Secret Tongues

 Secret Tongues

 “But they are so crude, Mary,” Elizabeth remarked, setting down her cup of tea on the arbor’s table.  A slight Summer breeze made the cool, foliated shadows wag like tongues all around them.  “What possible enjoyment could be had in a servant’s company?”

 “He is well versed in many pastimes,” Mary said.  A hot flash of redness flared in her pale forehead and breast.  It was so red as to nearly match her auburn hair.  It was not a shade of embarrassment, however, nor fury.  She fanned herself leisurely, despite the cool breeze and shade.  “Many a singularly fine pastime.”

 “He is handsome,” Elizabeth said.  A smile betook her face, as if she had tasted something quite sour and wished to hide it.  “I will grant you that.  But there are many handsome gentlemen in London of equal looks, and far superior wealth.”

 “I have no need of wealth,” Mary said.  “I am an only child, as you know, and subject to no male relative who might contend my claim to my father’s estate.  Moreover, Desmond is excellent with his hands in a manner entirely unknown in gentlemanly circles.”

 Elizabeth cast a curious glance to Jenny, nettled.  The latter was too concerned with a white ribbon in her hair to notice.  Elizabeth chided her.

 “Jenny, you are of an age that ribbons such as those should be abandoned utterly.  And you are married.  Married women have no need of girlish ribbons.”

 “These ribbons were blessed by Father Willoughby last Sunday,” Jenny said, still attempting to tighten the ribbon.  “They are marks of chastity.”

 “But you are married,” Elizabeth argued with an irritated shake of her head.  Her black curls quivered, tied up atop her head and away from the nape of her neck like some tragic Greek heroine from bygone times.  “Chastity is impossible for a proper conclusion to such a ceremony.”

 “To the contrary,” Jenny said fussily, pulling at the golden strands of her hair.  “William and I have decided to remain chaste for the time being, even while in wedlock.  When he is…when we are ready to produce children, the ribbons shall come down.”

 “And the petticoats shall go up,” Mary said, giggling.  Elizabeth frowned at her, which only provoked greater giggles.  Mary sipped her tea to regain her composure.  Birds sang in the distance.  Evening wore on slowly, the sun descending reluctantly.

 “You are a naughty creature!” Jenny exclaimed, encrimsoning as a cherry unclaimed from the stem.

 “And why should I not be?” Mary posited, seriously.  “I am a woman of independence and means.  I need answer to no one.”

 “It is a luxury not all can afford,” Elizabeth admitted begrudgingly.  “Nor do I think it one I might indulge, for I cannot discern how it could be worth the price.”

 “A failure of experience,” Mary said, sympathetically, “leads to a failure of imagination.  Were that your husband could be capable of speaking Desmond’s tongue!  You would never wish to leave the house, either for society or for a fresh prospect.  Nor would Paris or Rome offer, in all their splendours, temptation enough to lure you thither.”

 Jenny frowned, then finally released the ribbon in her golden hair.  “Surely he could speak such a tongue anywhere in the world and you would find yourself doubly satisfied in being abroad and being in desirous company.”

 “Not so,” Mary said.  “For it would presume impudence and impropriety.  Desmond is apt  at his tongue, but not at many others, and so his low-breeding would be immediately apparent, even to a Parisian crumpet.”  She tapped a finger upon her chin thoughtfully.  “Especially to a Parisian crumpet.”

 The conversation now at an end, they nodded and sipped their tea.  Mary looked very pleased in all accounts, whereas Jenny and Elizabeth were perplexed, albeit in different regards.  Another of Jenny’s ribbons had come undone, and so she was very vexed in setting it right atop her head.  Elizabeth frowned, casting furtive eyes of judgment sidelong at her host and friend.

 “It is all jolly-folly,” she said meaningfully.

 For Mary’s part, she was so warm and glowing with a language only she knew among the three of them that when the wind grew chillier, she did not mind it, even as her friends shivered.  The trees themselves seemed to shiver, too, for the shadows stretched long and the sun slowly sank into its shadowy bed.

 “My, I should be getting home,” Jenny said, hugging her shawl about her shoulders.  “Arthur will be wondering at my absence.  Though, I doubt overmuch.  He loves spending time with his schoolyard friend, John.  They are inseparable, you know.  They get along so well together.  Much more, I am afraid, than even Arthur and I get along.  But we are young, and our marriage fresh.  I am sure there is time enough to grow together.”

 It was Elizabeth’s and Mary’s turn to exchange shrewd glances.

 “Will he keep you warm, Jenny?’ Mary asked, mischievously.

 “With a fire, perhaps,” Jenny said, misunderstanding.  “Arthur is so thoughtful that he always insists that my bedroom be tended to most, often to the neglect of his own bedroom.”

 “Separate bedrooms?’ Mary said, suppressing a smile.  “But how does Arthur tend to your fire, then?”

 “Alfred, his butler, tends to it when the night comes on with its drafts,” Jenny said simply.  Naively.  “Alfred uses the poker rather deftly, like a wizard conjuring fire.”

 “So, too, does my Desmond,” Mary said, barely suppressing a giggle.  “But Elizabeth,” she said, turning to her other friend, “what is the arrangement between yourself and your husband, Matthew?”

 Elizabeth cleared her throat, though she could not clear the sharp edge of vexation in her voice.

 “Matthew and I sleep in separate chambers,” she said, as a judge delivering a bitter verdict.  “ I cannot abide his smoking…or…”  She faltered a moment.  “…or his attendance to my fire.”

 Mary gave Elizabeth a sympathetic smile, patting her gloved hand.  There was a goodly deal of condescension in the latter act.  “I am sure there is a servant apter at the art.  My Desmond is indeed a wizard, conjuring flames with a mere wag of his tongue.”  She smiled puckishly.  “He speaks whole infernos into being.  And they keep me warm throughout the most frigid of nights.”

 Again, Elizabeth cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably.  She eyed her red-headed friend enviously.

 “I do not see how it should take much art to tend a fire,” Jenny opined, obliviously.  “Alfred is nearly senile, and yet he accomplishes the task very adequately.  At times even I tend to my own fire, exciting it with a clumsy poker.  The propensities of fire, and the plenitude of wood, should be sufficient for the need, no matter how novice the pyrolater.”

 Mary and Elizabeth exchanged glances—the former, sly and mirthful; the latter, shrewd and irritated.

 “Indeed,” Mary said.  “Any sufficient measure of wood may feed a fire, but here is something to be praised in that heathenistic affinity in the art of pyromancy.  Why, I feel as a wicker woman all aflame with…passion…when Desmond speaks his special tongue to me.”  She laughed with a girlish cadence of unconscientious joy.  “I am utterly consumed by it, you know.  It is always Beltane when he is speaking his special tongue to me.”

