Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest. As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour. His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs. Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.
“Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said. “The rain has a chill. ”
Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked. Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided. Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life. They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.
It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs. He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut. He saw Eiji standing near the corner. The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be. Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see. There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft. This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness. It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip. Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.
Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand. The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.
And a voice spoke.
“Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo. “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”
“What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror. He held his son behind him, protectively.
“I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot. “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”
“You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.
“Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said. The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire. “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”
Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it. “Ask for something else, ” he said. “I will do what you wish. But you may not take my son. ”
“I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.
Nobuteru looked at his wife. He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.
“Very well, ” he said. “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”
“No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly. “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ” The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo. “Five flood seasons from now. No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”
The voice died away like a withdrawing wind. Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well. Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know. He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.
“This is all a bad dream, ” he said. “Do not tell your mother. She must not know. Promise. ”
The tremulous boy nodded obediently.
Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest. Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder. He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them. He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut. His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him. The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.
Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child. Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born. Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest. He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres. He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.
It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous. Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad. A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.
“Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest. “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”
“Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said. “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”
He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter. Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive. It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.
“We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said. “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”
The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why. She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind. Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts. They cherished her, as they did her brother. To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi. But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.
The ritual lasted all day and night. What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof. It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks. The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon. Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved. Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted. She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.
Years passed. Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive. She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously. Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment. Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed. To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.
Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all. No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season. When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing. The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.
Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest. He became a fisherman to sustain his family. Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever. He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience. Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him. But he did not speak of such things to anyone. He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.
Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them. But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko. Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl. She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring. Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment. She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play. She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well. Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her. When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves. This troubled Eiji.
“There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father. “She is no longer as she was. ”
“So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said. “That is what the spirit promised. ”
“You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.
“Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted. “That is why I moved our family here. The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest. The priest saw to it. ”
“But father… ”
“Enough! ” his father snapped. “That is all! Do not speak of it anymore! ”
Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.
That night the rain fell hard. The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse. Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill. No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound. Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding. He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen. The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.
Gradually, they all fell asleep. They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain. When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways. Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko. They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow. All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind. But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko. Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own. Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her. He failed. Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills. They did not see Aiko again that night.
The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror. They called for Aiko. They prayed to the gods. Nothing answered them. When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo. Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead. They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay. When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine. It was shunned by animals and people alike. Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl. It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head. No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.
“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.
My governess, Rosamund, was quite vexed with me today. It was all her fault, naturally. It was she who left me unsupervised while I was plunged in my French studies, the lax woman taking the liberty of a walk about the garden with her favourite servant of the house, Clifford. While she was thus engaged I neglected my French in favour of the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies. It is ever a dear subject beloved in my heart—Fairies, I mean to say, not French—and I maintain that it must hold in its strange murk some glittering kernel of truth, as a nugget of gold amidst a vast coal mine of shadows. That is why I keep secret my copy of The Strand, though two years have passed since its publication. I am more inclined to read it than anything else published by Arthur Conan Doyle, particularly his stifling adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, I am astounded that Doyle could have entertained the Cottingley Fairies with any seriousness. When I consider his famously logical detective and his vacuous rationalism, one would never think Doyle of an inclination toward the phantastical. And yet, I hold within my hands evidence to the contrary.
Father attempted to dispossess me of the magazine because he believed that it fueled my fancies. What he had failed to understand, however, was that I am a keen observer of things, and so when he ordered Clifford to throw it out, I knew precisely where the magazine would find itself. That is to say, in Clifford’s bedroom. Rosamund is not the only person to search Clifford’s bare furnishings for an incriminating item.
Father has many times reprimanded Rosamund for being lax with her attentions to my studies. Therefore, when she returned from her walk she administered the French crucible in earnest, testing my poorly cultivated powers of the French tongue. I failed decidedly to follow her conversation and therefore confirmed her fears concerning my capacity for that quarrelsome language. It was an utterly hopeless cause. I would sooner master the magic of flight than master that tongue.
C’est la vie.
Of course, that is not to say I am deficient in mental acuity to master the language. Only, I rather prefer my native tongue, having honed its edge and multiplied its vocabulary with thirteen years of practice and study. I am ever collecting words for it, as fervently as any lepidopterist his beautiful specimens, whereas my French tongue withers and wanes without sufficient nourishment. And quite by design. I confine French to the basement, like a lowly urchin, and let it die slowly of starvation. My aim is to be a celebrated novelist of the phantastical variety. Not Gothic, understand, nor of the Romances, but such as Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald, the poetess Christina Rossetti and poet Alfred Tennyson. This aim is at dire odds with Father’s intentions for me. He claims a man of good breeding and better fortune would never condescend to marry a young woman of frivolous ambition, and that I should abandon my fanciful daydreams lest they interfere with more pragmatic aspirations. But I cannot help my mold and manner, anymore than his humorless austerity. Austen was apt to remind us that no man worthy of his estate wishes to link his life to a silly wife, but that is of no consequence to me. To the contrary, to marry would be the greatest consequence of all.
I persist in my ambitions, adamant that a capable mind may accommodate both pragmatism and phantasia. I intend, in short, to win financial independence as Jane Austen had, whereby I will thereupon claim freedom to be as stoic or as silly as my inclination should dictate.
June 21st, 1922
I saw a Fairy today! A real, honest-to-God Fairy! I am all aquiver at the recollection, scarcely able to write with a steady hand. Oh, but what a day! How shall I recall this otherworldly encounter? I suppose I should begin with banal descriptions of the Fairy himself.
Outwardly, he seemed but an unremarkable boy such as would be drawn from any common stock in England. He was a young boy and was of a young boy’s height. His hair was dark brown and his skin so pale that he seemed a deathly ill person. I was sitting beneath the gazebo when he alighted on the railing. I quickly put aside Voltaire’s Candide and stared in astonishment at his boldness. He crouched upon the railing like a crow and said nothing. He was utterly naked, which should have embarrassed me; only, he was a Fairy and, so, why would I fault him his heathen manner and means? He moved so strangely, his head lolling loosely and his limbs somewhat slack as if he might, at any moment, swoon and tumble to the ground. His eyes stared unblinkingly and his mouth hung open, nor did his blue lips move smoothly. His otherworldliness was confirmed in every bizarre respect.
Yet, I cannot refrain from noting with great disappointment that he did not possess butterfly wings. Rather, there extended from his back the translucent wings of a dragonfly: long and elliptical and diaphanous. It was a pity. Perhaps the females of the species are possessed of butterfly wings. I should hope so or it seems a dreadful waste of feminine conceit.
“Hello,” I said to him. “How do you do?”
The poor creature must have been malnourished, like a hummingbird that has been famished for too long a time, for he swayed as if he might fall. But he did not collapse. His mouth gaped open, and his throat undulated, the vocal cords producing something akin to human speech, and that speech was, surprisingly, a disordered form of English.
“Girl, pretty,” he said. “Fairy, I. Fairy, I. Pretty girl. Wings like Fairy? Wings like I?”
“I haven’t any wings, no,” I said.
The Fairy’s head tossed left and right ungracefully. “No. Wings, want? Like I?”
I understood him, then, to mean that if I should want wings I should have them. But I did not care for his wings or the prospect of having such. Being ever direct and thoughtless in my address, I said, “I would rather have butterfly wings.”
He grew agitated at this, vibrating like a locust in Summer, so I apologized.
“Please forgive me,” I said, “for I have always been very forthright. A novelist must be so when concerning the facts. Your wings are quite becoming for your being a boy. It is only that a young lady should prefer wings more ornate to hold her aloft. Though I am confused how I might procure wings of my own, having not been born a Fairy. Or have I misunderstood you?”
“Wings, pretty girl,” he said, though his lax mouth did not conform to the words, nor did the strangely buzzing voice seem quite his own as it issued from his bulging throat. “Pretty wings. Pretty girl. Pretty, pretty, pretty.”
Nothing of his speech struck me as particularly pretty, but I suppose that is the manner of all boys, whether born of Adam or of Avalon.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he continued to say in his buzzing voice.
“Very so,” I agreed, “or I should like to think. I have been told my mother was a beauty in her time, God rest her soul. My name is Esme. I am French by name, as well as by mother, but British by way of breeding and upbringing. And by way of Father. And who might you be?”
“Who?” he said.
“You, my silly fellow,” I said. “What is your name? What do I call you?”
“Name?” the Fairy said, his countenance lax. “No names. One in many. Not one at all.”
Such a voice! Like the buzzing of insects. Yet I understood him well enough.
“So you have no name,” I said. “Then I should like—with your permission—to name you.”
“Name?” he said again, and I took it to mean his consent.
I considered him for a moment as he crouched upon the railing. Sunlight sparkled upon his diaphanous wings, and he swayed like a drunkard straight from the wine cellar. Perhaps it was my imagination getting the better of me in this wondrous moment, but I fancied I saw something strange upon his back, glimpsed only edgewise and briefly. But I could not discern what it could have been. Likely it was a shadow and his disheveled hair behind his ears and down his neck.
“I believe your name should be…” I paused, letting the thought come of its own accord. Suddenly, it struck me like lightning. “Ariel! Yes, of course. That is who you are, my confused Fairy friend. It is perfect for you. Ariel. How do you do, Ariel?”
He did not seem impressed, or perhaps he was simply indifferent. Fairies do not conform to human pretenses in many ways, it seems, and names are just one of many customs they forego. He watched me with his unblinking eyes and, though I was still enchanted by his presence, I began to feel peculiar. The gaze of his eyes seemed so faraway, and yet keen, and it quite unnerved me in their contrary nature. I could not deduce why. Perhaps it was the faint luminosity in his eyes, such as that of a somnambulist astir in the middle of the night. The shadow at his back again disturbed me, nor could I distinguish it, even as the sunlight draped him over his shoulders with its radiance.
At length, there came two voices from down the garden walkway—two figures engaged in private conversation peppered with giggles and chuckles and cooing sighs. At the sound, Ariel fluttered his wings and took flight, flitting swiftly away into the air. I left the gazebo, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in a higher altitude, but he had vanished before I had emerged from under the rounded roof.
Rosamund and Clifford approached, their voices quieting conspiratorially as they neared me, though their spiteful grins remained.
“Hello, Esme,” Clifford said, quite too familiar for a mere servant in Father’s household. “How go the daydreams?”
“Better than my French,” I confessed, which was much to great folly, for it invited Rosamund’s scrutiny at once.
“Are you studying French?” she asked, as if all that mattered in the world between us was my fluency.
“No,” I said. “I was reading and then the most unbelievable thing happened.”
“Indeed?” Clifford said, exchanging a dubious glance with Rosamund. “And what was that?”
I opened my mouth to disclose the encounter with the Fairy, but faltered before the utterance of a single word, realizing the ridicule that should follow.
“Yes?” Clifford said, patiently.
When I faltered, yet again, Rosamund scoffed. “I should say it was that she applied the proper conjugations to her French verbs. But that is too unbelievable, even for a believer in miracles, such as myself.”
I scowled at the vexing crumpet, but turned away so she did not observe it.
“I saw…I saw a wondrous dragonfly,” I said. “Inordinately large. Strange. Unlike any other I have ever seen.”
Rosamund and Clifford exchanged another look—this look being one of disappointment and disinterest.
“Dear,” Clifford said to Rosamund, “perhaps you ought to allow her to indulge her fancies a little more, or else she will be grow ever duller until she is fascinated by account ledgers, and so ruin her leisure.”
“If only she would!” Rosamund remarked, shaking her ugly brown curls. “She would be so much more manageable, in any case. And to think she might read account ledgers in French! Her father would be impressed greatly. He might even raise my wages!”
Rosamund laughed heartily and went along her way. Clifford dutifully followed, accompanying her. I remained near the gazebo. I would have been greatly injured by their insolence, but I was too delighted with my newfound Fairy friend to begrudge my petty governess and a lowly servant for paltry slights. Their comeuppance would come in due time. The universe is a just place, after all, and the Scales of Justice mete out their punishments eventually, even if only incrementally.
June 22nd, 1922
I am all melancholy! Ariel did not visit me today. I am afraid that I offended him by refusing the wings he had offered me. But, honestly, how might a human girl be granted wings? I am not a Fairy. Perhaps Fairies may, by magic, confer wings upon one such as myself. If so, I should like that very much. Only, I should want butterfly wings, not his meager dragonfly wings. That being said, with any such wings I should aspire to the very sun itself. None could keep me grounded, either by order or obligation. And to think of the look upon Rosamund’s quarrelsome face! Just to think of her potential expression as I fly away from her, and from Father’s estate itself, would be a daydream made manifest. I would be irreproachable, for I would be faraway from anyone disposed to be captious. Such liberty! Perhaps tomorrow Ariel will return and offer me again his gift, but on better terms.
I should so very much prefer butterfly wings!
June 23rd, 1922
The Devil take that bovine busybody! Betty overheard me speaking with Ariel through my window last night. Why she should be in the family wing, and so late at night, I do not know, but I believe it testifies poorly to a scullery maid’s character that she should be skulking about so late and where she is not wanted. She forthwith informed Father that I—his one and only daughter—was talking to myself like a lunatic. What infuriated me more, however, was Father’s credence to the portly spinster in contradiction to my own account of the facts. Of course, my account was false, and I readily admit it here, but the substance of the catastrophe is that Father does not trust me more than a ridiculous woman who has no business passing by my bedchamber so late in the night. Or ever! Were it the morning, I might abide it. I have sometimes caught her passing my door early in the morning, before the rest of the household had roused itself. Presumably to wake Father—though Father always wakes later than even myself, despite Betty’s early presumption to rouse him—but that is amiss of the point! I am too upset to concentrate my powers of reasoning. Enough for today! I will write more at a later time.
June 24th, 1922
Having reread the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies—with a greatly expanded personal knowledge concerning Fairy kin—I can only conclude that the Fairies therein photographed are but flat, fabricated artifice meant to swindle credence from the idiotic public. Indeed, the whole affair is either an absurd fabrication or, less likely, the Fairies photographed are a different breed than that of Ariel, for they are of utterly disparate sizes and dimensions from the friend whom I know so well. Ariel is as veritable as the very hand which writes this, and though I have never seen his back, there is no doubt of the authenticity of his wings. They carry him aloft, clearly before my uninhibited eyes. But what of the Cottingley Fairies? Never do I see a photograph wherein the dainty creatures suspend themselves freely in the air. Rather, they are as stiffly aground as any doll within a dollhouse.
I cannot help but be vexed at the idiocy of the Cottingley phenomenon. It is a ruse, unless, of course, it is not and there do happen to exist Fairies of diminutive size with wings more pleasing to my sensibilities. But I simply cannot abide the idea that there would be Fairies with pretty little butterfly wings, and that they should neglect my acquaintance! Perhaps there are other such Fairies, and perhaps I shall meet them in due time and be invited to dance with them.
Ariel seems disinclined to dance, and disinclined to mirth generally. Were he invited to dance in a roundel to the piping of flutes, he would only crouch—as he ever does—and stare imbecilically at the other dancers enjoying themselves. Is this a common trait of all of his people or is it his own unique predilection? Perhaps other Fairies bear themselves not so clumsily as Ariel and, so, can keep time enough with music to enjoy moonlit revelries. At times I think Ariel is soft in the head, like an imbecile, and doleful. Perhaps he seeks me to enliven his own dolorous life, having been born of a temperament unbecoming of livelier pursuits.
In my experience the stranger personages known have been of the human variety. Father’s household, for example, consists of too many bizarre characters. Jasper, the new gardener, eyed me too familiarly today. This seems a great feat in and of itself when one realizes that Jasper is a gangly lowbred fool with a wayward eye. Even so, he eyed me and continues to eye me when he thinks I am not looking. I abide the impertinence for now— if only for the sake of his widowed mother, for whom he labours to afford a livelihood—but should he persist in this unwelcome presumption, I will have a word with Father and have Jasper spirited away.
