the river. Whatever God willed, he accepted. So, when the men pulled him up to his feet and began marching him up into the mountains, he did not fight or reject his lot. The view from the mountainside, at least, was very beautiful. He could see all over the lush island, and even far out to sea.
The pygmy men halted at the cresting slope of the highest mountain. They then pointed Floyd forward, holding their spears at his back lest he escape. They did not look at him, however, but kept their heads turned away. It was obvious to Floyd that he was meant to proceed forward alone.
Floyd walked forward. Atop the mountain he found a tarn with the deepest, darkest, blackest waters. Where the sun touched the waters no light shone nor penetrated. It was like a well of black ink, fathomless as lightless space between stars. Floyd stood at its edge, watching. Accepting. Unafraid.
And then the inky waters began to churn. Something rose from it— an eldritch entity beyond human comprehension. Floyd saw it, and it spoke to him, and he accepted the Cosmic Truths that it gave to him. It then submerged again, the inky water flattening to a smooth onyx surface once again. Floyd descended the mountain.
The pygmy men waited for him in the foothills, as did the women and children. They had spears and stones hoisted, at the ready. Yet, when he descended— waving and smiling in earnest friendliness— they dropped their spears and stones, and then dropped to their knees, bowing and wailing for forgiveness.
The tribal elders directed Floyd to a special throne they had made for the predestined prophet and avatar for their god. Floyd could not understand any of this, but he accepted the seat offered to him as tribal hospitality. The native people served him fruits again, and coconut milk, and roasted boar. For the next ten years they treated him as a god-made-flesh. They genuflected before him and thanked him for rains, or else clasped their hands together, wringing their fingers worriedly as they begged him mercy when lightning struck during the sea storms. Floyd did not want them to worship him as an avatar, but he also did not wish to question or rebuff their beliefs. He believed that people should believe what they wished to believe, and who was he to muddy their religion with doubt? It was rude to question another person’s cherished beliefs.
Some of the women offered themselves to Floyd, too, and he accepted them. They seemed as pleased about the copulations as he was, so he saw no reason to reject them. It would have hurt their feelings to push them aside when they mounted him in the privacy of his own hut. They wanted his children, and he gave them children. Even the married women wanted his children, for the tribal elders wished to mix their blood with his so that the subsequent generations could commune with their God without being driven mad. Floyd eventually learned to speak their language, but never convinced them of their error. He was too easygoing to attempt to correct them in their (mostly) harmless habits. They said he had been sent by their God, and he agreed that God had sent him. It was God’s will, as was everything in Floyd’s world view. Things were as they were, just-so, and Floyd accepted them as always. He even spoke to the God in the mountains, though he was not sure the God even saw Floyd or acknowledged him. The God in the mountains was more like a weather system than a sentient creature. It was not that it did not like Man, but rather, it did not think of Man at all. Yet, it did embody the Cosmic Truth, and so it imparted that knowledge, whether it intended to or not.
All of this Floyd accepted, also, living in contented acceptance for many years. His newfound family grew, alongside the tribe, and they faced no better or worse circumstances than any other tribe of equal technological advancement.
Eventually, a boat arrived from America. It was an exploration vessel belonging to a team of anthropologists seeking to better understand the island tribe. For a long time the tribe had been known, but never studied. Now a group of twenty-somethings intended to make what they presumed to be first contact with the tribe. The pygmy warriors met the anthropologists on the shore, their spears at the ready. They escorted them up to their village without delay, much to the delight of the Americans. The anthropologists were very pleased about all of this…until they saw Floyd sitting on his throne.
The pygmy village bowed before Floyd, but the anthropologists refused. They accused Floyd of colonialism and slavery and cultural appropriation. Floyd, on the other hand, accepted all of these accusations also, as he did the accusations of “cultural genocide” and “white male entitlement”. Who was he to upset the anthropologists with counter-arguments? He kept his silence. On the other hand, he also accepted it as God’s will when the pygmy people took umbrage at the way the strangers were squawking at their God’s avatar and marched them up the mountainside to face their God’s judgment. After all, who was Floyd to intercede in another culture’s edicts? He had no aspirations toward that maladjusted cause.
The anthropologists went mad from the Cosmic Truth. Afterward, they wandered down the mountainside, laughing maniacally, or else sobbing uncontrollably. Some fell to their deaths. Others threw themselves willingly from the mountainside. Some had to be put out of their misery by the pygmy people, their heads smashed on the altar and their skulls cleaned and bleached in the tropical sun before being added to the pyramid. All of this was God’s will, Floyd thought, and so he accepted it as such. There was no need to be willful, himself. Taking life as it was was the best way to live. Not even an Eldritch God could ruin his peace of mind.

Shell Game Part 1

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The sand was golden as the Atlantic ocean lapped at its curving slopes, the sun dazzling on the rippling water like the golden navel jewelry of a belly dancer. Andy walked behind his three cousins, following them down to their parents’ private beach. Tiffany led the way: tall, lithe, golden brown like the shore, her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail that trailed all the way down to her pink bikini bottom. She was carrying a basket in one hand— holding sunscreen, her beach towel, and her cell-phone—and her free hand was slapping her upper thigh as she walked. Andy was carrying her beach parasol, which he wanted to do, despite how long, heavy, and unwieldy it was. He would have done anything for her. She was the most beautiful thirteen year old he had ever seen.
A sudden tug on the parasol and Andy almost fell backward. Startled, he glanced behind himself and saw, to his irritation, his youngest cousin, Seth, grinning devilishly.
“Watch out, Mary Poppins!” Seth said. “Those winds are strong.”
Seth was tanned brown, like his eldest sister, and sandy blonde. He was eleven years old— one year younger than Andy— and it was, so far as Andy reckoned, because Seth was younger that Seth deliberately irritated Andy so much. He constantly badgered him, and mocked him, and slugged his arm, and acted like they were buddies while also submitting Andy to bullying antics that bordered on controlling. Andy tried to let his irritation subside since he was staying with his cousins for the rest of the Summer. Or at least until his mother and father called him back to Georgia. He was at the mercy of his aunt and uncle until then, and they played favorites. In fact, if they had had a pet worm it would have probably been more favored than Andy was.
Seth pulled on the parasol again, making Andy wobble, lose his balance, and nearly fall.
“Don’t drop the umbrella,” Samantha snapped.
“Seth keeps pulling on it,” Andy said, defensively.
“Then you need to be more careful,” Samantha countered. She was red-faced from sunburn and anger. Andy did not know why Samantha was so spiteful toward him. Was it because she had a sunburn and he didn’t? Well, her siblings did not have sunburns, either, and were tanned. On the other hand, Andy had darker skin than all of them, and not because he played in the sun all of the time. It was hard to play outside in the trailer park back in Georgia; there were too many broken glass bottles and rusty detritus that required tetanus shots. Then again, just about anyone’s skin was darker than Samantha’s. She was as pale as a peeled apple and freckled like a cinnamon bun, taking after her father rather than her mother. Nor did she have blonde hair. Her hair was a drab mousy brown that always seemed to spiral spitefully in natural curls.
“You should know better than blaming other people for your mistakes,” Samantha continued. “I know that, and we’re the same age.”
Andy ignored her, just like Seth and Tiffany and her parents ignored her. It seemed to be the best option for her middle-child tantrums and outbursts. She was sensitive about everything, and that sensitivity was more than skin-deep.
“Put the parasol here,” Tiffany said, pointing to a slope of sand.
Andy unwrapped the parasol, letting its radial ribs expand, the blue-and-white striped bloom blossoming wide. He nearly lost his balance with the unwieldy canopy, wobbling left and right. He then impaled its shaft into the middle of the sandy bank.
“No, not there!” Tiffany said. “There!”
She pointed at roughly the same place, so Andy uprooted the shaft and thrust it into the slope a few inches higher, where her finger pointed.
“Ugh!” Tiffany exhaled in disgust. “You are useless.” She stooped down and uprooted the parasol and carried it farther up the slope, then impaled its shaft into the crest of the slope and angled it downward. “This is where I wanted it,” she chided him.
It was nowhere near where she pointed, but Andy did not say so. He watched her as she crouched and unrolled her towel beneath that little pool of shade in that otherwise starkly bright stretch of sand. He watched her in fascination, not knowig why he was so entranced by her long legs. Until this Summer he had never met his cousins before. For some reason, of which he did not understand, there was some “family drama” that kept his mother and his aunt apart. In fact, they had been estranged his entire life, so coming to stay with them was, for Andy, like staying at a stranger’s house. Somehow, though, he thought a stranger would have been more friendly to him than they were. They treated him like not only an inconvenience, but like something they were ashamed of being seen with in public. They never let him leave their private house, and only agreed to let him accompany his cousins down to the beach because it was their private section of the beach. No humiliating eyes.
“Don’t let anyone see you with him,” his aunt admonished his cousins. “If any of our neighbors happen by, tell them he just showed up and you don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”
If his aunt and uncle spoke to Andy at all it was in commands, like he was a dog. Generally, however, they spoke around him rather than at him. Sometimes he felt like he was in the hospital, on the sickbed, while adults spoke about his condition while not speaking directly to him.
Seth ran into the white surf, shouting. Tiffany called after him.
“You need sunscreen, idiot!”
“I’m letting Samantha have it all,” he said. “She needs all the sunscreen she can get.”
“Shut up!” Samantha yelled, even as she begrudgingly lathered herself up in the stinky white lotion. “I’m getting a tan. It’s just taking time.”
Andy waited for his turn for the sunscreen. Tiffany frowned at him, almost as if in disgust.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Sunscreen,” Andy said.
Tiffany almost laughed— a mirthless laugh of cool disbelief. She shook her head, making her long hair play peek-a-boo on either side of her hips. “You don’t need sunscreen.”
Andy was confused. “Why?”
“Because it would be a waste!” she said. “I mean, you people are made for being in the sun all day.”
Andy did not understand, but since Tiffany was the one that said this, he accepted it as a truth, and walked across the burning sand, glad when the warm surf crashed over his feet. No sooner had he waded waist deep then up popped Seth beside him, pouncing on him and wrapping his arms around his neck, trying to piggy-back on him.
“Let go!” Andy tried to shout, half-choked.
“Getty up!” Seth cried.
Andy peeled Seth’s arms from around his neck and let him drop, floundering, into the water. Coughing, Andy rubbed his throat, wondering if he would have a bruise there tomorrow. It had felt like he had been hung with a noose. He walked away, putting some distance between himself and Seth. In doing so, he accidentally bumped into Samantha, who was standing nearby.
“Watch where you’re going!” she snapped. She pushed him, but since she was so scrawny she could not budge him. Still, he obliged her by stepping away from her. She obliged him by stepping toward him. “You’re really clumsy!”
“Okay,” was all he said.
She did not relent, but seemed provoked at his neutral response. “I thought you were supposed to be athletic and stuff.”
This confused Andy, too, because he had never played any sports. He never watched sports, either. He spent his time reading and helping his mother around the trailer, making dinner, cleaning, and repairing things. His mother had taught him how to stitch.
Thinking he should stay away from both of his cousins, Andy walked a little farther out into the ocean. It swelled up to his collarbone. He felt nervous being out this far. He knew how to swim, but as he gazed upon the expanse of the Atlantic he felt like the ocean surrounded him. It dwarfed him— dwarfed the sun in the sky— and made him feel small and insignificant in the saltwater wash of the world. What mysteries lurked there in those silent waters? What monsters?
Fearing the ocean, Andy turned toward the beach. He saw Tiffany walking toward the water; tall and slender and long-legged. She walked with a poise that was so mature and ladylike, similar to the way fashion runway models walked. She dove into the shoals and then emerged, glistening and golden like a bronze statue. Andy was transfixed; so much so that he did not see Seth wading toward him until it was too late. Seth leapt on him again, this time on his head, and, with his whole weight, his cousin shoved Andy down into the saltwater. Andy had been so taken by surprise that he had not had the chance to breathe in any air, and in fact gasped, thinking a shark had clamped him in its jaws.
Andy struggled to throw his cousin off. The pressure in his vacant lungs was too much. His chest ached. His nostrils and eyes burned in the saltwater. He panicked and felt the strength go out of his limbs. Seth had entwined his arms and legs around Andy too securely to be broken or even loosened. As a last chance effort—before his lungs should explode—Andy turned his head and bit Seth’s arm as hard as he could. Seth instantly released him and Andy burst up through the water, coughing and choking and trying to regain his breath. Blindly, he walked toward the shore.
“He bit me!” Seth yelled. “He bit me on my arm! Dad was right. He is an animal.”
Andy was too grateful for air to take umbrage at what his uncle may have said. He trudged toward the shore until he came to the frothy edge of the ocean, then collapsed on his butt, coughing and wheezing, the surf lapping against him as if the ocean’s bosom, too, was trying to regain its breath with every painful contraction.
“Hey!” Seth said. “You bit me! Apologize or I’m telling dad!”
“You almost drowned me,” Andy said between ragged breaths. “You wouldn’t let go.”
“You bit me,” Seth said, again. “Apologize.”
“You better apologize,” Tiffany said, with a tone of distinterest, “or dad will just send you back home.”
Andy was bewildered by the water glistening on the flat of her chest, above her heart. In that moment he would have said anything she told him to.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You better be sorry,” Samantha said, revving up for one of her outbursts. “If you’re not sorry you will be, because we don’t tolerate things like that in our household!”
“Give it a break,” Seth told his sister. “He said he was sorry. I’m not worried about it.”
Samantha was so off-balanced by her brother’s sudden change in mood that she could only gawp like a pale-faced fish. “But…but…”
Tiffany turned away, not interested in anything other than taking selfies with her selfie-stick. Seth had lost interest and was chasing a pelican that had landed a few yards down the way, the big bird somewhat indifferent to the rowdy child. Only Samantha remained next to Andy, outraged that no one else was outraged anymore. Andy stared at the lapping water, trying to ignore Samantha’s lingering scowl. She tarried a bit longer, her shadow draping itself over his legs, before hesitantly turning away from him and shuffling back into the shoals.