 Elizabeth scowled.  “One can lose one’s soul to such heathenism,” she said, her voice cold with something akin to resentment.  “We must be wary of the Devil’s tongue.  It can sway angels to lower stations with debased practices and unworthy company.”

 “The waves lap wonderfully in my Lake of Fire,” Mary said, too pleased to be affronted, and too emboldened to be restrained.  She tucked a curl of red hair behind her ear.  “Maybe Lucifer was right.  Maybe it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

 Jenny gasped, a dainty hand to her little lips.  “But your soul, Mary!  Truly, we must attend church and repent together!  Father Willoughby will rectify these mortal failings.  There is no salvation except through Christ, and so you must recant such confusion in your compass.  Otherwise it will cost you everlastingly.”

 Mary regarded her earnest friend with a condescending smirk—tight lipped, with a nodding of her head.  She then turned to Elizabeth, the latter stiff-shouldered and scowling openly now.

 “There are times when Desmond’s heathen tongue is so persuasive that I could die in the moment and be eternally contented.  Whatever lay beyond that moment of…exultation…is nought but dreary, drafty winds through a dusty hallway.  The world burns away with the intensity of it, and all else becomes as soot beneath my feet.”

 “And what of the tongues wagging behind one’s back?” Elizabeth demanded, setting her teacup down hard for emphasis on the point.  “They can raze reputations and family legacies with the tempests they whip up.  Have you ever paused to give thought to that?”

 “They are impotent cinders,” Mary replied lightly.  “As impotent as the cries of herons on the Isle of Skye.  All is obliterated in the inferno.”

 “The tongues of fire lap at lost souls in the inferno,” Jenny said, so far amiss in the conversation that her input was no more than the whispers of the breeze through the arbor.  Her two friends ignored her.

 “And what of friendships?” Elizabeth continued, still scowling.  “What of the cost such heresies might entail in regard to them?”

 For the first time, Mary’s smile and gleeful tone faltered.  “I…I should hope that any true friend might weather the infernos for the sake of a friend as devout in her loyalty and its reciprocation.”

 Elizabeth stared hard at her friend, her thin lips set in a narrowly compressed line.

 “You take more than you give, Mary,” she said.  “It is a problem plaguing many relationships, it seems to me.”

      ***

 Desmond stood at the foot of the bed like any butler awaiting orders.  Tall, lean, and with a grimly-set expression of diligence, he was the very figure of decorum and servitude.  Except he was out of uniform.  Very much out of uniform.

 Mary lay on the four-poster bed, watching Desmond with a cat-catches-canary smile upon her face.  She, too, was very much out of uniform, and spread her freckled arms, fixing her fine, smooth fingers upon the headboard.  Her pale body flickered orange in the clandestine candlelight.  There was no one else in the entirety of her estate.  She had sent the other servants home to visit relatives or friends or lovers or whoever would preoccupy their evenings.  She did not care.  The only interest stood before her.

 “Come now, Desmond,” she said.  “Attend me.”

 “I will,” the denuded man said.  “But first…”

 He hesitated, falling silent.  She could see by the flaring candlelight the ambiguity etched upon his handsome features.

 “What do you want?” she asked.  “Less chores around the estate?  A bauble?  I could get something for you while I am away in London next week, visiting Vivien.  She knows the quaintest shops where nearly anything can be purchased.”

 “I mean to accompany you in London,” he said.  “But not in a servant’s capacity.”

 Mary cackled in delight.  “Oh, you have a mercenary heart!  But you know such things cannot be.”

 “And for what reason so?” he demanded.  “You have said many times that you do not care if high society should know of our attachment.”

 Her tone was sobered now; incredulous.  “It is not an attachment, Desmond.  Do not forget yourself.”

 Desmond swayed as if stricken, and Mary’s tone softened.

 “I would not have you away from my estate,” she said.  “You know I cannot trust anyone to see to it but you.”

 The fire in the hearth behind Desmond fluttered to one side, as if a cold draft had hurled itself headlong into it.

 “Such patronage does me much honor,” he said, his face dark and his tone sour.  “To condescend to someone so low as myself esteems you as to a saint.”

 “I will not tolerate insolence, Desmond,” Mary snapped.  “You are a servant.  In this service do you serve me, still.  But that is the total of it insomuch as we are bound.  To stoop to pretending that you are my equal would be to lose face.  Not in society’s estimation, but my own.  And I will never shame myself, nor depreciate my self-worth through such short-shrift.”

 “So I am nothing more to you than a servant,” he said, bitterly.  “You view me as just another pleasure to be taken for granted.  Our intimacy is one strictly of mistress and servant.”

 “You are well-compensated,” she said, sitting up and sliding forward.  She reached out with both hands and took hold of his wrist, attempting to draw him down onto the bed, toward her spread legs.  “Come, Desmond.  I will permit you to sleep here tonight, beside me, if you like.  Is that the intimacy you require?”

 Desmond drew his hand away, and her coaxing smile hardened to an irritated frown.

 “Desmond,” she said, “do not ruin this lovely evening with your unwarranted umbrage.  We could be both of us quite satisfied if you would simply surrender to the strong instinct inherent in your breeding…”

 Desmond yanked his arm free from his mistress at once, turned, and strode to his uniform, gathering it up and donning it in the dimming glow of the hearth.

 “Where are you going?” she demanded, her voice pitched with alarm.

 “I have attended you in all ways a husband might,” he said.  “I have seen to your finances.  I have seen to your servants.  I have seen to your needs, whatever myriad ways they might manifest.  Yet, you have always neglected me in all respects a man should be afforded by the woman he loves and to whom he is devoted.  I had hopes for a relationship by daylight such as we share by moonlight.  But you value me no more than a beast in the field, wanting me for nothing but to expend your carnal propensities.  Nor are you equal in those indulgences, oftentimes affording me no reciprocation pleasure whereas I have selflessly given and given unto a cornucopia of giving!”

 “Desmond, please do not leave me now!”  She leapt up from her bed, hurrying to him in a bereft state of undress.  “Please, do not leave me alone!  Come to bed with me.  Please.”

 He paused at buckling his belt, almost looking at her.  But the anguish overtaking his face was dismissed and dignity resumed itself with an austere measure in his demeanour.  He donned his shirt and jacket, not bothering with his tie.  He headed to the dark portal that was the door.

 “Please tend to the fire tonight,” Mary pleaded, following after him.  She lay a trembling hand upon his shoulder.  “That’s all I wish.  You do not have to join me in bed.  Just…just tend to the fire and keep me warm.”

 “Tend to it yourself,” he retorted.  He opened the door and hastened out into the dark hallway, leaving her behind.

 Mary felt quite cold, and walked aimlessly about her bedroom like a lost soul.  She had come, it seemed, to the Ninth Circle of Hell.  Her womanhood was now a frozen lake.  Her heart gnawed on Judas in bitter disappointment.  She looked into the embers of the darkening hearth and felt the world grow cold to its core.