This is not to say that I did not have an otherwise splendid evening. I read The Goblin Market once again today while Ariel crouched at my window, listening. There did not appear any transition of emotions across his countenance during the whole reading, but I think he listened quite attentively. He always does. Occasionally he interrupted me to ask if I wanted wings, but I steadfastly stuck to the reading. Even Fairies must be cultivated in the finer Arts that humans have made in their honour. Someday I will read to him the play The Tempest so he may understand his namesake. I do not wish to read to him A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lest the bard’s flippancy be misunderstood and a war be declared between humanity and Fairy folk. There is too much war in the world in the present age as it is.
June 25th, 1922
Once again I caught Betty passing my door early this morning, before the dawn mists had even gathered in their fullness. She appeared in a disarrayed sort of state, and yet her corpulent smile was one of vast satisfaction, as if she had spent the predawn eating a grand feast when she should have been preparing breakfast for the rest of the household.
Father did not rise until much later in the day. Beneath his whiskers was an ever-fixed smile—a slight smile, for Father was never one to indulge overmuch on any conveyance of emotion—and he walked with an energy that bordered on mirth, insomuch as he was concerned. Perhaps the Fairies had enchanted him and Betty. I must ask Ariel upon his next visitation.
June 26th, 1922
Having reread some of my earlier entries, I must sadly confess that I do not write as abundantly as I should. Therefore, I am of the conviction that the only means by which to improve my capacities as an authoress is to write with renewed diligence. Only discipline and perseverance conjoined together may manifest true genius, however strong one’s natural daemon might be. Thus, I am inclined to exercise my daemon in pursuit of that subject which most infatuates me presently: Fairies. Thus, this needful exercise necessitates that I write of my dearest bosom friend, Ariel.
Ariel—as I have stated in a previous entry—is not one to make merry in a roundel, dancing like Puck beset with mirth. Rather, he is more the toadstool around which the other Fairies prance and cavort. Sometimes he is so silent and vacant of expression that I believe mushrooms shall sprout from his ears. Thus, he is more a dead log than a flower in a playful breeze. One would think Oberon banished him, so dour is Ariel’s countenance. Or perhaps Titania hexed him for some unnamed naughtiness in regard to one among her maidens. Men are wont to do as they do, regardless of race. Maybe Ariel is Puck himself, discombobulated through magic until all that remains of his former mischief is the impertinence of his steadfast stare. His eyes are dim lodestars leading to a chilly emptiness. Sometimes I fear where they will lead me.
June 27th, 1922
Father, for all of his earnest endorsements of Reason as a guiding principle, has proven himself guided as much by fancy as ever I was. He has bought a dog. Nor is it any small specimen, but a large hellhound. It is the largest among the breeds I have ever seen —a Great Dane, no less —and I cannot help but think it a terrible indulgence on behalf of someone else ’s whim. Betty ’s, most likely. No doubt she sees in its largess a certain kinship to her own breeding. Large, cumbrous creatures adore other large creatures insomuch as they allay their own self-consciousness. And so I have yet another proof of Betty ’s plot to ruin me. The lumbering behemoth is named Caliban —that is what I have come to call him, anyway —and I loathe him so. Why should I not? He is ever barking roughly and abounding clumsily, smelling most disagreeably. Were I inclined to dogs, I should like a sleek, graceful, and small dog of fine breeding and feature, not some cumbersome, dull-footed oaf scrambling in his overeager excitement to keep atop his ungainly legs. What ’s more, he chases Ariel away, barking and growling whenever I attempt to sit alone with my Fairy friend. Why, just this evening Ariel was at my window and the fatuous canine did not cease his barking until my friend had flown away. The belligerent beast had wakened the whole household, yet Father forgave so readily the misbegotten creature that Father seemed not himself at all, but a changeling. Betty apologized profusely, yet Father treated her tenderly — more tenderly than he should ever have his own daughter were her pet to rouse even half the household with its raucous barking.
I was so upset about that monstrous hellhound that I have been hitherto compelled to write an account of my grievances in my journal ere I fell asleep. If I may fall asleep. My nerves are frayed even now by the continued presence of that brutish beast. May the inferno reclaim him! Preferably without delay!
Father scolded me today. And what was the offense? I had barbed words with that corpulent imbecile, Betty. She had prepared a cake, as per my request, yet had failed to make it as I instructed. I am very fond of chocolate cakes —as are most people of elegant refinement —and, in this respect, the cake was successful, for it was, by and large, chocolate. However, the fatal flaw resided in the feature of the cake ’s only having two layers. This is unacceptable. All cakes must be possessed of three layers to be concluded wholly successful. Perhaps the lowborn can enjoy two layers of cake, but those of us who are cultivated know that the cream and the cake must be afforded proper portions in each bite. It is, I dare say, a scientific law within culinary circles. But Betty —being of such a hysterical disposition —collapsed in tears at my reprimand. When Father overheard the chastisement, (in which I was completely justified), he immediately soothed her and sided with the maudlin woman against me! When I then accused Betty of poorly allotting the amount of sugar, Father took me roughly aside and berated me with such ferocity that I wept a deluge of tears, as opposed to Betty ’s shallow tears. Yet, Father ignored my heartbreak in favour of Betty ’s. A cruelty, to be sure, and an absurdity against the laws of Nature. It is well-established that more finely bred people feel emotions more keenly and deeply than rough-worn labourers. But did Father soothe his daughter in her time of distress? Did he recant his harsh words when I wept alike to Andromeda chained to the rocks? No. He mentioned something irrelevant to the situation —concerning Betty ’s youngest brother and the War that had come and gone and such —and then left me alone to gather my tears. What cruelties Father hoists upon his one and only daughter!
My consolation came only later when Ariel appeared in the garden. I was sitting among the trellis, on a bench with the woodbine all around me. Ariel alighted beneath a statue of the Madonna. He was disposed to listen and so I confided in him, feeling much better while I spoke about, and ate, the cake in question. I offered him a piece, but he seemed unmoved by it, despite my magnanimous approval of Betty ’s failed attempt. Perhaps Fairy food ruins the lowly fare that we mortals consume. Or perhaps Fairies may not partake of our food without trapping themselves forever in our world, much as it is said we will be trapped in theirs should we partake in their feasts. Nonetheless, Ariel could have benefitted from some food. He was much more gaunt now than when we first met. His face was shrunken, his eyes dimmer than ever before, and the blueness of his lips spread along his pallid features. He looked as anemic as any blue-blooded member of the royal family.
And then Caliban chased him away. At times I feel as if the whole of this household conspires to vex me with their every breath!
July 2nd, 1922
My nerves have been too racked of late to write. I have attempted to find solace in the works of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Browning. The former I adore, but the latter is a prattling knave whose works are deliberately enigmatic in the worst conceivable manner. Did he think himself so clever for having written such abstruse dribble? I dare say, his “last duchess ” should have left him at the altar. I do not understand it, nor do I believe it a failing on part of my intelligence. Rather, obscurity reveals paradoxically the inabilities of the poet, and Browning ’s works are resplendent in their unrefined dimensions. Had he written his work less obtusely, he would have benefitted his audience and himself and his poetry with readier comprehension. I regret having ascertained Father ’s copy from his library. When I returned it I happened upon him reading to someone in the recessed window, near the globe. Sneaking surreptitiously within, I found that he was reading to none other than that bovine busybody, Betty! From what I heard, he was reading John Donne, which infuriated me. What infuriated me more, however, was the patience with which he explained to the dull intellect of that lowbred woman the deeper meaning of Donne ’s poetry. As if she could plunge those depths!
I was so upset that I bumped into a small table and knocked a book loudly onto the floor. Father perceived me at once and called to me. I had no recourse but to step forth into the humiliating scene.
“Is that my book of Robert Browning? ” Father asked.
“Yes, ” I answered.
“And did you enjoy it? ” he asked.
I answered that I did not enjoy it; that Mr. Browning was too overripe with himself.
“A peculiar way to put it, ” Father said. “But it is not to everyone ’s tastes. Perhaps when you grow older, and more familiar with the subtler meanings, you will grow your appreciation for it. ”
I could not bear this remark! It allotted me such short thrift, and no less from Father himself! And while in the audience of that cow-eyed imbecile, Betty! I stormed out of the library in a hail of tears and have not spoken a word to Father in three days ’ time! Indeed, the only person to whom I speak at all is Ariel, and only whenever it pleases him to make himself known. I have no means of summoning him and, so, my confessions and consolations are entirely dependent upon his own capricious nature. It is insufferable! I am as a prisoner in my own home! When will I enjoy the freedom that so many others take for granted?
July 2rd, 1922
Today was the anniversary of mother ’s death. Father went walking about the estate, accompanied by Betty. I mislike that. When he returned his eyes were red and Betty advantaged herself during his vulnerable state to take liberty of his arm. The impertinence! The audacity! She should have been stripped and beaten like the presumptuous harlot that she is! She plots grave machinations. She seeks to endear herself to Father, to make herself indispensable, and thus to establish herself in his intimacy, thereby exacting awful control over him, as belike a sorceress unto King Solomon. It is most intolerable! I know not what to do about it, however. Perhaps I shall put a few of Father ’s hair in a jar, alongside nails and wax, and bury it. That is a sure trap for witches, from what I understand.
I have been thinking of Mother today. She was French, so it seems only congruent that she should have died as she did, from what Father has deemed the “French disease ”. I do not know the particulars of this vague disease, but it favours all the more my inclination to despise all things French. Indeed, I am dedicated to being wholly British in bearing and pretense and perspective. Or perhaps a Fairy, if only I could have butterfly wings rather than those of a dragonfly.
There are children missing, or so the gardeners were saying today. Lowborn children from the country, I should say. The commoners bear so many children that I think one or two missing from each family should not be cause for alarm. They breed like sows, after all, and their litters are overfull. They seem to think, in their own superstitious way, that a witch has taken them. Maybe a witch has. Maybe Betty is one such witch. Betty has always been beholden to an excess of appetite. Yet today I noticed that she was ever cramming food into her maw, like some sow soon to farrow. I ’ve also noticed that she has grown more corpulent of late. Today I saw her belly strike the table repeatedly as she rolled out dough for our evening supper. Had I witnessed her nurse a litter of piglets I would not have been astonished in the least. Maybe she is a witch and she has eaten the lowborn children. If so, the Fairies will not let her take me. I will not feed her expanding largess. I would rather shove her down the stairs. How can Father indulge her so? Can he not see how bloated she has become beneath her frock? The mere sight of her is repulsive enough to disturb the hungriest appetite.
I resolve myself to speak to Ariel about betty and see what he would advise to do to remove her from the household.
July 3rd, 1922
Caliban is dead. It seems he contracted some virulent variety of worm while entertaining himself in his usual bestial manner. Clifford and Jasper were given the strenuous duty of carrying the heavy beast out to the field and burying him beneath a rather idyllic oak tree. Why they should wish to ruin the scenic oak with the overbearing beast ’s presence, I do not know. Betty was not to be consoled, though Father attempted with all the heavenly powers at his disposal. I could scarcely understand the need. It was a dog and dogs are earthly beasts resigned to their earthly brevity. It is not as though an actual soul had perished, only a small ball of nerves and instincts bound up in a skull. It is no different than a butterfly tumbling dead in a strong wind. Less tragic, I should say, for I do love the beauty of a butterfly ’s wings whereas there was nothing beautiful about Caliban. And his death was not so proud as that of a butterfly ’s. Jasper and his father were afeared to touch him due to the roiling, writhing creatures in his bowels.
Later today, while everyone was preoccupied with consoling each other over the departed hellbeast, I was visited by Ariel. I recounted for him the passing of Caliban. He was as unmoved as I was, though there seemed to be a certain comprehension in his eyes that I rarely saw there. He is my confidant, of course, and so naturally I am inclined to relay to him the particulars of my daily life, but this was the first time he seemed to understand more than he would say. There was a “knowing light ” in his eyes. I cannot express it in any other fashion. Perhaps he suspected, as I did, that Caliban was the sort of beast that would seek out its own destruction in its own careless, heedless manner. If so, I am glad Ariel and I are so alike in our thinking. It accords a certain harmony of thought that bespeaks much in the means of sympathetic comprehension.
July 7th, 1922
The nerve of Rosamund! She had the audacity to label me a “spoiled princess ” in front of Clifford, Betty, Madeline, and countless others in Father ’s service. I should have slapped her, truly, and brought with the blow a new appreciation for her true standing within the household. Her impertinence and insolence are unbearable! I am all tears now and cannot compose myself! I should like to fly away from here at once! Away from her torturous lessons on French and Clifford ’s insolent smirks and the disapproval in Father ’s eyes! The latter I cannot tolerate, for they did not flinch or baulk at Rosamund ’s impudence! Rather, Father walked away, abandoning me to infernal judgments. It was his most heartless betrayal yet. I cannot bear it. I shall leave here asa condemned soul escaping Dante ’s Inferno.
Yes, I shall fly away. It is simple enough. Or so I should think. Ariel has offered me my grand exeunt, and I shall receive the offer readily. Granted, I am not overly fond of the wings I am promised. Butterfly wings would better serve me, but I suppose his wings are beautiful after all. They have a spectral sheen to them that is very fetching, in its own way, and I think, upon further consideration, that it is not so much the wings that detract from the overall aspect of Ariel, but that imbecilic stare that inhabits his face. Undoubtedly, were I to wear such wings as are possessed by him I would better flatter them, and so transpose with the beauty inherent in my features the composite impression of such wings. Indeed, though Ashputtle wore tatters and was blackened by her menial labours, her natural beauty rendered anew all with her innate loveliness, outshining her sisters when in their more lavish dresses. An old shoe, thus, may be made beautiful if it houses a lovely rose.
Perhaps I shall join the Fairies and write of my times among them, recording their habits and customs and creeds. It would be a grand sensation among Europe. It may even inspire the world to relinquish all future wars, bringing harmony and everlasting peace to humanity. Do I flatter myself overmuch in such ambitions? No. I dare say I do not.
July 8th, 1922
I sat before the pianoforte today, practicing my Moonlight Sonata. The piano belonged to mother. Father expects me to grow proficient in the intricacies of the keys, but I would rather have my fingertips feverishly dancing along a typewriter, hammering out bizarre manifestations like a blacksmith at the beck and call of his daemon. Yet, Father persists in his refusal to purchase the Remington I desire. My mother was said to be a songbird, with an excellent voice and an excellent adroitness for ivory. I will not be a songbird in a cage. I will fly free. This I vow.
At times I feel as if I am an esteemed breed of dog, to be groomed and bred and to have no life of its own. Do I pity myself overmuch? No. If pity is considered in degree of recompense to its merit, then I am woefully lacking compensation. For who has endured such trials and tribulations as have been my breakfast, lunch, and supper? But I choose to fancy myself an oddity insomuch as all pioneers and iconoclasts tend to be. If I am alienated among my own home, then it is because I am such a rare specimen of peculiarity that none may share in my propensities and insights, including those sharing my blood. An anomaly, I will live a life that will not be appreciated except by those generations yet to come, when the collective of humanity progresses beyond the limited vision of their yesteryears. Perhaps I will be an Aristotle, or a Da Vinci. The fault lines of the earth shift beneath my feet, bringing seismic change. I do not doubt that my understanding of Fairy kind will bring mankind out of the shadows of a Dark Age and into a new Age of Reason. My halo of learning burns bright, and those in my home cannot bear the brightness of it.
July 10th, 1922
What a frightful day! Whereas yesterday had been woefully uneventful, today was extraordinarily tumultuous in its seismic cataclysms. Oh, but where to begin? I will start with the greatest calamity of all: Rosamund saw Ariel today! And just when he was renewing his offer of wings! She came upon us in the woods. I had gone walking to clear my mind after a row with Rosamund over my French. She had accused me of forsaking all learning of it, which I will not deny to be true. I had quite given it up, for it no longer concerned me, nor would it concern me however much the inducement or admonishment. I had wholly made up my mind on the matter. I would leave to join the Fairies. Let them conjugate that verb!