Andy did not know how to please any of them. It seemed that Tiffany wished him to simply disappear until something needed to be carried. Meanwhile Seth wished Andy to be a toy that did what he wanted, regardless of how painful or humiliating. Samantha just wished to…chastise him. His uncle and aunt wanted him to go home. They had said as much the other night, when he was laying on the couch in the living room and they were in the kitchen, drinking.
“Andy.”
Andy was surprised to hear Tiffany say his name.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at that tall girl with the long hair and longer legs.
“Why don’t you go pick some seashells for me?”
Seeing her in the bright sunlight, with the sand glowing around her and the water glistening on her slender arms, Andy would have done anything for her, including diving into the deepest part of the ocean as sharks spiraled around him.
Well, maybe not with sharks.
“What kind of seashells do you want?” he asked, knowing the difference between a conch and an auger and a scallop and such.
“The type that come from the sea,” she said with a shrug. “Put them in my basket.”
Andy immediately leapt up and began picking up the seashells that had washed ashore with the tides. There were countless shells cluttering the beach; some brilliantly colored with red stripes and yellow hues and burnished brown, and some blanched white with the kiss of the saltwater and the gaze of the sun. Tritons and mitres and cones and bonnets, figs and frogs and harps and spindles: he collected what he could. Yet, while the more simplistic shells were whole, the more elaborate conchs and spindles were shattered, some looking more like spiral bits of bone rather than shells. The lunatic tides were merciless in their anxious tossing and smashing of shells. They broke the more elaborate shells like a passionate woman breaking plates after news of her sailor husband being lost at sea. Only the plainer, more solid shells survived her passions.

The sun beat upon the children’s backs as it rose toward its midday peak. Tiffany retreated under the shade of the parasol. Samantha began to pick up shells, too.
“That one’s mine,” she would tell Andy when he was stooping to pick up a shell. Invariably, however, she would forget about the previous one and then claim the next one he was stooping to pick up. “That one’s mine too.”
She shadowed him throughout his hunt, her pale legs always nearby; her little freckled feet in his periphery as he picked up shells. Sometimes she would put her shells in Tiffany’s basket as Andy carried it around, since she had nowhere else to put them.
“You better not mix up my shells with Tiffany’s,” she said, tossing her shells in carelessly.
Somehow Andy knew he would be blamed for their inevitable squabbling later, when it came time to divvy the shells amongst the two sisters. This fret so overwhelmed him that when Seth nearly tore the basket out of his hand, Andy almost punched his cousin in the face.
“Stop it!” Andy said.
“You can’t tell me with to do,” Seth said with a smirk. He pulled at the basket again and Andy stepped away, trying to put distance between the two of them. Seth stepped forward, a look of mischief in his blue eyes. Everything was a game to him. “I’m going to get it,” he said, gleefully.
Samantha grabbed her brother by the wrist. “Quit it, Seth. You’ll break my shells!”
Seth shoved his sister and she went sprawling on the sand. Tiffany, overhearing the fight, stopped taking selfies and emerged from under her parasol.
“Stop fighting!” she said. “Or I’ll tell dad!”
Seth just grinned and ran into the surf again, undaunted by the threat. Samantha was sniffling, and trying not to cry. Andy helped her stand up, but she shoved him once she regained her feet.
“Don’t touch me!” she snapped. Still sniffling, she stormed up the beach and into the shade of the palm trees, her back to the ocean so no one could see her face. Andy knew she was crying. He thought about going to talk to her, but Tiffany called to him and he forgot all about Samantha.
“Let me see my seashells,” she said.
Tiffanys voice was musical in its chiming cadences, like a lullaby, and Andy immediately obeyed. When he reached her, he held the basket up in both hands. She rummaged through its hoard with a finicky, fastidious eye. Her small delicate fingers danced through the shells like a sea creature scuttling across a mound of underwater treasures. Andy felt her fingertips tickling him along the inside of his belly.
“They’re not bad,” she said. “But a lot of them are broken and small. You can get better shells in the water if you dig around for them.”
Andy nodded without hesitation, set the basket down, and went out into the water.
“In the deeper water!” Tiffany shouted after him.
Andy could not resist her siren song and so he went further into the ocean. He was up to his waist when he took a deep breath and submerged to the bottom, digging around in the drowned sand for whatever his hands might lay upon. His fingers found nothing and he emerged, his vision blurred with saltwater and his lungs chugging air. He glanced around blearily, making certain that Seth was nowhere near him, and then he took another deep breath and dropped himself into the water, searching once again. He did this several times in several different locations. Meanwhile, he thought about his mother and his father and his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He drowned in his own thoughts and frets.
Tiffany, Samantha, and Seth weren’t Andy’s real cousins; not by blood, anyway. Their father had divorced their mother in order to marry Andy’s aunt. The drama of it all happened over a decade ago. Andy had never met his “cousin’s” birth mother. Whenever Andy’s mother had spoken about it to his father she said that her brother–in-law wanted a smaller sized baby bed to play in— whatever that meant. Consequently, his three cousins rarely saw their mother since their father “out-lawyered” her in court. It was much the same as with Andy and his father. He rarely ever saw the man that had given him his name and his face and his skin. Like the seashells scattered beneath the sun, there were many things broken in this world.
Andy rose again from the water, snorting saltwater through his nose. He sneezed it out, but it burned in his sinuses. He hated the thought of drowning in the ocean. He had read somewhere that saltwater took a very long time to drown you. It could take up to half an hour, which seemed cruel to Andy. But at least the ocean did not hate you. It might drown you, or smash you with a tidal wave or capsize your boat; but it did not do it because it hated you. He knew only people could hate other people. They might help you live; they might provide you food and shelter and a place at the table, but if they hated you while they were doing it then it was like they were drowning you; drowning you for days, weeks, months, even years. And that was even crueller than what the ocean did to you.
Steeling his nerves— and remembering how beautiful Tiffany was as she emerged from the water—Andy dove down into the water once more, digging into the sand with his feverish fingers. To his surprise, his hand happened upon something big, heavy, thorny, and hard. It felt like a large crown. Emerging, he lifted the shell out of the water and looked at it with his blurry eyes. It looked like a large murex shell, or something similar enough to be labeled one. In the blinking, blurry moment that Andy held it he saw that it was large, with great heft to it, and its thorny back gave it an elaborate Poseidon crown-like appearance. It was an impressive shell, and his heart leapt at the prospect of Tiffany’s delight.
But before he could stare long at it, Andy was startled when a slimy black appendage darted out of the shell’s serrated mouth. With a cry, he dropped the shell and it plunged back into the water. But before it could be lost to the depths forever, Seth— who had been sneaking up on Andy—dove for the shell and grabbed it, hauling it out of the water and up above his head, the black appendage flailing wildly toward the sky.
“You scaredy cat,” Seth exclaimed. “It’s just a shell snail!”
Before Andy could say anything, Seth ran ashore, shouting in triumph about his prize.
“Look at my shell!” he shouted. “It’s the best shell and it’s all mine!”
Naturally, his two sisters wanted to claim it for themselves. Before they could, though, Seth ran off toward the house. Tiffany stomped after him. Samantha paused, looking at Andy.
“You better pick up everything,” she said. “Especially my shells!”
She then ran after her sister and brother. Andy watched her go, coming ashore once again. He picked up the basket, and collapsed the parasol, and folded the beach towel. But even as he did these mundane things he could not shake the image out of his head. It was disturbing, and Any wondered if he had only imagined it; if the saltwater and the sun and the gleam of the slimy thing within the shell had deceived his eyes.
What Seth had not noticed, and what Andy had seen in that blinking flash of a moment, was that the appendage inside the shell was attached to a body, and that body had a face with features not unlike that of a baby’s.