      ***

 Elizabeth held her legs apart as Matthew, her husband, thrust against her.  It was, as always, over after a handful of minutes.  He groaned, convulsed, and then collapsed onto the bed—onto her— and lay there, heaving and breathless against her breasts.  Afterward, she looked upon the wrinkled, flabby and pale body of her old husband as he sprawled over her, panting.  Pale, loose skin— reminiscent of candle wax long ago melted and now cold—gleamed in the light from the hearth.  She was reminded of a warm, wet slug.  She shuddered, and not from pleasure.

 After a few moments, he rolled off of her and to the side, crumpled like a leaf in Winter.

 Elizabeth’s gown was hot, or so it seemed.  She flung it from her body, and kicked away the sheets near her feet.  She wished for a cold shower.

 “You will catch a cold,” her husband said, his breath labored still.

 “I am likely for a fever,” she said, laying stiffly now, as if a frozen body in the snow.  Her black hair was arrayed about her head, like the halo of some martyr.

 They said nothing else.  Matthew lay in bed a while longer, then began to crawl toward the edge, slowly, painfully, slipping out and onto his shaky feet.  He leaned on his mahogany cane, limping to his nightgown.  Shakily, he lifted the nightgown up and over his head, down his cadaverous body.  He struck up a cigar before he was to the door, blowing smoke into the dark.  The flaring faggot illuminated his vulture features for a flashing moment just before he disappeared through the door and down the hall.

 Again, Elizabeth shuddered.  She leaned toward the bedside table, taking the bottle of wine in hand.  She did not bother with a drinking glass, but kissed the bottle more ardently than she had ever kissed her husband.  Drinking herself into a stupor, she set the bottle down—tumbling it to the Turkish carpet below—and sprawled insensate upon the bed, her skin bare to the crisp, cold air.  She welcomed the cold, and the oblivion.  She welcomed the scorn that was a frigid draft through her bedroom.

 She hoped the cold would find her husband in his bedroom and snuff out his smouldering cigar light.  There were times when she wished it would find her, and snuff out her own light.

      ***

 Jenny lay naked beneath the heaving form of Alfred, moaning in pleasure as the butler rutted upon her.  It was past midnight and her husband Arthur had gone to bed, joined by John.  It was an arrangement both sides found very pleasing.

 After Alfred finished, and he had helped Jenny finish, Jenny lay panting to one side of her bed while the butler rose to gather his clothes.  He did so swiftly and economically, with no fuss or words.  He was much younger than Jenny had said to her two friends while at tea together earlier than day.  Virile and somber and handsome and, most importantly, discreet, he was just what Jenny wanted in a servant assigned to such duties.  He opened and closed the door with tactful silence, his lean frame disappearing down the dark hallway without the faintest whisper of a footfall.

 The butler gone, and the door closed, Jenny sighed in great satisfaction.  The warmth of the recent rigors still smoldered within her, hot as the hearth across the room.  She spoke aloud to herself.

 “Discretion best serves mischief alongside shrewd naivete,” she said.  “Strategic naivete.  It really does make one impervious to the wagging of tongues, whether they be sheathed in the mouths of society, or one’s own friends.  There is no shield like naivete against prattle.  They may demean the naivete itself, but what does it accomplish if even a million tongues whip at a mirage in the desert?  They may wag themselves dry, but the mirage remains, and so distracts from my little oasis that I keep to myself.”

 Having thus spoken at leisure, and in an ease equally earnest, she reached a hand up to the white ribbons in her fair hair.  They were tautly tied.  She undid them with a pinch of her fingers and twist of her wrist.  Her golden hair tumbled down wildly.  The white ribbons lay in a heap, like discarded snake skins.  They would coil there, in their little nest, until the morning when she would take them up once again and tie the tongues of the world up in incessant gossip entirely amiss of the actual truth.

Love…

…makes a dancing bear
of us all,
treading empty air
as we fall,
a grizzly creature
all the rage
to be the feature
on Love’s stage.
Such a fearful bear
to be whipped
but going nowhere,
the hide stripped,
so sad and funny
dancing so,
earning some money—
dimes a show.
So shortchanged, it seems,
yet we still
tarry on with dreams
while tears spill,
striving to be tamed
by Desire,
beaten till so lamed
we expire,
wearing a beanie
(so absurd)
and flinching keenly
at each word
from our strict mistress
with her whip,
hoping she’ll hiss less
from the hip
and perhaps kiss us
ere too long,
become our missus,
(just stay strong),
for we’re her star pet
needing hugs,
not her stretched carpet
or throw rugs.
Right?