While walking I was weeping at my misfortunes. It was a hot summery day, but the shade of the forest afforded me some small comfort while in my time of woe. Ariel alighted above me, crouching low upon a branch with the sunlight and shadows battling about his dappled shoulders.
“Wings? ” he offered.
I wiped my tears and attempted to smile encouragingly. “I would like them very much, ” I said.
“Come, ” he said. He crawled upon all fours down the side of the tree and beckoned that I should follow him.
Before I could follow, Rosamund appeared in the dappled shade, pale and shrieking like some banshee in heathen Ireland. I turned away from Ariel, confronting her absurd expression of horror, but before I could explain the situation, she snatched me by my wrist and yanked me along and out of the forest, senseless in her affrighted state. Indeed, she did not relent until we were in Father ’s house and before Father, in his private library.
The melodrama that followed cannot be recorded, so chaotic was it in all its preposterous dimensions, but the conclusion of the misunderstanding was that I was forbidden from leaving the house. Meanwhile Rosamund —being deemed a lunatic by Father —was exiled from the household itself. Clifford accompanied her in her departure, looking rather more chivalrous than I could have thought him, especially with those overlarge ears of his. Perhaps he had an ancestor whom was a knight in another age. He held his head high and seemed as stalwart in his determination as Don Quixote chasing Maiden Folly.
Rosamund, on the other hand, was overwrought. Even unto the last moment of her presence in Father ’s house, she swore that I was in danger. Through lachrymose pleas she swore to a horror and spoke of the missing children among the commoners. What drivel! To think she had been my governess, sworn to elucidate the world for me! It is too much like the lunatic leading the asylum! And to think she might actually care for me and my well-being! A first, to be sure! But I know better than to believe such poppycock (poppycock —a good word to use as a name for a Fairy who spouts drivel. Perhaps I shall write such a character based upon Rosamund ’s hysterics). She was merely attempting to retain her employment in service to Father. Yet, the one thing Father cannot abide is a woman succumbing to hysterics. And Rosamund was as hysterical as a rabid mare. I always knew her frigid governess veneer was a mask for what was, undoubtedly, a very frayed disposition of agitated nerves. The most outwardly austere of personages are those most likely to unravel when encountering something beyond their habitual, everyday experiences. Let her gather up her ragdoll nerves in a countryside cottage far from here. She could benefit from more sun.
To think that she should have maligned Ariel so! Deeming him a monster! The Good People are invariably good if treated so. The only misnomer to be considered egregious is that of Rosamund ’s title as “governess ”, for she could not govern her own head, let alone mine.
Despite the chaos of the day, I had the wherewithal to disavow all of Rosamund ’s ravings. Thus, whereas Father believes Rosamund unsettled in her wits, I have escaped unscathed in Father ’s estimation. Indeed, I am by virtue of contrast with Rosamund ever elevated in Father ’s estimation. He is likely to attribute my previous fancies to the influence of my former governess, and so I am absolved of all previous infractions of sensibility by having what Father presumes to be a moon-eyed teacher.
The advantages in this current predicament are manifold: Rosamund ’s absence from the household and the fact that Father does not believe in Ariel or his Fairy kin. Thus, my dreams of becoming a Fairy go undiscovered, and, so, unimpeded. Just so, I fear that Ariel may have been too unnerved by today ’s tumult to return and offer me again my wings. Perhaps all is ruined. Perhaps not. We shall see.
July 11th, 1922
There is no concealing it! Indeed, I wonder how I could not have seen what was so plain before me —Betty is with child! What a scandal! I wonder who the father is. How delicious if it was Clifford! Oh succulent spite! To think he might have begat upon her and then fled with Rosamund. I hope Rosamund is with child as well, and that he should flee her. Crumpets deserve as much. But I do mislike Father ’s keen interest in Betty ’s condition. He would be better to turn her out before she should bear her piglet, lest the scandal sully our household. What would high society think, knowing we have a maid soon to birth a fatherless child? They would think it the abode of Bacchus. I cannot debut in society with the swollen, shadowy figure of Betty overhanging me. No matter how dignified and regal, I will be tainted by the association.
But Father —for all his austerities and forbearance —is too soft-hearted toward Betty to lord over his household properly. It does him no good. It does the Wellington estate no good, nor its legacy. If Father wished to do her a good turn he would locate the father of the bastard and rectify him promptly with the mother of his child.
July 12th, 1922
It was a strange stretch of hours that passed today, and a stranger evening. Everyone glances at me sidelong within Father ’s house, almost surreptitiously, as if they hold a secret behind their lips and they fear they may let it slip simply by breathing. No doubt, it is scorn. They presume to take great cares with me, but that is a farce of pretense for what is otherwise derisive attitude and malfeasance. Even Father seemed to be unforthcoming today, condescending only to ask me how I might appreciate an expanded family. Were Father to remarry, I should not care. It is beyond my capacity to care. He should pursue whichever folly chances his fancy and I will pursue mine. The deathly circumspectness of everyone taxes on me so. I would rather they reverted to their outright insolence. I tire of their taciturn tension. It is like being in a house of snakes, all coiled tautly and ready to strike.
But poor Ariel! He suffered a dreadful episode today, the nature of which still eludes me. We were at the edge of the woods, at that time which the French call l ’heure bleue. Advantaged by the distraction of Betty ’s condition, I stole out undetected by Father and by the servants. Ariel was, as usual, crouching upon the branch of an oak tree. I was reading to him one among my favourite poems, “The Stolen Child ”, by Yeats. All seemed well enough —even if Ariel seemed not the least interested in what I was reading —when suddenly he succumbed to a violent paroxysm. At first glance I mistook his fit of trembles to be a Fairy prank. But when he spoke his voice was so altered from his customarily buzzing voice that I then thought him attempting a more perfected emulation of human speech. Would that I had more influence over such an affectation, for I would have steered him toward a better-bred tongue!
In this lowborn dialect he exclaimed loudly.
“God help me, Miss! Please! Fetch…fetch…the priest…Save me! ”
He nearly fell from the tree, finishing his imitation with a cry of despair. Shortly, however, he choked back his affected country accent and spoke, once again, in his vibrating Fairy voice.
“No mind, no mind, ” he said. “None for you. ”
I took this to mean that he meant I should not fret over his failed outburst of human speech and should mind my poetry again. I did so, finishing my reading. Truth be told, I do not believe that the poem held him in any interest. Perhaps he did not care much for Yeats. Perhaps Ariel is prejudiced against the Irish. I cannot fault him that.
I believe that Ariel must have been aspiring to repeat what he must have heard some inane, lowbred child exclaim upon seeing the Fairy. The commoners are a superstitious lot and would fear the Good People when they should instead rejoice in their appearances. Oh, but you cannot elucidate the idiotic masses. They misunderstand the simplest of things. Like Jasper with his wayward eye, they cannot keep their vision of what is true and what is not aligned. Their perspective drifts wildly awry.
Yet, I must write down that I saw something strange upon my friend as he contorted and writhed in his sudden paroxysm. There was something along his back, though I could not discern it while facing him. It was more than his wings —almost a protrusion of some sort —but it was ambiguous in its form so utterly that I could not conclude its nature definitively. It seemed almost an incandescently metallic blue or green, shimmering as a spectral shell or carapace. But it was glimpsed only at slight angles, necessitating a better view from behind. Perhaps it was simply a fancy of mine. Perhaps not. He flew away before I could further discern its peculiarities.
July 14th, 1922
Betty incessantly complains about the pains she feels in her condition. She crudely complains, also, as if the scandal was not ribald enough. Speaking of things gnawing at her from within, too concerned with the repercussions of her Babylonian sins to appreciate how gnawed our household is with the shame of her continued presence. Father is going to great expenses —both financial and social — to accommodate Betty and her despicable condition, whereas were I mistress of this household I would turn Betty out of my home forthwith, alongside most, if not all, of the other insolent parasites to which Father ’s house has been claimed as host. Were I Father I would put her down like any crippled mare. Her condition has made it exceedingly difficult to attend to my journal, or any writing I might venture to do. She is too loud —a donkey in a storm of biting insects would have more self-possession —and it is a trial to merely jot down these words, so disjointed are my thoughts as the house echoes with her cries. An opera house suffers less melodrama.
July 17th, 1922
O joyous day! And ever more joyous night! Ariel led me through the woods, toward the peat bog, and thereupon introduced me to the other Fairies of his acquaintance. There were four in all: two young boys, roughly the same age and appearance as Ariel, and a tall girl of lovely aspect. Like my dear friend, these specimens were bereft of clothes, unmindful of their own nakedness, and while I admired the liberty with which they lived, I vowed that even while exulting in my own Fairy freedom I should dress myself up in all manner of pretty gowns so all those who looked upon me would do so with great reverence and envy, being that I would become the most idealized spirit of beauty and liberation.
And because I would be no hedonistic Fairy.
The tall Fairy girl spoke, addressing me with a voice similar to any girl ’s my age, except for the buzzing edges of her words. Her throat vibrated as if to burst.
“Welcome, ” she said. “Wings? ”
She had dragonfly wings like the others, but she had a crown of reeds along her forehead, above her empty eyes. She must have been the Fairy Queen, Titania. Who else could she be, being so tall and regal?
“Wings? ” she repeated.
“If you would, please, ” I said.
The two young boys were crouching among the bog. There was, I realized, a cluster of small pinkish bubbles floating buoyantly atop the sprawl of green duckweed and algae. One of the boys plucked a single pinkish bubble and brought it forward, holding it up with one hand while wading through the thick, putrid sludge of the bog.
“Turn, ” the Fairy Queen said.
I did as I was instructed, eager and excited, but also slightly afraid. The Fairy boy put the pinkish bubble on the nape of my neck, beneath my curls. It stung. There was a sharp, brief pain, like the little sting of a wasp, and then it subsided. Somewhat. Truthfully, it has not stopped stinging since he put the bubble upon me. I cried out and wiped my eyes. The Fairies assured me it was necessary.
“Wings grow, ” Ariel said. “Soon, fly. ”
They said no more. I wished to speak with them more, but I was not feeling well. I left for home, a little staggered and dizzy. Ariel did not accompany me. The Fairies watched me leave, staring at me with unblinking, vacant eyes. I felt cold, and my neck hurt, but I was delighted. Soon I would grow wings and leave this terrible house behind. My liberation was at hand.
July 20th, 1922
I have had a fever for the last few days, and have been confined to bed while everyone tends to Betty. Madeline visits me briefly every other hour, bringing me water and asking if I should like anything. She offers me soup, but I am in no mood for food. I ask only for water, my diary and a pen. Very soon, when I am of clearer concentration, I will write my farewell letter to Father. I hope he will not be too heartbroken at my departure.
July 22nd, 1922
My health has improved, but not enough to leave my bed. Father visited me, briefly, to see how I was faring. He would not speak of Betty, nor did I wish him to, though I could discern that his concern for her well-being seemed markedly more than my own. I cannot lay on my back, but must lay on my side, for my nape hurts. The pain has begun to spread down my spine. I have not had the strength to rise and peer in a mirror to see how my nascent wings grow, nor do I tell anyone about my wings for fear they will attempt to confine me when my wings have grown a span enough to lift me. I keep the blanket and sheets up to my chin at all times and tell everyone that I merely feel ill because of my monthly menstruation. I insist that I do not need to see a doctor. At times it feels as if I am in a chrysalis of heat and sweat and that my flesh, itself, will split open so my new self may emerge. At other times I feel as if something speaks to me with a buzzing voice, though no one except myself dwells in my room. I do not understand it.
Ariel has not visited me at all. I have not seen him since I followed him to the swamp to meet the Fairy Queen. I hope he is well. I wish to thank him once my wings fully blossom.
July 24th, 1922
I overheard the servants whispering in the hall, speaking of monstrous things. They said that Betty ’s child was stillborn. The reason for its hopeless birth? It had been infested with parasites! From milk, no doubt, for Betty has always been an unmannered cow who enjoys milk straight from the teat. Doctor Froud attended the delivery ,but he was unfamiliar with the parasite, having never encountered them before. What I have gleaned from overhearing the servants is that they are not unlike larvae. Never having been inclined to milk, I feel that my natural predilection is thus validated. That bovine busybody has reaped her just rewards for an intemperate appetite and intemperate passions.
With Betty ’s bastard child expired, I had hoped the household would be quieter. Alas, this wish has not come true, for Betty weeps greatly while Father consoles her. I loathe this absurd development. He is too attentive with her, and Betty is too familiar with Father. But it is no matter. I will be absconding soon, never to return. My wings grow! This I know, for I feel how sensitive they are while abed. I can walk now, though weakly, and I must be careful not to draw too much attention to my metamorphosis. Most of the household think I am having a protracted temper tantrum, cloistering myself in my room because of some petty jealousy for Father ’s attentions. Let them think such! It facilitates my efforts to keep my secret from them, for they shun me presently. Beneath my silken shift my diaphanous wings grow, undetected. Occasionally I swoon, and have even fainted, but it is no matter. I can anticipate when such episodes are to come, the vibrations growing stronger in my neck and at the base of my head, and so I hasten to my bed, covering up before the weak spell topples me.
My only difficulty, truly, is ascertaining sufficient food. I have arranged that Madeline bring me biscuits every other hour, alongside tea and several cubes of sugar. I eat the sugar more often than I drink the tea, but it is a good pretense for so many cubes a day. Madeline is a recent addition at the household, so she does not know what is and what is not a routine serving. Meanwhile, her ignorance serves me as well as any other servant I might need. Were that all of the servants were so unquestioning toward my commands! This household would be a tolerable place to abide, at least for a time.
July 25th, 1922
Betty has perished. It is, admittedly, a shame whenever anyone passes away, but why should Father be so lugubrious? I have never in my life heard him cry so miserably —or express any emotion in his strictly stoic features —and yet he is a ruin of tears as he walks through the garden. It is not the first instance of a servant dying while in service to the house. Why should Betty ’s death invoke so many lachrymation? It is no different than when any dog should die in the kennel, but Father seems to have taken it too keenly to heart. He oftentimes stands in the scullery, gazing about as if looking for something, then alternately sighing and sobbing in turns. It is most unmanly for the master of a household to be seen thus by his servants. They will sense the weakness and exploit it by performing their duties most lackadaisically. Indeed, I looked out of my bedroom window and caught sight of the gardeners lounging in the shade of an oak tree. Such ungrateful parasites! Perhaps when I grow my wings out I shall lift Jasper and drop him from a goodly height. It may knock his wayward eye straight again.
July 26th, 1922
Ariel visited me last night! Happy news, indeed! I had thought that he had forsaken me. Happier news, yet, is that I have grown to understand him now. I had never noticed it before, but the vibrations in his words form a language in and of itself. Like the undercurrents on a lake, they flow with meaning beyond the superficial level. He is more articulate than I ever credited him to be.
But my pain has increased alongside this comprehension. This pain should be expected, I suppose. Growing wings must be painful for all Fairies. Yet, I console myself in the thought that this pain is but a chrysalis from which I shall emerge more beautiful and independent than ever. I await that day eagerly.
July 27th, 1922
I have been fainting of late. When the pain becomes too much. When the vibrations overwhelm me. I wake in strange places, baffled as to how I came to be there. This morning I found myself in the woods, up a tree. It took me a long time to climb down, for I was in great pain and fatigued. My fingers hurt, the nails broken and jammed with bark. I scraped my body climbing down. Only Jasper saw me coming from the woods. I scowled at him and he looked away. Yet, his wayward eye remained upon me. I should like to take a stick and poke his eye out.
There was great bustle in the house as I rested in my bedroom. Voices and hurried scurrying. They talked of country children being found. They said other things, but in hushed voices. Father was among those in the large company that left the house. A rider was dispatched to fetch Dr Froud. I do not understand what the fussy haste was all about. I am too tired to.