The walk back to the house was hard on Andy. He had to carry not only the parasol, the beach towel, and the sunscreen lotion bottle, but also the basket full of seashells. Everything was so heavy and cumbrous. He walked at a slug’s pace, the clutter in his arms making him teeter and tremble. Eventually, and with great effort, Andy arrived at his cousins’ beach house.
His cousins’ beach house was like a mansion, and not just because Andy had lived the majority of his life in a trailer park. It was larger than most of the houses he saw around his hometown in Georgia. It had two storeys, a large wraparound porch with awnings jutting here and there over the chairs, large windows letting the sun in, and the whole estate was surrounded by a low fence to keep the alligators out of the grassy lawn. Toward the back of the house, facing away from the ocean, was the beginning of the mangroves. Floating among them, in the deeper waters, were manatees, those gentle giants with the mysterious eyes.
It should have been a paradise. Yet, Andy always had to be on his guard; always watchful of his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He was in a strange world and at the mercy of their merest caprice, and so felt like a newly hatched seaturtle besieged by seabirds on all sides. They reminded him, nearly ever hour, that he did not belong there. He was a whim away from being besieged on all sides by thunderously loud, fault-finding factions.
And yet, when Andy opened the sliding door to step into the kitchen, he found that it was the shell, and not himself, that was embattled at that moment. All three of his cousins were fighting over it. Seth ran around the island in the kitchen while Samantha chased after him. Tiffany stood by, scowling and demanding that she be given the shell since Andy had been the one to first find it and so, by extension, she had greatest claim to it.
“And I’m the oldest,” she said. “So I get to choose.”
“No way,” Seth said. “It’s mine, fair and square. The scaredy-cat dropped it in the ocean. Finders keepers.”
Samantha, meanwhile, tried to wrestle the shell from her brother’s hands.
“I never get a good shell, ever!” Samantha moaned.
But when she saw the black appendage emerge from the conch, she yelped and sprang backwards, crashing into Andy as he came into the kitchen.
“Yuck!” she cried, bouncing off of Andy. “You keep it! I don’t want the nasty thing!”
Seeing the snail’s appendage once again startled Andy. It was black, but also mottled brown and had bright luminescent yellow stripes that looked like they probably glowed in the dark. It still looked vaguely like an infant’s arm, and even had tiny stalks that undulated like fingers at its end. Yet, unlike sea hares or sea slugs, there were four such stalks, and were strangely prehensile in their weird array.
“Yeah, I don’t want that thing,” Tiffany said, having a change of heart. “It’s too gross. I only want the shell.”
Still, the two sisters remained, watching Seth as he held it aloft as if bearing the Olympic torch. After a few moments of his parading, the sisters turned their attention to the basket of seashells that Andy had brought in with him. Tiffany pointed to the kitchen’s island and Andy obediently hoisted the basket—with a grunt—and set it there. He fumbled the rest of the things in his arms— the parasol and towel—and they tumbled to the floor.
“At least I have all of these shells,” Tiffany said.
“They’re not all yours,” Samantha said. “Mine are in there, too.”
“Do you actually know which ones are yours?” Tiffany retorted.
“I…” Samantha faltered. “I’ll know them when I see them,” she said.
“No you won’t,” Tiffany said. She looked at Andy. “Do you remember which ones are mine and which ones are hers?”
Andy felt like a cornered cricket, and that any chirp he might give would earn him the bottom of someone’s shoe. He shrugged one shoulder meekly.
“Great,” remarked Tiffany. “Well, there is only one way to know. I will go through them and take whichever ones I want, and then you can have the rest.”
“But that’s not fair!” Samantha cried.
“Then you shouldn’t have mixed yours in with mine. You should have brought your own basket.”
Tiffany took the basket and walked upstairs, disappearing into her room.
Samantha turned on Andy, her brown eyes twinkling with tears. “This is all your fault!” She ran upstairs, too, slamming the door to her room.
Meanwhile, Seth was lording over his prize, grinning with great satisfaction as he watched the strange arm-like tentacle writhe out of its wickedly thorny shell.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Ain’t it?”
Andy did not know what to say, other than it was a hideous creature. He kept his silence, which Seth mistook for envy.
“You’re just like my sisters,” Seth said. “Jealous of what I found.”
Andy could have corrected Seth, and recalled the fact that he was the one that found the shell, but he thought that argument too meaningless to pursue. Moreover, he was too overcome with a sense of foreboding from the shell. Seeing it in the kitchen made him feel uneasy for the entire house.
“It’s the best shell I’ve ever seen,” Seth said, watching the snail sway. “Just got to get rid of the snail.”
Standing aside, Andy watched as Seth searched around the kitchen. Seth found a saltshaker in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. It was a large saltshaker; the kind that you twisted to grind up its pink salt crystals in order to season food. He held it over the shell and began grinding the salt, showering the snail, the shell, and the island. He made a mess.
“It sure as hell doesn’t like that!” Seth exclaimed with a laugh.
The snail instantly lost its black luster and began to shrivel and withdraw into the shell. There was no refuge for it, however, even within its own home. The salt dried out its slimy, liver-colored flesh until it looked like a black banana left out in the sun. Seth took the shell to the trash can and, using a spork he found in a drawer, began prodding and scraping and scooping the snail out.
“That is one weird looking snail,” he observed as it began to slip out of the shell.
Andy was mesmerized and appalled by the ghastly thing. To him it looked less like some tubular snail and more like a small, lumpy, shriveled infant. There even seemed to be a face where the head should be, wizened by the ravages of the salt that dusted its viscous flesh.
Seth cussed as he scraped
“Damn, it doesn’t want to come out!”
Andy stared at that shriveled head, and thought he saw a luminescent eye open. Before he could gasp in fright, the petal-lipped mouth parted like a flower and a long tube slithered its way out, tapered at the end with a sharp black barb. It darted out wildly and struck Seth in the arm just as he had dislodged the snail from the shell.
“Ow!” he cried. He dropped the shell on the island. He clutched his arm with his other hand. “Ow! Shit! It burns! It burns!”
Seth’s voice heightened, as if he might begin to wail at any moment. Andy ushered him to the sink and ran cold water over the puncture point. It was small, like a spider bite, and had a swollen whelp that was red. Seth cringed as the water ran over the mark. He breathed through clenched teeth, his face wrung in pain.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Andy said, panicking at the thought of Seth dying from a venomous sting and his aunt and uncle blaming him for it.
“No,” Seth said, trying to put on a brave face. “The pain’s going away. It’s feeling better.” After a minute of washing the wound with cold water, Seth left the sink and went over to the island, reclaiming his shell with a gleam in his eye. “Now I just have to boil it to get that stink out.”
The snail itself was nothing but a dried-out husk reeking in the trash can.
Over the next ten minutes Seth boiled the shell in a large pot on the stovetop. Andy sat at the island, watching Seth for any telltale signs of fatigue or lethargy. The whelp on his cousin’s arm was darkening.
“You should go to the hospital,” Andy said.
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Seth said. He had a pair of tongs and was turning the shell around inside the boiling pot. He seemed to do this out of boredom and restlessness rather than purpose. “It’s just a bruise.”
Andy was not so sure. The whelp had blackened, and appeared to be “sweating”. That was the only term he could think of for the dark bump’s wet shimmer.
“Hey, why don’t you get me a glass of water?” Seth said. “I’m thirsty.”
Andy would have pointed out that Seth was next to the cabinet with the glasses and right next to the refrigerator with the water purifier, and so Seth could have gotten his own water, but he knew Seth was stubborn and would not have gotten his own water, especially if challenged on it, and besides Seth looked peaked, the dark circles under his eyes deepening in his strangely gaunt face. In short, Andy fetched a glass of water for his willful cousin.
“Here,” Andy said.
Seth tipped his head back and gulped the entire glass down in one go. This was impressive considering he was only eleven and the glass that Andy had filled was a glass intended for an adult.
Seth immediately handed the glass back to Andy. “Some more.”
Andy filled the glass once again, and once again Seth drained it with one extended tip of the head. Seth’s Adam’s apple was like an oversized hamster racing up and down a narrow water hose. His body began to sweat all over, from his forehead to his feet.
“More,” he said.
Andy obliged him, all the while eyeing his cousin with alarm.
After downing the third glass, Seth retched and ran to the sink. He threw up, expelling all of the water he had recently drank.
“I’m calling the ambulance,” Andy said, heading into the living room. He glanced around the living room, his eyes wandering upstairs, past the rails and from door to door on the second floor. He remembered that there was no house phone. Tiffany was the only one, besides her father and stepmother, that had a cell phone. So, Andy ran upstairs and knocked on her door. Her voice cut through the door, and through Andy’s heart, like a sword.
“Go away!”
“Seth’s sick!” Andy said.
Another door opened down the hall, Samantha stepping out in shorts and a tanktop. Her eyes were rimmed red and her brown hair was matted to her imprinted forehead. She had been laying in bed, crying.
“What’s going on?” Samantha said, somewhat warily.
“Seth’s sick,” Andy repeated.
“So what?” came Tiffany’s reply.
“Really sick,” Andy said.
He heard Tiffany sigh, and the creaking of her box springs as she got up from bed. When the door opened she stood before him with her hair wrapped up in a towel and a long white shirt on, and seemingly nothing else except underwear. Andy glanced at the interior of her room, and saw that it was cerulean trimmed and white-walled and had a large seashell-shaped mirror in one corner, the vanity table crowded with makeup and brushes and jewelry. It was a mermaid’s bedroom.
“He better be dying,” Tiffany said. Huffing irritably, she went downstairs. Andy followed her, and Samantha followed him.
When they came into the kitchen, Seth looked at them in surprise. They looked at him in surprise, too.
“What?” he said.
He looked completely normal. He was no longer sweating; no longer retching. Even the whelp on his arm had lightened and shallowed.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tiffany demanded.
“Wrong with me?” Seth said, scoffing. “Nothing’s wrong. What’s wrong with you?”
Tiffany turned on Andy, her hands on her hips and her arms akimbo.
“Are you trying to annoy me?” she demanded.
Andy was too baffled by Seth’s miraculous recovery, and the swells beneath Tiffany’s shirt, to offer a coherent explanation. He stammered for a few moments before Tiffany, in a hissy-huff, stormed upstairs and disappeared once again into her mermaid bedroom.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on us,” Samantha said, having recovered enough from her previous defeat to feel aggrieved at this new turn of events. “It’s not funny.”
“I didn’t ask you to come downstairs,” Andy retorted, too overcome by the bizarreness of the situation to be diplomatic.
Samantha’s face turned bright red, her eyes a tempest of fury and tears. She stormed upstairs once again and slammed her door shut.
“My sisters are drama queens,” Seth said, still stirring the shell around in the steaming pot. “It’s all melodrama with them.”
Andy opened his mouth to ask whether Seth really was okay, but hesitated. He wondered if he had imagined the situation as being worse than it actually was. Perhaps, he thought, he had succumbed to his own alarmist melodrama.
But then his eye caught something peculiar in the kitchen; something that he could not rightly account for. The saltshaker was on the island, where Seth had left it, but it was now nearly empty. Where did all of the salt go?