Overpass

Away from the County Fair and its bright lights in the center of the dark field—where children laughed as they rode the rollercoaster and the teacups and the Ferris wheel— farther across the field parallel with the interstate, and beneath the dim orange lampposts along the highway, the overpass was a soft clash of subdued orange light and a Summer’s night washed out with shadows and starlight. Two figures stood beside the railing of the overpass, beneath a lamppost, talking.
“That’s dangerous, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, people are always dying over there. They talk about it on the News all of the time.”
“That’s why I get hazard pay,” he said. “And it’s not that bad where I’m going. You’d be more likely to die from E Coli or dysentery than an IED.”
“But that’s still pretty bad,” she said. “It’s just so…so dangerous.”
The golden butterfly necklace splayed across the flat of her chest, between her shallow breasts. She wore a pink sleeveless dress and had her black hair cocooned-up into a retro-beehive which she thought complemented her 50’s soda pop shop pink skirt. Her eyes were hazel and green, like the woods before dark.
“I’ve been over there before,” he said. “Three tours. But this is private contracting. That’s why the pay’s so good. I will be able to make a whole week’s worth of wages in one day over there. Three months on, a month off. If I stay after the three months are up then I get time-and-a-half. It’s good money. Great money. I can’t pass it up.”
He wore a green camouflage T-shirt, ready at a blink to disappear into the dark foliage of the distant woods rearing upward into the hills overlooking the interstate and Fairgrounds. His tan khakis were stained here and there with motor oil and dirt. No matter how much he washed his face, it always seemed a little dirty, but his smile— and his blue eyes—always shined through the grime.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” she said. She let her gaze fall to the railing, and put her hands on the steel bands, leaning. The pink frills of her dress revealed goose-bumped brown legs.
“I will,” he said. He grinned, and his dimples deepened.
She glanced up at his face, then looked away. She sighed.
“I don’t like it.”
He shrugged. “What else can I do? Go to college? I went for a year. Wasn’t for me.”
“You could stay here,” she said. “Become a car mechanic or something.”
His grin disappeared. “You’re going to Minneapolis. You’re not staying, either. It’s good that they accepted me because we can both leave this dead-end County behind. It’s a Win-Win for both of us.”
“Yeah,” she muttered. She kept her eyes on his nose because it hurt to look at his eyes. He looked at the slender arc of her neck as she inclined her head, trying not to look at her pouty lips.
“We both knew this was going to happen,” she said, more to herself than to him. “But today was really nice. All Summer’s been nice. I haven’t been to the Fair in years.”
“I just wish I could have won that pink elephant for you,” he said. He shook his head and his fist. “That air rifle was rigged. Two targets went down easy, but the third shot made less noise, which meant the guy had decreased the air pressure.”
She giggled and light came into her green-and-brown eyes; sparkling brighter than the headlights passing under the overpass.
“Sure thing, Rambo,” she teased. “Blame the gun. Still,” she said, considering, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
“Are you quoting Meat Loaf?” he laughed. “Miss Grad School over here, quoting Meat Loaf. I always thought you were a Bananarama girl.”
She frowned. “Meat Loaf? I don’t get it.”
He frowned also, scratching his blonde hair demurely. “Never mind. I thought you were making a joke.”
Crestfallen now— though she was not entirely sure why—her pale brow hung heavy and she leaned against the railing more heavily with her slight frame, looking like a marble statue swooning over a tomb.
“You could go to Minneapolis,” she said. “There are plenty of jobs there you could work. It’s a lot colder than Afghanistan, but it would be a lot safer, too.”
“I don’t know if it would be safer,” he said, “not with all of those college girls up there.” He leaned against the highway’s lamppost. “Actually, Afghanistan can get pretty damn cold,” he said. “At night it sucks. Especially in the mountains.” He watched the evening traffic pass to and fro, humming beneath the overpass. “I couldn’t do anything in Minneapolis except grind in place. I couldn’t make the money I would in Afghanistan. And I’m going to need money to settle down somewhere. Eventually. If I don’t go crazy from staying in place.”
“That’s the problem with being a Military brat,” she said. “Wanderlust. You’ll never be happy anywhere for long.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said, playfully. “Isn’t your dad a US Corps Engineer? My dad was just a grunt. And a drunk.”
The night sky was vaulted with cobalt, pierced with white-hot stars. To the North the vault was stained with the glow of the city. Down below, the headlights and taillights of the traffic cycled through the darkness. The Fair was an outpost of twirling radiance and swirling cadence in a field otherwise plunged in darkness. Here and there the moonlight gleamed on the windshields of the hundreds of cars parked around each other in the field, packed together like an immovable labyrinth of chock-a-block gridlock.
“Just be careful over there,” she said.
“You be careful, too,” he said. “Don’t party too hard.”
“I’m too old for that,” she said. “It’s all work from here on out. I’ll be too busy to party.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “What about you? You’re the party animal, aren’t you?”
“Not anymore,” he said. “I’ll probably just spend my downtime playing videogames and watching Youtube.”
“Yeah,” she said, tucking a strand of black hair back behind her ear. “That sounds like you.”
Their shadows were nailed down to the overpass by the lamppost overhead. She came away from the railing, and stepped toward him, but stopped. He glanced toward the bright lights of the Fair to keep himself from looking at her wet cheeks. His lips twitched restlessly.
“I love…I love that you’ll be doing what you love,” he said. “It must take a lot of brains to become a Pharmacist.”
“Pharmaceutical Scientist, actually,” she said, laughing through tears. “Yeah, it’s all about Chemistry.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s all about Chemistry.”
Her laugh died, but he did not miss a beat.
“Chemical reactions, right? Or am I being dumb again?”
“You’re right,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Medications and how the body reacts to them. Kidneys, lungs, heart…”
“And penis medication,” he said with a laugh. “Boner pills.”
“Yeah,” she said, grinning painfully. “It’s a growing branch of medicine.”
They both laughed, their tremulous voices swallowed by the empty night overhead and echoing in the underpass down below. When the last echo faded, only a sad silence remained. The silence swelled— no traffic passing for a long, anxious stretch. It split open and bled with the chiming alert of her cell-phone.
Fumbling her fingers in her purse, she pulled out her phone. Little strips of paper fell out as she withdrew her phone, scattering everywhere. They were cinema stubs and fortune cookie slips and the wrappers from the bubblegum she chewed after they ate out, all obsessive-compulsively folded and refolded again and again, spilling out across the highway and opening slowly as they tumbled, like chrysalises hesitant for inevitable change.
She read the text, her brow crinkled with emotions, and then shoved the phone back into her purse. She could not gather up all of the paper slips. They had fluttered away in a rising breeze.
“Shit,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“She hung her head to one side, staring up at the night sky at an angle, letting the glare of the lamppost blind her. She then looked at him; him and his blue eyes.
“Some friends want me to go with them to a bar,” she said. “Last night out before I head to Minneapolis.”
The Ferris wheel slowed to a jerking halt in the distance, its light-strewn buckets swaying. Slowly, it let its riders out, one bucket at a time.
“I can take you there,” he said.
“You can go in with me if you want,” she said.
“I’d like to,” he said, “but I can’t. I have to pack my things. I’ll be leaving for training camp early Monday morning. Two weeks in Fort Myers and then I’m off to the quagmire.”
“Oh,” she said. “At least Fort Myers is nice. My family lived near there for a while.”
“So did my family,” he said, “before the divorce. We bounced around everywhere after that. Then again, we were always bouncing around.”
“So were we,” she said.
He glanced over at the field where many of the cars were starting, headlights flashing on and engines rocking to life.
“It’s a good thing we parked at the gas station,” he said. “It’s going to be a mess down there. It’ll make leaving so much easier.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And I didn’t mind the walk. It’s nice outside tonight. Everything was perfect.”
“Yeah,” he said, “and a perfect Summer, too. Hard to top it.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Yeah.”
The Fair was closing, its small city of lights blinking to blue-blackness; bulb by bulb, bit by bit. They looked at the Fairgrounds and watched the maze of parked cars line up to leave. It was a disordered nightmare with no sense of reason or patience. Slowly they walked toward the gas station with a sense of relief and sweet sadness. The crush of traffic fell far behind them.

