Passenger

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.”
“Why?”
“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.
“‘bout what?”
“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.”
“Why?”
“Because she might be on her Period.”
“Right.”
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.

Metamorphoses

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The oil lamp sits on my escritoire, before a window in my library whose pane dulls the moonlight with the webbed frost along its glass. How emblematic of my life, the small flame confined in its glass prison and the coldly frosted world beyond it. Is it not like me, that flame, as I sit behind this window and yearn to burn away the cold uniformity of the world beyond this gnostic prison? But we are both prisoners of our mortal circumstances, too soon extinguished upon our wicks to realize our brilliant potential.
The pale gaze of the moon illuminates the distant hills as Selene searches for her sweet shepherd, steeped in his dreams. I hear the genteel rabble down the hall as a pack of mongoloid idiots chittering away to vapid self-importance and anemic music. Is it not enough that I have apportioned them the entirety of my remaining estate if they would but grant me the solitude of my study? How I loathe that stilted, stiff, and ultimately dead music down the hall. It is as pretentious as it is vapid, like finely crafted machinery to reproduce sounds never intended to be enjoyed by living beings. Music should be made by men and women in the throes of desire, their fingers desperate in their unsated appetite for contours and crescendoes and tactile decadence. It should not be played by men and women who have never lusted except in grabbing a Bible to deaden themselves against their own compulsions.
Yet, it is all a diversion constructed by my own volition. I have supplied to please my wife an interminable Winter Waltz; a venue for her entertainment, whose means and manners have acclimated to my own insomuch as the routines of life demand— as Duchess to Duke— and all that faded spectrum of jaded tedium that frequents me, not unlike maggots growing in a long-buried corpse. And what have I earned in return for my generosity? The ambience of an asylum at Christmastide.
“Of course, my dear,” I had said with a tone as sincere in exasperation as a child’s is in his governess’s lectures. “Whatever you wish you shall have, insomuch as I am not disturbed.”
And yet, here she comes down the hall to pester me in my solitude. She has been, if ever anything, a persistent jackdaw intrusive upon my lucubration.
“Love,” she says. “Would you please honour your guests with your presence? They are disconsolate at your aloofness.”
“They are honoured enough,” I retort, “in your presence, my love, and have a place esteemed by my generous hospitality. They need no more.”
“Then honour me, love, by gracing me with a dance.”
I sigh, seeing my breath upon the cold pane by my escritoire, like a fog long lingering afterward. The moon is high, among the stars, and her pale, bloodless light glistens upon the snow beyond the frosted hedges of the garden. It is a cold Winter’s day, and the lights and the noises and the warmth of the inner ballroom are faraway; yet not faraway enough to afford me refuge. The air is still and chill, as if it, too, shares the languor of inert indifference that lays upon me.
“You have partners in abundance,” I say, “and many young gentlemen envious of such an honour.”
She folds her arms across her bosom. It is the symbol of her irritation, the folding of her arms athwart her heart, and were I not annoyed by the bother of her I might be amused to think of the many times I have kissed her breasts which she now enfolds. Yet, I am not amused by anything anymore.
“The scandal of your continued absence will be the talk of London!” she says.
“Excellent,” I rejoin, “for much merriment will I have provided such insufferable personages. Dance, dinner and gossip. Why, they will be preoccupied for a fortnight. I am a most generous host indeed.”
She paces to and fro, as if contemplating the ending of the world. To and fro, to and fro, behind my chair and about my library. I see her reflected upon the window before me, ghostly in the halo of the lamplight. Her shadow flickers with the sullen blaze of the hearth. Her hair recalls a crested bird, though I know not which one. Certainly not those of Halcyon. All at once she halts and tightens her fists at her hips. How women may wear corsets and exercise their emotions without swooning is beyond my understanding, or curiosity. I have always preferred the exercise of women without their corsets.
“Is this work truly so very important?” she demands. “It seems something you might work upon any other time. I am merely asking for a fortnight to help me in entertaining our guests.”
“The stipulation was that you should entertain them at my expense, love,” I say. “Are not the servants sufficiently serving in their vocations? If not, I will attend to that at once.”
“They are as adequate as always,” she concedes. “But it is in your deficiencies as host that the guests murmur rather than exude complete gaiety. Before the week is up they will be outraged…”
“Come, dear, you know as well as I that high society delights in being outraged. Offense for them is a mainstay of their daily diet, and they cannot survive without some slight to gnaw with their afternoon tea. I should not wish to deny them their crumpets.”
“It is a bitter tea you serve them now!” my wife says, her voice crescendoing in its pitch. She would have made a fine soprano had she the inclination.
“Oh, but one with sugar enough to compensate the bite,” I say, my fingers tapping impatiently upon my splayed book. “For it is as with your lovely countenance that they shall sip it. ‘The Duchess is such a saint to endure her hermit husband.’ That is what they shall say. Indeed, and then they shall invite you to London for more soirees and balls than you can bear.”
There was a touch of pain in her eyes as they blinked in disbelief above her sharply hooked nose. It is not an ugly nose; only a Grecian nose. It is one of the reasons why I married her. She reminds me of Helen of Troy, and I have ever been a man seeking what will disrupt the treatises of this banal existence. Her father despises me. Most men among his ailing generation do.
“I do not wish to be a saint,” she says. “I wish to be the Duchess. And what Duchess was ever such without her Duke?”
“A Duchess happy to have the kingdom to herself,” I say, flippantly.
Shaking her head, she leaves the library, heading down the hall to join again the stifling imbeciles she has invited to abuse the atmosphere of my home. Marriage is a matter of compromise. I have compromised for her pleasure; she should compromise for mine. If I was not of a compromising mind, I would fetch from my den my rifles and make sport of her guests. It would not be the first safari where I have downed many among a dullard’s herd of grazing beasts.

I return to my tome for a few moments. Yet, my concentration is adulterated by the ambience of my estate; its potency lessened as a consequence. It being Winter, there is a chillness to the air that calls attention to itself, distracting me from my studies. It is, of course, England herself that is distracting me. Much rather would I be on Crete in Summer than cloistered in Albion’s overbearing frigidity. And yet not even Crete would remedy this malaise of spirit that has vexed me for so long. The chill reminds me— however poorly— that I am yet alive, and I would never be happy, even Summering upon Crete, for it is an experience overfamiliar to me. The novelty of this world has worn as thin as the shroud of Christ. As for creature comforts, I am kept warm enough with a gentleman’s attire, and should I feel more in need of protection against the Winter’s spitefulness I will simply don my ulster and sit closer to the fire, perhaps at my marqueterie table with its Grecian inlay of seashells and geometric patterns. Yet, I wish to gaze upon the dreaming moon, as Endymion upon his lover, and so aspire to the metamorphoses to come while the fools down the hall prattle incessantly.
And so, embattled with imbecilic pastimes common to the myopic gentry, I attempt to read a tome concerning metaphysical transmutations; and yet the echoing exuberance of the Waltz interrupts me as much as my materialist wife.
As I read an exceedingly trite passage in this exceedingly trite tome, and am incessantly vexed by the musical accouterments of my wife’s Winter Ball, my mind loses focus and wanders, as it often does, to the various poetry of Ovid and his lascivious visions. Nor is it depravity that excites such visions to tease my attentions elsewhere, but rather numb stoicism; involuntary stoicism wrought from jaded disillusion which has vexed my life from an early age, proceeding my manhood. For I have been both gifted and cursed with excesses in life— excesses of luxuries and flesh, the sum of which has indebted my emotions to a negated form of Hedonism. That is to say, a Hedonism which knows no satisfaction in the tiresome plane of mortal experience, however variegated the continuum proves to be. Were I the arbiter of manifold forms and granted grand determination over this vapid realm, I would transpose upon the banal world the utmost expressions consistent with nothing except heightening necessities of personal gratification. Caterpillar to butterfly to fairy, such would be the successions of my corporeal intrigues until, at last, Sublimity reaches its zenith and the world would die blissfully in its own exuberance. For it is my unreserved belief that Sublimity is the ultimate purpose of this otherwise useless universe. Sublimity above all else. And yet, that is the curse and the blessing of corporeal manifestations. It is not that Tantalus could not fill his cup to quench his thirst, but that the same libation dulled upon his palate, and so the cup abstained from the rising tides lest he drown forever in the cloying blandness.
And so I sit here, at my escritoire, with a glass of French wine untouched before me while wine and cheer pour down the hall, in my wife’s crowded ballroom, where the prestigious jackanapes of London engage one another with the ebb and flow of oblivious tomfoolery, unaware of the deadening insistence of Time and Age which numb an Epicurean soul such as mine— a soul which has molted and expanded beyond its simple-minded pleasures of melody measured by a lively foot and a welcoming hand.