Wave Of A Lifetime

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“I don’t know, man,” Bo said. “Sometimes I just feel like I’m drifting in open water.”
“That’s because you are drifting in open water, dude,” said Tyler, his grinning teeth as bright white as the surf breaking on the Hawaiian beach. His sandy-blonde hair was a nest of sun-bleached curls. The silver lenses of his shades reflected Bo’s exasperation as clearly as a mirror. “This water’s glassy as fuck today. No gnarly waves at all. The ocean’s taking a breath and holding it, man. We aren’t going to get any good barrels today.”
They both floated on their surfboards, belly-down, arms hanging laxly over the sides. Tyler had been smoking marijuana all morning long. Bo could smell it on him through the salty air of the ocean. He had probably popped a pill, too. Bo was trying to stop taking drugs altogether.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” Bo said. “Dad’s really pestering me to go to Business school, but, damn, I can’t stand those kooks. He keeps threatening to take my allowance away. He thinks he can scare me straight or something.”
“Your dad’s got mucha moola, dude,” Tyler said. “But, yeah, I’d hate to work around a bunch of kooks all day.”
“I was wanting to do something that would let me stay in Hawaii,” Bo said. “The only thing I really like to do is surf, and even that is starting to let me down.”
“Don’t worry, bro,” Tyler said. “There’ll be more waves to ride.”
“Even if there were,” Bo said, sighing, “I don’t think I’d care about them.”
Tyler looked at Bo for a long time, then shrugged. “You sure this isn’t a problem with Rae?”
“What about her?” Bo said.
“She’s going to school, too, isn’t she?”
“She graduated from highschool, so, yeah.”
“What’s she going to study?”
“Marine biology,” Bo said.
“At least she’ll be able to keep on the ocean,” Tyler said. “And studying whales and stuff would be cool…if I could do it from the back of a surfboard.”
Bo laid his face on his surfboard, left-cheek down while his eyes wandered over the landless horizon to the West. “We had an argument last night. She said I wasn’t taking anything seriously anymore.”
“What did she want you to take seriously?” Tyler said, grinning mischievously.
“School,” Bo said. He closed his eyes and sighed. “And our ‘relationship’.”
“Relationship?” Tyler exclaimed, chuckling. “You’re friends with benefits. That is more like an arrangement than a relationship!”
“Yeah, but now she wants something serious. Don’t get me wrong. Rae is a cool chick. I like hanging out with her. I like the sex, too, but she wants me to meet her grandparents.”
“Whoa-ho!” Tyler laughed, grinning and shaking his head as if he had sandfleas in his hair. “Talk about being in the pocket. Her dad is loaded with cash. Hell, if you two marry then neither of you would need to work again, man.”
“Her dad’s a hard-ass,” Bo said. “One of the big Kahunas. He hates that Rae hangs out with me. He thinks I take advantage of her. He’d kill me if he knew I was shagging her three days a week. But I’m only a year older than her, and she knew what she wanted when she started this thing. Still, he gives me the whitewater treatment. Whenever I do go to her house he tries to bog me bad. Always saying shit like he’s going to hurt me. Rae thinks he’s kidding around with me, but he doesn’t play.”
“Oh yeah. He’s actually one of the elders, isn’t he? Like, he belongs to one of the oldest tribes on the island.”
“And her mom is Japanese,” Bo said. “She’s nice and everything, but she’s very traditional. Can you imagine having in-laws that are tribal Hawaiian and old-fashioned Japanese? Man, that’s like surfing over coral!”
Tyler brayed like an ass. “That’d be a cheese-grater for sure, man! Ha!”
“And it’s not like I don’t like Rae,” Bo said. “But sometimes I feel like I don’t have any passion for her, ya know? I don’t have passion for much of anything. To be honest— and you keep this to yourself, man, I mean it— the only reason I have sex with her is because it feels like I’m accomplishing something. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It feels like I’m building up to something.”
“Yeah, man,” Tyler said, laughing, “building up to creaming in her face!”
Bo thrashed his hand through the water, splashing Tyler in the face. “You can be a real dick, sometimes, man.”
Tyler just grinned through the water dripping down from his face and shades. “Just being honest, bro. Not trying to steal your waves or anything. It’s just that you got a good thing going with her. And, like, you could get your dad’s money and her dad’s money and you could just surf for the rest of your life. Or just coast. Or whatever, man. If I were you I’d be shacking out of my mind. Plank in the ocean and plank on Rae. Ride the waves out to oblivion.” He lifted his hands and made the choka gesture, pinky and thumb extending out while the middle fingers curled in. “That’d be totally gnarly, dude.”
“Do you have to be such a stereotype?” Bo said. But he laughed and then sat up on his surfboard. He glanced back at the shore. There were lots of kooks in the shoals, and a few trying to catch the nonexistent waves. Little grommets hauled their boards ashore, upset at the lull in the ocean. Bo thought for a moment about his future, and nothing looked good.
“You got it going on, dude,” Tyler said. “You shouldn’t be worrying about nothing right now, man. Just marry Rae and call it a day.”
“But her mom will want grandkids,” Bo said. “Hell, my mom will want grandkids. And if we do that then I will have to get a real job. No more wave-riding for me. No more coasting. Just the 9-to-5 grind. Everyday, five to six days a week until I can retire, roll over, and die.” He punched the water.
“Fuck that, man,” Tyler said. “Stay on the pipeline. Kiss the spray. Throw buckets at it all. I bet Rae doesn’t even want kids. I’m telling you, man, it’s not a bad deal.”
Bo opened his mouth to say something else, but then saw something terrifying. Shark fins— fifty of them, at least—all cutting through the water in a helter-skelter, zigzag non-pattern of frenzy.
“Fuck!” Tyler screamed. “Total sketch balls!”
The sharks did not pay attention to Bo and Tyler, even as the two surfers flailed to turn about and flee. Instead, they swam around them and headed toward the island. Even at the distance Bo could see the sharks slam into the shoals, then up onto the shore. It was like a mass-suicide of sharks. But he had never heard of sharks doing anything like that. Maybe, he thought, he could ask Rae about it.
Before he could contemplate it more, however, something struck his feet. He nearly tumbled off his surfboard in fright. He and Tyler both gasped as the schools of fish rushed by, so thick in numbers that they were like a moving landmass beneath the ocean; dense and frenzied as a mosh pit. This massive front of wildly diverse fish clustered around the golden sands while parents, screaming, fled with their children in their arms. Other surfers and kooks staggered frantically out of the water, retreating from the waves of marine life all throwing itself ashore.
And then the water became darker. Large creatures passed beneath Bo and Tyler. They could do nothing but watch as the pods of whales surged beneath them in feverish flight. Stunned to incredulity, the two teenagers watched as the whales stranded themselves with the rest of the creatures, crushing fish and shark alike to escape the ocean.
“What the fuck is going on?” Tyler said.
Bo and Tyler felt the ocean suddenly draw back, pulling them far out to sea as if on a riptide. Bo looked out over the horizon. He saw a white crest, as long as the ocean’s horizon, and knew upon the moment, with an instant dread, that it was coming their way. It was a rogue wave. It may have even been a tsunami. It was difficult to discern at the distance, but it confirmed itself rapidly with the passing of one moment into the next.
“Jesus Christ!” Bo cried. “That’s, like, a hundred foot swell!”
“No way!” Tyler said, gawping. He took off his shades and strained his eyes against the West Pacific as the sun glared along the concussive waters. “Fuck! That’s a monster wave, man.”
The wave was not something Bo or Tyler had any experience with. Bo did not believe they could ride it, and even if they tried he knew there would be no telling where the wave might take them. It might sweep them to the wrong side of the island, where rocks and coral waited with sharp, jagged teeth.
“We gotta’ dive under it,” Bo said.
“Fuck no,” Tyler said. “I’m riding that monster.”
“It’s too damn dangerous, man,” Bo said. “Go under it, or you’ll be just another cracker crushed in the soup.” Bo laughed giddily at his own joke, never having meant to make it.
“You can’t duck-dive everything, man,” Tyler said. “Me, I’m gonna’ face this thing head-on. Deep in the pit. Tickling the chandelier. Riding the pocket. Know what I’m saying?”
“Fuck that,” Bo said. “This isn’t necessary. It’s not worth the ris…”
But Tyler had already started paddling out to meet the large wave. Bo watched him in disbelief, wondering if he would ever see his friend again.
The sea went from glassy to choppy in seconds. Bo waited until he felt the ocean surging beneath him and then he took a deep breath and dove downward, abandoning his board and going down as deep as he could in the darkening ocean. He had trained for years to hold his breath for long periods underwater. It wasn’t so much his lung capacity that was the danger, but the panic of what he was trying to avoid as it rushed above him. He felt the wave pass, pulling him upward with it, but by the time he broke the surface the wave had already tumbled down into its own impact zone. He breathed out the old air and then sucked in some more. He regained his breath just in time to dive again and avoid another wave— somewhat smaller than the first— and repeated this until the waves finally subsided enough that he could ride the smaller ones shoreward. He yelled for Tyler in between each surge.
And then he turned around, looking seaward, fearful that he might see Tyler’s lifeless body drifting in that foamy calm. But instead of seeing Tyler, Bo saw a large shadowy figure on the horizon; a shadowy figure that dwarfed the sun sinking behind it. The shadowy figure was gargantuan in size. Reticulated wings spread from its humanoid back, whereas its face was a writhing tangle of tentacles. Its massive eye looked balefully upon the world and then its body lurched forward, wading through the deep ocean as a child might wade through the shoals. Had Bo not been awash with the briny waters he would have been soaken with sweat. Panicked, he swam shoreward with a frenzied flurry of his arms. A wave of terror carried him without end.