Mute Melody

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The lampposts along the boardwalk pinned back the heavy, wet curtain of night, the rainy darkness swelling against their small, sketchy dots of light. He stepped into the seaside bar, shrugging off the rain and the shadows from his yellow raincoat. The bar was deep-sea dark. Jarred candles lit glasses here and there upon the round tables, their little blooms of fiery illumination hinting at anglerfish duplicity. Bodies slumped around the tables, slouching in chairs or littering the floor in careless sprawls. Others laid face-down on the bar, or had tumbled off their stools. The bartender was behind the bar, awash with spilled beer. The scene looked like a forsaken opium den. All of the men’s and women’s faces were surrendering gradually to eternity, their eyes closed and their smiles lax on their euphoric faces.
The speakers on the karaoke stage were silent. No one stirred at the bar, even at the thrum-drum beating of the winds against the outside deck’s awnings. The hammering of rain on the windowpanes was like restless claws tapping on glass. Waves crashed against the poles on the boardwalk, shaking the planks. Nothing else could be heard in the bar except the faint sound of a lullaby song.
He approached the karaoke stage. The woman did not move. She used no microphone and the lilt of her soft song scarcely hinted at itself upon the sounding chaos of the sea. When she saw the man her song did not cease, but hastened, a defiant scowl upon her pale face. She had oily black hair that hung down her back and over her breasts. She wore nothing and her body was as pallid as a fish’s belly in the murk, glowing blue in the dreamy blacklights of the karaoke stage. A disco ball turned above her. Shattered-and-scattered stars glinted off of its silver mosaic sphere, reeling as the waves rocked the boardwalk and the bar.
To see such a scowl, and hear such a song, would have driven most men mad to appease her in any way they could, but he paid neither any mind. He could only see the long scar that split her lips to the right corner of her mouth. Guilt snagged in his heart, but he dismissed it as he raised his hands. Silently, he signed to her to come down. She snarled, revealing a jagged jigsaw of shark teeth between her lips, and continued singing. Some of the people sprawled out in the bar lolled in their chairs; those on the floor groaned in ecstasy.
Stepping closer to the stage, he signed again to her, imploring her from within the revolving twirl of the disco stars. He held his hand up toward her. Reluctantly, she took his hand into her webbed hand, its six vaguely humanoid fingers cool and wet. She stepped down from the stage, but she did not stop singing. He gestured toward the dark room with its multitude of limp, listless bodies, and shook his head, pointing to himself. A resentful frown curled her pale lips, and the ragged scar darkened to a sullen crimson. He touched her face, gently tracing the scar with his finger. He was a tall man with big hands, his fingertips calloused by a life at sea, but his touch would not have woken a baby from its sleep. Her eyelids fluttered at his touch, the dark gleam of her black eyes losing focus. She quivered, then shoved him angrily with her small hand. He stumbled upon a table, knocking over glasses and spilling beer into the laps of a man and woman. They roused briefly before nodding off into surrender to her song once again.
He signed urgently to her, but she turned her back to him, folding her arms. Slowly he approached her again, stepping over a man spreadeagled on the floor. Cautiously, he enwrapped her in his arms, hugging her from behind; tenderly. She quivered furiously, but did not pull away. He tried to sign again, his hands in front of her face, but she caught his big hands in her small ones, halting them and interlocking them over her heart. She smelled of seaweed and fish and brine— all smells familiar to him since he was a boy; smells beloved to him. For he loved all things of the sea: its smells, its vistas, its touch. But he had never heard the sea’s song, and for that reason he sometimes wept at night. He could feel the sea in her body when they made love. It tickled in his toes like the playful froth, and it relaxed him like wavelets upon an arid day. Her lips were as soft as wet sand on his chest and her teeth were sharp as coral on his fingers. Her tongue lapped deeply at his own when they kissed, an eel seeking his heart from the grotto of her mouth. Her fingers— long and lithe and fast— were as an octopus subtly scurrying across his skin. When they climaxed together it was a painful joy after which they both lay inert, his nerves stinging sweetly as if encoiled in jellyfish tendrils.
The sea had taken his father with its passions. It giveth and it taketh away. Of course the sea would claim him, the son, in time. To love her was to drown alive. And he had needed a break; a moment to catch his breath. A return to dry land. No one could love the whole of the sea without it sweeping them away with its riptides and dragging them below with its undertow. And its daughters were the same as their mother. They gave much, and they took away everything.
Like father, like son. Like mother, like daughter.
She continued singing. Her song was not a song in the meaning that most humans knew for a song. It was not a thing of aesthetics to please, but an instinctive tool. As a squid using its beak to crack shells and shred the flesh within, her song pierced the hearts of her prey so she, too, could feed. But her song had not worked on him when he had reeled her up from the sea, and she was human enough to want what was difficult to chase. He was so astonished when she emerged at the end of his marlin fishing line that he forfeited the fight. Yet, the hook had caught in her mouth, and she could not free herself. Kneeling beside her on the deck of his boat, he attempted to unhook her mouth. She fought him, flailing and clawing at him as he tried not to hurt her more than the hook already had. Even now his scars were tiger stripes along his forearms.
When he finally withdrew the hook, she hissed at him, then leapt away onto the railing of the ship, squatting there like a cat ready to pounce. The sun shone down upon her with unsquinting luminosity, yet the stygian depths remained in her eyes and in her oily hair. She had opened her mouth, revealing her teeth, and he had flinched to see their sharp edges. She then began her song, singing to him with the currents of the wide oceans. He could not hear them. Clearly perplexed by his immunity, and angered, she dove into the sea. He ran to the railing to look over larboard side, but did not see her.
She visited him every night thereafter, singing her song with a torn mouth. He remained immune to her song, but not to her dangerous beauty. He fed her from the fish he caught with his nets, and she ate his offerings raw. Eventually there came a night when she crept below deck, finding him asleep on his bed. The jagged fissure in her mouth had almost sealed itself shut. Laying atop him, they spoke to each other in rapturous silence— with limb and loin and wordless lip.
He had taught her to sign, and she had taught him more about the sea than any man had a right to know. He had recoiled from her truths, eventually, and stayed ashore. She remained in the sea, and felt the longing of his song in her heart; that song of silence that he carried with him. His mute melody. It called her ashore, and so she went. Now he was here. Now he would leave with her. He promised he would be with her forever if she would free the others.
So they walked to the door, and out into the thrashing storm. It subsided as they went together down to the shore, leaving the human world behind. The winds died and the rains lessened to the playful pitter-patter of fairy feet. The waves sighed and then loosened in their thrashing clashes. Like a great herd of beasts after a stampede, they slowed and came to an exhausted gait, gradually laying themselves down to sleep. The two figures disappeared into the still waters, taking with them her song and his silence.

The men and women began to rouse, sitting up in their chairs or sluggishly rising from the floor. The storm, the sailor, and the siren were gone. The world was drawn up and hauled out of the fathomless night and into the wakeful glare of daylight— wet, half-drowned, and shivering sickly. A fog thickened around the bay like a vague feeling of sorrow, and the people in the bar wept openly, though they did not know why.

 

 

Serial Romances

A trellis entwined with Virginia creeper
beneath a bower of Magnolias in bloom,
and a cold stone bench, upon which a breathless sleeper
lies in gossamers woven round from the moon’s loom.