I arrive at the section entitled “Epistemology of the Assumed Form” when I hear the clacking footstep of a presumptuous guest intruding upon my coveted solitude.
“Duke, if you would kindly pardon the interruption, but I have a matter utmost in need of your jurisprudence.”
It is not a guest, but my majordomo, Augustus, standing beside me, gloved hands behind his coattails and his spine proper and straight, chest held outward despite his ailing age, and his broad nose raised, chin up, all at disciplined attention and focused upon my every word as if Biblical decree. Or so it may seem. What a dull life he leads. Seeing him in the reflection of the window, he appears not unlike a broad-headed bull snorting his contempt in curt issuances from a stubborn head cold.
“What is the matter, Augustus?” I demand. “Can the Duchess not handle it herself? She has always boasted of her superior judgment.”
“The matter is the Duchess, sir,” August says, snorting insolently. “She requires your assistance and is taking great umbrage at your…studiousness.”
I sigh in contempt. How can I not? “And so she sends you here to jeopardize your standing in this house? Why heed her to your own detriment, Augustus?”
Augustus sniffs indifferently— it is another of his discreet means to express his insolence.
“Sir,” he says, “she has threatened my departure from service in this esteemed household if I do not consult you, and now you threaten my departure for granting her request. How can I reconcile myself with such a perilous situation except to throw myself upon your patience and mercy for an expedient resolution?”
Augustus is in all things proper and devout in his duties, except in his tone. Whatever words might be poured in refined elegance from his mouth, their flavour is ever bitter and biting, like an overaged wine. While his words were premised in capitulations, his tone is ever bullishly snide superciliousness. My wife often urges me toward his dismissal, but I find his mild petulance amusing, in a way, whereas the carousel of obsequiousness that spins about me—as pertaining to my other house servants—galls me and prompts my hand toward violence. Abject servility is an unpardonable crime. Such a perpetrator should never be forgiven except in his or her sudden assertion of willfulness.
Augustus, I realize, is yet addressing me.
“…and so she requires your opinion, and your opinion alone.”
“Regarding what?” I say.
Augustus clears his throat impatiently. His collar has always been too tight upon his large neck, and ever seems to struggle to contain the bulge of his throat.
“Regarding the wine selection, sir.”
“By the stones of Jove!” I swear, slamming my fists down. “Let them drink the swill of swine for all it matters to me!”
Calmly—superciliously—Augustus speaks. “I will offer a choice more tempered on your behalf, sir.”
He exits forthwith, his broad nose higher than ever in the air. No doubt he believes himself a more fitting Duke in my stead, and I delight him to persist in this presumption, for I know it gnaws at him to think thus and yet be bound in service to such a man as myself; a man inferior in his estimation. Let him think so, and let such thoughts gore him in his sleep. I played the dutiful, dignified genteel for a quarter of my life, and I am finished in its stagnant, stultifying pretenses. Life is too short, and too stale, to further deaden the heart and the head with stifling manners.
Unto solitude once again, I set forth with renewed interest in my sterile tome. Yet, however strong the oarsmen, a contrary current can overwhelm the most Herculean of men. So is it with me as I burn the oil and ignore the cacophony of instruments and laughter echoing through my home. Icy moonlight through the window reminds me enviously of Endymion in his cave while Selena embraces him. How tender and gentle that repose! Body stilled, yet dreams unending and of myriad marvels! Such a slumber I desire, if only to escape the colourless monotony of this earthly realm.
So much noise down the hall! A noise of stiff, cadaverous airs! A danse macabre, for all it purports in its assemblage. Would be better were all my wife’s guests rendered satyrs and nymphs in a sylvan debauchery of old. Perhaps then the intolerable inanities of their merrymaking might substantiate itself with merit and significance rather than that niggardly imitation of copulation known balefully as “the Waltz”. Indeed, who would ever substitute nocturnal endeavours such as the tapping of toes with the tapping of shoes except in these mendacious times when puritanical pretenses reign tyrannically over all spheres of humanity? The world would be better written with the church and the brothel sharing the same back-door, if not the same nave. The pagans of old knew how and why to live life, and knew the brevity that threatened their lives every waking moment. Thus they lived awash in wine and song and fleshly pleasures that carried them jubilantly upon its powerful tide until oblivion claimed them.
And yet I cannot enjoy any such thing now; neither wine nor song nor fleshly pleasure. Passion has been failed by a prudish world. Had I a poet’s inclinations and capacities I might elevate my consciousness unto the higher realms, thereby exorcising such demons as besiege me. Alas, I have all the Byronic impulses for poetry, but neither the inspiration nor expression required to channel in wizardly fashion the passion, and so cannot supplement tedious earthly existence with the Sublimity afforded by a creative daemon.
Presently a figure approaches from down the hall. I recognize her hurried manner at once, and her lithe form. My exasperated wife.
“My love,” I say, “I have said all I will on the matter. Leave me be.”
A sibilant sigh of vexation, yet I do not close the tome, nor look to her. I will not afford her an appraisal. She is a pretty creature— naturally, for I would have accepted none contrariwise—and yet there was ever a pettish contrariness in her pretty blue eyes beneath her golden curls. I need not look at her to know this. Habit has transfigured her quite stagnant in my mind, like all other things, and that stagnancy holds fast, however dire the need for transposition. For such a pale creature one might be dismayed to witness what passions could be summoned in her seemingly frail frame. Yet, I have summoned what daemons I could from the throes of her bedchamber, and they proved satisfactory only for a time. Do not mistake me, for she is given much to le petite mort, yet the deficit is in the modality of her forbearance. She is too passive a lover to invigorate interest anymore, and has always accepted me gladly, but without the aggression that invigorates my own jaded appetite. I yet sate her appetite with every timely meal rendered, but find myself strangely hollow afterward. She is a harpy in all ways yet what I desire from her. It is a failure of the sex, or perhaps the British woman, for I have enjoyed the proclivities of women in other parts of the world. Women in the Dark Continent, for instance, dominate their lovers when in copulation. This also seems a prevalence among the American Indian squaws. The best I have experienced was a Spanish girl in Cadiz. A lovely creature, too, though alike to dusk compared to the moonlight of my wife. She delivered unto me deep pleasure, though it, too, dulled after a time, as do all things to a mind not encumbered with imbecility and ignorance.
I realize, suddenly, that my wife is yet speaking to me and I have favoured my own thoughts during her orations, as I often am disposed to do when presented with lusterless conversation.
“…it is therefore customary…No! It is vital that you greet your guests at once!”
Vital, she says. I once knew of the vitality of life; of the passions long since deceased. But I have been born of a Faustian bargain, which all knowledge of this world’s sensations exhausted with overripe experience, and so wish for a new bargain whereby the world may be transfigured anew, if such a bargain may be struck.
“My dear,” I say, “for three days your esteemed guests have been getting on without me. For three days I have been attempting— despite the inconvenience of their prattle and prancing—to get on without them. This arrangement is vital to both enterprises. Can you not understand that when I wish to be uninvolved, it is for the sake of you and your festivities? Were I to debut, I would debate, or destroy. It is as simple as that. Therefore I save you and your guests from the catastrophe of my reluctant presence, and they, in time, will save me from the catastrophe of their distractions.”
My wife is silent for some time, not unlike a hawk as it watches its prey keenly.
“You know not what wrongs you do to me,” she says quietly.
“Indeed,” I say. “But I know which wrongs I spare you.”
The Duchess leaves with her frills swishing most petulantly, like some bird of prey whose meal has escaped. It matters not. I am once again afforded time and attention toward the arcane tome. Thus, whatever censure she lays upon me will be a fruitful exchange on my behalf.
Do not doubt that I know my wife to be the angel of my hearth and home— she certainly is—and yet she fails the enterprise of imagination required to sympathize with my disappointments. She is too meek in her conduct, too, and though I loved her once, there is wanting in her manner a certain passion; a passion to recompense my own dulled passions of late. Angel though she is, I long for the night which she should doff her celestial wings and spread talons upon my body, raking deep to awaken flesh wherein to dormancy we are all resigned.

Once again I return to my rare and resplendently dull tome concerning transformations. In the lamplight I read these Greek letters with dutiful attention, and yet like light turning ordinary objects into baleful shadows, that illuminating script writhes and worms its way elsewhere in my attentions while fanciful figures prance ever in my jaded thoughts. It is not that my comprehension lacks crucially in fortitude, but that the trite passages fail to elicit appropriate phantasia. And so my mind, finding the desired effect inadequate, compensates its dearth with wandering wonderment. Often I wander, as Ulysses apart from his home, and yearn for the Siren song of madness, or the oblivion whirling within the jaws of Charybdis. Nor do I find solace in Circe’s favour, nor Calypso’s, but, at times, would gladly welcome the novelty of congress with Scylla, if only to impose upon this pale, murmuring existence the fresh roar of vivacious novelty. I am reminded of The Golden Bough, that work that is as more poetry than true portal to the Mysteries. This tome before me is the antithesis to Frazer’s work. The latter is poetic insight without truth, and this book is truth without poetic insight.

By the womb of Juno! There approaches another interloper! It is Lord Grantchester, no doubt. I know him by his peculiar footstep that tattoos most strangely down the hall, pronounced with a tap and then a slide of his stiff-legged left foot which had been crippled by a projectile from a Mohammedan in one of his many Pyrrhic battles to the South. Since his return to England he has become a notable hero, elevating his status with a lame leg and a library of war stories. Granting credibility to these tales, too, was his missing right eye, which is ever covered with a patch now. Some patrons have offered to generously provide him a glass eye, but he has refused this dubious honour outright. His patch and his lame gait allow him a certain mystique for most who do not know him. Those among us who do have his unfortunate acquaintance, on the other hand, know him to be a dreadful bore. Currently he is aspiring to be a shepherd among the tepid-blooded sheep of our nation. That is to say, he is entering the fray of politics. I wonder how he shall achieve atrocities in the House of Lords likewise to those he has achieved in combat. He has made meringues of men upon the battlefield with his myopic war strategies, blinded as he is by his own myth, and looming Cyclopean in the esteem of fools everywhere. They speak of him as if he devoured the Mohammedans by the bushel whereas the Turks routed his forces toward legendary slaughter. Had he any sense of shame he would have taken the bullet closer to his heart and so ended his incompetence against Britain once and for all.
“Duke,” he says, “we all fear for your well-being. Does the malady originate in illness? If so, may I counsel you to a nice Brandy to inspirit recovery. It is ever the doctor I favour when on the battlefield.”
“Doubtlessly,” I say, flatly. “And great is such counsel provided when countering your enemies. A sound defeat is ever assured on the one side.”
“Indeed,” he says, ignorant as always to my meaning. He can only ever see one side of things, and at that, a side always favourable to himself. “Why, the Mohammedans should have counsel likewise or they will never stand a chance against our might.”
I grow tired of his absurdities. “I am engaged studiously,” I say, “and can ill-afford time for pleasantries. Please excuse me, and enjoy the Duchess’s ball.”
His presumptuousness prompts him to stare over my shoulder, surveying my book.
“Is that Latin?” the cretin asks.
“Greek,” I reply. “They are quite distinguishable. Even to the most unlearned eye.”
“Indeed,” he says, leaning over my shoulder. “Pardon me, though, for, as you know, my vision was impaired in a valiant battle against Christianity’s foe, and so I see but poorly as a consequence. Yet, I see the difference entirely now. It is quite obvious upon closer observation. Naturally, it is Greek, not Latin. Alas, candlelight affords only the most preciously scant illumination, as you no doubt know. That is why I never read anything after nightfall and prefer my newspaper by the light of noon.”
A silence passes— vexing and meaningless and insufferable—and I plead silently to any willing god to spirit this fool away from my person. None answer my prayer.
“And what is the nature of the text?” he asks.
“Tedium,” I say. “The tedium of static forms. Ontological stagnation. Mutability in regard to diminutive matter in a constrained tapestry of being.”
“Ah!” he sighs pleasurably, as if understanding the matter— that is to say, the restrictions on matter, generally speaking. “An excellent subject, to be sure.”
He looms over me for a time longer, then turns away. I am relieved, thinking he will leave. Yet, he merely hobbles to the hearth, warming himself in its glow.
“Do you recall Lady Stonewall?” he asks after a long thoughtful pause.
I do recall such a Lady. She is a fair-faced creature with a winsome mischief in her dark eyes, though too tame to tempt my engagement once again.
“I do,” I say. “Married to Lord Stonewall.”
“Just so,” he says. “She has honoured me as her dance partner for three of the four previous Waltzes.”
“Indeed?” I say, mildly curious now. I regard him, knowing his mind, and knowing hers. Such a short, crippled man to loom so large in civilized society. “And her husband abides in some corner, nursing his knee?”
“He did not accompany his wife,” Lord Grantchester says, flushing red as scarlet upon a letter. “He has taken ill.”
“At his age it is only natural,” I say. “And a young wife must have her freedoms, particularly when so young a Lady as Lady Stonewall. I am sure Lord Stonewall would be grateful to know his young, pretty wife is being attended by a man of such high honours as yourself.”
He does not note the sarcasm in my voice, being deaf to such tones, and instead nods vigorously as he stares into the flames.
“Exactly my thoughts,” he says. He drops his gaze and fidgets restlessly on his good leg, experiencing a moral dilemma from which he seeks— I have no doubt—some deliverance. He stands with his hands behind him, as if bound and awaiting the firing squad.
“You should return to Lady Stonewall,” I say, impatient to have the fool away from me. “Doubtless, she is wanting your company.”
“Indeed,” he says, inhaling and exhaling like a near-drowned man. “Indeed. Indeed.”
He hobbles toward the hall, pausing at the threshold of my study. He sighs, then says, “Egyptian women were never so enigmatic.”
He leaves, his brow troubled now by his own behaviour more than ever by the innumerable dead he had through his incompetence sewn throughout Khartoum. He has made a garden of Earthly Delights by such dragon-tooth men, and yet he fears the sex of a woman. Rightly so, I should think, for Lady Stonewall is wiser than most men of any age. Why else would she marry a man breathing dust from his imminent grave? Nor has Lord Stonewall any hope of producing an heir by her, thus leaving her unspoilt for the next fool she seeks to ensorcell. She is as Aphrodite marrying Hephaestus, yet taking idiotic Ares abed. Had I not partaken once before of her dalliances I might do so again, but I’ve no interest now— not even in the most brazen of women. I am beyond such established fare. The world’s banquet of women is bland to me, however freshly procured from the vine.
I take a moment to contemplate the situation. Lord Grantchester is enamoured of the Lady Stonewall, and she encourages this fixation, knowing her husband is bound for Charon soon enough. Happy woman! You are a slippery, fanged thing, and twist yourself around any man you fancy to lose in your coils! A delicious Delphyne, that she-creature of prophecy, you are serpent-tailed and encoil a man, head to toe, root to head. There was a time I fancied you, and you I. But as all things in my dreary life, such glories fade and all that remains is taedium vitae.
Nonetheless, Lady Stonewall is a credit to her sex. Too many British ladies are of that bloodless marble stiffness so perfectly captured in Frederic Leighton’s abhorrently lifeless paintings. Indeed, like those paintings there is beauty to be had in their elegance and preciseness, yet where is the flush of passions? It is as if they had, one and all, been drained by vein of their crimson life force, leaving only cold porcelain shells. Even his paintings of bare-breasted Andromeda languishes beneath the tyranny of his serpent, and seems too soon to swoon with a morbid pallor rather than writhe with the living pulse of fright. That is not to say that I have, in the past, never enjoyed hastening the pulse of such coldly marbled women to bring a darkening flush to their alabaster flesh. Indeed, it was a pastime cherished for a season. I delight in nothing more than rendering to life the glass-eyed dolls that enumerate so many corners of London. Now, however, it is but a fancy that leaves me as cold and bloodless as they. All life for me is a feeble imitation of life now. A pantomime as uninvolved as it is disbelieved.
As I think of it, I would consider Leighton the antithesis of Pygmalion, for he took women of living flesh and rendered them cold, immobile ivory. But that is this age we live in. It is the Age of Lifelessness. Morality is the calcification of the soul; the rigor mortis of the sensual life. Meanwhile, there have been so many technological revolutions— locomotives, telephones, and, now, automobiles—and yet no revolutions of the flesh. Bound by our anatomy, we seek to bind ourselves evermore, but now in unfeeling steel to transport ourselves from one banal location to the next in a long life of dulled experiences. Nor did the Age of Reason transform the flesh alongside the mind. Perception and knowledge have changed, yet sensation remains stagnant by inborn limitation. There are those who, in the self-loathing passion of Oedipus, willfully blind themselves to the wretched reality into which we are born, gouging out their eyes with either drink or dogma or domesticity. What cowards these individuals be, and the world is rife with them. I am no such person. I gaze into the eyes of our Mother Sphinx and dare to dream of a better lover; a lover more lioness than sandstone rigidity.