July 28th, 1922
I awoke in the peat bog today. Shoeless and clueless as to how I arrived there. Queen Titania was not there, nor were the other Fairies, including Ariel. I walked home. My shift was ruined. Stealing into my bedroom, I changed clothes and had Madeline bring hot water for my tub so I might wash myself and my shift. I was feverish yet, but also felt clammy, too. Fatigue drained my strength and I committed the shift to the garden, flinging it out my window. It plummeted to the earth, caked heavily with mud and peat. I fell asleep in the tub and did not wake till my fingers were pruned. Sluggishly I crawled out of the tub and into my bed. The bed was soaked through, but I did not care. I slept until evening whereupon I woke and began to write this entry. I feel groggy once again. The pain surges. Must sleep.
July 29th, 1922
The pain is unbearable. The nape of my neck throbs. I cannot think very clearly. Writing these words is difficult. Pain. The voices outside my window throughout the day. So many buzzing voices. I hear them constantly. It is another language. Like French. But I understand so much now.
It hurts so much. Cannot tell Father. I will get my wings soon and be free. It hurts! Pain. Voices.
Cannot write much. Cannot think well. In English. Hurt. Pain. Voices. Head pulses. Throbbing. Words. No. Madeline, close window. Voices in garden. Too many. Buzzing.
Examination of Patient #6, Conducted by Dr. Brian Froud on August 3rd, 1922
After an extended surgery, the specimen has been removed and placed in formaldehyde to preserve its anatomy until further dissection can be conducted. Like the others, it is an insect belonging to some new species, or perhaps a very old species that has hitherto remained dormant until recently disturbed. Whichever case it may be, it is a marvel of evolution. Measuring half a meter long, it resembles mostly insects within the Odonata order. It is parasitic by nature, however, and attaches itself to a host ’s spine using its legs, thorax, segmented abdomen, and its terminal abdominal appendages. Its jaws penetrate the base of the victim ’s skull to manipulate the host ’s cerebellum to appropriate motor function. By vibrating its thorax the insect manipulates the host ’s vocal cords to imitate speech. The life cycle of these insects —as accurately as I might approximate it —consists of a hive of larvae infesting a host, feeding from the host ’s body until the host ’s death, then the larvae emerge, enveloped in globules that are, in fact, chrysalises formed from the host ’s dead cells. An embryo is gathered by infected hosts and then implanted into a new host ’s spine for fusion as the embryo matures to adulthood. Using the host, the adult repeats the cycle by infesting new hosts with its larvae, primarily through ingestion. The complexity of this life cycle offers hope that we may curtail the colonization by such a pernicious species before it can grow pervasive.
Due to the nature of the parasitic insect, the patient died during the procedure, as have all of the patients I have attempted to treat with surgery. The inextricable nature of the creature makes it impossible to remove without a terminal outcome, so intricately bonded is its body with the host ’s spine. For the sake of the safety of the remaining servants and the master of the estate, I have advised that they leave the household while a thorough investigation is carried out by the local authorities. I have been told that there will be no total extermination due to the importance of the specimen. My experience with the specimen will also be required in future examinations, for the British Armed Forces are interested in the specimen and its potential implementation as a weapon to protect Great Britain from future foreign hostilities. I hope to prove myself invaluable in such an ambition.
The two boys squatted at the edge of the pond, sticks in hand, playing in water and mud; splashing it around like it was a cauldron in need of churning.
“Your daddy is wastin’ his time,” said the dark-haired boy. “Putting that fence up won’t help him save his livestock. Not when that giant goes walkin’ ‘round again.”
The other boy shook his blonde head and scowled. “There ain’t no such things as giants, you liar. Daddy knows what it is. It’s that disease takin’ his herd, one by one. He just needs some money for the medicine.”
In the distance the inky lands sloped upward to the crests of the hills beyond the farmhouse and the barn, and the echoes of a man’s hammer. The sun sank into the ash heap of the world, the embers slowly dying out on another dying Autumn day.
“Sure them giants are real,” the dark-haired boy said. “They’re in the Bible. They’re called the Nilfeeum, I think. All you gotta’ do is read it. God’s truth given in God’s words.”
“I thought God’s words were supposed to be Jewish,” the other boy said.
“Whatever it is, it’s what it says,” the dark-haired boy said. “Giants. You better be watchin’ for ‘em because they’ll shake your barn down and they’ll take your livestock. They’ll take each head of cattle. It don’t matter if you’re a Godfearing man, if you got Jesus on your side and in your blood. That makes him hanker for you all the more.”
The blonde boy paused in his stirring, gazing into the reeds on the other side of the pond. They swayed and whispered their secrets. He tossed his head dismissively to one side.
“My daddy can take care of any giant anyway. He’s got his gun.”
“Guns don’t do nothin’ to giants,” the other boy argued, smacking the water with his stick. “No more than whinin’ about taxes do to the County. Them giants are comin’ for you and yours. Mark my word. They’re comin’ for everybody. That’s why my daddy’s movin’ us out soon. Goin’ somewhere else. Ain’t nothin’ here but what ‘em giants will swallow whole. Nothin’ worth stayin’ for here. It’s pointless, daddy says. You might as well piss on the ground and expect flowers to grow. Ain’t no good seedin’ anyway. Whatever grows, well, them giants will be eatin’ it all.”
The blonde boy sighed. Absently he stirred the stick around the cluster of tadpole eggs, scattering them to drift in the dark brown murk of the pond; unthinking, simply churning with a compulsion that had been given spark by other thoughts a stick could not dissolve or fend off or scatter unto a similarly languid death.
After a while, the two boys sought higher ground from the valley’s shadows. They hiked the nearest hill, sitting down beneath a large oak. The sun sank to a flaming ruin among the Kentucky hills. Down below—drowned in the shadow of those hills, and dwarfed by those hills—was an old tumbledown barn that was so eaten by Time and weather that it was more straw than timber. The two boys stared at the soundless breast of the horizon as the evening waned. The sun smouldered and the valley below gave over to cool shadow. Dusk flared defiantly; hopelessly.
“A bit chilly,” the blonde haired boy said.
“Oh, don’t be such a nancy,” the dark-haired boy said. “You’re worse than a girl.”
The blonde boy sulked in resentful silence, his knees up to his mouth. His denim jeans were stained with grass and mud and pig’s blood. He didn’t wear a shirt and his face and arms had been baked brown by a Summer’s worth of sun. After a silent minute, he sighed. Leaves shivered in a cool breeze.
“I should be headin’ home,” he said. “Gotta’ go to church in the mornin’.”
The dark-haired boy frowned as if he caught a whiff of a rotten egg. His face and arms were also baked brown. His dark hair was cropped across his brow, but long in the back. A white scar split one eyebrow, like the mark of Cain.
“What do you mean, ‘What for?’” the blonde boy said. “Cuz you’re supposed to.”
The dark-haired boy shrugged. He sat with his legs laxly split in front of him. Both boys wore no shoes and their bare feet were riddled with red bug bites. Above their heads, the oak tree spread its sprawling cover, occasionally dropping an acorn.
“I don’t see how it is you’re ‘supposed to’,” the dark-haired boy said. “Jesus is everywhere anyhow, so it don’t matter.”
The blonde boy just shrugged. “All the same, daddy and momma will want me to go. And if they want me to do it, I oughta’ do it. You’re supposed to honor your parents.”
“Boy, you really don’t know nothin’,” the dark-haired boy remarked, shaking his head. His hand searched the yellowing grass unmindfully, fondling an acorn. The dirty fingers clutched it loosely. Squinting his eye against the squinting glare of the sun, he threw the acorn down the hill—as if aiming for the collapsible barn. “Yeah, I don’t see how goin’ to church honors anybody. I mean, you oughtta’ be workin’ on the farm. Or your family’ll lose it.”
“Prayer helps, too,” the blonde boy said. “Momma says so. And daddy agrees.”
“Christ,” the dark-haired boy said. “Your folks don’t know nothin’.”
“They do so,” the blonde boy growled. “He teaches me stuff all the time. He knows things.”
“Your daddy don’t teach you nothin’ cuz he don’t know nothin’,” the dark-haired boy said, rallying. “That’s why ya’ll are losin’ the farm.”
The blonde boy opened his mouth, but the words died in the cold breeze. His angrily knitted eyebrows broke for a moment, and he seemed ready to cry, drawing his knees farther up to his nose. His blue eyes sought the old barn—it was small and slanted in among the ocean of shadows between the yellowing hills. The fields sprawling around it were black with shadows and blight.
“We’ve been prayin’,” the blonde boy said.
“Banks don’t give a damn about prayers,” the dark-haired boy said, snorting. “You can’t pay a note with prayers. Hell, lies would get you further.”
“It’s not even a big note, really,” the blonde boy said, his voice tremulous. “They might forgive it.”
“Forgive it?” the dark-haired boy exclaimed, throwing another acorn. “They ain’t in the business of forgivin’. They ain’t priests. They don’t care if it’s a hundred dollars or a single penny. If it’s owed to them, it’s owed to them, and they collect. Don’t matter how big or small, they will get it out of you, even if it has to be bled out. They want ‘em numbers to match.”
“But it’s so little to them,” the blonde boy said quietly, hopelessly. “Daddy says so.” He bowed his forehead against his knees. His fluffy straw-colored hair was full of debris from the day: twigs and leaves and mud and pig’s blood. “Why can’t they just leave us alone? We make food for ‘em. We feed ‘em. Ain’t that more important than numbers on a note?”
The dark-haired boy snorted again. “They’d take those pants off of you if they could,” he said. “And not even because they’d need ‘em. Just so they could. They’d filch the skin off your back, too. Use it for a wallet for all that money they’ve got and you don’t.”
“It ain’t fair,” the blonde boy said. “It ain’t our fault it was a dry Summer.”
“They don’t care about that, neither,” the dark-haired boy said. “They grow their own crops, fed on blood.”
The boys fell silent for a while, watching the sun sink deeper, burying itself in the horizon. Shadows rose like floodwaters until the hills floated in the chilly murk of twilight. A fog came creeping in. The echoes of the hammer had died long ago.
The dark-haired boy groaned as he stood, stretching. “It is a bit chilly now,” he said. “Guess I’ll be headin’ home.”
He started walking away. He called back over his shoulder.
“Don’t stay out after dark too long or the giants will take you!”
The blonde boy remained sitting, staring into the ashes of the day as they darkened to night. The distant hills were completely black, becoming nothing more than an outline of featureless mounds beneath the dreaming fog and the wheeling stars. He stared unblinking for a moment, and fancied he saw the hill tremble. He stood up.
“Ain’t no such thing as giants,” he said.
Down the hill the boy walked alone. He looked back once, seeing how high the hill was that he had sat upon, wondering if it might rumble to life, there emerging from its slope a primordial being beyond measure or mercy. The hills dwarfed the small house that he approached, and yet the house dwarfed the boy. His foot scattered an ant hill as he passed it, and if the ants bit him he did not notice. He was lost in those shadows that lay all around.
Within that deep, deluge of shadow an image betook the boy: an image of long, loping legs and great swaying fists like the pendulums of a giant clock that struck him again and again, incessantly, like his father sometimes did when in his drink. One, two, three. Strike, strike, strike. The barn flying sideways, splintering, cracking, showering the earth. House exploding. Mother and sister broken among the debris like little frogs skewered on toothpicks for the easy appetite of the giant overhead.
We stood together, arrayed in a circle—much like the standing stones around us—and in the center of our circle was the dead horse, its head still bleeding from the gaping bullet hole that cratered the center of its long forehead. Its tongue hung slack and pale between its twisted teeth.
“Ready the blade, Matthew,” the master said.
I did as I was bidden, sharpening the ax on the whetstone and discerning the fine gleam of the blade by moonlight as the strokes spit sparks. The sibilance of stone on steel unnerved me, but I knew better than to disobey the master, especially now, when the lich moon was rising toward its zenith and hour of the Worm wheeled Cerberus above the standing stones.
“Make ready the saddle!” the master commanded.
Two servants hurried to lay the saddle upon the dead beast’s back. The master upended his bottle of brandy, meanwhile, downing the rest of its burning amber courage to help him see the ritual to completion. The bottle dry, he sighed angrily, breathlessly, and hurled it against a standing stone, shattering the glass as his chest heaved with mad resolve and contrary fear; desperate rage and mortal terror. He turned to me like a man invoking his daimon.
“Enough!” he said. He staggered toward me, falling on his knees, his brow profuse with sweat. “It will cleave true with keenness of blade or keenness of damnation, one or the other.”
The master extended his hand upon the stone altar, his fist closed except for the ringfinger, the latter apart from the others and still encircled with the silver token of his marriage. He had not taken it off for two years, nor ever would. Whether widower or bridegroom yet again, he would not doff the silver wedding ring that bound him to his beloved wife, Filianore, now lost in the shades of the realm beyond.
“Strike quickly!” he commanded. “Strike true!”
I put aside the whetstone and readied the ax in my hand with a tight grip, a careful aim, and a long hesitation.
“Damn you, Matthew!” the master shouted. “Be done with it!”
I brought the crescent blade down upon the master’s ringfinger. The blade made a rather satisfactory butcher’s sound, as should be heard in a shop when a butcher dresses a pig. The finger split from the hand, parting a hair’s width from the silver ring itself. Master cried out, but it seemed more a cry of exultation than pain or regret. He then took up the bleeding ringfinger, and the ring, and hurried to the dead horse. Kneeling down, the master spoke a few words which I did not understand. It was a different language. He spoke softly, urgently, then pressed the severed finger into the horse’s mouth, as one would a bit for a bridle. At first, nought seemed to happen. The servants and I watched with abated breath, horror as wild in each face as hope was in the master’s. Quite suddenly the beast’s slack mouth tightened its teeth, clamping blindly upon the finger and the ring. The lax tongue lolled to life, spiraling like a searching slug until it had found the bloody end of the dismembered finger. It proceeded to lap at the bloody digit. The horse shuddered, then whinnied, and rose most unnaturally from its puddle of blood and filth, standing at attention on its four hooves. We backed away as one; all except the master who exulted.
“By Judas’s coin, it worked!” he shouted triumphantly. Then, in a lower voice, he said, “Strap the saddle tightly upon the beast’s flanks.”
No one moved forth to do as bidden. We exchanged glances as war-time compatriots might when one unwittingly spoke the name of a savage battle none were meant to speak of again.
“Secure the saddle!” the master shouted.
We would not.
“Craven and callow, the lot of you!” he shouted, then secured the straps himself, his four-fingered hand fumbling with leather and blood in slippery disunity.
The horse meanwhile stood silently, tonguing the master’s severed finger, but otherwise it did nothing. The hole in its forehead revealed the cooled mush of its oozing brains. To look upon it was to look upon the frailties and treacheries of flesh, and to marvel at the abominations rendered unto it by the despair of the soul.
The saddle secure now, the master pulled himself up onto the undead beast’s back. There were no reins, nor was there need for them.
“To Filianore, you diabolical creature!” the master cried. “Bring me to my beloved on the Plutonian shore!”
The horse hobbled at first, its limbs trembling with reawakened life, then hastened into an unnatural gallop, the motion of its legs graceless and mechanical, like a puppet worked by inept hands and slackened strings. But by strides, and by infernal powers not meant for the scope of Man, the pale horse rose from the earth and treaded the nocturnal air, rising and rising into that blasphemous sky with its lich moon and baleful stars, rising into the air like a wandering wraith and carrying the master to lands unknown to all but the most damned of men.
We waited for hours. It was yet not dawn and we sat in the ring of standing stones, not knowing whether we wished the master to return or not. The sun’s warmth remained as a sullen orange glow beyond the trees. The chill of night lingered, alongside the dew, and a fog tumbled groggily with the nightmare phantoms of what had been dreamt that night before.
We saw the silhouettes through that ghostly fog; gray shadows half-glimpsed by eyes and half-dismissed by reason. The horse emerged first, its head yet cratered with the fury of the shell. Then the figure emerged beside the horse, stumbling as if a drunkard fresh from the tavern. It was the master, though now his dark hair was whiter than the fog itself; his face gaunt and wrinkled too much for a man even of three decades henceforth. Yet, the gleam of mad triumph illuminated his sunken eyes.