Lights, like fireflies, on the Mississippi River
and hobnobbing drinkers, each kissing wine-stained glass
while a socialite with pearls and curls is all aquiver
as a man with a black cravat exudes such class.

They abscond to a yard of dew-bejeweled tulips,
which, he claims, is part of his grand manor estate,
and while he lovingly pets her petticoat-petaled hips,
he tells her that their meeting is but divine fate.

She swoons with the climax of their moonlit meeting
and lies upon the bench, given up to all things
while he walks to the port city dock, thereupon greeting
his fellow passengers as the steamboat bell rings.

He glances back at the Creole city, so bright
with glowing globes festooned all along its French streets,
and fingers the pearls in his pockets, so smooth and so white
like the skin of a woman beneath parting pleats.

Standing on deck, he meets a lovely Southern belle
and she asks what he likes most about steamboat life.
He smiles, charmingly, and he bows, saying, “Mademoiselle,
I love plucking flowers at night,”—his grin a knife.

The Dark Dreamer: The Hunter Comes

 

I am currently designing covers for the sequel to my Native American Myth/Apocalypse/Romance/Horror/kitchen sink series, The Dark Dreamer.  I am trying to refocus myself toward completing the sequel, although why I should when the first book has been largely ignored must be ascribed to monomania and ego gratification.  Below is the prologue to the second book.  The first book, “The Dark Dreamer”, is available in kindle and paperback format on Amazon under my pseudonym S.C. Foster.  It is written from the perspective of a woman named Madeline Greer.  The series will eventually be a trilogy, or so I hope.

Prologue:

I dreamed that I was a woman fleeing through fallen leaves from a wrecked truck. A man was in front of me, pulling me by the wrist as something large and frightening chased after us. The trees quivered and the earth rumbled. Cold gales blasted the trees and chilled me to my bones, howling like wolves on the hunt. I glanced back and saw the giant bounding after us, each stomping step a tremor that shook more leaves from the trees. His voice boomed like artillery shells.
“I will slay all monsters, Malsum!” the giant called.
“He is not Malsum,” I cried. “He is Glooskap!”
The giant did not listen to me. I heard the tightening of a bow— like an old tree creaking in foul winds— and the man that led me shoved me aside.
“Run away from me!” he cried. “He is only after me!”
I did what he told me to do, veering far afield of him. Suddenly, the night sky exploded with light as a great crackling arrow shorn the shadow-heavy forest. Trees exploded and leaves scattered. I was thrown face-first into the moss. Dizzied and disoriented, I rose to my feet, trembling.
“Harry!” I cried.
“Run, Maddie!” his voice answered me. “Go!”
I wanted to run to him, not away from him.
Another lightning bolt illuminated the forest and exploded, blooming as a ball of light that showered the trees in light and fire. I was thrown once again as the blinding white radiance tore through the foliage and set them aflame. Leaning against a tree for support, I stood and looked in the conflagration for the man I had called Harry. I saw the giant striding through the forest, his lope as calm and assured as a hunter who had downed a buck with a single bullet to the heart. I saw Harry’s body laying upon the ground, unmoving amidst the inferno. He was smoking and bloody, his chest black and red like his flannel shirt. I called out to him.
“Harry! Get up!”
He did not hear me, nor did he respond to the booming tread of the giant that came for him, stooping over.
“Get away from him!” I screamed.
The giant paused. He regarded me with an impassive eye, then lifted Harry by his feet, dangling him in one hand. Harry was limp and unconscious, swaying side to side with the movements of the giant. The giant appeared to be a regular man, but taller than a water tower. His animal-skin boots were large enough to cover a car. Over his shoulders was a buffalo’s hide. Atop his head was a crown of colossal antlers. He leaned over me, peering at me closely— his face painted with red streaks of what smelled like blood.
“Harry,” I whimpered.
The limp man stirred. Hanging upside-down, he glanced about wildly. There appeared in his hands a gray fur blanket. While the giant peered at me, Harry drew the blanket over his head, disappearing into its expanding folds.
Something happened to him, then. I did not understand it, but it was a dream so there was no logic to it anyway. One moment he was a man and the next he was a large wolf. He bit into the giant’s hands, mauling his fingers until the giant roared and flung him away. The giant then readied his bow, a lightning bolt striking the arrow and electrifying the night sky. When he unloosed the arrow the sky ruptured with blinding fulgurations.

Free Kindle Book Weekend

Presently, and for a couple of days, two of my ebooks are free on Amazon.  “Strange Hours” is a collection of short stories and novellas that I have written over the last five years.  They range from Fairy Tales to Dark Fantasy to Weird fiction and Horror (the latter being primarily Lovecraftian cosmic horror).

 

The second book freely available for the weekend is a novel written under my pseudonym SC Foster.  It is a Horror Romance based primarily upon Ojibwe mythology.  There are erotic elements, but they are not particularly gratuitous.  If you enjoy werewolves, wendigos, shapeshifters, primordial serpents, and Native American mythology, or you are simply looking for escapist literature in the vein of Angela Carter’s “Bloody Chamber” motifs, then give it a try.

Endymion Dreams

At night the field is as silent and still
as Endymion steeped in starlit dreams,
mists floating up in the dewy chill
and the Moon’s gentle wash of beams.
Ghosts arise and slowly walk the grass
where lovers once lived and died together,
forgotten while ages unto ages pass
like mists unto mists upon the heather.
Shadowy trees border the field of flowers—
gentle giants huddled around each side
to partake in dreams from these quiet hours
as Endymion dreams of his gossamer bride.
And behind them the sky is dark blue
like tired eyes behind heavy lashes
while the stars, arrayed, shine softly through
nebulas spread in watercolor splashes.
A single fox steals through the meadow
and slips under mist like a slender flare,
looking for a bush to claim as its bed, though
she moves through the dream with care.
Nearby, with eyes as deep and dark as night,
a doe lays down with her newborn fawn
in a copse where his scattered spots of white
cannot be seen until the coming dawn.
And still Endymion dreams,
cradled in his sleepy valley of love,
covered in sheets woven of misty seams
as Selene gazes upon him from up above.
She cannot touch him, nor he her,
for to do any such thing would wake them
so that their dream of love would flee thither
and, at love’s parting, break them.
At dawn the sheep begin to rise,
as does their shepherd, who, sighing,
sees the mists fading with bleary eyes,
wondering what he dreamt, and why he is crying.

A Storm Without Thunder

A chapter from a supernatural romance I published under a pseudonym.  I am hoping it will be a hit among women who like supernatural romance novels from the heroine’s perspective.  Its characters and plot are based on many Native American myths, ranging from Iroquois to Navajo, but primarily based upon Ojibwe myths.