My wife approaches yet again, as a harpy besetting that wretch, King Phineus, as he attempts his meal. And how many attempts have I made of this dull banquet before me? So many, and yet she snatches away my attention with her covetous claws and fierce beak.
“My love,” she says, “Lady Chatterley is insistent upon speaking with you. She is inconsolable. Lord Hemingworth, too, wishes to speak to you. Come the Summer he hopes you will join him at his estate for a weekend of hunting.”
“I haven’t the time for either,” I say. “Send them my regret or regards or whatever false feeling would be appropriate.”
“This will not do, love,” my wife says. Irritation heightens her voice, though she attempts restraint. “You shame us both.”
I take up my glass of wine and drink deeply from it— not for sake of thirst, but to have something to stay my tongue lest it speak irrevocably. The French wine is bitter; familiarly bitter.
“So you do not wish to go hunting in the Summer?” she says. “I would have thought it something keeping in your interests.”
“I will not leave my estate in the coming Summer, or any Summer,” I say, “unless there is someone worthy of my devotion.”
“Am I not worthy of your devotion?” she asks, her tone bitterer than the wine.
“Are you to go hunting at Hemingworth’s estate?” I ask. “Is that the cause of your keen interest?”
“No,” she says, “but it should please me to visit with Lady Hemingworth while you are happily engaged in hunting. I…I want to see you happy, my love.”
“Then you can see to that happiness immediately,” I say, “and leave me be.”
She walks to the hearth, staring into the fire and sighing heavily. Her nose, in profile, is as a raptor’s beak. I am reminded of Dante’s Inferno, thinking of the Forest of the Suicides.
“And so you wish me away?” she asks. “Shall I visit our friends alone, then? What would they say? What would I say to pardon your stubborn absence?”
“Whatever excuse comes to mind,” I say. “Or no excuse at all. It means nothing to me whichever you deign to do.”
Her face hardens in the firelight.
“You wish me away while you linger here. No doubt so you can entertain your little harlot during my absence.”
She is close to tears now, which is a sign of anger rather than sorrow. Oh, but that is just one of many of her feminine wiles.
“My dear, you know I have tired of her as I have tired of all the others. Nor were their enjoinments to supplement in your affections or passions. No, I am a man of surfeited appetites, and so all is colourless and tasteless in my estimation, even as I condescend to animal pleasures with women of a fallen nature. It is no slight toward you, nor toward them. All life is Byronic languor to me now.”
“Oh, how I wish you would not say such things,” she says. She shakes her head, and her blonde locks, and then hurries to the hall. She pauses at the threshold. “You may not love me, but you could do much if only by pretending you do.”
I do not contradict her, for I wish for her hastened departure. And so it comes to pass that she returns to her guests down the hall, in the ballroom, and I am left to my solitude once again, reading as dutifully as before, which is to say, intermittently plagued by petty distractions. The Duchess is not incorrect. I do not love her. I do not love anything, including myself. Neither do I detest her, or myself. It is this reality that I detest. So long as it reigns indisputably over us then I will detest it. Alas, I cannot escape it— this waking nightmare that is tedium. So much means and wealth at my beck and call, yet nothing affords me true relief. Epicurean pleasures have dulled in their piquancy. I am as the Chinaman in his crowded opium den, requiring more and more of my sweet poppy fumes to deliver me from the dark reality I live until, at last, I surrender to its final plume of pleasure, passing away into a dreamful Oblivion, not unlike Endymion in Selene’s arms.

The pleasures provided by my privileged life have been Protean, with a plenitude of Nereids both innumerable and indulgent, but even the most virile tides must ebb, their froth dissipating upon the languid sands. Thus has it been and thus do I wish Desire herself, Aphrodite, would stand astride her seashell and beckon the waves to swell once more.
What am I but an aspirant to Protean powers? Usurper to that tyrannical demiurge who binds Man to his limited scope of gnostic iteration, heroically seeking to replace his imminence so as to manifest myriad transformations in measure apace of my dissatisfied sensibilities—to liberate human form from that gnostic devil and his abominable banalities enumerating monotonously this bland plane of existence, thereby instilling unto all the novelties and innovations wherefrom come invigoration—of caprice and genius to liven a dreary routine of flesh, Platonic expression and spirit overmastering flesh with a method to madness and madness unto form innumerable and manifold and ever revelatory.
Some self-proclaimed poet attested to the feeble doctrine that Greek mythopeia existed simultaneous with banal normality and that the observer might witness thereof if applying the proper advancement of insight. What a deluded fool! All is excrement and worms in this faded tableau of grotesque corporeal ontology. He attested, too, that all poetry and beauty and indeed Sublimity becomes commonplace where ingratitude dwells in aspect of the furrowing worm in the bruised fruit. Perhaps there is a bit of truth in it, but truly he was a man of limited means and vision, for my appetite outsizes all presence fare provided only insomuch as fare be meted in undue measure and insipid flavor.
How many such self-proclaimed poets have scoured the spheres as I have to seek such phantasia equal to jaded imagination? Perhaps if such people lived longer they would experience enough to understand the ineptitude of reality and, therefore, cease their pestilent evocations. Had I rosewater tears enough to swell and flood my eyes, I would not even then see what they render in their nascent consciousness as anything but effluvial nonsense.
I am reminded of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s need to celebrate Art, engage it, and ruin it as he brought it low to man’s mortal realm. Quite insightful for a sodomite. Then again, are we all not repressed in our need to live the passions our souls clamber toward in futility? I think of my wife, and all of the women upon whom I have sought invigoration; all of those puckering, parting lips which I have trespassed upon in lascivious ways never dared spoken thereof in polite society, let alone a Christian one. And by a Christian society I suggest the society of the Hypocrite.

Someone approaches from the hall. I know him by his rhythmic step. I see him in the reflection of the window, a tall shadow in the light of the hall. He steps forward and is carved into relief by the light of the hearth.
“Sir, there is an urgent matter needing your attention,” he says.
Sometimes I fancy Augustus as his namesake, Augustus Octavius; that is to say, stiffly obsessed with all of his moralistic prudishness and strict observances of decorum while I, a Nero, lounge beneath his sneering disapproval. Rome does not burn, least not in this cold heart, but I would gladly burn my entire estate to ashes if it would only stir some unexplored corner of my own bosom to beat once again in exultation, however brief and futile. Perhaps I am more Marc Antony, concerned with Cleopatra more so than actual power, and soon to fall upon my own sword.
How his eyes flash with silent fury, as a bull trapped behind a prison of stone, gelded and impotent in his rage.
“A guest has broken your mother’s antique vase,” he says, as if a judge sentencing a man to the gallows. “I believe you should address this issue personally.”
“I think it is of no concern to me,” I reply. “Why should it be?”
Augustus fidgets and snorts, reminding me of a bull confined to its pen, yet stomping impatiently about; angry at its prison.
“It belonged to your mother,” he repeats, “ and it dates to the Ming Dynasty. Sir, if not personally concerned, you should have a vested concern for the history it represents.”
It is my time to snort in contempt. “History is a long shadow bearing no tangibility upon me or my concerns,” I say. “I feel its imminence no better than the Present.”
“But sir!” he growls.
“Must you be so bullish, Augustus?” I say. “I have told you I have no interest in it, nor interest in anything else. Let all my antiques be shattered until they are dust drifting on the wind. It means nothing to me. All form is ephemeral, you thick-headed ox.”
Augustus’s broad nose wrinkles, the wide nostrils flaring. His tulip-shaped ears spasm beneath his crown of horns, and he bellows irritably. His hooves clop down the hall.
His insolent manner is ever emboldened by his aversion to my admittedly Hedonistic propensities. How it nettles him to be subservient to a man of my make and means and manners! Yet, I am no Mogul with his indulgent harem arrayed endlessly around me like pretty little satellites with which to while away the tedious, idle hours. True, I have enjoyed an orbit of Ladies and mistresses, but never for long. Reality itself impoverishes even the most precious of jewels in any crowned life. However pretty and picturesque a woman’s visage— and indeed vying with Dawn in splendid aspect—even so, she cannot contend against the Morphean imagination while impoverished as all such creatures are in thrall to this banal world to which and of which and from which we are born.
Resplendent and myriad must be the mold of Vulcan’s smithy or else it is as a thing of fleeting appeal and appeasement. Were I, thus, a poet, my transmutations might reward reality its unglimpsed marvels with keener credulity. But I am not, nor have I the capacity for such miracles. What wondrous wizardry is worked by wringing from empty air magnificent images and form, and what disappointment when what was wrought withers to pervasive void when the mind’s eye falters to sustain it, and the hands fail to grasp its intangibility to form it from formless flashes of insight. The illusion remains thus, a phantom on the periphery of existence; a wish without woven being.
That is not to say that I have never tried. Once upon an age I, too, was mesmerized by mysticism. When the flesh failed the lofty spheres of Sublimity, I sought elevation through spiritual means. The Dionysian Mysteries. The Sex Cults of Shaktism. Seeking a witch-doctor from the Amazon, I partook of the “soul vine”, a tea made from the leaves held sacred by his tribe. The visions inspired no awe, but only tantalized my curious consciousness more, ultimately disappointing me as the visions dissipated like so much ebbing froth, leaving me in the grotesque descent into la purga. I have partaken of such nectar of gods from all over this insipid world, and found them weak, waning, and wanting.