Sharks, whales, fish, dolphins—the beach was strewn with dying sealife that had stranded itself in its wild flight. Their slick, glistening flanks expanded and contracted desperately, but their eyes were empty of anything except instinctive terror. Many more animals had gutted themselves on the reef break. Bo came ashore slowly, gradually navigating the coral on this side of the island. He found Tyler waiting for him. They greeted each other with openmouthed dismay.
“This is some crazy shit, man!” Tyler said. “And one hell of a wave! A wave of a lifetime!”
“Wave?!” Bo cried. “Wave? Didn’t you see that…that…thing coming out of the ocean?!”
“These crazy beasties?” Tyler said, gesturing to all of the sealife dying on the shore. “Course I saw them. Hell, some of them were riding the wave with me. I managed to ride the barrel to the shore before I could hit the impact zone. Was pretty damn gnarly, man.”
“No!” Bo said. He pointed toward where he had seen the shadowy figure sloshing through the ocean. “I’m talking about the monst…”
Whatever it was, the monster was gone, and the sun had set. Dusk flared over the frothy sea. Tyler walked between a Great White Shark and a marlin, then tiptoed gingerly between a humpback whale calf and a Tiger Shark. He grabbed an opah that was the size of a bicycle tire and lifted it up.
“Dude,” he said, “does Rae’s mom know how to make sushi?” He gasped, awestruck by a sudden thought. “Dude. Dude. There’s enough fish here for the whole island to have a luau.”
Bo kept staring out toward the ocean; staring hard to see the creature again while also dreading the sight of it.
Tyler had now exchanged the opah for a Yellowfin tuna that was the size of his leg.
“We could have both, you know?” he said excitedly. “Like, a sushi luau, that way Rae would feel at home. You could propose to her! That’d be…”
“That’s it!” Bo cried suddenly. He stormed up the beach, farther inland. “I’m going to Kansas to be a farmer!”
Tyler followed after him, fumbling with the Yellowfin tuna. “What do you mean, dude?”
“Or a businessman,” he said. “An insurance salesman in Idaho! Or a pig farmer in Kentucky! Anywhere else but here!” he screamed, stomping between the hundreds of animals that had beached themselves there. “Away from the ocean! Away from that thing!”

***

Bo rode that wave of terror all the way to Denver, Colorado. He bought some land and grew pot for his own business. He was known as a savvy businessman that was fair and amicable. His father was proud of him for becoming a businessman, but also resented the fact that he never visited his family in Hawaii. Tyler married Rae, but that marriage lasted only three months and ended in divorce when he happened to see something rising out of the water one day, too. He joined Bo in Denver eventually. Rae married a doctor in Honolulu. Her father, and his tribe, were very pleased and no more gigantic monsters were seen off the coast of Hawaii.

The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

 

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The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

“Teach the sweet coquette to know
Heart of ice in breast of snow…”
—Thomas Pennant, Ode To Indifference

It was midday and the thunderheads dragged their pall across the earth, making midnight of the afternoon. Mr. Thenton and I were in the coach, quietly awaiting our arrival at the manorhouse of that infamous poet, Lord Aeron. Mr. Thenton had been trying to scratch ink on parchment, to no avail, and I busied myself with ignoring the dread I felt as we entered that Welsh province. The road was rugged and unruly. It rattled the coach as a toddler might a music box that refused to play. Nothing boded well for this misbegotten adventure.
While attempting to wet his quill, Mr. Thenton spilled the inkwell onto the butchered scrawl that marred the parchment’s surface. With a disgruntled sigh, he set aside his ruined parchment and covered his inkwell. He once again opened Lord Aeron’s poetry collection, The Gale Between Passion And Pain and read through another of its poems. At length, he closed the book.
“Certainly, he is a confessed bacchant,” he said. “These poems are superb in execution and style, yet shameless in subject. His poem ‘Caligula’s Reins’ celebrates so many depravities that I should think Ovid would demand restraint.”
Much to my relief, he extinguished the candle that burned nearby on its holder. I had feared for the last hour or so that the candle would topple and set flame to the coach’s interior, and to ourselves.
“I have always adored Wales,” Mr. Thenton continued, attempting optimism against his frustration. “Were it a woman it would be a belle with a disposition towards leisurely activities outdoors. Indeed, a comely nymph given to quiet walks and tending to the roses. And, of course, the flora and fauna are endearing. There is much to admire in these prospects.”
“It is idyllic,” I agreed, though it was difficult to see anything in the darkness beyond the window of the coach. “A perfect place for a stroll.”
“It would have been lovely to bring my wife with me,” he said, “but it is the unfortunate nature of a man’s work that it is woefully impaired by the presence of the fairer sex. That is, of course, unless the man in question happens to be the esteemed Lord Aeron. It is the happy situation of poets, novelists, playwrights and the like to always find inspiration in the company of women. Alas, a Naturalist’s office is one of minutest observation concerning explicit detail and not expressed emotion, otherwise Emma would have been a welcome adventurer in our party.”
“Gossip suggests to me that a young lady should not wish to visit Lord Aeron’s castle,” I observed.
“Of course,” Mr. Thenton said, adjusting his powdered wig. “I would not invite the rumors on my wife. Everyone is well aware of Lord Aeron’s scandalous reputation as a debauchee. If not for my national reputation as a gentleman among English society I would not have requested an audience with such an infamous rogue.”
“You did not hesitate to invite me,” I noted, watching impassively as the golden cuffs on his overcoat’s sleeves gleamed in the shadow-shrouded coach. “Were you not concerned with the effect on my reputation?”
The coach was tossed slightly to one side and I heard the coachman admonishing the horses with a few select profanities.
“Mr. Sheridan,” he said, “you are my esteemed colleague. True, you are Irish, and so are not afforded the defenses of English rank such as are privileged to my station, but you are protected by association. Moreover, what good would my best observations be in writing without your keenly drawn illustrations? The English audience demands word and image, the two working upon one another like two wizards conjuring wonders in the cauldron of their imaginations.”
“I have noticed you always become verbose when you are nervous,” I said.
“Indeed?” he said, surprised. “I never knew myself other than a very succinctly spoken man. It hardly conforms to my humble ego, such a revelation. Were you not my colleague, and thus known to me from profession, I would think it a captious assertion.”
“I do not theorize or opine,” I said. “I report what I see.”
“Verily?” he said, with a smile. “Then, may your keen observation skills prove their worth in this endeavor.”
He said no more, but smiled out the window at the passing scenery which, like his parchment, was a messy pool of inky blackness.