 

CHAPTER 15 A STORM WITHOUT THUNDER

A storm was brewing on the Western horizon. It darkened the evening prematurely, bringing twilight at an earlier hour.
The dogs were barking. I didn’t know what at. I saw them all facing the lake. It seemed odd because I had never known the dogs to bark at fish or turtles before. I knew of a crane that sometimes came sailing in near twilight, but the dogs never bothered it. Maybe the silly dogs were just barking at their own reflections.
I heard a heaving, roiling splash in the center of the lake. The dogs all yelped and I ran to the porch, looking out into the brooding murk to see the dogs fleeing back toward the house. Upon the lake I saw large waves crashing from end to end, as if a gigantic catfish had leapt and plunged. Harry appeared, then, and stood next to me, looking out at the lake.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“Something restless for nightfall,” he said.
He went into the shed, and down into the bunker. When he returned he had his black revolver. He opened the chamber and filled the empty slots with bullets.
The wind bellowed like a beast. The trees thrashed their limbs and quivered in excitement, like spectators in a coliseum eager for a gladiatorial match. Shadows shifted and pitched sideways into one another as the horizon blackened, forming mobs of darkness. Harry fetched a large studio spotlight and placed it on the porch, shining its piercing halo on the surface of the lake. I stood beside him, fearful of what might be revealed in that split luminescent wound of night.
The water tossed and churned within the lake. I caught blinking glimpses of something in the waves— something lined with triangular spikes— but it was too fast and too far away to discern. Yet, there was a rhythm and a musicality to the motions of the water. It was hypnotic. I found myself swaying ever so lightly to its pace. Even the dogs stopped barking, watching the thing in the water spin and billow. I heard a hissing not unlike the crackling hiss of lightning during a thunderstorm, and yet there was no rumble of thunder above. It made me feel scared and small and insignificant. Meaningless. My very heart seemed to doubt whether I was worth the work of keeping alive, palpitating with a faltering beat.
Rain began to fall. The sky was starless and moonless, concealed by fulgurous clouds that warred amongst one another. How dwarfed I felt beneath their crackling voices! Like an ant beneath the shadow of elephants.
Harry stepped down from the porch and began to walk toward the lake. At first I was so transfixed by my own feelings of futility that I could only stand by and watch him recede. But seeing him walking toward the churning waters compelled my body forward. I ran after him with a staggered stride, still shaking off my own insignificance beneath the storm. When I reached him, I grabbed him by the wrist.
“Don’t!” I said.
He looked at me as if half asleep and still dreaming. “The maelstrom calls to me,” he said. His eyes were blank of expression, lost far away from himself in some benighted realm. “The mouth that is the grotto. The whirlpool throat of the seas. I must go there.”
Fearing he might pull away, and thus be lost from me forever, I took a handful of his raven-black hair and yanked on it with all of my strength and weight, tugging his head down as I fell to the ground. A blaze of fury woke within the dark, empty hollows of his eyes.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Maddie?!” he demanded. The clouds crackled overhead, and he heard the swirling waters and felt the falling rain. The blaze of fury went out of his eyes, replaced by a determined scowl. “Quick,” he said. “Inside the house. Now.”
He helped me up and we rushed inside. Standing by the back porch door, we looked out at the spotlighted lake. Whatever swirled inside the water soon slowed in its whirlpool. The waters crashed for a while longer, but soon smashed themselves down flat and silent like armies destroying themselves to the last man. Hopeful, I dared to think that whatever dwelled in the water had gone, departed in disappointment back to whatever infernal world it had come from.
But I was wrong.
In one lurching heave, the water surged like a tidal wave crashing over the earth and splashing against the side of the cabin. A gigantic creature exploded out from the onrush of water. Its body was long— too long for the spotlight to adequately detail. Its eyes winced in the spotlight’s glare, its ears drawn back beneath long horns and its fangs bared like a tiger ready to strike. Its face was that of a tiger’s, too, or perhaps a panther’s, for it had the same broad black head and feline grimace as the biggest cats on earth. It was jet-black, like night taken to animal shape, and its scaly pelt glistened darkly with a water-dappled lividness that burned like obsidian. When it roared, whitewater foam erupted from its mouth and I felt myself taken away to oblivion by that raging-river bellow. Lightning flashed in its eyes.
Harry aimed the revolver and fired three times. I heard the bullets strike the creature and ricochet off its scaly skin.
“It’s no use,” he said, tossing the gun aside.
Harry picked me up bodily and rushed me upstairs in a manic sprint.
“There is no thunder,” he was saying. “Where have they gone?”
Setting me in one of the upstairs rooms, he told me to remain there and be quiet. He then took an animal skin from the wall— one I had not seen before, but which seemed frightfully familiar— and wrapped himself in its expansive black pelt.
“Harry,” I said, “no.”
He ran downstairs, heedless of my call. I followed him, pleading with him to stop. The pelt tightened around him as he stumbled toward the door. Reaching the porch, he fell to his knees and the skin spread over him like a swollen tarp. I could do nothing to stop the transformation.
Kneeling, Harry trembled and swayed. His body expanded, like a balloon filling with air. He did not stretch thin such as he had during his transformation into a wolf, but grew rotund and muscled in proportion to the pelt, his whole body broadening to a breadth that dwarfed his human form many times over, his back bulging with mass and power. I shrank away from him as I realized where he had gotten that skin.
Harry’s face extended outward into a fat maw and his head grew broad— as broad as his human shoulders— and fur matted his face. He groaned in pain, and his groan became a growl, and his growl became a roar. His ursine snout curdled with rage as he sprang forward on four paws, bounding toward the creature in the yard.
I rushed upstairs and went to a door that led to a second-storey balcony overlooking the lake. Rain fell heavy now and I stood in its downpour, trying to see the clash of beasts in the wayward luminescence of the overturned spotlight and the streaks of lightning. I could hear more than I could see, the hissing and the roaring becoming like a storm at sea. What I could see horrified me with its flashing glimpses. The black panther was not so large as the Great Bear, but it was long and much faster. The bulky form that belonged to Harry was slower, and was repeatedly tackled and grappled by that more agile creature. Its slender body outmaneuvered him. Its saber-toothed mouth bit into Harry’s heft. It gored his jiggling flanks with its long horns. It slashed him with its claws until I cried out in anguish at the wounds rent in Harry’s animal flesh.
There was no thunder. That was what Harry had said. It seemed insane to be thinking of that right now, but it was true. There was no thunder overhead; only rain and lightning and wind like a belligerent roar. What happened to the thunder? Where had it gone?