How tedious and tired this tome, and thus how true, for it is easily presumed that such tedious, tired prose must have been written by a tedious and tired scholar who was quite worldly, the world itself being tedious and tired, and so the truth herein recorded, contemplated, and bore out in all of its tired tedium must be truthful. And yet, it is a book of fancies, and seeming fantasies— a magic tome I read to enliven the tedious and tired world it purports to explicate in all of its minute machinery so as to engineer it anew.
And this magical tome must be true, for it is written with stern sense, and sterile feeling, and this world is so deprived of feeling at its core that this tome speaks to that truth mercilessly, unadorned, and without even slightest embellishment to elicit feeling or ease the digestion thereof. Compared to Ovid— so rife with poetically heightened feeling and being nought if not genius counseled by feeling and a paragon of truth— and this tedious tome champions itself with its bland tedium. Yet, how I long to subsume the one work with the other, which is to say, the one world with the other. Let this bland, sensible, tedious and tired cosmos be unseated by a phantasia of feeling long desired and long denied.
Yes, this tome must be true, for its magic incantations are so banal. Were I but more disciplined in my erudition I might achieve something worthwhile, but I must confess myself lax in all matters of edification and industry save for those which concern the flesh. Alas, as an overwrought intellect may dull the mind, so too does too much carnal enlightenment dull the lips and skin and loins. To think that I have followed Folly and all of her delicious vices, only to return to a regretful state not unlike Erasmus in the depths of despair at the end of his long ascetic life! How ironic to press the spectrum at one border and to arrive at the opposite threshold! It is the most cruel of paradoxes devised by Nature. And yet the fault lies with the inescapable paradigms of this accursed planet, formed as it was by crude hands in want of greater inspiration, or perhaps braver, bolder Willpower.
Desire, for my jaded tastes, is not Aphrodite in her plain human form, but an enchanting Echidne, her hypnotic tail swaying, scales glistening lustrously in and out of shadow and moonlight. Furtive horror and pleasure unified and manifest. Perverse as it may seem, I often wonder if only a gorgon’s figure and gaze should suffice to entice my desires once again, for they had proven in all other venues flaccid of purpose in these, my most jaded of times. What a terrible age this is. It is the Age of Ennui, layered as our ladies are layered in stiff artifices that render the victim incapable of breathing freely and so soon to swoon. They need only disrobe, peel away the layers until their silk shifts remain, thereby assuming the freedom of the bacchantes in their himations— a single layer to tantalize and to easily doff at a moment’s whim when passion should rule the hour and invite itself unto a life like a fairy godmother to transform the rags of existence into the satin of sensuality.

The grandfather clock chimes deeply, as a faerie gong, to proclaim the midnight hour, and yet it does not signal the end to the evening’s festivities. The musicians play as ever before, and the dancers fling their insipid laughter down the hall like a flock of birds to peck most obnoxiously at my brain. I am of a mind to make an appearance at last, and to recompense their jubilation with extravagant repudiation. Yet, before I may indulge this compulsion my eye alights upon a keenly interesting passage in the mystical tome which awakens my curiosity once again in its full luminosity.
Reading with renewed interest I find passages concerning a certain Minoan magus and the invocations employed to conform natural phenomena to unnatural configurations. The invocations are not, themselves, of particular potency; rather it is the act of reading certain script from a scroll that transforms in accordance to the reader’s whims. Any script suffices, given it was written using a certain ink extracted from a particular creature in the sea. This, I can only surmise, must be a cephalopod, for the passage asserts the need of both ink and the ability for such a creature to mutate its morphology at will. Having read extensively about various marine life, I know this likely alludes to the squid, even if the text seems to strangely hint at a being of human intellect willingly offering its protean ink to the magus. It hints at a few Greek words with which I am unfamiliar and, thus, I cannot fathom their meaning. Words such as “Yog Sothoth” and “Nyarlathotep” and “Cthulhu”. Indeed, they seem more in keeping with Egyptian words than Greek. But that is no matter. The Hellenes and the Egyptians had a rich history intertwined together. Why, it was only last year that I visited the recently discovered Temple of Bast on the island of Delos. I had sought sensual visions there, aided by a mushroom wine, but only found a bland Summer awaiting me.
The author also claims that the very words in this tome were recorded in the same ink and would, by their potent power, manipulate form and function as one pleases. This cannot be so or I would have observed such an influence hitherto and attributed it accordingly. Indeed, this seems literary grandstanding on the part of the author.
Time’s pendulum swings slowly as I read the author’s exultant self-indulgences, championing himself like some magus Machiavelli in need of a patron.
Suddenly feeling utterly irritated with the presumptuous author, I am ever more irritated when I hear Lord Grantchester approaching me once again, his arrhythmic footstep announcing his slow arrival like a graceless cur in attendance.
“I have need of your guidance, Duke,” he says, his voice a booming bass in the hollow barrel of his broad chest. “Lady Stonewall is acting most…unusually.”
What nonsense!
“In what manner?” I say.
“She is very…forthright, sir,” he says, his voice gruff and echoing. “I would almost dare say improper, but I hold her in too high of esteem to denigrate her so heartlessly.”
I look up to see that Lord Grantchester is wringing his massive hands, his single eyebrow arched with distress over a single eye soon to glisten. His head hangs forward from his thick, knotted neck, both in dejection and to avoid brushing the ceiling. The club hanging from his leather belt is stained crimson, as if with lingonberry jam. To think such a killer of men could be afraid of an assertive woman! It amuses me, albeit mildly.
“Lady Stonewall is a married woman held in high esteem,” I say, “and so, by reputation— which is tantamount to actual character in a civilized society—cannot be anything other than what she most certainly happens to be.”
My assessment perplexes and shames the giant, one-eyed man wholly, the small brain within that massive head unable to divine my meaning.
“Yes,” he says at length. “Of course. Naturally so. I should think her thus always as she should be.”
Grantchester lopes apishly to stand before the hearth. The flames flicker and flare, throwing shades from his profile out onto the tiled floor and Persian rug, and I cannot help but fancy such shades of the many dead men clambering futilely in the underworld to rise and drag that fool down below with them. A competent general must navigate war as Ulysses did his ship between Scylla and Charybdis. This imbecile, however, plunged his ship into the whirlpool time and time again only to find himself on the golden shore of Calypso’s island, held in veneration and unconditional love by the British people. And yet, he is more Polyphemus in his idiocy than ever the wise and dastardly Ulysses.
“Marriage is a sacred bond,” he mutters to himself, his voice soft as wet gravel. “And I can ill afford a scandal now…”
Listening to his moral deliberations, I cannot help but think of Man and Monogamy and all of the multitudinous complications such dynamics bring. I have never truly been attached. Even when I was attached to the Duchess, I was ever unattached. Whether by one woman or by a harem of women, I am never attached. When engaged, I am never truly engage. “Engaged”, “attached”, “bound together”: these are presumed societal obligations…modalities…which, if not observed, enumerate minor nuisances in a modern life. Yet, how much simpler life would be without such artificial constrictions. True, they were enforced by necessity where wealth and heirs were concerned…but why should any of that matter to one such as myself? May I procreate a thousand little cherubic children—and should they all die from Need—it would be as meaningless to me as any church edict or moral lecture.
“And her husband…” Grantchester continues to mutter. “He is a fine man. As fine a man as any other in London. And a good patron. Yes. He has lent support to me on more than one occasion. But…he is old…closer to Heaven than to the coming year, as they sometimes say…what good is it to his wife to be saddled to the side, so to speak, because the wagon is rattling apart at its last timbers…”
What needless torments Man invents for himself. Astonishingly so, insomuch as the unimaginative herd is scandalized by such liberties of acquaintances and intimacies. Indeed, intimacy is not so intimate in my estimation. To rut between a heaving bosom is to be no nearer to that quickening heart than to the moon beyond the windowpane.
Grantchester turns to leave, then hesitates, his broad, hairy shoulders sagging despondently as if he is lost.
“Her scales scintillate like the stars,” he says. “They are the most appealing of her features, I think. Yet, her slitted eyes are beautiful too. She is the most darling creature I have ever known.”
This affection confessed, the cyclops hobbles down the hall, cracking the tiled floor as he passes.

Once again I look beyond the window, seeing the Corinthian columns in my garden gleam in the pale midsummer moonlight. Cherubim perch upon the capitals and the collapsed pediments. Vines grow up the marble trunks, seeking sunlight which will never come. The garden grows riot with hyacinths and cypresses. Had I Daedalus in my employ I should set him upon reality itself, rendering through his genius the world in a stranger, more mythic aspect of dimension and routine. The mystagogue of this tome— so conceited with his own delusions—is a charlatan, I so conclude.
I have never been one to let my passions carry me with wild chariots. Rather, Hippolytus lost control for having been overly strict with his own reins, and whipping his horses too vigorously. Despite my desire for desire, I have, in truth, ever been a man rehearsed in temperance. After all, it is ever a matter of time and place and intention, and so long as all are reconciled, even a Pope may lord modestly in a bordello without fear of overwrought passions— for such passions belong in a bordello, and thus are confined to time and place and intention. Wine may flow freely, and loins also, at a Bacchanal and should be estimated a success in moderation and propriety, for orgies are not equivalent to the routine hours devoted to other banal modalities, and, so, are of an accord with currencies exorbitant in other circumstances, but not in the circumstance whereof they are portioned. And why should such considerations of values not be made? Does not the soldier kill in times of war and refrain in times of peace? To slay another human being is considered abhorrent in schedule-addled London, whereas how we celebrate Lord Wellington for killing many Frenchmen in his war against Napoleon. There are many among the gentry who admire the French and Lord Wellington in turn, all while failing to acknowledge the contradiction of wartime prejudice and peacetime appreciation. Why, then, should bacchants be shunned for appropriating their pleasures when a proper circumstance is provided? It is just another among the infinite inanities complicating the waft and weave of life.

Someone lingers at the threshold.
“By the dark womb of Demeter!” I exclaim. “Have I any hope of peace this night?!”
My wife inhales sharply, then steps forth like Andromeda into the surging tides as the dragon looms.
“My love,” my wife says. “This will not do. The guest are absolutely despondent from your continued absence.”
I listen to the music echoing down the hall, and the idiotic clamour of voices from my wife’s guests, and in no measure diminished or diminishing in mirth or music. There is nothing wanting in their revelry except, perhaps, genuine joy. My presence would not change that.
“My dear,” I say with growing irritation, “they seem to carry on well without me. To the contrary, I am morose and would likely hinder festivities with my present disposition. Verily, I would determine it an affliction catching and would ruin your evening as a plague upon everyone’s morale.”
“Or the conviviality of your guests would catch in you,” she counters. “That is what sways you from joining us. You cannot enjoy anything anymore. You behave as if life were some duty you must observe begrudgingly, and it upsets me to no end.” She takes hold of my forearms with her clawed fingertips, attempting to wrest from my tome my attentions. Looking up at her, I see her feathered brow sadly furrowed and anxious. Her beak is sharp and tears each word from the tense air surrounding her.
“My dearest,” she says, “it would do my heart well to dance with you.”
Though her words postured from a stance of pleading, her tone— much as Augustus’s—exacts something contrary to import: a vexation bordering ire which she reserves solely for careless servants. But I will not yield in this battle of wills. My mind, and body, are rooted wholly in place. All else must change around me, in accordance to my will.
“Dearest,” I say with due frigidity, “if you should wish to dance with me, I will indulge you at the proper time. We shall dance beneath the sheets if you so desire it, but I will not waste precious oil by light of this argument. A great many more whales are hereby imperiled.”
Her countenance is ever lovely, especially when furious. My wife is a beauty like Scylla in the eviscerated furs of a dog-faced fidelity and faith. She glares at me for a time, not leaving immediately, her reflection glowering in the glow of my lamp and the fire-and-frost glass of the window. Rather, she stands by, tapping her taloned feet while her white feathers are ruffled roughly around her neck. Yet, she cannot tarry long or else risk neglecting her guests. So, with a frustrated flap of her wings, she returns down the hall, her tail feathers jutting out angrily above her shanks.