When I first saw the manorhouse— in the dim distant light of that dark day—I thought it a castle, for it was so large and constructed of such grandstanding stone masonry that a castle could well be its claim. Beneath the umbra of the clouds the red stone appeared almost vermilion, like dried blood on a healing wound. From the bottom of the hill I saw the terraced gardens, staggered like the steps of giants up a hill crowded with flowery bushes and strangely-pruned yew trees. Indeed, the latter were a bizarre multitude of abstract shapes growing together heedless of human considerations of geometry or form. To walk those layered terraces would be to suffer vertigo, I was certain, for there was such a tumult of abnormal undulations in the greenery that a perambulator’s feet could hardly convince his eyes of level ground or walkways.
“It is a strange place,” I remarked.
“As natural as they come,” replied Mr. Thenton. “Natural for the residents, truly.”
“I may be a simple man,” I said, “but even I am aware of what is unnatural by human estimations.”
“I would say you are simply prejudiced by your vocation,” Mr. Thenton said. “An artist is always seeking to better the aesthetics of another man, especially when he cannot understand such aesthetics. And you condescend from what you presume to be superior sensibilities.”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” I said, “but your being a Naturalist prejudices yourself as well. You wish to think everything natural, even when it is not. And this place is not natural. Nor are its tenants, if rumor proves true.”
“Then we must naturalize,” he said, with his dauntless child-like smile. “That is what we do, is it not? Record the natural world, in word and in picture, so England can familiarize herself with it. And Lord Aeron’s otherworldly visitor shall be naturalized. You will see. At the end of the day the most unnatural thing we will have encountered will have been the Welsh accents. Nothing more.”
I relented and so we rode the rest of the uphill journey in silence. At length, the coach halted and the coachman called out to someone. There was the rattling of iron gates, the shriek of hinges, and the coach continued along its path, though now the wheels rolled easily over a cobblestone road. A few moments later the coach stopped and the coachman opened the door. Mr. Thenton, being most eager, stepped out first, and I followed after a moment of hesitation. My misgivings abounded as I saw Lord Aeron’s majordomo approach. He was an old man, senile and frail and leaning upon a cane, trembling as he spoke to my congenial patron.
“We only have a few effects,” Mr. Thenton said, “but they are crucial to the enterprise. My associate’s art supplies and my parchment and ink. Take especial care with the latter, for I am afraid I have ruined a considerable amount on the way here.”
“I will see that they are taken inside with care, sir,” the old man said. “For now, please enter and wait in the parlor. Lord Aeron will be with you shortly.”
Thus bidden, obeyed. We sat in the wainscoted parlor and patiently awaited our host. Or I should say, I patiently waited our host, and dreaded him. Mr. Thenton was anxious, his hands restlessly fidgeting with his collar and cravat and wig. I was grateful for being a tradesman, then, and thus simply attired in accordance to my vocation. Even were I more renowned as an artist I would shun a gentleman’s elaborate trappings. It has been my observation that such trappings do nothing but cause endless fuss and frustration.
“A lovely parlor,” Mr. Thenton remarked. “Indeed, fit enough to receive royalty, I believe. Or, I should say, provincial royalty. His Majesty would expect better, but this is a summering home, after all.”
The room was dark at its corners, and otherwise lit vaguely by candlelight. If there was finery to be admired it was obfuscated by layered shadows. My colleague’s nerves were speaking through him. His nerves were afire for excitement, and my blood was cold for fear.
“Do you really believe she is of the Fay?” I said.
“Or some other manner of visitor, to be sure,” returned Mr. Thenton. “The original Lady Aeron died years ago. It is rumored that she succumbed to some complication resulting from syphilis. God knows the two of them were notorious for their rampant promiscuity, often indulging in brothels and scandalous trips to Amsterdam. For years following her burial, Lord Aeron disappeared from society and ceased writing his renowned poetry. His closest friends were shunned and he refused to admit any visitor, including those representing his Majesty. I dare say, his Majesty would have been insulted had Lord Aeron not continued paying his taxes. Practically minded, our king.”
I merely nodded, harboring no love for that imperial tyrant. Mr. Thenton continued.
“And then, quite unexpectedly, the reclusive Lord Aeron arrived at a ball with none other than a woman whose features and semblance were, to all authorities on the matter, an exact doubling of his deceased wife. Either she is a resurrected phantasm, or she is a changeling using glamor to mirror his memory. Regardless of origin, we shall naturalize her to the rest of England’s consciousness. For, as you know, being the Irishman you are, that all realms belong to England, and the first step toward domestication is to understand a species or race in natural terms.”
I should have refuted Mr. Thenton’s errant rationalizations outright. The Lady in question was neither wildlife nor wilderness to tame, nor some primitive peoples disadvantaged by technology or numbers. But I was well aware of my colleague’s character and how singularly affixed he was in this misguided endeavor and his patriotic fealties. At his heart, Mr. Thenton was a harmless jingoist. Thus, I forgave him much.
“Did not the Lady Aeron have a twin?” I asked, trying to be more reasonable about the matter.
“No, she did not.”
The voice came abruptly from the inner door. There, standing with a determined and grim expression upon his face, was a man of obvious standing in the house.
“Nor would I have disgraced her memory with such a mundane substitution,” he said. “Indeed, you wrong me, sir. I am a man of greater imagination than that.”
Mr. Thenton stood up and bowed. “Lord Aeron! Allow me to apologize on the behalf of my colleague,” he said. “He is a simple Irishman unaccustomed to the social graces of higher status. Yet, you will see that his skill with a pencil and a brush can compensate for what he lacks in etiquette.”
“It is all well,” Lord Aeron said, “for I jest, of course. As a poet, I am naturally inclined in kinship to any artist dedicated to his craft.”
Not knowing what to say, I imitated Mr. Thenton with a bow. Even so, I looked upon the famous, and infamous, poet to discern his attributes and winnow the reality from the chaff of fiction. Lord Aeron was a tall man, as pale and handsome as his reputation. Dark black hair hung slackly over his high forehead. His overcoat was a dandy’s shade of violet and his cravat was as black as his hair, his overcoat trimmed with arabesques of gold and his waistcoat beneath it in likewise scheme. I have known artists, poets and authors of eccentric tendencies, but Lord Aeron’s expression was less the madness of a man given to poetic passions and more the jaded indifference of a cynic aloof from his own soul.
“I have the privilege of owning many of your books, Mr. Thenton,” our host said, “and I notice that you are given to poetic exaggeration. While such embellishments inspire greater interest in the reader, I believe no embellishments will be needed in the subject you seek today. To the contrary, it would rather impoverish the subject. Know that I do not say this lightly, for, being a poet, I know the temptation toward hyperbolic adornment, and so I must insist that it would be mistakenly implemented. As mistaken as an Epicurean at Communion.”
“I will be as strict as a Mamluk with his blade,” Mr. Thenton said, bowing yet lower.
“An apt comparison,” Lord Aeron said. “Though I believe the Tawashi would be more appropriate.”
“I am afraid I am unacquainted with that term, my Lord,” Mr. Thenton said, smiling through his ignorance.
“You will come to know it in due time,” Lord Aeron said, mysteriously.
“Can you please elaborate on your wife’s…condition? I have heard that the inspiration of your new literary works has come in the form of what some would deem unnatural, or, dare I say, supernatural sources.”
“Mr. Thenton, I was of the belief that you were a Naturalist. Why would you come here when you suspect it to be anything other than natural?”
“Because I do not believe anything is unless it is natural,” Mr. Thenton said, “including what superstitious minds would deem the ‘supernatural’.”
A thin smile then spread across Lord Aeron’s face, almost imperceptible in its expanse and yet overbearing in its suggestion. “In that are we of the same mind,” he said. “For, as you will see, should you prove so brave, my Lady Aeron is the most natural of all things on this or any other plane of existence.”
He gestured that we follow him. He led us out of the parlor and into a long hall whose windows provided scarce light on account of the overcast day. Along the walls there were candelabrum punctuating the darkness with their ghostly haloes. The floor was hardwood, yet I felt my boots stick to it every now and again as if it was splattered with drying plaster or seeping sap. Not wanting to be rude, I said nothing of it, but noticed Mr. Thenton lifting his boots with abnormal effort as well.
“We are to see the Lady now?” he asked.
“My wife is not herself today,” Lord Aeron said, “so you must pardon her for now. Until she has regained her composure, I will lead you on a tour about my home.”
“That is an excellent notion,” Mr. Thenton said.
Feeling it incumbent upon me to sound agreeable, I also said it would be a pleasure. Truth be told, I did not know how successful such a tour would be with such scant light. Had we lanterns it may have been more feasible an idea. Nonetheless, our host was undeterred and so led us through that large palace that he called a “manorhouse”.
What I could see of the interior was decadent. There was a Baroque style molding, all bold brass and gold scrolling thickly around the most banal door. Thick marble coated much of the window recesses and the tabletops, the house being as much marble as brick and wood. The walls were frescoed and richly illustrated by what must have been a legion of master painters, all depicting gods ravishing women. Zeus and Leda. Zeus and Europa. Bacchus and Ariadne. Eros and Psyche. Apollo and Daphne. Yet, more surprisingly, there were in other rooms other frescoes that depicted the roles of victim and attacker reversed: men being ravished by women. Hippolytus being stripped by Phaedra. Adonis being pulled apart by Aphrodite, Persephone, and Artemis. Echo mounting Narcissus. The Maenads tearing King Pentheus and Orpheus apart and employing their mutilated bodies for…depraved passions. Lord Aeron had spent no lesser expense in assuring that the painters had captured these images with as much skill and detail as the others. Violence and sexual conquest were important to him, it seemed. I would have ventured to believe him an aspiring protege of that infamous deviant, the Marquis de Sade, if not for depictions of women in dominant roles.
We arrived at the inner courtyard and found that it was, curiously, not open to the sky, as courtyards often are. A dome had been constructed to cap its airy heights. Corinthian pillars remained arrayed around the spacious expanse, and each was neighbored by a brazier whose flames burned fiercely in the gloom. The ceiling itself spiraled with stucco ridges, all converging upon the glass-eyed oculus in the center of that large dome. Directly below the oculus was a bed large enough to accommodate a sultan’s harem of concubines.
“What is the purpose of this bed?” Mr. Thenton asked.
Lord Aeron offered a humorless smile. “The usual purposes of a bed,” he said.
“You sleep here, then?” my naive colleague asked.
“Among other things, yes.”
“It is quite unusual.”
The latter Mr. Thenton whispered to me with his habitual discretion. Naturally, Lord Aeron overheard him, but said nothing of it. I found it more than unusual. It’s implications were disturbing. Whereas many beds furnished their occupants privacy with a canopy and a thoughtful array of curtains, this bed flaunted no promises of privacy. There were a few pillows and a sheet, but no blankets for comfort or cover. Furthermore, it estranged expectation with long-bodied mirrors placed around the bed in a five-pointed star formation. The purpose of these expenses baffled me. Perhaps had I been more of a libertine I should have deduced the purpose more swiftly.
Lord Aeron paused at the door leading out onto the terrace and down into the garden, for his majordomo intercepted us at the threshold. His servant whispered a few words to his master.
“It is time for dinner,” Lord Aeron said, grinning at some secret amusement. “The tour of the garden grounds shall have to wait until after we have eaten.”
My patron, being always amiable to a fault, said that a walk outside after dinner would do his digestion good and that we would be glad to oblige Lord Aeron’s schedule.
“Will Lady Aeron be joining us for dinner?” I inquired.
I saw, then, Lord Aeron’s thin smile play about on his lips again. In all outward respects it was friendly, and yet it seemed in import to hint at mischief, and malice.
“My wife never feeds in the dining hall,” he said.
This I thought strikingly odd of our host to state, yet before I could question him further, my friend replied with his customary friendliness.