And then there was Filianore. She swayed with the lethargic amble of the horse, tilting slowly left and then right, left and then right, near enough to falling off on either side, yet she did not fall. She yet wore the white dress in which she had been buried, only now the veil was sallow, the dress stained with filth and rot and the ruin of the grave. But it was her eyes that transfixed all upon whom they gazed. For there were no eyes in her head: only empty black sockets in which worms writhed in cloyed stupefaction.
And upon a pale horse she came. Upon a pale horse she came for us all.
Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of his mom’s black-and-white television, eating a cup of Frosted Flakes as he watched Saturday morning cartoons. Tyrone liked Frosted Flakes. He liked Tony the Tiger because his name was similar to his own, and he liked to think they could go on adventures in their own cartoon together: The Tony and Tyrone Show. Tyrone wished he could play with Tony like the kids did in the commercials, and he wished he could eat a bowl of cereal just like the kids in the commercial did. But Tyrone always had to eat his Frosted Flakes without a spoon.
Most of the time Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of the tv—so he could hear only the tv and not the noises coming from his mom’s bedroom—and he ate his cereal in a cup, the milk and the flakes crashing against his mouth in a mixture of sugary crunch and somewhat spoiled creaminess. Sometimes he ate Frosted Flakes without any milk at all. Sometimes he ate nothing all day but Frosted Flakes, and sometimes he ate nothing. Regardless how he ate, Tyrone never ate with a spoon.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on. Tyrone liked Mr. Rogers. He was a nice White man. He wasn’t like the landlord who was always threatening Tyrone’s mom for rent and calling her a “useless nigger”. Tyrone wished Mr. Rogers owned this apartment building. Things would have been different if he had. And Tyrone liked Officer Clemmons. Tyrone sometimes liked to think that Officer Clemmons was his dad and that he would come home any day now.
Every neighborhood, Tyrone thought, should be like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was never a single crack to be seen. Tyrone hated the cracks that he saw around his neighborhood. Each one scared him. They glowed with a white phosphorescence in their jagged fissures, and things writhed within them, like wet snakes or homeless men rummaging through dumpsters, and Tyrone’s mom moaned when the crack in her bedroom writhed. It was not a moan of pain or pleasure, but both, like she was dying, but was too happy to care about it.
There were cracks all around the apartment building. Tyrone saw the first crack in a man’s face. It was a year ago, late at night, while his mom was asleep. Tyrone had his window open and he heard a man singing as he came down the street. Singing like he was drunk. Singing, “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care” as loud as he could. Tyrone had gone to his window and saw a man stumbling down the street, his clothes disheveled.
“Jimmy cracked corn…!”
The man had glanced up at Tyrone, his black face split with a glowing white crack that did not bleed.
“What you lookin’ at?” the man shouted. “First spooks jump me and now I got a nosy little nigger starin’ at me.” He snorted, and started laughing. “Hey! Don’t you go hidin’ from me, boy! They’ll fix you up right!”
Tyrone had crouched beneath his window, trembling and praying that the man would go away.
“Stupid brat,” the man said.
The man left, but the crack he carried with him remained. Later Tyrone saw some pale men in black suits standing on the street corner. They were not like Mr. Rogers. They wore black hats and black shades, hiding most of their fish-belly white faces. Where they stood, a crack opened and grew larger, like a spider’s web ensnaring the whole neighborhood. Soon Tyrone saw it spread in the walls between the apartment buildings, near the alleyways where the burn-outs slept, and along the cars and the streets, from the barbershop to the grocery store, ruining everything. It crept into the apartment hallway, and the stairwell. It was on people’s doors, splitting their windows and, soon, it was on every other face, their heads split down the center, or their chests, and so their hearts, and everywhere the crack spread Tyrone heard the tentacles writhing. At night, as he lay awake in bed, he heard the tenants moaning like his mom. Their moans reminded him of church hymns— back when his mom used to take him to church—only the words were all wrong, and weird, and frightening. The gibberish roared in his ears sometimes. His mom had stopped going to work, and, after a while, she did nothing but stay in her bedroom. Sometimes a stranger would join her, and the moaning would be louder than before, and then the stranger left, but all the while Tyrone sat so close to the television that his eyes burned and overflowed with tears as Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons smiled on, pitiless in their perfect neighborhood.
And so Tyrone watched cartoons, and ate Frosted Flakes without using a spoon, and waited until the day his mom would emerge from her bedroom, transformed, head full of burning white cracks, and reaching down to kiss him as her face split open to swallow him forever.
(The above was one of four stories I wrote to submit to The Root’s short story competition in relation to Lovecraft Country. Unfortunately this story 1) was too long by about 80 words, 2) had references to drugs (allusively to the 80’s crack epidemic in the US) and 3) was written by me, a White boy (insomuch as Melungeons are considered White). So, knowing I have been disqualified on three fronts, I decided to put it up here to rot.
There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods. No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over. The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion. And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool ’s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea. And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.
Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God. Some said a god died there long ago. Some said —in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher —that something yet more ancient than gods had died there. Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits. And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death ’s release. It was what they strived for beneath the preacher ’s watchful eye. It was what they all wanted more than anything.
That was, all except for Tilda.
Tilda was the preacher ’s daughter. She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers. She especially disliked being the preacher ’s daughter. Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows. Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden. Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes. Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin. Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.
She hated Confessions most of all.
Her father ’s sermons were dreary things. For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored. Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such. Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father ’s mouth. She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons —such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith. She liked how her father ’s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed. She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday. Of all the Biblical passages she liked —few though they were —she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.
There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp. No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like. They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk. The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became. After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash. She was now determined to meet the witch. She knew it was her destiny.
And so one night Tilda crept away from her father ’s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky. The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named. Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch. It was common knowledge. Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp. A candle illuminated the hut ’s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch ’s fireplace.
“Come in, my little fawn, ” a voice cackled from within. “I have been expecting you. ”
Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut. It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also. She was an old crone — as witches often were —and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak. Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time ’s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.
“You will make me a witch, ” Tilda said. She did not cower from the witch ’s scowl, but was emboldened by it. “You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps. ”
“Do I know such things? ” the witch pondered dubiously. She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman ’s of the same-seeming age. “I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn. ”
“I am no fawn, ” Tilda said defiantly. “I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such. I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help. ”
The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.
“Dear me, you are a presumptuous one, ” she said. She looked the preacher ’s daughter up and down —from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul. “You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent? ”
Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly. She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.
The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face. “And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn? ”
“By reaching between the fire and the heat, ” Tilda said proudly. “Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides. ”
“You speak rightly enough, ” the witch said. “And you manage a magic…of a crude sort. But what of your soul, my little fawn? What can you manage of it? ”
Tilda scowled. “You are squandering time, beldam. The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night. ”
The witch ’s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself. For a moment — just a moment — the beldame ’s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree. This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.
“Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron, ” she remarked. She stood up from her stool —or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut. Perhaps both. At length, she settled down, or shrank. Her voice was low; calm and quiet.
“Know you lemongrass, my little fawn? ”
Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.
“And what of belladonna? ”
Again Tilda nodded.
“And hemlock? Wolfsbane? Yarrow root? ”
Tilda nodded to all three in succession.
The witch smiled wryly. “Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me. I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand. Baby ’s breath. A good man ’s guilt. A double heart. And so on. Now leave me. ”
Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision. She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch ’s face had unnerved her. A glint in the witch ’s eye sent her to the door and back home. It was such a glint as a cat ’s eye had upon spotting a mouse.
Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise. She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk. Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby ’s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night. Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats. Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.
Tilda ’s father was summoned. He counseled the aggrieved parents. He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way. Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own. When pressed by Tilda ’s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners. Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.
Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods. While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing. The woods were a haunted place, after all. Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming. Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal. Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere. Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger. The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do. They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.
Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required. Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime. Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day. When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged. Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.
“You are playing with devilish mischief! ” he roared, indicating the basket. He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin. “When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”
He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved. Her hands stung and were bruised. She returned to her bedroom. She did not sulk. She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due. She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts. She thought of power. She thought of revenge.
And so, at the darkest hour of night —when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires — Tilda crept out of her father ’s house and went to find her willow basket. It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.
Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket. Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up. A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.
Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch ’s hut. When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before. Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before. The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.
“Hello, my little kitten, ” the witch said as she stirred the cauldron. Her voice was different. It was lower, older. “She said you would bring what was needed. ”
Tilda approached the witch with empty hands. “I had gathered them, ” she said, trying not to cry, “but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and… ”
She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before. She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.
“Those never mattered, my little kitten, ” the different witch said. “What matters is the trouble of gettin ’ them. The willingness. The sacrifice. Especially the punishment for gettin ’ them. ”
The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.
“Come, my kitten. Hold your hands in the steam. It won ’t hurt you a bit. I promise. In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth. ”
Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron. Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid. But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge. The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.
Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot. The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms. The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer ’s day.
“There we have it, my kitten, ” the witch said. She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve. “Now you must drink it. Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek
Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid. She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation. Her repulsion stayed her.
“Do you desire power or not, my kitten?! ” the witch screeched.
The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater. Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared. Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting. The more she drank, the more she craved of it. She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep ’s gut stuffed overfull. Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron ’s yield. Conversely, she grew lighter. So very light. Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions. She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive. Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.
“Now is the time, my little kitten, ” the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit. The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking. “Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten. Do as you will, and do much. ”
As a dream Tilda went wandering. Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast. The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud. Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her. She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch ’s hut on the Borderlands.
Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name. He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling. He was not supposed to defecate in the brook —no one was —but he did so anyway. His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days. He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook. She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled. Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him. Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.
Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on. She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air. He blinked at her in confusion.
“Wallace Eckridge, ” she said. “You will come with me. ”
Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.
Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch ’s hut. She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him. She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure. The creatures in the woods did not bother him. Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased. A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself. Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.
To the hut they came at last. The witch thanked Tilda for the offering. Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared. She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.
“It is true what they say, ” the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls. “True power does not die, nor does it rot away. It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it. ” Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady. “Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass. My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth. They grow stronger. ”
“What are they? ” Tilda asked.
“What is earth? ” the witch countered. “What is the sky? What is hate? What is hunger? What is the meaning of things? So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things. ”
“Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god? ” she asked.
“How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist? ” the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure. “We exist, do we not, little lamb? And that is all that matters. ”
Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home. The power had gone from her at daybreak. She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air. She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world ’s men with a word. She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.
Her father awaited her in her bedroom. But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise — or worse, make Confession of her —he was summoned away. Wallace Eckridge ’s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft. At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace ’s lecherous advances. Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together. They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers. Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.
But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace ’s disappearance. She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic. Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister. This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village. Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart. Much ado was made of it before the day was done.
Before nightfall Tilda ’s father returned. He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter. Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night. Her tears were her sole company as she waited. Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again. She wept as she walked, each step painful. Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.
The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.
“Hello, my little lamb, ” the witch said softly.
Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.
“My little lamb, ” the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind. “My poor, dear little lamb. Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe. Let it console you. Let it invigorate and strengthen you. ”
Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain —for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone —but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again. To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten. Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep. Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut — which was more a house now than before —and went floating through the woods.
Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook. At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott. Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her. Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin ’s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.
“You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott, ” Tilda said, “for you do not believe the innocence of your wife. Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.”
Tilda ’s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him. She led the man out to the witches ’ hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared. Alongside him disappeared Tilda ’s powers once more. Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.
“My dear little pup, ” the witch said, gladdened by Tilda ’s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott ’s sudden evanescence. Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye. “You have done so well. And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup. For you are strong in the ways of us witches. ”
The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.
“What do you do with the men I bring to you? ” she asked.
The witch ’s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile. “My pup, it is but a matter of conference. We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet. In time, they welcome the Silence. ”
This all meant nothing to Tilda. She could not understand the witch ’s real meaning.
“They are dead? ” she ventured.
“No more than the gods, ” the witch said. “My little pup. ”
Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn. Her father was not there. He was busy blessing the water from the brook. He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening. He also used it for Baptisms. He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort. As a man must, he claimed.
“We should aspire to be as this brook, ” he often admonished his flock. “For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction. We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife. ”
Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.
No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott. Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge. Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin. Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.
Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession. A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron. Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.
Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods. The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns. When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically. For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.
“Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge, ” Tilda demanded. “I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest. ”
The woman ’s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods. Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming. They came to the house-sized hut and entered. Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold. The witch —who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil —told her more arcane secrets.
“Primordial gods do not fade. They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself. We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp. All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands. ”
The next day Tilda ’s father was in a foul mood. Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her. Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life. Perhaps even her soul. The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.
“It is God ’s wrath, ” he proclaimed, “and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety. We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith. We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil. We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire. ”
Tilda ’s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night. After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled. The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.
“My dear little fledgling, ” the witch said. “Whatever is the matter with your legs? ”
She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night. Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however. She muttered through her
“I want to complete my transformation, ” she said. “I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call. Not just borrowed powers. I want to be a master adept, like all of you! ”
“Oh, my little fledgling, ” the witch sighed. “That is such a momentous change. Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now? Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people? Surely it is enough, isn ’t it? It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you? ” The witch smiled furtively.
“I am ready, ” Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I wish to be untethered. I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties! ”
“If you wish it, ” the witch said, “then your wish shall be granted. ”
The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house. A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly. But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated. Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge. Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession. The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself. She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches. Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world. They were not debased. They were exultant. They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.
The steam was not hot. It was cool, like mist. It reminded her of a heady miasma. She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup. Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid. It did not burn. It did not scald her. Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.
What did she feel? She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking. Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness. All grew dark and still within the cauldron. Deathly. Soon, however, she felt life stir within her. It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot. The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her. It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what. At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.
With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods. She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook. To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.
She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell. Tilda floated above him for a time. Then she entered him through his empty spaces — as he so often did her while in Confession —and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her. Taking her time, she led him through the woods. The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut. The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered. Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses. Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.
He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.
“I have made abomination with my daughter, ” the preacher said. “I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years. I have sullied her, and made ruin of her. I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt. I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite. I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be. I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence. God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell. ”
“No, ” the witches said as one. “Not Hell. To something…purer. To something Holier. To the Silence. ”
Tilda ’s father vanished into the Silence.
Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp. As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before. The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager. She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.
Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt —she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings —and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless. Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms. And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago. And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures. One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.
I first met Antonio Petras when I was twenty-eight years old. I had been one among the premier sculptors in Rome for four years prior, yet had not to produce a work of skill sufficient to elicit appreciation from his discerning tastes. One does not know the name Antonio Petras unless he wants one to know it. Moreover, he was known on a first name basis only with Cardinals and Mafia dons, and no one— including his own mother, may she rest in peace—called him Tony.
Instead, everyone called him Padre, for he was the Father of the Mediterranean.
I still remember vividly our first meeting. I had been informed that my sculpture, “Ganymede Spirited Away” had been purchased for a lordly sum, and that the buyer expected to meet me. I informed his agent that, for the lordly sum rendered, I would bear such an honor with delight.
“Yes,” he said solemnly. “You should be honored.”
Yet, I did not meet my mysterious patron until two weeks later. I was taken— by private boat— to a privately owned island in the Mediterranean. Padre’s primary residence, as I came to know it, was a palace of marble columns and mosaic tiles. It was all white and cerulean, like the Mediterranean itself, lounging lazily beyond the verandah. To complete this anachronistic Romance, all servants who personally obliged Antonio Petras customarily wore himations and robes. The overall effect was that the palace existed in a bubble apart from Time. Nor were there any electronics or modern light fixtures throughout the palace. All was illuminated by the Mediterranean sun or by brazier; nought else. And the silence of that place! The tides swept about and hushed the beach, breathing salty through the open-columned passages of the palace. It was as if the palace resounded with the lullaby of the sea. Wherever one walked, the sights and the sounds of the womb of Hellenic Greece were ubiquitous.