Prometheus is chained to the mountainside of Olympus, feeding his beaked torment as a slave his master while wallowing in what could be as he gazes toward the summit, so far away. That is the emblem of my suffering; of my woe. Reality chains me while I yet aspire to ascend to greater heights, and tedium, its torturer, wheels around again on easy wings for its timely feast. The hours! How dreadful they are when beset with the carrion birds of boredom.
It is a grotesque irony that we should strive toward Sublimity only to achieve futility in the realization of its dizzying heights— heights thereafter diminished by experience, not unlike the wish of possessing a fox in all of its wild beauty only to kill and mount it, and thereby transpose its vivacity into a lurid dead thing of lifeless inertia. It also reminds me of desiring a vestal nymphet whom inspires desire to propel us into wooing her virginal trust, and thus losing what was coveted all at once in the petal-strewn bed. To gain and to thereby lose— that is the dilemma of the Sublime. Pleasure and apathy. Exultation and disappointment. Love and disillusionment. Evanescent ecstacy. Fleeting fantasia. It is the beauty of the Asphodel; Hades drawing Persephone down into his darkened halls, thinking to beautify his dead world and only, by so doing, darkening the fair face of his beloved.
There was a time when I played my own Hephaestus, devising instruments of pleasure to employ upon women, and also pain. When the former lapsed in elicitation, such as were preferred by the Marquis de Sad, but now all such diversions pale; all the world bereft in its manifold diversities.
Having explored the full spectrum betwixt pleasure and pain, I have found all wanting. To mine more would be to torture a cadaver, or to deflower a whore. There is nothing new in any of it. This is an age of plenty that is paradoxically bereft of substance. A cornucopia of empty, shallow necessities presided over by our overlarge Queen and her inbred children. It is good her German bullock is dead, or else she would spread her legs and expel of her imbecilic brood upon the earth.
Do not mishear me. I have attempted to supply the cornucopia of my life with things of substance. There is no greater collection of divers oddities, rarities, and specialities to scandalize the common purveyour of perversities than herein assembled. And, yet, how so much bores me, the most especial of finds around the world recompensed with listless indifference.
Nor is my heart a sealed vault closed to the world. It is as easily accessed as my library— more so, in fact, for it is as a tired old museum freely admitting all, yet while crowded with many coveted things it proves to be of value to all except its curator, for I see nought except trinkets and antiques which are worthless in their static state. Better would it be to take cudgel to such dusty ceramics and make a vivaciously shocking scene of chaos over which the curator might at last exult in its differentiation, rummaging through the rubbish like newfound treasures. Thus will I shatter this world’s stifling confines and create from the disorder a divine bliss for myself entailing salvation for a world-weary curator of curiosities.

And who is this now, shuffling again into my sanctuary?
My sharp-beaked wife!
“Beloved,” she says. “Lady Blansworth wishes for us to attend a festival in Cornwall in the Spring. It will be a lovely affair. Her husband’s villa is one of the finest in all of England.”
“You may go on our behalf,” I say.
“Love,” she says, her chest heaving with great upset even while she struggles to retain a calm, measured voice, “it is my desire that you should accompany me. It would be such a delight to see the countryside together.”
“I am in no mood to leave the estate,” I say firmly, “certainly not so I might spend a month with Lady Blansworth and be subjected to the torment of her idiotic laughter. Moreover, you will enjoy Cornwall infinitely more were I not present to cast my gloomy shadow over the outing.”
The Duchess is silent for a few moments, and I see her reflection in the candle-brightened windowpane. Her eyes are wide with what appears to be anger, and pain, and I know she is, once again, to create drama where none should exist.
“You are no doubt infatuated with another crumpet!” she says, her voice shrill and near to squawking. “That is why you wish me to leave and you to stay!”
Her bosom heaves with the burden of her passion, up and down, as the pistons of a locomotive accelerating along its tracks.
“My dear,” I say, wearily, “you know I am not infatuated with anyone or anything anymore. It is all a bland tableau to me, from sunrise to sunset. Cornwall would be no different, and I would only ruin your pleasure as a consequence of being there with you. Express your regrets to Lady Blansworth…if you must. Yet, you must not express regrets on my behalf, for that would be an intolerable lie.”
She is inconsolable, weeping and squawking, her feathers ruffled wildly as she hoists her petticoats and dashes down the hall. Were she so passionate in the bedchamber, then perhaps my heart might spark with feeling for her anew.

If my wife has made a scene, I do not hear, nor does it intrude upon the festivities of her guests. Rather, they are evermore fervent in their inane laughter while the musicians devolve to strangely pastoral accompaniments for their Waltzes, such as would be concordant with a peasant’s bonfire revelry. Mad piping of flutes and scrambled stroking of strings. It pleases me no more or less than their previous attempts.

O! This tedious tome! Should Heracles committed himself to this labour he would never have achieved any of the rest, for he would have been forestalled permanently here, in these scribbled straits of insipidness. And yet, the alternative rears large and inescapable. As between Scylla and Charybdis, I am between a rock and a hard place, and thus must ford forward the arduous narrow channel before me. The novelties of existence wane. The methods of sensuality stagnate. The means of pleasure wallow. Nor could Elephantis— with all of her legendary expertise in regard to human congress—lecture me except to sleep with whatever elucidations were hers in the time of Antiquity. It is not the manner, but the means of congress that is wanting presently. So long as the medium remains the same, the method will be ever restricted, and thus insipid.

Restless beyond discipline, I sigh and rub my strained eyes. Pushing myself up from my chair, I walk to the hearth and stand before the fire. It is too hot for a fire, now, and so I extinguish the flames with a readied bucket of water. At last I fulfill the Duchess’s wish and condescend to venture down the hall toward the ballroom.
The breeze through the colonnaded hall is warm, slipping through my himation with a lover’s fondness. I pass Augustus in the hallway. He has engaged a maid, rigorously rutting upon her, the force of which shakes various vases and amphoras from their pedestals and shattering them upon the floor. The large bull-headed man does not mind their ruin, but is solely occupied with the nymph and her stooping figure; her wanton moans. He bends over her with his massive form, his bullock horns raking against the foliated canopy overarching the hall.
I can hear the sounds of pleasure rising in a delicious cacophony.
At last I arrive at the ballroom, finding a grove bathed in radiant moonlight. Satyrs rut upon eager nymphs while fawns blow upon lascivious flutes or strum licentious lyres. The moans of the nymphs and the growls of the satyrs compose a music complementary to that of the fawns. Nude figures arrayed around me, I recall my many visitations to the more forbidden parts of Amsterdam and Delhi. Figures writhe with pleasure, or collide with passionate impact, or wallow in sensual ecstacy, their flesh stained with spilt wine and spilt seed and a thousand lashes by tongue and tooth and engorging lips.
Lord Grantchester looms large among the glade, Cyclopean in size and attacking Lady Stonewall with his priapic excess while her coils envelop him, so rapturously engaged. Nightmarish and divine, it excites in me pleasure— for a moment— and then becomes a commonplace thing once again.
All of my wife’s guests are here— their attentions indivisible—but my wife is yet unaccounted among the Bacchanal. I do not know if I feel relief or regret at this discovery. Perhaps I am naught but a vessel of apathy.
And yet, a briny breeze teases me through the moonlit grove, away from the hedonistic congregation.
It is too late to continue my studies, for I feel the moon cresting over my thoughts. Conversely, I am not exhausted sufficiently to retire to bed. Thus, I choose to venture beyond the Dionysian flutists and outside, into the garden for a moonlit stroll and fresh air. There is dew upon the grass, gleaming like pearls in the moonlight. Where the shadows fall from the tall trees the dew is like the glinting winks of shades. Dew glistens upon the lips of wild flowers, too, the pink petals most suggestive. Through the hall of trees I come to a vast field, rolling in sinuous, sleepy waves downward, toward the vast ocean. The frothy waves whisper huskily as they throw themselves upon the sand, beating a lusty rhythm of desire and self-destruction.
I hear the shriek of a large bird, and a woman, and a shadow descends upon me, eclipsing the pale moon. My himation is rent away and my body lays vulnerable upon the white sand. The shadow mounts me with an insistent hunger, driving the plush of her loins astride my own and spreading her wings as if to herald the moon haloing her crested head. Her spine arches, her large breasts press outward, toward me, and her talons grip me, bleeding me as she beats a frenzied rhythm of carnality upon me, pelvis to pelvis— lips to stem, core to root. My wife, the Duchess, shrieks in both anger and pleasure and possession, her feathered head turned upward, mouth agape, eyes wide.
She screeches, flapping her wings furiously, her feathers ruffled from wingtip to shoulder and even unto the crested mantle of her head where her golden feathers are as a cowl over her squawking face. Her breasts— bare of feathers—hang large and heavy, nipples erect like cherries swollen near to burst. Curiously, my hands press against her swollen breasts and I feel my blood stir hotly. Desire wakes, if only for a moment, and as she tears my flesh with her beak and talons I exult in knowing once more the gratification of carnality conferred.
Yes! At long last! What I have missed for eons it seems! Ardor! Passion! Sublimity! Her talons tear at my chest while she spreads her wings, rocking to a hedonistic rhythm that awakens my heart like a locomotive’s cold engine aflame once more as it lurches upon its tracks! The quickening of pulse! The excitement of flesh! How it enlivens me while she plunges her beak into my surging heart. I see, now, her appetite, twin-beaked as it is, and it must be satisfied. Yes! I long to satisfy it, for in its terrible throes will I find passions rekindled! My love! My wife! We must exult in Sublimity, even unto a final breath. Morpheus and Thanatos are of the same lineage, root to stem. Cronos and Aphrodite likewise, as violence unto rapture! I welcome the transcendence of the flesh! I welcome the ardor of finality! Take your fill, my love, with both beaks digging deep! The metamorphosis becomes you! The phantasia becomes me…

By Yew And Yarrow (Quite A Fright)