“My wife has very much the same reservation,” Mr. Thenton said. “Emma would prefer to dine where no one may observe her, for she is ever afraid that she may ruin her reputation with neglect of the most obscure rules for proper dining etiquette. No doubt it is a fear thoroughly haunting the minds of many among the fairer sex, including Lady Aeron.”
“To the contrary,” Lord Aeron said. “She is of a predilection that is wholly indifferent to observation while feeding. Mores and etiquette hold no sway over her, for her intelligence is unencumbered by such arbitrary conventions of Man.” Here his thin smile widened, though whether due to mirth or menace I could not discern. “She is simply not hungry at the present moment. Please forgive her this small disappointment.”
“But of course!” rejoined my friend, dauntless and doubtless in his amiability. “May we all be so faithful to the modesty of our appetites!”
We proceeded into the dining hall and found a rather exquisite meal awaiting us. It consisted of lamb and roasted vegetables with a fine wine, though I must confess that my appetite was not sufficiently agreeable at the time to enjoy it. Mr. Thenton, conversely, enjoyed it as readily as a beggar invited to a kingly banquet.
“Splendid,” he said, increasingly buoyed by the treatment and the prospect of a new book. “An excellent meal! Truly, I can see that you are a man of exquisite appetite, sir, and taste. These indulgences would induce a gourmand to question the reach of his education and experience.”
Lord Aeron regarded my friend’s praises coolly, sipping faintly at his wine and abstaining from much of his own plate. Lord, like Lady, seemed to be possessed of insufficient appetite. After sipping at his wine, he spoke in a rather complacent tone that betrayed condescension, which struck me disagreeably.
“The passions of a man may well begin in the stomach,” Lord Aeron said. “For the basic necessities of life must be appeased before the basic drives of life may be indulged. Yet, that is not to say that necessitated appetites cannot be foregone in favor of satiating less needful appetites. And, indeed, a seemingly inferior appetite may well define and prolong our species more than what is most needful for our immediate survival. I have myself known pangs of hunger that were sharply eclipsed by what many rationalists would consider trivial compulsions. Thus, I believe that until Man conflates his myriad appetites together as a unified compulsion these drives will always vie with one another for dominance, often at the cost of the species and its experience on this plane of existence. Thus, every act is as a feast. Every verse of my poetry is a banquet that feeds and sates. Every breath drawn is in pursuit of devouring the world and its variegated pleasures.”
I did not know what he meant by this long lecture, and he did not elaborate, nor do I believe that elaboration would have elucidated his perspective. It all seemed pretentious verbosity designed to impress rather than enlighten. Mr. Thenton, however agreed whole-heartedly, as was his inclination in all things concerning individuals of higher wealth and rank. That said, I doubted his understanding in the matter as much as my own. Had a duck been crowned King of England, and proceeded to quack vociferously in my friend’s ear, Mr. Thenton would have nodded his head in ready agreement with the waterfowl’s nonsensical noise, despite his vast reputation as a respected Naturalist.
Dinner concluded and Lord Aeron led us away from the dining hall, delivering us to the terraces on the South side of his manorhouse. The portal there opened onto the side of the great hill upon which the mansion stood, its terraces cut from the stone of the hill itself. The dark clouds thinned and relented for a time, allowing an early twilight to illuminate our jaunt down the terraces and into the lavish greenery and flowers sprawling on that side of the hill.
The garden grounds were paradisaical, the hedges and the yew trees primly shorn while the flowers bloomed in a jealous competition for attention. Marble statues adorned the grounds as well, standing high on elevating columns and pedestals. Yet, whereas most statues of gods were modest, even when nude, these unashamed figures boasted priapic endowments unfit for a vestal virgin’s eyes. Verily, many such Dionysian figures had become bereft of their phallic adornments due to their own hefty largess and the merciless barbarism of gravity. Thus, for every Aristophanean figure there was a eunuch in need of repair, his loins shattered upon the cobblestoned paths. Lord Aeron noticed my gaze and chuckled humorlessly.
“It is a lesson we all should take to heart,” he said. “Urchin and king alike, when we engorge ourselves on pride we may find ourselves soon emasculated by the expansion. It is only…natural.”
The clouds converged once again, like a routed army reforming its ranks, and prepared for a violent display of arms. Rain came upon us hard and we had to retreat into the manorhouse ere they hurl their fulgurous spears down upon us.
As we sat in the great hall— drying and warming ourselves by the hearth— Lord Aeron surprised me again while stoking the fire with a poker. He stared into the flames and spoke to us with more open candor than was his habit that day.
“Tragedy can change a man,” he said. “The confession shames me, but I became spiritual after the death of my wife. Not religious, certainly, but I did read religious books. The Torah, the Bible, the Koran. The Vedas, or as many as I dared, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Each proved useless in its own turn, but I did not recant hope. Obscurer books I sought and bought. Holy scriptures from around the world. I entertained any text, no matter how esoteric or illegitimized it was by what is known of the natural world. I learned cuneiform simply so I could read Babylonian tablets and translate them with my own understanding. These, too, disappointed me, and it seemed that the earth was too small to provide me the gateways of knowledge I sought.
“In time I grew more desperate. Arabia became my home for a year; a year of restless searching. I discovered there what would be the salvation for my wife. I purchased, at great cost, a book which owns as much as it is owned. A book of skin. A book of heresies, not only to Man’s religious pretensions, but to his premises for the natural world. This book I deciphered with grueling dedication. I ate little, and I slept less, but at last I came to understand the necessary spell. And when I performed it, a gateway opened to an icy plane. My wife awaited me there. She came back to me from beyond the shadowlands. My Malia returned to me, ageless. Deathless.”
“That is what we wish to document,” Mr. Thenton said, nearly losing his wig with excitement. “This new dimensionality of the natural world. The undiscovered country that would expand the British Empire to a new frontier, superior in resources and land than even that of the rebellious Colonies.”
“You said she came from an icy plane,” I said, ignoring my colleague’s impetuous patriotism. “Were there any others near her? Did you hear angels…or demons? Did God speak upon returning her to you?”
“Many Gods spoke,” Lord Aeron said. “The Old Gods. They returned her to me from the stars, and I received her with a grateful embrace.”
“Is she phantom or Fae?” Mr. Thenton asked.
“She is the Lady Aeron,” he answered, a dazzling light in his eyes. “She is my wife, my mistress. My raison d’etre.”
It was then that the majordomo entered, his cane clacking in front of him. “Master,” he said. “You must…see to your lady’s needs.”
Lord Aeron stood, then, and walked to door. He paused. “A while longer, sirs, and I will invite you further into my confidence. I am eager for your…shared intimacy. It would please each of us, assuredly.”
Lord Aeron left, then, but the majordomo tarried a moment longer. He spoke to us with words of courtesy, but a tone of gruff intolerance.
“I have had your effects taken and placed in the main bedchamber. Forgive me if I did not arrange your easel to your satisfaction, but I have little experience with them.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I am sure it is satisfactory.”
“And my parchment and ink?” inquired Mr. Thenton.
“They are prepared as well,” the old man said. “I have had a small writing desk fetched for you, and a chair.”
“That is most thoughtful,” Mr. Thenton said.
The majordomo bowed and then turned to leave. In the flickering light of a nearby brazier I saw, with no small astonishment, that the old man’s eyes were milky with cataracts. It seemed odd, truly, that a half-blind man with a cane should be the only member of the staff present. Stranger still was the realization that I had seen no other servants throughout the mansion, though I was certain this old, crippled man could not have prepared our effects or our meal without assistance. The absence of Lord Aeron’s staff puzzled me. Indeed, their absence crowded that dark palace with an emptiness pregnant with apprehensive misgivings. Disturbed, I voiced my concerns to my friend. He dismissed them outright, albeit in his unfailingly friendly tone.
“The best servants are never seen nor heard unless needed,” he said. “Just as the best subjects of Great Britain are to be devoted to orderly industry in the pursuit of the empire’s betterment without all that utterly French rabble and rebellion.”
“So we are to be as children,” I said, offended. “Neither seen nor heard, but always at beck and call?”
“With gratitude, too, of course,” my friend said. “That is the best arrangement, yes. But if you dislike that comparison, you may think of your Ireland as being a wife to the empire. Ever devoted to the King and awaiting his loving embrace with her domestic duties quietly fulfilled.”
“It is no wonder,” I said, “that Emma attends so many balls during your prolonged absences.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, utterly oblivious.
“Nothing,” I said, “except that the Natural order of things must take precedent.”
“Indeed!” he said, blithely and oblivious. “For I am a Naturalist.”
“And so is Emma,” I said, “in her own way.”
Mr. Thenton and I sat thereafter in silence until Lord Aeron returned. I felt that I had sufficiently been dried by the fire, and that my wit had never been drier. But irony is always lost on the patriotic, so I felt it a futile enterprise to endeavor it anymore. And, to the point, the gleam in Lord Aeron’s eye sobered me of my resentful jests soon enough.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “my wife is ready to meet you now.”
With a sense of great foreboding I followed Lord Aeron through his manorhouse. Once again I was confronted by those strange murals on the walls with their predatory gods and goddesses. I felt myself shrivel as a man and shrink away inside myself, not unlike a mouse in the looming shadow of a cat.
The winds bellowed through the halls like restless spirits. Lightning clapped and crackled. Thunder boomed like the angry roar of a god. Lord Aeron escorted us again to the central courtyard, that strange bedchamber with its spiraling stucco ceiling and glass-eyed dome. It seemed to somehow have grown colder in that palace, despite the warm gales invading the halls with their summer-storm breath.
Arriving into the domed room, we were met by a startling and improper sight: a woman standing denuded near the large bed. Propriety demanded that I look away, and yet the woman’s command of my gaze was stronger. Seeing her there was to see Botticelli’s Venus standing upon her clam, ensorcelling the mind with her nymphal figure. Her skin was unnaturally pale and her eyes wholly black— otherworldly black. Her hair was long, trailing like a black and silken veil down her back, undulating as if alive. She was comely, I could not deny; perhaps the comeliest woman I had ever beheld. Nor do I say that lightly, for I am ever faithfully fond of my wife and her pretty make. Yet, the Lady Aeron was of another class of beauty, frankly one which she inhabited in unrivaled solitude. The old masters would have wept for her embrace—philanderers, sodomites and pederasts alike. Even I found myself hungering for her embrace, hot beneath my clothing while a bitter coldness emanated from her pale, lissome form. My whole being wished to warm her flesh with my own flesh, to entwine her frigid essence with my warm-blooded body, even while I instinctively sensed the mortal dangers therein entailed. Her whole being was a siren song sweetly beckoning me toward the craggy rocks. I knew of the rocks and yet my flesh did not care to be shredded if it meant caressing that pale bosom, however briefly.
Clutching me back from the impulse was the image of my wife and my children. My Irish temper, ironically, was the vice that proved my virtue, and I ripped my eyes from her body with a violent jerk of my head, resentful that I should be tempted to the brink of my character. So weak was I afterwards, however, that I had to lean against a column, shivering as I recovered my self-control and my steady pulse.
As to my colleague, Mr. Thenton, I dared not look at him for fear of an eye alighting again on that carnal sorceress; that Snow Queen.
“This is my wife, gentlemen,” Lord Aeron said, his eye gleaming in mad triumph. “She is whom I lost and won from a cold and indifferent star beyond the light of our own. She is the love of flesh. She is the pain of loss. She is the queen of meaning in the barren womb of existence. I call her desire. I call her bliss. You may call her Malia, for her love is a ‘bitter sea’. Now tell me, and tell me true— do you sincerely believe you can capture her beauty by ink or paint or word or song?”