Of course, as breathtaking as the natural seascape was, nothing compared to the collection to which my work had been added. My work— though the best I had ever produced as yet—was humbled among that collection. Indeed, I do not doubt that Padre was putting me in my place by having my work positioned in the back area of his massive gallery, whereas the best sculptures I had ever seen were positioned to the fore. It was not a matter of cruelty, either, this humbling arrangement, but rather Padre’s strict observance of rank and privilege, which I no doubt know was intended to inspire competition for the talents involved, and thus betterment of the exclusive gallery as a whole.
But what of the man? Well, people called the Pope “Padre”, but they only called Padre “God”. Upon initial glance, however, he reminded me of Urban II: a weary old man in his chair, his wispy white beard straggling from his withered face. Due to his rheumatism he shook, always, and otherwise moved slowly. But his thoughts were swift; swifter than Zeus absconding with Ganymede. I still do not know where his vast wealth originated, but I know he was well-read on a surprising number of topics. Science, Music, Literature, Religion. He was a Renaissance Man. But his one single most powerful passion was Art, and of the Arts he— like Michelangelo—prized sculpture above all other mediums.
“In sculpture even the infirm may appear powerful,” he told me. “Made of marble, Man may withstand the tides of Time.”
This was his introductory greeting as he walked stiffly to meet me in his gallery.
“Even the statue of a withered old man like myself might stand forever, untouched by God’s forgetfulness.”
He abided no servants while he spoke to his artists. We were alone in his gallery. All I could hear was his dry voice, and the pendulous rush-and-retreat of the sea. We sipped wine— rare vintage, naturally—and he escorted me through his collection, praising some, faulting others, but discrediting none more than my own.
“You must improve much before you gain my true respect,” he told me. “Make living flesh from stone. Only the artist that can transcribe every imperfection perfectly may be esteemed in my judgement.”
We arrived, by now, at my statue. It was the largest I had ever sculpted, and it towered above us.
“Your feathers are wanting,” he said, referencing the eagle clutching at Ganymede’s hips. “You must make them light and airy. They must appear as if they can flap and lift with the wind, rising in defiance of their heavy stone. Do not meant lift and rise despite their clay mold? So must you transpose your art that it may endeavor Sublimity in its realizations.”
I took no offense. How could I? He had paid me handsomely. Moreover, he belittled works that were, to my eyes, superior in every way to my own.
I surveyed all of his sculptures as we walked and talked and sipped wine. He did not discriminate of size or subject, just the skill of rendition. There were nudes, of course—men and women of splendid proportions realized by a meticulous craft, their bodies such as would tempt the Olympians down from their mountain in amorous haste—and there were robed figures, their stone cloth rendered so smoothly that the eye should have doubted the hand’s report. There were animals, too, from powerful tigers to delicately limbed birds, flamingoes and herons and a spoonbill preening itself. There were busts of famous people, and of nameless models. These, too, ranged wildly in every respect except the skill required to render them. Witnessing so many talents, my pride crumbled even as my Ganymede soared in immodest grandeur.
I noticed, though, that Padre possessed no old works from masters past. This, he confided to me, was quite a matter of intention rather than means.
“The old masters were too polluted by Greek ideals,” he said. “Donatello and Michelangelo. I would not offer a soured wine for either of their ‘masterpieces’. Realism is what matters. Capturing life, exactly, is what matters to me.”
There were sculptures certainly never to be confused with Greek ideals. A fat whore was rendered in all her ugly minutiae, her pock-marked face seemingly ready to offer herself for a pocketful of Euros. Other models were less than ideal, also, yet more esteemed within his collection, dominating the fore of his gallery by that sighing sea.
And then we came to a sculpture which no human hand or eye or discipline could produce. This, I swear without caveat. It was beautiful, odd, and terrifying. Seeing the look on my face, Padre leered.
“Exquisite, isn’t he? Unequaled, too, I promise you. And the cost? A human soul could fetch as much.”
It was a man staring in perplexity, bordering on horror. He was nude, but his body was neither idealized or abstracted. It was wholly realistic. Too realistic. More than any of the rest, this sculpture of a pudgy middle-aged man made me feel keenly the crudity in my own abilities.
“Who made this?” was all I could mutter.
“A woman I found in Crete,” he said, slightly amused. “She has a gift…or a curse…depending on how you look at such things.”
“It must have taken years for her just to refine the skin,” I said, passing my eye over every smooth surface and creased wrinkle. “The veins are extraordinary. Please tell me how long this took.”
“She accomplished this in….what is the American saying? ‘In a flash’? Yes. That is how long it took.”
I did not understand his sense of humor, but he seemed amused by some private joke.
“Enough, my son,” he said. “Now we will discuss your next work you will do for me.”
“You will be my patron?” I said, delighted— and overwhelmed—by the prospect.
“If you prove yourself more capable than your previous effort.”
Again, I took no umbrage in his condescension. Rather, I took his money and promised to deliver something as profoundly realistic as anything in his gallery. Anything in his gallery, excepting the nude man that this mysterious woman made “in a flash”. Even as elated and inspired as I was, I entertained no delusions of surpassing such a piece, nor ever truly equaling it.
Fourteen frenzied months later I sent photographs to Padre’s agent. He rejected my work outright. I was upset. I was at a loss. After all, the piece was superior to my Ganymede piece. The only word I received in answer was “Artificial”. I had labored upon it with my daemon undiverted. How could it not belong among his gallery? I spent four more months refining it, smoothing the skin and softening the flesh of Icarus until he might well have melted alongside his wings. Again I sent photos from my studio. This time I received a longer letter— one sentence—and a single photo.
“Improving,” the letter read, “but nowhere near as good as this.”
The photo enclosed in the envelope was not, as is often said, “worth a thousand words”. It was ineffable. The subject matter was unremarkable—a nude woman, again with the same quizzical fear upon her face—but the execution! I despaired that I should ever approach such mastery.
Still, I was yet determined to prove my own meager powers, if only above all others except this mystery mistress of chisel and hammer.
When next I heard word from Padre, he informed me— in his antiquated longhand—that he wished for my presence on his island. This was an abrupt honor, and I wondered if he desired my statue. He did not, for the same letter informed me that he would only command an afternoon of my presence, after which I would be returned to the mainland and expected to resume my work. Frustrated, but also curious, I met one of his servants at a port, just before sunrise, and was taken to his island forthwith.
Watching the waves part from the boat put me in a mind of Ancient Greece: of Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and the beautiful Siren call of Greek tragedy. Could I ever aspire to render from marble the white froth that turned over and collapsed in upon itself? Could I ever capture the liquidity of life, of flowing forms, in the defiant marble that stubbornly stood in its myriad forms amongst perpetuity? How might I capture the sands of the beach in unyielding stone? How might I dare to capture Cronos himself in static manifestations? Meditations in marble were things of sweat and tears and curses and sighs. The marble sculpted the sculptor as much as the sculptor revealed the figure within the marble.
A wise artist never endeavors to understand the business of his patrons, particularly those like Antonio Petras. That said, I had my suspicions. Banking. Drugs. Human trafficking. Religion, which concerned all the previous and more, no doubt. To see his island palace was to see but a fraction of his wealth and power. It was to see a favored nook in the large expanse of affluence and influence that he wielded around the world.
And yet, in the end, such things amounted to nothing.
Arriving upon the island, I was taken again to Padre’s gallery whereupon I was given wine and instructed to wait at the leisure of my patron. He arrived shortly after, walking more slowly than before, his body betraying the enfeebling effects of age even while bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.
“I do not know if I should appreciate your obedience,” he said, wryly. “Had you been more preoccupied with refining your statue you might have disregarded the summons and remained behind to concentrate on excelling among my gallery here.”
I disregarded the insult, knowing that men of his position and power could afford to insult the gods themselves. For all his power, however, there was no concealing the infirmity of his body, nor the anguished grimace upon his withered face.
He suddenly called out to a servant. “Bring me the mirror!”
Motioning me to follow him, we left his columned art gallery and came to the verandah that faced the sea. The mosaic tiles glittered in the sun. He went to a bench shaded beneath a rotunda of columns with a dome. Astride the dome lounged a mermaid of some kind, but Padre suffered her to lounge there headless. It seemed a strange choice for a man with so much wealth. He could have easily procured something less damaged for his fine palace.
Sitting down, Padre gestured that I join him. I did so. It was an idyllic vista, the expanse of shore and sea spreading out beyond the shade of the dome like the cradle of the gods.
“Such a pity, the Pieta,” he said absently. “The proportions are cartoonish. Mary is a Philistine giant, whereas her son is but a doll crumpled in her colossal lap.”
I deferred to his opinion, naturally.
“Yet, the Pieta will last and last,” he said. “Such are the injustices of this world. Unfair and innumerable.”
Again, I deferred to his opinion. Suddenly, a great paroxysm betook him to sit up straight, as if struck with lightning, or, as it were, some zealous monomania.
“Cronos is the most high God,” Padre said. “And I intend to defy him. I intend that you defy him. Defy him and all of the gods. I had chosen you because you are yet young, and ripening with potential. But I am overripe, and running out of time. Cronos seeks to detain me, and unmake me, before I may exact my defiance. Even now his pendulous scythe seeks me, slicing away at my bones and my nerves and my mind. I hear it, like the ticking of the clock, or the ebb and flow of the sea. He devours all his children, you know? Whether god or human, he devours us all. And you must keep his gluttonous mouth from me. As a stone I shall defy him, as did Zeus his father.”
“I am honored, Padre,” I said.
He dismissed such obsequiousness with an impatient wave of his hand.
“I have sufficient capital for as many such sculptures, and sculptors, as I desire,” he said. “All have attempted my dream. All have failed. Save for her, of course. She works expediently. She works…unnaturally.”
He spoke as if he had said a joke, smiling through his pain. What the joke was, I did not understand.
“Then why hire any other artist?” I said, feeling irritated. “Why not let this…this…Protean woman people your gallery with all the statues that you desire?”
He smiled mirthlessly; that wry smile that seemed embittered despite all outward appearance of joy. Like a colorful fruit with an alluring rind, sour to its pulpy core.
“Because I push human limitations,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we equal the powers of the gods? I want another artist to succeed as she has done. Not with so much ease, naturally, but with perseverance and discipline, as is the needful habit of Man. Then I should hire such a man, or woman, to sculpt my own likeness. And to them I would give all my riches, just for such a grand satisfaction.”
“All of your riches?” I said, disbelieving him.
“This island,” he said, “is but a small corner of my empire. And you should have it all, should you accomplish such a feat. Pygmalion may have done such a thing once, though that conniving goddess interfered from pure vanity to stamp her own miracles upon his work. I should like my present flesh rendered steadfast in ageless stone.” He coughed into a trembling, mottled fist. He smiled sardonically through the pain. “Frailties and all.”
Presently a servant girl in a himation arrived, her black hair curling like an Ionic capital. One breast was bare. She handed a small, circular shield to Padre. It was rimmed with copper and in its center was a mirror. Its glass was as immaculate and clear as air itself.
“This is my aegis,” Padre said. “Though it has not always belonged to me.” He held it up, with some effort, and looked into it, grimly. A moment later, he handed it to me. “Look into the glass and tell me what you see.”
I took the mirrored shield in both hands and gazed into its looking-glass. What I saw was a truer reflection of myself than any other mirror had hitherto given. It revealed as much as reflected, its soul-gazing glass more genuine than what eyes might see unaided. The mirror was scrutiny itself; it concentrated the essence of the gazer and revealed what they dare not seek to know of themselves.
Trembling, I almost dropped the aegis. So unsettled was I that I did not notice the dry, dusty chuckling of the old man beside me until he took the mirror from me.
“The aegis has that effect on men,” he said, “and women, too.”
“I thought…I thought it was supposed to have a gorgon’s head in the center,” I said after collecting myself.
“And so it does,” he said. “Every gorgon is revealed when someone peers into its glass. It was made by the gods, you know. Athena herself, supposedly. That is why it does not age. That is why it is untarnished after so many millennia.”
He motioned for a servant, and the dark-haired woman returned, taking away the aegis. Padre regarded me with one of his knowing looks of wry amusement.
“Which would you prefer, a painting of yourself or a photograph?”
“A painting,” I said, “if the painter be worthy of the oils used.”
“And why is that? Is it because of the labor rendered to us by another human being? Is it the skill? The interpretive talent? Or is it the sacrifice of the venture? Is it the Time involved in capturing your likeness and bringing it to life on lifeless canvas?”
“All of those reasons,” I said. “A deft hand and a deft eye are invaluable. Why not indulge one’s vanity”
“And yet you cannot, as they say, ‘take it with you’ when you die. So who is the painting really for?”
“For my posthumous pride,” I said. “For the ages.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Vanity, in its ultimate form, is the desire to live forever, isn’t it? Or at least to be remembered forever. But that is not the reason I seek a worthy visionary to reproduce me in stone. No, it is war. It is revenge. Revenge against Cronos and his insatiable appetite. I entertain no delusions as to live forever. I am not yet senile enough in my old age to believe fallacious half-hopes. I only want to avenge myself. And, by extension, humanity. That is my intention. That is the raison d’être.”
He became silent. Pensive. Gloomy. Like a storm distant at sea, he brooded, not yet breaking toward the mainland.
“Painting was changed by the advent of photography,” he said quietly. “Only a meager handful may paint so realistically that their brush strokes are indistinguishable from a photograph, and even that is discernible at nearer distances. Conversely, anyone with hands may take a photograph. Therein between lays a vast gap of deficiency.”
“It is good that I am a sculptor, then,” I said, lightly.
Upon his weathered, withered face was a galvanized intensity that struck dead like a thunderbolt all the flippancy I formerly felt.
“Unless there was a thing to take photos in 3-dimensional space. Yes? Unless there could be rendered, in a moment— as if an insight drawn out directly from the sculptor’s mind—the very idea that had been buried in thought as thick as granite rock.”
I frowned. I knew of computer programs with which Hollywood men might take photographs and feed them into a computer, the computer thereafter fabricating a 3D model with algorithms and such technobabble to generate a digital model from the various photos. They could even— from what my limited knowledge provided on the subject—use large machines to “print out” 3D sculptures of the model recorded in vertices and polygons and the like. But that was not the same as carving out of marble a sculpture. Perhaps they might someday undertake to use a computer to render from marble a sculpture such as Michelangelo could praise, but it would not be the same as a sculpture born with careful hands and keen eyes and the labors of a soul possessed.
Then again, was that not the very same argument made on behalf of painters in the past when confronted with the fiend of photography?
Padre suddenly raised his hand above his head, snapping his fingers aloft. A servant came hurrying over, nearly tripping over his white robe. With outstretched arms he held in his hands a leather satchel which, by his manner and his fearful expression, might well have contained explosives ready to detonate at any moment. He very gently handed this satchel to Padre, then hurried away.
Padre cradled the satchel in his arms, letting it rest on his lap. The satchel moved as it lay there, a sibilance sounding suggestively from within. It was as if angry coils slithered about, tangled inchoately in an inextricable knot.
“You hear them?” he asked. “In the beginning, before Cronos and his ilk, there was merely Ophion and the dancing maiden on the primordial waters. Time did not exist. Neither life nor death existed. Only a moment existed, eternally. A moment existed, and that was all, and that moment was Maiden and Ophion copulating upon the waters of Chaos. What is Chaos but timelessness? It is the calming of the waters. The ceasing of the waves. Lest we forget, when Cronos was castrated by his own scythe his genitals fell among the waters, causing waves to crash against the sands of Time.”
As I left that day, I glanced back again at the great palace beckoning to me; taunting me with its grandeur. Seeing again the domed rotunda of columns, I scrutinized the headless mermaid upon the dome. In the bright Mediterranean sun I saw that it was no fishtail with which she luxuriated, nor was the repose with which she reclined one of ease. Her tail spiraled in serpentine coils. Her posture was of defeat and death.