In their white petticoats, and walking side by side, the two sisters were like phantoms upon the grounds.
“I always knew mother would die from fear of death,” Angela remarked as she and her sister toured their mother’s estate grounds. The sky was overcast and gray, but the afternoon was warm and Summery. “Not fear of her own end, of course, but of ours. She always fretted over the most innocent of bug bites and coughs.”
“I do recall several instances attesting as much,” Evelyn said, lifting her petticoats as she stepped over a broken branch from the great felled tree. The rest of the yew lay athwart the garden, broken limbs spread dramatically and smashing much of the hedges. “She fancied herself clairvoyant.”
“If so, she should not have bothered worrying so much,” her sister rejoined. “She should have reconciled with it and had done with fretting.”
“Remember when, only last year, she insisted we all have our funeral portraits taken? What nonsense! Only Thomas would indulge such an absurdity.”
“Thomas was always more heart than head,” Angela said. “He indulged mother’s every morbid whim.”
“It did pain her greatly when news came from the Front,” Evelyn said. “As it did all of us. But he is gone. Cast in some charnel countryside trench in Germany. That was what drove mother to the brink, I think. It was as if her prediction had come true.”
“Indeed,” Angela said, eyeing the yew tree disdainfully. It looked as an ancient, crooked titan fallen to the ground, one limb still raised, as if pleading for aid. “This falling tree was merely punctuation at the end of mother’s final sentence. But that is why one must never indulge the supernatural. It makes prey of the mind for every capricious fancy misread on the wind.”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said, sighing. She lifted her petticoats again, stepping gingerly through the scattered detritus of the shattered crown of the tree. Angela did not bother, and seemed to be dragging half of the splintered branches by her petticoats, like the charred bones of the war-strewn dead. Evelyn said nothing, but knew Angela was very stubborn about things, and set in her ways. “She was right about Thomas, though. He did die over the Eastern horizon.”
“As did many other men,” Angela said, scoffing. “It is an utter tragedy for us, naturally, but it is a tragedy for many other families as well. A tragedy for Great Britain! The rule, I dare say, rather than the exception. Mother’s supposed clairvoyance had naught to do with granting her especial insight into the outcome. We all knew it was a bedeviled enterprise. I believed Thomas would fall as well, though I hoped he would not.”
The two sisters fell silent, passing along the outer perimeter of the garden. After a few moments of glowering at the tree, Angela spoke again.
“The menfolk should be returning soon enough,” she said, “or what remains of them. Perhaps we may make a request of a few hearty young men to clear away this obscenity. And restore the garden. Mother’s estate has enough in its coffers to see to that, I would imagine.”
“What a frightful storm that was,” Evelyn remarked. “Little Edward and I felt it in Yorkshire. What fright mother must have felt to have it raging all around her!”
“Indeed,” Angela said. “One must wonder what it must be like in the trenches. I have read that it is most like a tempest, only with malice in its every gale.”
“That is because of their machines,” Evelyn said. “Such terribly clever machines of death.”
“And such godless machines,” Angela added. “To waste so many good young men. God should not allow it, but I suppose it could be a punishment.”
“Not for Thomas, surely!” Evelyn said quickly. “He never wronged anyone in his life, except in trying earnestly to make right by them. He was a sweet soul, however misled in the manner of his kindness.”
“Certainly,” her sister said. “What I mean to say is that these men are like the…avatars of Christ. I do not mean to blaspheme by invoking a pagan religion, but it is the only analogy by which I may express myself. They die for our sins. For mankind’s sins.”
“It seems unfair to them to shoulder such sacrifice.”
“As was it for Christ.”
“Do you believe he might, therefore, Rise again? Thomas, I mean. And not literally,” she added hastily. “Spiritually. To Heaven.”
Angela looked up at the overcast sky. It was still gray and bleak, and a warm wind whispered in the butchered hedges. “Thomas was always the believer among the three of us,” she said. “He was more like mother than either of us. I suppose if any should, he should.”
Evelyn nodded in agreement, then let out a gasp. Her eyes had affixed upon a dead crow laying rigid among the yew tree’s scattered red berries.
“Another augury,” Evelyn said.
“Mother would think so,” Angela said, lightly. “But what would she have made of it? A crow— being a creature of death—dies from feeding on the seeds of the tree of death? It is such a conflicted omen.”
“Perhaps she would say the spirits are mad,” Evelyn said with a sad smile. “Perhaps the world is mad.”
“Or Death itself has died,” Angela said. “If you were inclined to indulge such inanities.”
The two sisters retired to the gazebo in the center of the garden, sitting and taking tea after an old maid brought it to them. They sat and watched as the premature twilight settled over the earth. Mist rose languidly, like ghosts from their chthonic beds.
“Mother loved this garden,” Evelyn said. “We should have had her buried here.”
“She would have haunted us to no end,” Angela said. “To be honest— and risk being callus—I am heartened that she has passed on. She was very bitter toward the end, you know. She was one of those long-lived spinsters who should have taken residence in a nunnery, yet she was also one of those aged grandmothers so bitterly steeped in their fading years that they cannot enjoy their family life, nor let their families enjoy the lives they have claimed for themselves.”
“Mother missed father,” Evelyn said. “That is all. Do you know she confessed to me once that it was father’s death that would kill her. Not upon the instant, of course, but over time. His being gone over the years was tolling her considerably.”
“We all miss father,” Angela said dismissively. “It is the tragedy of mortality. It all claims us in the end.”
“Mother said I would die from tragedy,” Evelyn said. “She said I would lose everything and wish to lose what was already lost.”
“Please, Eva, no more morbidity,” Angela said. “I am in no mood for it.”
“It is just that her prediction for me would indicate that I live to be a very old woman,” Evelyn said. “That should be nice, of course, but to lose everything would mean to lose little Edward. And he is so young presently. Did you know she predicted his death as well?”
Angela shook her head stiffly, a sneer of distaste upon her lips. “It is not surprising that she should burden her daughter with visions of a son’s death. Mother always courted improprieties that were excused only by her elevated station in society.”
“She said Edward would die as his uncle had and be buried beneath the Eastern horizon. But that can’t be so. The War is over now. The Treaty has been signed and the enemy put in his place.”
“Just so,” Angela said, sipping at her tea.
The two sisters were silent for a time. The mists gathered at the edges of the garden. It was nearly time to retire.
“It will be strange to sleep in our old house once again,” Evelyn said. “I would rather stay at the house with little Edward.”
“As would I prefer to stay in my own home,” Angela said. “But we must see to mother’s remaining concerns. For all of her reputed clairvoyance, she did not prepare for death the way she should have. So many matters still need tending. I hardly know where to begin.”
“That is why it will be nice to have Edward in from Yorkshire tomorrow,” Evelyn said. “As a lawyer, he can attend such things with experience while little Edward and I go birdwatching.”
“Indeed,” Angela said.
The two rose from the table and walked toward the large house to which their backs had been turned most of the evening. They came to the cobblestone walkway leading to the verandah, and Angela paused.
“Something the matter?” Evelyn asked.
“You spoke of dying from tragedy earlier,” Angela said, a slight smile upon her face. “Well, mother knew me well, I suppose. She said I would die from a great joy in life. A miracle, she said. Wreathed in flowers as if ready for my funeral.” Angela may have laughed, or may have cleared her throat; the two were much the same for her. “Mother knew her children well, but I believe it was a slight on her part to tell me I would die from what is presumed to be a happy happening.”
“Mother was very strange,” Evelyn said, sympathetically.
The two sisters went into the house of their dead mother.

***

Angela sat in an armchair in the parlour, in front of the hearth. The hearth was ablaze, throwing shadows across the vast room with its high, barrel-vaulted ceiling. The bookcase was half aglow and half in murk, as were most of the chairs arrayed around the room. The table— large and formerly central to the parlour—had been moved to the far end of the room. Her mother’s chair, too, had been moved to the far end, though Angela found herself staring at it more often than she would have lived. A painted portrait of her mother, near the hearth, also preoccupied her.
“It was always dreadfully chilly in here,” her sister said, walking in briskly while carrying a plate with teacups and a steaming kettle upon it. She set the plate down on a smaller table that was closer to the hearth, then poured the tea into the two cups.
“What is that?” Angela asked suspiciously. “It smells fragrant.”
“It is hibiscus,” her sister said.
“As I feared,” Angela said, crinkling her nose. “I shall have none, thank you.”
“Why ever not?” Evelyn asked, furrowing her brow.
“It does not agree with me.”
“But hibiscus tea is excellent for sleep,” Evelyn said. “Doctor Doyle has told me so on numerous occasions. The tartness relaxes the stomach, and the soul, so good dreams are sure to follow.”
“I would rather have a nice bitter tea before bed,” Angela said. “Whenever I drink hibiscus I am reminded of heathens bending their knees and backs in a temple to some obscene goddess.” She clucked with agitation. “Indeed, now I know if I drink it I shall have dreams about just such a foul creature.”
“Mother enjoyed hibiscus tea,” Evelyn said, stealing a furtive glance at her mother’s chair. “She said it was nectar of the gods.”
“If you ask me,” Angela said, “mother had far too many acquaintances with gods. All one ever needs is the Father. The others are extraneous, if not diabolical.”
Evelyn let the point stand, not really willing to argue metaphysics when concerning their mother, and instead went to fetch a chair. She did not take liberty of her mother’s chair, though she had to fetch a chair from another room consequently. She sat down in front of the hearth, staring into the flames and sipping her tea. She noticed Angela’s wayward attention.
“Mother may be gone,” she said, “but she still commands the attention in this room.”
“It seems no matter how much I struggle, I cannot force my attention away from mother’s chair and table.” Angela glanced about the room only to have her eyes return again to the aforementioned items. “It is strange.”
“It is the grief that does it,” Evelyn said. “Or so I should think.” She, too, glanced about the room and found herself drawn to the chair and table also. “So many seances she hosted here. Whether they were true or not…I do not presume to know. But mother certainly believed in them.”
Angela stood up and walked cautiously toward her mother’s chair and table, as if they were temperamental dogs soon to bite. The centerpiece to the table was a vase full of old chrysanthemums, all withered and dead now.
“Mother believed in a lot of rubbish,” she said. “And consequently tainted our sensibilities with her rubbish.” Peering closer at the vase, she noticed another flower among the large bulbs. She snorted with amusement. “And here are hidden your yarrow, mother. I thought you had forsaken their visions.”
“Hm?” Evelyn said, looking over her shoulder at the vase. “Yarrow?”
“Here,” Angela said, pointing to the smaller, yellow flowers. She did not go nearer to the table, or the chair. “Mixed in with these other flowers.”
“What of them?” Evelyn said, sipping daintily from her tea.
“Do you not remember how she would hold them to her eyes as if looking through a monocle? She claimed she could see other spheres and phantoms with them.”
“I do not recall all of her eccentricities,” Evelyn said. “There were so many.”
“Mother was particularly obsessed with yarrow,” Angela said in a governess’s tone of scolding. “You should recall as much as I. Do you not remember when Thomas relieved himself in the yarrow she had planted in the garden? Mother was furious. She said he had invoked the Evil Eye upon him, and upon the rest of us.”
“She likely meant her own evil eye. Thomas had earned its scrutiny on more than one occasion, however innocent his intentions.”
“And yet it was mother who was ultimately the victim of her superstitious nonsense,” Angela said.
“Whatever do you mean?” Evelyn said, somewhat aghast.
“Why, the old yew tree fell and her poor heart gave out at the sound. It is the most natural conclusion to make. She always obsessed over that yew tree, just as she obsessed over the yarrow flowers. Just as she obsessed over every little presumably occultist tiding. It is a matter of self-manifest destiny, you know. Fear the cock’s crow at dawn and it will, with passing days, bring about nightfall of the heart. Did you ever hear of Reverend James and the real cause of his death?”
“It was always said he died of falling from his roof in the middle of the night,” Evelyn said. She sipped at her tea, and made a face. “Quite tart, but good for the soul.” She set it aside. “Is there more to it? I always presumed there must be. He was not a daft man.”
A sly smile played upon Angela’s lips. It was an uncommon visitor, and so did not settle there for long, embarrassed at its own presence like a stranger in a strange land.
“That is not the complete story,” she said. “Do you recall how obsessed he was with ‘wrestling demons’?”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said. “It was his incessant refrain in every sermon.”
“Just so,” Angela said, still staring at the yarrow. “Reverend James’s refrain originated in his belief that the Devil danced upon his roof at midnight.”
“Surely not!” Evelyn said, her mouth a dismayed moue.
“Any reasonable person would say as much,” Angela said. “But James was never reasonable. Or sensible. He told the baker, Rhodes, of his nightly visitor and vowed he would wrestle the Devil if it was the last thing he ever did.”
Evelyn raised a hand to her mouth in shock. “So he climbed atop his roof in a fit of moonlit fancy and fell to his death?”
Angela turned away from the seance table, and her mother’s chair. “He did just that. Yet, it is worth remarking that he may have not been entirely lunatic at the end.”
Evelyn’s eyes were wide, listening intently as a doe before it bounds away into the forest. “How do you mean? Please, Angela, do not make me regret this conversation. I will be tossing all night with terrible dreams if it takes a turn in the shadows.”
“Abide, sister, and you will see it as more sheet than specter,” Angela admonished her. “James’s neighbor, the farmer Montague, reported missing his most beloved billy goat the day after. In fact, the men happened upon Reverend James’s body while in search of the goat.”
Evelyn sighed in relief. “So the goat had been climbing upon the Reverend’s house at night and chewing his thatch? What a shame that James should die from such an absurd misunderstanding!”
“It is a good lesson, do you not think?” Angela said, complacently. “A cautionary tale that should be edifying. Mother knew the story in its totality, yet she said she knew the Devil was still dancing on the Reverend’s roof, even after Montague fetched his silly goat down that same morning. Mother feared all sorts of spirits and auguries, and as a consequence she scared herself to death with the fright she begot upon herself. Let that be our lesson, then, and take it to heart. Never let fear overmaster us, especially fear of specters born of our own frayed nerves.”