***

We retired from the Lady Aeron’s bedchambers in distraught retreat. I was distressed to my core as we left that blasphemous bordello. Lord Aeron assured us that we would eventually inculcate ourselves to his Lady’s overwhelming effect, given time and exposure. I did not believe this. A man may acclimate himself to the icy bite of winter, or the balmy kiss of summer, but not to that season that exists within and apart of the two: desire.
Mr. Thenton and I were shown to our rooms. The guest rooms were comfortable and pleasant, each with a fire stoked in their hearths and a few candles lit on their holders. I assumed that the fleet-footed servants of the manor had prepared everything while we were otherwise preoccupied. A decanter of wine awaited me on the table next to the canopied bed. This I gratefully drank from, albeit sparingly, and then readied myself for bed.
Through the window I noted that the clouds had parted and the moon appeared in her full white glow, disrobed of the storm like Lady Aeron of her modesty. I used the lavatory to wash my face, but the splash of cold water did not awaken me from the enchantment of the Lady’s black eyes. She haunted me even then, and I worried that she would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I laid myself down in bed and stared out the window at the cold, indifferent stars. Had I been more an Irishman, and less a man of the Age, I might have prayed. Then again, I wonder even now whether I would have prayed to the Trinity or to that bewitching creature with her pale skin and black eyes. One deity seemed more real than the other, and that was not simply because I was an apostate who valued what his eyes shown him more than what any holy man might postulate. My eyes closed, I could see her still, her visage unbroken behind my eyelids. She was branded upon my mind, a scorched scar in the more bestial region of my brain. My thoughts sought her like the Holy Grail, and dreaded her like the kiss of Circe.
For an hour or more I tossed and turned, and to no avail. I sat up in bed, blinking my eyes in earnest, and yet never dismissing the image of Lady Aeron…Malia…from either eyelid or waking eye. I stood up and drank a draught of wine. It burned hot and sweetly and my anxiety only intensified. I had to exercise this possessive demoness lest it overrule my restraint with her goatish passions.
My easel and paints remained in the domed courtyard—with a canvas covered in my preliminary painting—but my bag of sketching materials had been brought into the guest room by the unseen servants. I rummaged through the bag for adequate materials. I required something dark and menacing and strong in its contrasts, so I fetched out the charcoal and the parchment. Then, with a memory branded unto scarring with her image, I attempted to exorcize the demoness and capture her upon the page. I translated her physical features with dutiful accuracy, but found I could not capture her exotic expression. Upon further reflection I realized that the eyes were rendered incorrectly. Indeed, I had failed to record the eyes with the same hollow, alluring depth of hunger that burned so lividly within Lady Aeron’s black orbs. I set aside the sketch and drank again from the wine decanter. My brain was afire with intense restlessness. There was something akin to hysteria upon me, and it would not abate nor could I abide it. I knew I would not sleep restively that night; not without hurling myself into the sea and cooling those lusty fires with cold, suffocating saltwater.
Suddenly there came, with startling clarity, the sounds of groans through the mansion. They were a strange, bestial volley of sounds, not unlike goats or horses in rut. I would have deemed the sounds aberrations of my fevered mind had not they come again, more loudly than before.
Disturbed, I went to my door and pressed my ear there, straining to hear. To my dismay, I could hear something akin to beasts given to the breeding season. Cautiously, I pushed the door open and peered out, listening to the grunts and snorts echoing down that dark hallway. Stepping out of my room, I crossed the hall and rapped on my colleague’s door, knowing that I would be less fearful in seeking out the source of the ruckus while accompanied. But Mr. Thenton did not answer me. I assumed he was fast asleep. He was, after all, a man known to sleep better than dead men, however inhospitable the conditions. In the midst of an Indian expedition he had slept a whole night without ever rousing, despite the jungle’s otherworldly sounds and discomforts. A tiger had roared in the night, and set the locals to trembling, and yet, as we all huddled near the fire for mutual protection, he remained in his tent, oblivious to the dangers stalking between the trees.
Nonetheless, I knocked at his door once more, hoping that he was as restless as I and so disturbed beyond his normal routine. But he did not answer. Unheeded, I turned away.
The manorhouse was eerily silent except for the voices. The voices redoubled, their urgency frightening. Alone, I followed them through the hall, coming to the domed courtyard at its center. I stood by the door to that expansive room, my eyes once again enchanted by that perfect female form as it gyrated in the moonlight shining down through the oculus; moonlight showering her figure and the figure pinned beneath her on the bed.
Merciless illumination! Maddening revulsion! Shameful fascination! My mind was at war with my loins. Lady Aeron was straddling Mr. Thenton in amorous congress, and Lord Aeron stood to the side of the bed, feverish in his onanism.
I felt horror, and I am ashamed to confess that I felt lust, too, and the hollow ache of envy. How I yearned to be the one beneath her! To be conjoined to her beauty, however briefly! She was desire itself. She was lust and appetite and base instinct unified. Yet, even in my ardor for her I noticed, with some bafflement, that her face was utterly devoid of expression. There was no ecstacy or pleasure, in either human or animal form, nor did she make the same bestial noises that Mr. Thenton and Lord Aeron issued in their passions. She was as unfeeling as the winter’s snow, and as horrifically cruel. A sumptuous paradox of
There came a nausea as I watched her, and a dawning terror, for my keen eyes were meticulous in the minutiae of form, even while my conscious mind had yet to observe and recognize the transmogrification that was taking place. It was Mr. Thenton’s reaction that corroborated my leaping fear. His mad smile of joy and his groans of pleasure abruptly exploded into a howl of pain. He fought to push Lady Aeron aside, and yet he could not. She held him fast beneath her quivering thighs like the talons of a hawk upon the sparrow.
And then the change came. There unfolded from her womanly form a monstrous array of corpulent tendrils belying her lithe dimensions, spreading profusely with a serpentine elasticity. These appendages wrinkled as they writhed, the smooth skin spoiling like curdling milk, and there arose a terrible odor that both aroused and repulsed my most primitive instincts. It permeated my rational mind and infected the deeper folds of the brain, arresting the fight or flight response that Nature has given all animals with the sufficient evolutionary adaptations.
Immobilized, I stood as if struck to stone by a chance glance from Medusa. I was unable to look away and so bore unwilling witness to her terrible transformation atop her wretched victim. What she became invoked conflicted images of a beast of unknown fathoms and even more mysterious heights. The appendages coiled about my patron and were working beastly contortions upon him while the great maw fed upon his yet-living body. His howls of pain were choked with hemorrhaging from his mouth. Elsewhere he hemorrhaged likewise, the white sheets of the bed stained crimson beneath Lady Aeron’s vestigial thighs.
And all the while Lord Aeron watched eagerly from the side of the bed, engaged in onanism while his nightmarish wife coiled about the helpless man and fed.
I must have screamed— surely I screamed— for Lord Aeron looked to me while still engaged in his self-gratification.
“She is a gift of the Old Gods,” he said. “Commune with her. Become one with her!”
I fled then, running through that dark country manor, heedless of where I went so long as it was far away. So swept away was I that I took a wrong turn and found myself along the terraces. The open air restored to me some semblance of clear-eyed sanity as I stared down the disorienting pathways into the gardens.
Then came the servants of the Aeron household. They stumbled together, like a gaggle of blind geese. They were boys, their lolling heads sightless as they listened for me. Each had been scarred across their foreheads and noses with wounds consistent with frost-bite. They moved as one, as if puppeteered by a single mind. Their mouths opened, as one, and uttered my name with an inhuman voice.
“Sheridan…”
I hurled myself down the paths and the terraces, fleeing past those strangely shorn yew trees and those gleefully unmanned statues. I came to the hedges and flung myself through them. Onward into the night I ran, like a dog stricken mad by moonlight.
By the time I stopped running I was on the rugged country road that led into the village. This I followed until I came to the town’s inn. I awoke the innkeeper by pounding on the door and told him what I had witnessed. Thinking back on it, I doubt he understood half of the words I sputtered, but my affrighted condition must have informed him enough. He told me that all of the villagers knew of Lord Aeron’s unholy visitor. Many of them had lost children to the house, each child branded by the Lady’s touch. Many more feared that their older sons would be selected for the “honor” of her congress. I asked them why they had not slain that terrible creature.
“What can we do,” he asked, “when it fears neither fire nor blade nor bullet nor holy word?”
“Then send word to Court,” I said, made too desperate by what I had witnessed to think rationally. “Notify the authorities. Notify the King if you have to!”
The innkeeper merely shook his head. “You are an Irishman, sir,” he said. “Do you truly think anyone of rank in Great Britain would care for us in our time of need?”
I relented, then, though my mind was frenzied with fear. The innkeeper allowed me to stay in one of his unoccupied rooms that night. I could not sleep, and every shadow seemed to roil with protean horrors.
On the morrow I left that cursed province and returned home, to Dublin, as swiftly as the winds could usher me by boat. Upon my return, I kissed my wife and hugged my children and strolled through my beloved countryside to ease my soul. I did not report the incident to anyone for fear it would not be received credibly, and would impugn my reputation and, by extension, damage my family’s well-being. I sought only to cleanse myself of the terrible encounter. To forget, I thought, would be to save myself.
Yet, the thing that was Lady Aeron haunted me. I could not appease that horrible recollection except in rendering her monstrous visage in inks and paints. Even so, there have been times when no amount of exorcism could rid me of her nightmarish assemblage. I have seen her with my eyes closed, in the dead of night when the shades lay heavy on my house. I have seen her with my eyes open, in the glow of midday while my children play and my wife kisses my cheek. I see her still, even now. I cannot escape the image of her.
This is the account you have asked me to write. I must confess that I did not think you would believe me, yet I am compelled to chronicle it regardless of the credence you lend it. You have seen my paintings, and I swear that my paintings cling to truthful representation. Hang me, if you so desire it, but know that I did not kill my colleague, Mr. Thenton. Know that you hang an innocent man and that you leave my children fatherless and my wife a wretched widow. And know that Lord Aeron is a liar. People disappear daily in his province and yet the Crown does nothing to depose him. He mocks you all in his poetry and rejoices in the iniquities of his home, yet you refuse the confessions written boldly in his own hand; his boasts of peopling the earth with his wife’s offspring. I hope it comes to pass that you are readying yourselves for bed at night and you pick up one of his books and you remember my paintings as you read his verse. I hope you see the ink writhe and the letters crawl and you glimpse Lady Aeron’s pale face haunting you inescapably within the margins. I hope you see her black eyes and her alabaster bosom and her quivering thighs and you feel the hunger of her embrace!

Hunter’s Moon

chikagefinalsize

Shepherd with a crescent scythe,
wheelchair-bound in a field of flowers,
pondering the Dream, this unseeming life
beneath the Presence and its blood-drunk powers.
Brandish the blades, chamber the guns!
Summon the Hunters against the cursed
while throats thirst for the blood that runs;
a river swelling forth from Laurence, the First.
O Amygdala, scion of the Nightmare,
deliver us to the gravestone labyrinth
so we may witness the ritual in the red glare
whereby Mensis may cleanse us, bathed in absinthe.
May we Dream forever among the secrets of Kos
and ascend the fickle flesh and eclipsed thought,
seeking backwards, and forwards, the Primary Cause
of our making, our unmaking—what paleblood wrought.
Gift unto us Eyes, Eyes to see on the inside,
Eyes to see beyond this finite, futile plane,
and to see and seek beyond the stars, far and wide,
to bring humanity upwards into a new time, a new reign.
Let us make contact! Let us be enlightened
by the fungal crowns, the phantoms of stelliferous light
so, as the Pthumerians before, in tombs heightened
to serve you, above and below, beyond our beastly blight.
Let us not succumb, as those fools in the Choir,
nor the degenerates of Cainhurst and their vile queen;
let us instead endeavor righteously to aspire
for the greater good, as Rom does in the Lake’s sheen.
Ah ha! These beasts and their throaty ashen itch,
for which only a Waking death is the certain cure,
will wallow in the wayside, as corpses in a ditch
while we ascend, ascend, ascend— lightsome and pure.

 

Author’s Note:  I am a devout fan of the videogame Bloodborne for not only its addictive gameplay, but its ingenious reconciliation between Victorian vampire and werewolf tropes with Lovecraftian cosmic horrors.  Hidetaka Miyazaki is possessed of a brilliant mind for storytelling and I really hope the Bloodborne universe will be expanded upon in the future.  Currently I have been writing (gradually) a short story set in that deliciously monstrous universe and hope to finish it eventually for this blog.  Often I am scornful towards “fanfiction”, primarily because it is so often of such badly wishful wet-dream quality that I cannot stomach it, but this universe is so perfectly realized that it deserves (what I hope to be) a good quality story incorporating its myths and characters into a fully-realized and properly executed story.  For anyone with a Playstation 4, if you haven’t played Bloodborne, go do it.  I must have rage-quit three or four times before I fell in love with it, but it is a wonderful game.  As Gehrman says, “The night, and the dream, were long…”