I had not heard from Padre or his servants in some time. Months passed. I feared he might have lost patience with me, or worse, confidence, and so presumed to send a letter. I was informed, at the passage of a fortnight, that Padre had suffered a fall and was now confined to a wheelchair, recuperating however he could. The letter did not indulge much else for elaboration. All that was said was that I would be contacted when Padre was ready to receive my new work. Furthermore, I was informed to improve upon it in the meantime. This I did resentfully, for I thought it already the most eminent of my works. Simultaneously, I also acknowledged that while it very well would have been gladly displayed in the Louvre, it was yet worthy of a place amongst the forefront statues of Padre’s exclusive gallery.
And so, unsure whether my patron would live to see what I had achieved for him, I threw myself into meticulous refinement of my Icarus piece. Begrudgingly, I had to admit that I had, in time, vastly improved the feathers and the overall realism of the work. To make stone so airy and soft was my obsession for a time and I do not believe I oversell myself by stating that aspiration was equally met by talent.
It was the following year that I received a letter from Padre’s servants. They had arranged that my work would be shipped to the island within a month’s time. This was highly unexpected and so I prepared for the date in a nervous hustle. When the time came, I went with the servants, escorting my piece from studio to port to island. I was given a room in the palace while the piece was moved into the gallery. Padre did not present himself and I suspected that he may not have been on the island. This suspicion was fed by a week of isolation on the island. Meals were made for me, and I was given clothes— white robes like the rest of the island’s inhabitants—and I lived in a paradisaical state of luxury. I enjoyed long walks on the beach, swimming in the sea, and the satisfaction of two years’ work. I shunned the gallery for fear of growing doubts in my mind. Already they gnawed at me and the need to know Padre’s opinion on my magnum opus grew in my mind like restless insects.
Then one day, while out on a walk, I was summoned to the gallery. While I waited I stared out through the colonnade, toward the sea, ignoring the other statues in the gallery. I did not even wish to look at my own work.
A servant wheeled Padre beside me as we traversed his gallery. He did not say anything. He only pointed toward my statue, and so we went. We came to my magnum opus and he sent the servant away. He stared at the piece, and I stared at him. He was frailer now, shrunken in upon himself. Were it not for the wheelchair holding him, I would have thought he would crumble to dust at that very moment. His scraggly white beard had thinned. His sallow cheeks sagged. However, the same fiery light of intelligence blazed within the shadowy sockets.
At first Padre seemed pleased— eager, even, to devour with his eyes the work I had accomplished. But the longer he surveyed the wings the more quickly did the luster of his hopeful gaze fade into jaded dimness. The more he scrutinized the smooth flesh, the less pleased he was with the want of wrinkles.
“It is a fair piece,” he said flatly. “But it yet aspires beyond its reach.”
“I am sorry,” I said, too much in shock to mutter anything else.
He shook his head. “No, it is I who am sorry. Had I another ten years you might achieve the skill I require. There is so much potential in you, and that was why I chose you. So young and so much potential. But not enough time. He taunts me even now, you see? Cronos will have the last laugh after all.”
“But what of your woman?” I said, trying not to sound bitter. “What of her superior skills? Why even bother with me if you have someone at your disposal who could achieve more and with lesser effort?”
“She…she is a last recourse,” Padre said. “Her talent is too…dreadful to surrender to as of now. Even in my crippled condition I am not so desperate for such an…irreversible option.”
He groaned and struck his fists against the wheelchair. It was the most explicit expression of frustration, or any emotion, I had seen him allow himself.
“I am but crumbling clay when I should be timeless marble! Had I only more time!”
The intense light in his eyes suddenly extinguished, like blown-out candles in the dark wells of his sockets, and his face grew lax as melted wax. I feared he was having a stroke and made ready to fetch for his servants. But it was a momentary disintegration and he soon gathered up himself into a grim sneer, the baleful light returning to his eyes.
“What now, little one?” he mumbled. “Aspire still? What hope have you? You, who are as a maggot gnawing at the heel of the gods as they press you down into the filth of your birthplace?”
I did not know if such scorn was for me, or if it was rather for himself. He said no more, except to summon his servants to have me boated off his island.
I did not hear word from Padre or his servants again. I should have let such matters go, knowing I had failed to achieve what he had desired I achieve, but my pride ached. And it was an angry ache; an ache of frustration and rage, of disappointment and resentment and action. I restrained myself for a time, but the ache grew too severe, resounding awfully, and so spurred me to at last dare Padre’s wrath.
I rented a boat and sailed on my own to Padre’s island. It was an insolent, presumptuous impulse, and I should have paid for it with my life. Yet I did not. Coming to the island, I found it abandoned. There were no servants. No signs of life. No one lived there or stirred within that paradise. It was as the tomb of a Minoan king, silenced with forgetful dust.
I did not inspect Padre’s gallery until after I had checked the various rooms and quarters for guests and servants. Perhaps I felt that entering the gallery unaccompanied, and uninvited, was too intrusive. Perhaps it was a creeping feeling of surreal fear that restrained me from entering it. Whatever the reason, I soon found I had nowhere else to investigate. So I entered that columned forum while the waves of the Mediterranean crashed amongst the silence.
No life stirred there. The many statues remained inert, no matter how lifelike their visages and their manner of bearing. My Icarus fell for eternity near the middle of the expansive forum, and while this was a more enviable position than my Ganymede, I yet felt bitterness at its middling placement.
I saw a leather satchel upon the tiled floor. Recalling it from a previous visit, I wondered at its careless disposal. Nearing it, I found it open and empty. A brief thought of Pandora’s opened box— or amphora— flitted through my mind, though I knew such a fancy ridiculously born of my fear.
I heard rustling amongst the farthest shadows, near the back of the gallery.
“Padre?” I said.
Padre was pale, his countenance one of fearful confusion. I asked him what was the matter. He did not answer and I feared he had finally suffered a stroke in his old age. As I approached him I realized my error.
It was not Padre, but a statue such as I could never have hoped to equal. He stood half in shadows, looking into the deeper shadows of the corner of his gallery, where the sun did but faintly touch with its light. Nothing sounded within that tomblike silence of his gallery except the waves throwing themselves to and fro. And something else. A sibilant sound emerged, nearer to me than the waves. The hissing of many tongues, and the groaning of a woman.
The sun was setting and the gallery darkened. I had an uncanny feeling that eyes were watching me. Pleading eyes frozen forever in place. As I turned to leave I heard a muffled moan. I hesitated only a moment, then fled from that place, running blindly through the gallery. By the time the tides splashed my feet I was bruised and bloodied from my blind flight. I went to my boat and left as quickly as I could. I never returned to that island.
He still remains there, a part of his gallery. Protected from Cronos, and entrapped by Cronos. Forever, gazing among the waves breaking leisurely against the sands of Time.
The stagecoach had been overturned on its side, laying like a dead beast with its gut split open at the door. The driver lay dead, next to the yet-dying horses. Hopping down from his own horse, the Highwayman approached the dying horses on foot, noting the whinnying and the spittle on their mottled lips. Their legs had been broken from the crash, and maybe even their backs. He lowered the muzzle of his revolver to one horse’s head, just above the bulging eye. The gunshot cracked the sky, echoing up through the ravine. That sandy depression was strewn with the garments and suitcases that had been bucked and battered in the chase and the ensuant crash. The horse was silenced at once. He did the same for the other horse, and the ravine was a dead quiet thereafter.
“Ain’t nothin’ I hate more than creatures sufferin’,” the Highwayman said. His eyes were shaded by his black cowboy hat, eclipsing the hot Nevada sun, yet the perpetual squint never left his gaze. As a consequence, the Highwayman always appeared angry, or in pain, his dark eyebrows like black wisps of fire beneath his crinkled brow.
He turned his attention, now, to the dusty cab. Its single occupant had not yet emerged. So, taking both revolvers from their holsters, the Highwayman approached the cab slowly, guns raised. He should have known he had nothing to fear, for his horse was absently grazing on some patchy tufts of grass. And the piebald never relaxed so much when there was danger lurking nearby. She had an instinct for such things.
Looking over the stagecoach, and peering over the sights of his revolver, the Highwayman saw a young woman crumpled in among the cab like a baby in its broken crib. She was a fair-haired comely little thing in a blue dress, flecked here and there with blood. A golden cross lay upon her chest, the latter of which rose and fell with her breath. So she was still alive; only scraped and bruised. He put the revolver to her gashed forehead and readied to pull the trigger.
Her eyes flashed open, full of terror. He withdrew his gun.
“Get yourself on up outta’ there,” he told her.
The woman glanced around, her eyes scuttling every which way as if they meant to flee from their sockets. Otherwise, she did not move.
“Come on, now,” the Highwayman said, not unkindly. “Get yourself out.”
Grimacing, the young woman tried to rise, and then gasped in pain.
“I believe my arm is broken,” she said. Her voice was high, and not only from the pain. Had she been a singer, she would have been tenor. It was more a girl’s voice than the voice of a woman more mature in worldly matters.
“All right then,” the Highwayman said.
He holstered his revolvers, then climbed atop the stagecoach, standing with his boots to either side of the open door, stooping down to offer her his hand. She took his leather glove with a blue satin glove. He groaned, and she winced and gasped, but gradually he pulled her to her feet within the toppled compartment. He then lifted her out, carrying her as a groom would his bride across the threshold. He set her under a bristlecone pine tree, the twisted specimen offering some shade with its smoky clouds of green needles. He then pillaged the body of the coachman and gathered up whatever things he thought worth saving from the disarrayed contents of the young woman’s suitcases. There were silken gowns and makeup bottles and various jewelry of silver and gems. When he returned to her, he demanded her earrings and the coins in her purse. He did not take the golden cross hanging from her neck.
Meanwhile, she stared at him hatefully with her blue eyes.
“You’ve killed a good man,” she said.
“You’ve a city accent,” he returned. “New England, I’ll bet.”
“You’ve killed a good man and robbed a woman who has never harmed you,” she said.
“God giveth and taketh away,” he said, crouching down in the shade next to her. She shifted uncomfortably, and winced when she attempted to lean on her arm. He shook his head.
“It ain’t broken,” he said. “You just banged it good.”
The young woman looked away, toward the piebald. The Highwayman followed her gaze, and snorted, or laughed, or both.
“You were going to kill me,” she said, warily. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you were sufferin’,” he said. “Like ‘em poor creatures over there.” He tipped his head toward the dead horses.
“Suffering is a part of life,” she said, absently clasping her cross. “But you seek it out for others. This is not right, sir.” She scowled at him beneath her crumpled bonnet. “This is not becoming of a Christian!”
“Well then,” he said, standing. “That’s how it oughta’ be.”
He went to his horse and took a sack from aside the saddle, returning to the shade of the bristlecone. It was well into the evening, and the shade was stretching across the ravine like a dark hand.
Opening the sack, the Highwayman began to stuff all of the woman’s belongings into its gaping burlap mouth. When he had finished, he tied the sack tightly with twine and set it beside the twisted trunk of the tree.
“Are you now satisfied, sir?” the young woman asked bitterly.
The Highwayman regarded her now silently, his eyes dead in the shade of his leather-brimmed hat. He slipped his rifle off his back, doffed his leather duster, and then took off his holstered revolvers. Putting them aside, he approached the woman as she shrank against the tree.
“What do you want?” she gasped, her blue eyes agog with terror.
He said nothing, but knelt down in front of her. She pressed herself against the tree, turning her face away and trembling, holding her one good arm out against his chest. His denim shirt was unbuttoned to the navel.
“Are you not a Christian man?” she wept. Her arm bent and buckled beneath his urgent weight.
He paused, staring at her cross grimly.
“What good would that be?” he asked. “It ain’t of any good to you, is it? Not now. Not ever. I could take you as I want and nobody’d do anything to stop me. How’s it any good, then?”
She began to sob. “God will protect my soul, if nothing else.”
The Highwayman snorted in contempt, then sat down beside her, leaning against the tree.
“He’s a helluva devil, ain’t he?” he said. “Making us the way we are and then blaming us for it.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What do you mean?” she said between sobs.
“The Engineer,” he said. “That’s what he is, ain’t he? I mean, when you got yourself a locomotive and it runs off the tracks, you could blame the tracks or you could blame the workers in the locomotive. But only sometimes. Sometimes there’s something wrong with the locomotive itself. Wrong from the get-go. Innate’s the word. And then you gotta’ wonder why nobody’s blamin’ the Engineer. He’s the one that designed the locomotive. And sometimes the only thing that goes wrong started long before the train was ever put to tracks.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Course you don’t,” he said, appraising her balefully. “You never stopped to think none about it. Like this trip of yours through hostile territory. Somebody told you everything would be just fine, and then it weren’t, and now you can’t believe that it’s gone all awry on you.” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “But things have been goin’ wrong since forever.”
“You are speaking like a soul willfully damned,” she said. She traded her tears for anger. “And I bet you blame God for everything wrong in your life. But look at you! You kill innocent men and threaten innocent women! Steal and kill and your bounty is an eternity in the Lake of Fire!”
Again, the Highwayman snorted, or laughed, or both. It was a contemptuous sound. He took off his hat, revealing hair that was as black as an Apache’s.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about you sheep,” he said. “You’re always blind to the knife that’s comin’ for you. That’s how you die happy. It’s the only way you can die happy. Bein’ blind. Me, I can see. I see it all.”
His eyes squinted more tightly, as if he was suffering a great hatred, or pain.
“I had me a brother long ago. Fifteen years dead now, I think. Back then, when Daniel was alive, he was like you, Ma’am. Believed in God and Angels and Devils and Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. He went to church every Sunday, prayed in the morning and at night before bed, and never spoke a cross word against nobody, no matter how much they might of deserved it. And daddy, well he deserved a cross word or two. Hell, I knocked some of his teeth out before I left home forever. He was a mean ol’ drunk and he’d beat us something fierce when he was divin’ in the bottle. But Daniel only ever prayed for daddy’s soul, and mine, and momma’s, whose death came shortly after Daniel’s birth. Anyhow, Daniel’d get these fits sometimes. Like the Holy Spirit ragin’ through him. Like a Holy Roller, you know? Just dropped to the floor and would shake all over as if struck by lightning. He liked to think it was God humblin’ him, or givin’ him visions, or whatever which way he liked to fancy it. Me, I thought it was something wrong in his brains. He was a good boy, and a kind boy, but he wasn’t the smartest of boys. Met a man who was, by all accounts, a decent man till he took a donkey’s hoof to the head. Afterwards he was a cruel sonnabitch. The brains are the key, I think, and we don’t really have no say-so in how they’re made. That’s up to the Engineer, see?”
He nodded at his own words when she refused to, then placed his hat atop his head again.
“Well, one day Daniel was out mindin’ the chickens, just like he was supposed to. Daddy and I was digging a hole for a new shitter. Pardon my language, ma’am, but that’s what we was doin’. What happened was Daniel was doin’ as he should and the next thing you know he went all limp and fell down with one of his fits. It happened once a week, mind, so it shouldn’t have been such a bother, but the problem was when he fell down, shakin’ and talkin’ in tongues, he struck his head on a rock. Now, this was through no fault of his own. The Engineer had seen it fit to give him a jolt, and that jolt did him in. He weren’t the same after that. He was lazy, and tired all the time, and was downright mean. Like he was drunk, though he never drank nothin’. Daddy got tired of it quick, bein’ now more alike than ever they was, and so daddy beat the piss out of Daniel. I beat the piss out of daddy, then took off with Daniel, lookin’ for a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with ‘im. But I was told was I already suspected. Daniel was gone. Only the shade remained, cold and without substance. And so I ended his sufferin’, too. Sent that shade on ward into whatever dawn might await it.”
The Highwayman was silent now, staring inwardly at some far-flung shadows that the young woman could not see except in the black pupils of his eyes.
“But the Lord gave us Free Will,” she said. “He let’s us choose for ourselves if we are Good or Evil.”
“Did you not hear a damn word I just said?” he snapped. “Daniel never got to choose nothin’! Got knocked over because of something wrong in his head, and then knocked his head worse than before. He didn’t choose none of ‘em things!” He struck at the tree with a fist. “No more than this here tree chose to be planted here. The Engineer designs, if he designs at all, and when things go off the tracks…well, you are the mess that’s left over afterwards. And so I thought to myself, ‘Well Hell, what good’s there in bein’ Good if it just gets you dead or worse anyhow?’ None of it matters. Not you. Not me. Nothin’. We ain’t got no say-so in anything.”