***

It was the next morning and Angela sat on the bench beneath the latticed arbor in the garden. She sighed in contentment of the morning. It was a bright dawn— starkly glorious compared to the bleak weeks recently with their stormy weather—and she sat with her parasol leaning against the arbor, in anticipation of the hot noon. Mists drifted throughout the garden, but it was not overly chilly. Her white dress was thick with plumes and frills. It reminded her how Thomas spoke of women’s fashion before he was sent to the Front.
“How you women can tolerate it is beyond me,” he had said. “It all seems like wearing one’s bed around upon oneself. I’d rather a soldier’s uniform any day of the year.”
Atop the arbor the blooming red roses crowded each other, perfuming the cool morning air. Angela sniffled at their heady fragrance, and frowned.
“Too much sweetness may well kill a man,” she said sourly. Yet, it was not in her nature to leave because the flowers were not agreeable. She sat stubbornly upon the bench, waiting for her sister to rise from bed.
The mists were heavy upon the world. They drifted as though off the River Aire.
She saw the figure at a distance, being but a gangling silhouette loping through the mist. She might have dismissed it as the gardener, or her brother-in-law, but there was something peculiarly singular about the figure’s stride that distinguished it from all others. When the figure broke from the mist into discernability, Angela let out a dreadful choking gasp.
The figure continued up the cobblestone walkway, toward the house. The front door opened and Evelyn stepped out with her parasol. Seeing the figure, she dropped her parasol at once— eyes wide with surprise, confusion, elation— and then hastened down the steps toward the figure.
“Thomas!” she cried. “Thomas, is that really you?”
Her brother chuckled and held out his arms, embracing his sister as she met him.
“Just the same,” he said, smiling ear to ear. He was thinner than she remembered, and his face gaunt with sleeplessness as well as malnutrition. His brown suit hung slack off of him in places where he once filled it out properly. Evelyn trembled to see him in the flesh.
“But they said you had been…had been…but I cannot say it!” she exclaimed, sobbing with joy. “Had only mother lived long enough to see you alive and well!”
“Oh, but mother knew I would not die,” Thomas said. “Not yet, anyway.  She knew better than my own mates, it seems.”
“Why, then, did they report you so?”
“It was some other poor fellow,” he said. “So many have fallen, you know. And there is no sorting the wretches out. Why, I lost more friends than I can count, and have had my fill of the trenches. They were as mass graves, and many were just left to rot like half-planted seeds.” He shook his head sorrowfully. “It is a nasty business, war. A job for the plow as much as for the reaper.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” Evelyn said. She wiped away her tears, then beamed like a convert to a miracle. “Come! We must let Angela see you! She will not believe it! Why, I think she will be all tears and smiles!”
“Not our dear Angela!” Thomas said with grinning incredulity. “I believe she will stubbornly tell me I am a ghost and should be getting on to the next life!”
“Oh, you know she does not believe in ghosts,” Evelyn said.
Brother and sister walked, hand-in-hand, toward the garden. They waved to their sister beneath the arbor.
Angela slumped, silent and still, among the beautiful roses.

Not Alone

Cassidy had finished watching the Miss America pageant—or had watched her fill of it, anyway—and left the living room to go sit in her bedroom, on her bed, in the dark and by the one window that looked out upon the road where all the other houses were gloomy-eyed with sleepy apathy. A streetlight glowed sullenly, cutting across the road and etching the bare oak tree and fence from the rural murk that spread like a black ocean farther down the neighborhood. Beyond the fence, the black hills rose up toward a star-spangled sky, and below it— lost in shadow—the interstate lay lurking, distinguished solely by the red and yellow and orange lights that sped along its heady darkness.

Cassidy’s mother was not home, and likely would not be home until the morning. She had another date with a man who smelled of car grease and had a greasy smile. Cassidy called him Greasy Greg, and tried not to think about him or his mother being out together. It just made her angry.
Miss Ohio had made Cassidy angry, too. When asked by the host what was wrong with the world, she had said, “Loneliness”. As if such a pretty woman knew anything about loneliness, Cassidy thought bitterly. Miss Ohio had hundreds of thousands of social media followers—people who adored her—and likely never had need of help or attention or friends. Cassidy didn’t even have a cell-phone, and didn’t have any friends. She knew people at Fairdale Middle School, but they were acquaintances, not friends. None of them called her on the landline at her mother’s rental house; no one wanted to know her phone number. Besides, people didn’t really talk on the phone anymore. Her classmates texted each other, both in class and out of it, and Cassidy came home everyday after school to an empty house, her mother working 2nd shift at the local gas station. And when her mother wasn’t scheduled to work, she had dates; dates with men like Greasy Greg. Cassidy understood why, however. Her mom had been alone for years since Cassidy’s father left— or “got hit by a train”, as her mother sometimes said bitterly—and now Cassidy was old enough that her mother could date again. Cassidy told herself that she did not mind that her mom was dipping into the dating pool again. She just hated the fact that her mother dragged the bottom of the sea when she went fishing, and often came up with slippery, slimy eels.
Cassidy was more often than not bored at home when her mother was away. Today she cleaned the bathroom and cooked herself some beans and rice for dinner. Cassidy was not anything if not productive. She received good grades in school, if for no other reason than she would spend her time reading her schoolbooks ahead of the teacher to pass the long hours of solitude. Consequently, she was bored in school— having covered the subject days ago— and would spend her time daydreaming in class, or simply watching her fellow classmates and trying to understand how they thought, who they were, and the dynamics between them. She knew which boys had crushes on which girls, and which girls had crushes on which boys. She lived vicariously through them, or so it seemed to her.
Cassidy’s mother could not afford an internet connection, and kept the cellphone on her person in case of emergencies. Cassidy was only ever supposed to call her mother’s cellphone on the landline if there was an emergency, and was berated when she would— at least twice a week—call her mother for no other reason than to try to speak about everything except what she wanted to honestly say.
And what Cassidy wanted to honestly say was that she was miserable.
A truck roared down the street, its bright headlights flooding Cassidy’s eyes and skull with obnoxious luminosity. Often she went to bed early— even on weekends— but sometimes she felt restless; her insides squirming with anxiety. Tonight she felt no anxiety; only a hollow numbness.
“Neanderthal,” she said absently, blinking as the afterimage of the truck’s headlights swam across her vision, like paramecia in a midnight pool. She continued to sit by the window, staring out into the black, empty night as the taillights of the truck disappeared into the darkness. She wished she could channel the radio waves and satellite signals that pulsed across the earth; that she could hear conversations between girls and boys her own age, and see their texts, and disdain them their presumably vapid conversations.
“They’re so shallow,” she said.
The silence answered her, and the numbness. She sighed, and fought the urge to go to the living room and call her mom. On some nights Cassidy would leave the tv on, with the volume up loud, so its chatter fended off the silence of the small rental house. She wished she had a dog, at times, or a cat, even if the house itself reeked of the previous tenants’ cats, her mother fumigating it daily with scented candles and deodorizing spray. Even now Cassidy’s room smelled like cat urine and lavender. She did not know which smell was worse, and would keep the window open on warm nights to let in fresh air.
Cassidy really, really hated Miss Ohio. Who was she to lecture anybody about loneliness? Who was she to receive applause for stating something like she did? To Cassidy it was as if a fully-abled person was preaching to a quadriplegic about being handicapped. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. The idiots in the audience couldn’t see how it was, but Cassidy could. Miss Ohio? More like Miss Sayonara.
Cassidy stared out her rented window toward the black hills. They rolled upward and downward like the body of a giant asleep beneath a blanket of shadows. There was a soft white smudge of light pollution from the distant city, cradled in the valley between the two hills. The water tower stood atop one hill, its red light atop its bulbous head blinking. Occasionally, the triangularly-arrayed lights of an airplane passed over it. A radio tower, too, blinked in the darkness, like a cyborg’s spine. Cassidy blinked, too, and felt something wet drip down her cheeks. She tried to concentrate on the tower, as if it was her own spine, its pulsing beacon her own mind. But silence and solitariness remained.
Cassidy stood up, wiping off her cheeks, and started toward the door. A light flashed at her back. Passing headlights through the window, she thought. She reached the door, then stopped. She did not have to turn around to know she was not alone. There was someone in the room with her. She turned around.
The light was gone, but silhouetted against the backdrop of the window was a figure. It was not entirely human. Its head was too large, its limbs too thin and winnowed. It wore no clothes, its gray skin slightly wrinkled. Large, dark almond-shaped eyes stared at Cassidy from a face pinched toward a small slit of a mouth. The eyes did not blink. They only stared. Cassidy stared back, inert with surprise and alarm. The light flashed behind the figure again— drowning the world in light—and Cassidy felt herself floating while a roar rose in the back of her brain, a roar louder than any truck or train or airplane, and she screamed silently inside her skull.
The flash of light consumed her, as did a whirling sense of languid vertigo, and when she came to rest she was immobile upon a table. Three figures peered over her, their overlarge black eyes unblinking. There was a distant pain— everything happened at a distance, it seemed— and she watched herself prone upon their cold metal table, simultaneously looking up at herself in the eyes of the creatures around her; as if she was both the reflection in the eyes and the black eyes themselves, looking down. Looking down.