I felt helpless, and yet I needed to do something. I ran downstairs and emerged on the ruined back porch. I found the spotlight and lifted it up. Maybe I was a fool. Maybe I was suicidal. I did not know. What I did know for certain was that Harry was in the creature’s grip again and it was clamping its saber teeth into his thick neck, its clawed limbs twisted around his body. Harry bellowed in rage and pain. In my desperation I aimed the spotlight at the creature’s eyes, stabbing those pale deep-sea orbs with that sharp luminescence.
The creature tried to look away, even as it tried to snap Harry’s neck. But no matter which way it turned, I aimed the spotlight in its eyes like a marksman keen on his shot. The panther released Harry, to my great joy, and, to my great terror, came dashing toward me. I flashed the light in its eyes, but it did not deter it. Instead, it hissed more loudly and, jerking this way and that, came upon me faster. As it readied to pounce, however, I saw a group of figures dart in front of me and array themselves around me. Buster, Rebel, Yankee, Boomer, and Bunyan, ever in the lead, barked and snarled and growled at the hideous monster. It may have dwarfed them all, but it was bewildered by the noisy collection of small creatures that had flung themselves in front of me. It did not know what to make of them, or which to devour first.
The creature overcame its bewilderment and swiped at the dogs. Yankee and Rebel went tumbling over each other, yelping. Bunyan yapped and leapt only to be swatted away like a gnat. Boomer rushed to protect the leader and bit the creature’s forepaw. He was shaken off and flung into the ricks of logs near the shed. Only Buster remained and he became so wound up with excitement and terror that he sprang up at the panther, head-butting its jaw. The beast looked more surprised than injured. Buster claimed victory and ran around its flanks, taunting it with his barks. The denticulated tail found Buster, though, and sent him rolling, almost like an afterthought. The panther creature was focused once again upon me.
I fled inside the cabin. The panther lunged and I fell and spun backwards. Its gnashing teeth nearly caught my feet, but its shoulders were stayed by the doorway’s frame. The head nonetheless strained forward, reaching for me as I retreated further into the living room. I threw the spotlight at its head. It bounced off harmlessly. Looking frantically about the room, my eyes alighted on deer antlers that adorned the cabin’s walls. I ran toward them as the doorway collapsed inward and the outer wall gave way. The panther’s breath was upon me as I pulled the thorny antlers down. I dove behind the couch just as the panther’s mouth slammed into the wall where I formerly stood. Crying in fear, I wrestled with the antlers and raised them above me, like a porcupine readying its quills. The couch suddenly split apart and flew away, thrown by that saber-toothed mouth. Fear crippled my mind and frenetic instinct reigned. I swung the antlers at the panther, wildly raking its face as I struggled to my feet. Its hide shrugged off the blows, but one glancing strike hit his eye, gouging it in an eruption of blood.
Suddenly, the panther’s eyes widened in surprise, its head withdrawing from the living room and out into the night. The living room light bled outside, casting the figures of Harry and the panther as they circled each other. Harry had clutched the denticulated tail of the shimmery black beast, and was pulling him away from the cabin. The beast wheeled about, tackling Harry. They tumbled over each other in a ball of teeth and claws and fur and blood. The panther pinned Harry to the ground and clamped its jaws to Harry’s throat. Harry roared and his roar wavered to a human scream. I realized the panther was not trying to snap Harry’s neck, but was instead peeling Harry’s animal pelt from his human flesh. Where the pelt was stripped, the bulky ursine muscles withered to human proportions. The divide between man and animal hemorrhaged like a deep, arterial wound. I cried out, thinking him dying.
Then I heard coarse-throated laughter and saw a small shadow flit over the two clasped figures. The shadow alighted upon the panther’s forehead, jamming its sharp beak into that lunar-lobed sphere and pecking deep within the closing eyelid, prying the viscera from the socket like a spoon scooping grape jelly from a mason jar.
The panther screeched, relinquishing its death-grip upon Harry and rolling head over tail, flailing its claws. The bird, however, had already flown elsewhere, laughing wildly in voices of both a man and a raven.
Meanwhile, Harry nestled into his pelt once more, the blood becoming like a glue that bonded man and animal together.
The panther creature was still screeching and flailing when Harry charged, launching himself atop the beast and rolling it onto its back; clutching its throat in his jaws while his thick arms clasped its neck. The panther dug its claws into Harry’s rotund flanks, but Harry did not let go. The panther rolled and tumbled and flopped over like a cat with a broken back. It suddenly sprinted into the lake, both it and Harry disappearing into the churning black depths.
I ran out to the water’s edge, fearful of what I could not see. The dogs limped toward me, watching and whimpering as the waters heaved and tossed and boiled. It was as if a volcano were erupting just below the surface.
“A vicious beast.”
I was too scared to be startled by Corvus’s sudden appearance.
“The Water King, I mean,” he said. “Though Harry can be a vicious beast, too.”
The roiling thrash within the water subsided. The water settled, the rain making little circles upon its surface and hammering the waves down to an eerie calm. The monochrome night betrayed no color upon the water. The blackness of the lake was like the deathly stillness of the dark side of the moon.
“Harry?” I whispered, fearful of what might answer me.
The water bulged upward and surged forward. The dogs barked and I felt my heart leap; whether in fear or hope, I could not say. The water broke like a seed and I saw Harry’s snout emerge from the splitting shell. A dark piece of hide hung ragged in his ursine teeth.
Corvus, the dogs, and I all backed away from the lake, giving Harry space as he came ashore. He was still breathing heavily through his nose, and violence gleamed in his feral eyes, even as his bedraggled body trembled with fatigue.
“Come away,” Corvus said, leading me toward the cabin. “He cannot discern friend from foe.”
Harry had been exhausted by his fight with the panther, and he collapsed upon the ground, still clutching the victory pelt in his mouth. As I stood on the ruins of the porch, Corvus unfurled a strange blanket— taken from thin air—and rushed forward to drape it over Harry’s broad head. The blanket was rainbow colored and made of rough-spun thread. There were symbols in its weave, but I did not know what they meant.
“To soothe the beast’s blood,” Corvus said, “and to lull the animal dreams inside him.”
Harry did not stir. His deep, sonorous breath hushed the forest.
Corvus and I waited in the murk until dawn, watching Harry sleep. When the first light of sunrise touched him, Harry shriveled inside the pelt— like wood burning down to ash— and he once again became a man beneath the expansive black fur. We went to him, then, and Corvus took off the calming blanket. I was too concerned with Harry to see what Corvus did with the blanket, but it was gone by the time he helped me take Harry inside the house.
Harry clutched the panther’s skin in his hands.
“What…happened?” he asked. He hung unsteadily between us, his arms strung up heavily upon our shoulders as his stumbling feet slowly progressed. “Did…did he descend again?”
“Yes,” Corvus said.
Harry moaned like a wounded beast. When we set him upon his bed I saw the tears on his cheeks and how he trembled with sobs.
“Just lock me away,” he said. “Lock me…away…forever…until the stars devour themselves…and the sun should fall from the sky…”
“Not yet, my friend,” Corvus said, taking the panther’s pelt away from him. It glistened like alligator leather. “You have too much to do, yet.”