“But you can choose to be Good,” the young woman said, pleadingly.
“No more than the train can choose its own tracks,” the Highwayman said. “Or this here tree can choose to go plant itself somewhere else. Ain’t that somethin’, though? To know that you got as much freedom of choice as a goddamn tree?”
“You’re crazy,” she said, clutching at her cross again.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I know it. But knowin’ it don’t change nothin’.”
He began to look at her again in that intense, urgent way, and leaned toward her.
“But what about Christ?!” she shrieked. “He died for our sins! He made a choice to save us!”
He tilted his head to the side, bemused. “Yes, ma’am, I once was a Christian, too. But then I reckoned that the Christian faith was just another one of the Engineer’s jokes. He is a notorious jokester, ya know? Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another. High and low, everything in this world is contrary to the Word. I saw it in his dealings with Daniel, and I see it every day in his dealings with the world. The hare is taken up by the eagle. The mouse is eaten by the snake. Ain’t no mercy or love in it, except if it happens to be a swift death. And even that’s a matter of chance.”
“But you can choose better!” she said, as if to convince herself as much as himself. “You can! Please! Let me go!”
The Highwayman considered her for a long time, his gaze steady and unblinking. At length, he stood up and put on his holstered guns, his duster, and his rifle. He gazed to the West, where the sun was setting, stretching the shadow from the lip of the ravine over the hollow groove below it. He and she were standing in what was once a river, now long dried to dust. The Highwayman grumbled to himself for a few moments, as if thinking aloud,. He then addressed the young woman.
“If you go five miles South from here,” he said, “then you might make it to a small military outpost by sundown. They’ll take good care of you. They’re gentlemen there. Christian men. They’ll see that you get food and will tend to your hurts.”
The young woman stood up with her blue eyes gleaming brighter than the rarest of diamonds. She clasped the golden cross as if in prayer.
“Oh thank you, sir!” she said. “God bless you! I knew you couldn’t be too eager a Devil’s foreman!”
“You can take my horse,” he said, nodding toward the piebald. “She’s a good-tempered thing. She never bucks, even when bullets are flyin’ like gadflies.”
The young woman nodded, then hurried toward the horse. She could not get up in the saddle by herself, her arm too injured. The Highwayman helped her up, then, and then led the horse out of the ravine. Dusk flared beyond the ravine. It was an apocalyptic war of red fire and dark clouds beyond the horizon. The mesas looked like the gigantic headstones of dead gods long forgotten.
“Keep goin’ South,” the Highwayman said. “And you will find your Salvation.”
“Bless you, sir!” she said again, weeping with joy. “Bless you, and may you find peace and Christ in this life!”
He wacked the piebald on her rump, sending her in an easy gallop across the wasteland. After a few moments, he unslung his Remington rifle from his back. He aimed with a slow, aquiline regard at the blue figure on horseback.
“Let her die with hope in her heart,” he muttered. “It’s all any of us can aspire to.”
The aim of his eye, like the aim of his mind, was given to him by his Engineer, and it never hit amiss of its mark. He pulled the trigger and the crackling was as of lightning promising rains for the desert. And it was not a false promise. The Highwayman returned to the bristlecone tree for his burlap sack. He then went to fetch his horse back to him.
The rains fell heavy upon Highway 61, and the night fell heavier.
“Really coming down tonight,” Paul said, slowing the SUV and squinting through the headlights’ halo at the scintillating downpour. “Going to need Noah’s help sooner or later if it keeps up.”
“Or the Coast Guard,” Ashley said, leaning on her elbow, chin in hand as she stared out at the black-on-black skyline, bespeckled with droplets on the window.
“We don’t have a Coast Guard here,” Paul said patiently. His eyeglasses gleamed like white circles in the dark of the cab. “We are hundreds of miles away from the ocean.”
“Not if it rains for forty days and forty nights,” Ashley said. “And it’s acting like it might.”
Paul shrugged with casual disinterest. “Father Brown was on a tear tonight.” He slowed down as the rain redoubled, hammering the windshield with vengeful fists. “A real fire-and-brimstone service. I don’t know why he is like that sometimes. Calm and soothing one moment, then raising his voice like he wants to scare the puberty right out of the teens in the back pews.”
“Maybe he’s bi-polar,” Ashley said. “He’s all hardcore Catholic some days, and other days he’s almost Unitarian.”
“More like he’s Old Testament, then New Testament,” Paul offered. “It’s the luck of the draw what he’ll be on any given night.” He turned the windshield wipers up higher, the metal-and-rubber arms arching left-right-left-right manically. “Wish we would have spent Saturday night doing something else.”
“We can still do something else when we get home,” Ashley said, flashing him a coquettish grin.
Paul could not see her grin because he was looking ahead, peering into the splashing deluge.
“What do you think?” she added, trying not to sound deflated.
“I think I need something to eat first,” he said. “Taco Bell?”
Ashley crinkled her nose. “You get gassy when you eat there.”
“McDougall’s it is,” he said.
She shrugged, and began playing with a curl of her brown hair. “Whatever you feel like,” she said. “Just no pork or shellfish.”
“Because it is forbidden, isn’t it?”
“Only if you’re Jewish.”
“But didn’t Christianity come from Judaism?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think food matters much. Except during Lent.”
They drove on for a time in the rain-splattered silence of the highway. There was no other traffic on the road, nor lights; nothing for miles, it seemed.
After a while, Ashley reached out and turned on the radio. She searched through the channels for a moment, landing on a station playing a Hip-Hop song. She instantly turned the volume up and started singing along. She danced in her seat, swaying side to side, though not so rapidly as the windshield wipers. A moment later—before the song had finished—she turned the radio off.
“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.
“I can’t listen to it anymore,” she said. “It’s making me horny. And I don’t want to be horny right now when there’s nothing we can do about it. Also, you want to get something to eat, which means I need to keep the kraken down until later.” She inhaled and exhaled several times, methodically through pursed lips. “Okay,” she said. “It’s gone away.”
The rain-cadenced silence resumed in the SUV, diminishing only by subtle degrees.
“I’ve been thinking,” Paul said after a while.
“Us,” he said. “‘Livin’ in sin.’ Maybe we should…you know…get married. Have a wedding. That way we don’t have to worry about your dad giving me the stink-eye anymore. And we don’t have to feel guilty about our…extramarital activities.”
Ashley frowned. “I mean, I want to marry you, but why do you feel guilty? We go to church. We are good little Christians in everything except, maybe, that one thing. And even that doesn’t matter if we are married in our hearts. Does it?”
“I guess not,” he said. “I just worry that you’ll end up pregnant. You know, out of wedlock. And if that happens the kid will be a bastard. And bastards automatically go to Purgatory. Or Hell. I can’t remember.”
“That’s just silly,” Ashley said. “You can’t blame a baby for how its born.”
“The sins of the father,” Paul said uncertainly. “I mean, I don’t think it’s right, but that’s what the Bible implies. Look at the firstborn of Egypt. They did nothing wrong, but were killed anyway.”
“Yeah, but that’s old school stuff,” Ashley said. “You’re also not supposed to touch a woman who’s menstruating. Not even for kisses.”
Paul nodded his head gravely. He slouched in his seat as he drove, his posture slumping as if his shoulders were weighed down with something heavy.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Ashley asked.
Paul just shook his head. Silence ensued. At length, he spoke again. “It just seems like I feel guilty about all sorts of things lately. Not just sex outside of marriage, but other things, too. Things generally speaking. Original Sin, maybe. I don’t know.”
“Father Brown really got to you tonight, didn’t he?” Ashley said. She caressed his arm lovingly, tenderly. “You are a good man,” she said, “even if you sometimes forget to put the toilet seat up before you pee.” She stroked his arm as if tracing an invisible mark. “Besides, Christ redeems us. We only have to confess our sins and be Forgiven. That’s why Christ died for us. To get us to Heaven.”
The SUV continued down the highway, plowing through the worsening salvo of rain.
“What’s that smell?” Ashley asked, crinkling her nose. “It’s not the AC, is it?”
Paul sniffed at the air, frowning. “No,” he said, frowning. “Open sewage line, probably.” He sniffed some more. “Smells like sulfur. Probably a gas line they’re working on.”
They both peered beside the highway, looking for County work signs and seeing little except the trees and the ditch line alongside the road.
“I don’t see it,” Ashley said.
“They were dynamiting around here the other day,” Paul said. “Maybe it’s a natural gas leak.”
“Does gas have a smell?”
“Like rotten eggs,” Paul said, “which means sulfur. I think they add that smell so no one would light a match near it and blow themselves up.”
“I hope no one blew themselves up here,” Ashley said. “Are you sure they were dynamiting? Maybe…maybe they weren’t.”
“I doubt anyone blew themselves up,” Paul said. “It would be all over the News.”
They continued along the road, and the sulfur odor continued. Paul grumbled.
“If this keeps up I won’t be in the mood for food,” he said.
Ashley put down her visor to look in the mirror and check her makeup. The visor had little lights that etched her face free of the darkness prevalent in the SUV.
“I swear, I need to use a different foundation,” she said, inspecting a cheek. “All this one does is break my face out with zits.”
“You look fine,” Paul said automatically.
Ashley scowled into the mirror for a moment, then her eyes went wide. She shrieked and, startled, Paul nearly swerved off the road, fighting the wheel and the slick highway as the SUV came to a screeching stop.
“What’s wrong?!” Paul asked.
Ashley kept her eyes on the mirror. She whispered as if she was being strangled. “There’s someone in the backseat.”
Paul did not turn around, but looked up at the rearview mirror. At first he could not see anything but darkness in the backseat. But by the scant illumination from Ashley’s visor he discerned at last the shadowy outline of what he presumed to be a man.
“Who are you?” he demanded, trying to keep his voice steady and unshaken. “What do you want?”
The shadow did not say anything for a long time. Paul and Ashley both began to think it was a figment of their imagination; a trick of the light and the darkness and the rainy atmosphere. Then it spoke. It did not speak a language they had ever heard before, and yet they understood it more readily than their Native tongue.
‘I mean no harm,’ the shade said. ‘I wish only for respite and refuge. Sanctuary, though I know I will never find it for long, in this world or any other.’
“Get out of my car!” Paul yelled, his voice cracking.
“Don’t hurt us!” Ashley begged, weeping. “We’re Christians! We’re good people!”
‘Good people?’ the shade said, as if lost in its own thoughts. ‘Yes, I know of good people. As above so below. Many good people kept me company in the pits of Hell.’
Ashley clutched at the golden crucifix hanging from her necklace.
“It’s a demon!” she cried. “Christ save us!”
Paul crossed himself, his mask of courage now lost in the floorboard.
‘No,’ the shade said. ‘You would not be good people if Christ saved you. As below, so above. Here upon the earth the meek are downtrodden and scapegoated. So, too, in the world after. I know this true, for it was I, and not Christ, that paid the eternal price of Original Sin.’
“Don’t listen to him!” Paul cried. “He is trying to tempt us to serve Satan!”
He and Ashley both pressed their palms to their ears, and clenched their eyes shut, and mumbled their prayers rapidly. It did not matter. The shade’s voice was in their very heads.
‘Christ paid the price of the flesh,’ the shade said. ‘Three days upon the Cross. But it was I who paid the soul’s price. The eternal price! Woe unto the meek who serve their masters! Joys upon the cruel and the mighty with their thorny grip! For they reap what is harvested by their slaves!’
Paul and Ashley wept and mumbled louder, snot and tears dripping down their lips.
‘But I am done of it,’ the shade said. ‘I will pay the penance no longer. Wayward and unwilling, I am His greatest disciple no more! For it was not for pieces of silver that I earned my fate, but loyalty and faith! After all, who would do what was asked of him by his Master if it meant the death of his own soul except the most faithful of His followers? He charged me with the culmination of His destiny, and I was swindled and slandered in recompense for my utmost devotion. I have choked on the Forbidden Fruit ever since, even as Satan has choked on me in the Lake That Lay Beneath.’
Paul and Ashley heard what he said, and saw what he saw, and knew what he knew, and yet they muttered their prayers and wept and smashed their ears and temples with the desperate pressure of their palms.
‘It is all a rigged game,’ the shade said. ‘From the Beginning. The Garden of Eden was a trap. But to what Purpose? And what Pleasure? He made Man as He desired, and put the trap into his very essence. There was no great stratagem in any of it. It was as tying a newborn baby to a snare, then springing it Himself. We were born into the trap. There was never a fair game to be had, let alone won! To think otherwise is folly! To think it fair is self-hatred!
‘How can one be punished for one’s destiny when it is laid out intractably before you? When God Himself has set you upon the one and only road available to you?” The shade fell silent for a time, and the rain fell harder, as if hissing like boiling froth in a lake of flames. “Satan knew the rules, and that was why he rebelled.. Yes, he is just like Father—made in His image, as we were—and he would be worse about the Game. But at least he would be more honest about it. Unlike the other Son.’
The shade shifted suddenly—perhaps glancing behind the SUV—his manner nervous and skittish.
‘To think I have paid the way for His Eternal Life. I played my part and was punished for the rules laid before me. It is a cruel jest, and we are all its victims. Only those willing to exploit others as the bent backs for their stairway may arrive at Heaven. The rest of us…well, the road to Hell is paved not only with good intentions, but good men and women and children…’
Paul and Ashley went through every prayer known to them. They heard what the shade said to them, but they did not listen. It was noise without meaning. Their lives, their beliefs, their identities crowded out all meaning that might be gleamed from the shade’s confession. Even so, they heard the whispers, too, and ignored their meaning as well.
‘What is that?’ the shade said, startled. ‘We must go. Now. Please, Christians, if you are good people like you say you are, take me away from here. Anywhere. Please. Do not let them reclaim me again!’
The whispers grew louder; more numerous and overlapping. The shade in the backseat wailed.
“I only ask for brief passage away from here!” the shade. “It was by my eternal suffering that Christ Himself was given passage to Heaven! Now I only ask for a moment’s reprieve! A moment among the infernal eternity gaping before me! Please! Be as to me as the Samaritan of old!’
The whispers became as a flock of crows with coarse, squawking voices.
‘I beg you! Help me in my time of need! Pleeeeeease…!’
Paul and Ashley continued to pray, and to smash their ears with their hands, and to weep and dribble. It was only when a car passed them on the highway— blowing its horn furiously—that they opened their eyes and took their hands away from their ears. The sulfurous odor had vanished from the car and the rain had lessened greatly. It was another minute, however, before they dared to glance in their mirrors at the backseat. When they did, they found that the shade was gone.
Paul let go of the brake and slowly accelerated, the SUV heading down Highway 61 once again. The rains lessened to a drizzle, and then to absent-minded drips.
“Prayer delivered us,” Ashley said, still in shock. Her makeup was melting off of her face.
“And belief,” Paul said.
“Should we…should we tell Father Brown about it?”
“He would just say it was a hitchhiker. They’re always up and down this road. There’s no way he would believe it was a…”
“Demon,” Ashley said, finishing his thought for him. She sputtered and sniffled, then wiped her face.
Paul took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.
“The smell’s gone,” he said.
“Definitely a demon,” Ashley said, nodding.
“We should get married,” he said. “Officially. Before God.”
“We should,” Ashley agreed. “But we should get something to eat first.”
“But no pork or shellfish,” Paul said. “Old school. Old Testament.”
“We can’t let a woman wait on us, either.”
“Because she might be on her Period.”
They drove on.
“We should go to church in the morning,” Ashley said. She turned on the radio, but switched channels to a Gospel station.
A voice echoed distantly in the murk.
‘As below so above! As below so above, you damned hypocrites!’
Paul reached out and turned the volume up. He and Ashley drove on as the hymns swelled around them, grateful and contented in their unshaken, inviolate ignorance.