***

Cassidy woke in her bed, blearily blinking at the cold, silvery dawn through her window. Her head throbbed and there was a sharp pain behind her left ear. When she rose from bed, a wave of nausea swelled from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat, spiraling. Staggering on wobbly legs to the bathroom, Cassidy bent over the toilet just in time to spew out last night’s popcorn and pretzels. Breathing heavily now, she righted herself with effort and went to the sink to clean up. In the mirror her eyes looked tired, circled with black rings to underscore her sleeplessness. Using a hand mirror, and the mirror over the sink, Cassidy attempted to look behind her left ear, pulling her long black hair up and out of the way. The area was sensitive and red, as if aggravated, but there was nothing otherwise unusual. No lesion. No scar. Not even a pimple or bug bite.
After washing her mouth out with baking soda, Cassidy went into the living room. It was a Saturday and her mother was not home yet. She had stayed at Greasy Greg’s house, it seemed. Cassidy wasn’t in the mood for food— her stomach was still queasy and her head spun like a top about to fall down—so she sat down on the old, faded loveseat to rest. She did not turn on the tv, but she did stare at her reflection in the black screen.
The black screen reminded her of black eyes, and how she saw herself supine in those black eyes, and saw herself laying down beneath those black eyes, as if looking from those void-like eyes. She shuddered and told herself it was all a bad dream. Maybe, she thought, this fear would vanish sooner or later, much like the hurt she felt last time she tried to talk to her father.
Cassidy heard her mother’s car puttering down the highway. It was just after nine when her mother pulled into the driveway. Her mother came in through the backdoor, probably thinking Cassidy was still asleep. Her mother was smiling, her hair disheveled.
“Morning, Cass,” her mother said, not even embarrassed. “Been up long? Hungry?”
“No and no,” Cassidy said. “Late night?” she added, more caustic than curious.
“Early morning,” her mother said lightly. She had that dreaming faraway look of love in her eyes that some of Cassidy’s classmates had when Peter Armstrong flirted with them, oblivious that he flirted with all of their friends.
“The car sounds pretty awful,” Cassidy said.
“Greg is going to fix it,” her mother said. She went to the fridge and took out a carton of milk, drinking straight from the container. Her mother was a pretty woman— most men said so—and she had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was even prettier thirteen years ago, before Cassidy was born. She could have been a Miss Ohio. Cassidy had not inherited her mother’s beauty. She had, instead, her father’s dark hair and brown eyes and wide jaw, along with several other things she never wanted from him, like his non-apologies.
“Greg is a Greasemonkey,” Cassidy said. It was not a question.
Her mother giggled, nearly spilling the milk. She lowered the carton and beamed at her daughter. A white mustache of milk innocently gleamed above her lips, mingling with smeared lipstick. The latter was not so innocent.
“He’s a keeper is what he is,” her mother said. “A real gentleman.”
Cassidy muttered. “If you say so.”
Her mother acted as if she did not hear her, chugging again from the milk carton.
He’s still better than your deadbeat daddy.
Cassidy gawped, dismayed and pained. Her mother could not have said it and yet her voice sounded in Cassidy’s head as if she had. Her mother was no ventriloquist, so Cassidy was confused. She dismissed it as a fancy of her imagination and her own anger. She went into the living room and read a schoolbook while her mother took a shower and went to bed.
“Wake me up at two,” her mother said as she wrapped her beautiful blonde hair in a towel.
Cassidy did what she was told, and kept her tears to herself.

***

Cassidy walked along the road that ran parallel to the interstate, divided from that deadly barrage of traffic by a fence, a rambling cluster of trees, and undulating land that changed from valley to hill, obscuring and revealing the afternoon traffic in turns. The road was fringed with ditchlines crowded with the dead wildgrasses of Summer, all tall and vividly colored like rusted orange. The fields were still green and lush, though they were yellowing in patches. Black trees stood stark in the warm blue sky, contorted and ugly in their nakedness. It was closer to the beginning of Winter than it was to the beginning of Fall, but the sun was bright and the air was warm and it felt closer to Summer than Fall.
This road led beneath the interstate overpass— beneath the large square columns of concrete— and on toward the gas station where her mother presently worked. Her mother did not like Cassidy walking that road alone. Kidnappers and murderous motorists sprang everywhere along that road, or so her mother seemed to believe. The last time Cassidy walked this road she went to visit her mother in the gas station. Her mother had made quite a scene, chastising her daughter and, ultimately, driving her home. At least her mother was talking at her, if not to her. It was better than the silence. Even so, Cassidy resented the lie her mother told her. Her mother claimed she was upset because her boss did not approve of children staying at the gas station while their parents were working. It was a “distraction”. But Cassidy knew it was because Greasy Greg was lingering there and her mother did not want her daughter scaring away her newfound beau.
As Cassidy walked the road, she looked at the houses and trees and trailers that she had seen a hundred times before. The houses were of the keenest interest for her. She always wondered how people of “fuller families” lived during the weekends. Sometimes she glimpsed children playing in their yard, or a father on his patio, grilling hamburgers, or a mother tending to her flowers in her garden. She rarely saw teens her own age. Either they were indoors and online or texting each other, or they were at the mall in the city, hanging out and being bored together. There were sometimes a few skateboarders by the abandoned granary, skating around and performing tricks and laughing at each other near the collapsed silos. The last time she looked at them they made obscene gestures and called out to her. She walked more quickly down the road, and was always hesitant to pass that part of the road, crossing instead to the farthest side and walking behind a clump of fat-skirted cedars.
Cassidy did not walk for exercise, nor to keep out of the small confines of the house. Those were benefits in conjunction, but not the primary goal. The primary goal was to glimpse as much life as she could that was not her own. The kids playing, the parents working, the birds flying and the cows grazing: such things did not so much as please her as distract her. She surrounded herself in a crowd of things held at a comfortable distance. It was the same as at school: surrounded, yet singular and apart. Birdsong, childish shouts, and the passing hiss of traffic along the interstate busied her brain with sensations so that it felt replete and occupied. She needed her mind full of something other than that inner voice that asked the same refrain every waking moment of her life: Why?
Cassidy was passing an old white vinyl house when she saw two little boys burst around the corner of the house, one chasing the other with a toy zapgun that blinked and whirred and buzzed; the other boy in front of him giggled hysterically. They were facsimiles of one another.
“I got you!” the boy with the gun said, still pulling the trigger victoriously to churn out lights and sounds of a cacophonic future world.
“I’m Superman,” his brother said, laughing triumphantly. “Bullets don’t hurt me!”
“This doesn’t shoot bullets,” the other boy said. “It shoots lasers.”
“Lasers don’t hurt Superman neither,” his brother said. He turned to face the noisy zapgun, his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and his chest puffed up defiantly. He had a red towel hanging down the back of his blue pajamas. All of a sudden the two boys turned as one, gawping at Cassidy.
What does she want?
The twins did not say the words, but Cassidy heard them anyway. Their thoughts were almost as alike as their faces, stature, and hair. Cassidy hastened down the road while the twins went back to playing.
Farther down, a large elm stood at a street corner where a back-road ended at the highway. Beyond the tree a yard sprawled that was so large it might as well have been a field. A man sat on his lawnmower, cutting the grass. He had a hat on his head, headphones on his ears and dark sunglasses over his eyes. Even though Cassidy never really knew her father well, she knew enough about dads to know how obsessed they were supposed to be when cutting the grass. She watched him for a moment, wondering why the grass should matter so much. Behind him and his noisy lawnmower, his wife lay on a foldout lounge chair, sunning herself to a crisp brown. Their large brick house dominated the center of the meticulously kept field.
What a waste of puberty she’s goin’ to be.
The man’s voice touched her mind, though his lips did not move and she could not see his eyes behind his sunglasses. She knew he was referring to herself, however.
But at least she isn’t like that shriveled old prune, raisining in the sun.
Cassidy was so upset, and dismayed, that she decided to turn around and return home. She had not felt well since last night’s bad dream.

***

Her worst encounter that day was when she passed by the dilapidated granary again. Beforehand, it had been vacant. Now, however, the skateboarders had gathered and she was too discombobulated to notice, foregoing concealment behind the cedars and walking unwittingly in plain sight of that rural ruin. What they yelled at her was obscene, but it was what she heard from them when their lips weren’t moving that pushed her into a sprint homeward. By the time she dashed onto the driveway, she was ready to pass out from heat exhaustion, fatigue, and breathless terror. She staggered indoors, feeling the burn of bile welling up in her throat, and walked around, sobbing and breathing heavily.
It was during this emotional turmoil that her mind opened fully and she could hear the voices of billions of people all over the world and see the visions in their lives— all cascading over her mind like a tsunami of humanity that crushed her beneath its burdensome experiences.

***

The entity that had been known as Cassidy had become something else. She was a hub, a nexus, a radio tower. She did not need the internet, for she was the internet, and she was much more. Her mother found her later that night in a comatose state, passed out on the living room carpet. Her mother had nearly wrecked her jalopy twice while speeding to the hospital in the city. She carried her daughter into the ER and fell upon her knees, wailing like Mary over the body of Jesus.
The adolescent was put through tests. The hospital ran brain scans on her. Instead of finding limited activity, the scans revealed that the totality of Cassidy’s brain was accelerating its synaptic relays, firing wildly, the images showing a colorful jumble not unlike bioluminescent jellyfish all tangled together.
“It is not that she has little brain function,” the neurologist concluded, “but that she has too much. It is like epilepsy, but she isn’t showing the other signs of a grand mal seizure. There are no involuntary muscle spasms as a consequence of the bioelectric eruption. Her brain is overworking itself, and that is why she has lost consciousness. We must decelerate the brain activity with a suppressant.
Nothing worked. Cassidy’s brain remained a tangle of Christmas lights burning overbright. Yet the bulbs did not burst, and all the hospital could do was wait..
In the meantime, Cassidy was found to be dehydrated, so they put her on an IV drip and monitored hourly while her mother stayed in a chair beside her hospital bed. Questions from the doctor prompted Cassidy’s mother to give hesitant, shame-faced answers. She had to admit that most days Cassidy was left by herself while her mother worked. When asked if Cassidy took drugs, her mother vehemently denied that her daughter would do such a thing. When asked about Cassidy’s friends, her mother admitted that she didn’t know any of her daughter’s friends.
“Peer pressure can make the best kids do what they normally wouldn’t,” the doctor said.
“Cass wouldn’t do that,” her mother said, though doubt ate at the rigid timber of her tone like termites. “I don’t think she would. Would she?”
The series of questions continued, agitating Cassidy’s mother all the more until she could only sit and sob, trembling all over with grief and shame and fear. Meanwhile, the hospital staff began to have headaches—one by one—and so, too, did the patients.

***

Cassidy slid from one slipstream to another, connecting consciousness to consciousness in rapid, if not simultaneous, succession. Faster than light were the impressions of the lives that fed into her the stimuli, memories, and experiences of other people. Just as soon as she was a girl in Delhi, working a merchant stall, she was an old man in Japan treading through flooded rice paddies. The next nanosecond she was two hundred people— a bricklayer in Honduras, a schoolgirl in Italy, a mother of six in Brazil, a widower in a trailer park in Kentucky. She was her mother, too, crying over her daughter, and Greasy Greg, who was not a terrible man after all, and she was the skateboarders and the twins and the husband and wife, now in bed, making love to each other in the blind, accepting dark. She was even Miss Ohio, surrounded by people wanting her picture, her phone number, her smile and kiss and laugh—wanting everything but her. And among all those people, Miss Ohio was lonely, too; as lonely as Cassidy felt.
One world, so many people. One person, so many worlds. E pluribus unum. E unibus pluram. Her mind had to map the pathways to all of the minds. Once chartered, she could relinquish them and find the next thousand. In time she had mapped all minds, and soon mastered control, channeling one at a time, or ten, or more if need be. It was arduous, but became easier as her mind grew to an intuitive navigation of the psychosphere it had connected to.
And then her mind reached out to the beings that had changed her. They received her softly— over many lightyears—showing to her what they saw from their spacecraft: a lonely, burning star in a dark, deep, vast blackness, and orbiting that star like a speck of dust, the earth and all of its billions of lives being lived from brief moment to moment. Lives scarce and rare and precious in a cosmic void where so little sentient life prospered for long before succumbing to the indifferent natural forces that would snuff them out forever, without the dignity of malice or mercy to justify the abortion; as it had the planet of those entities that now showed Cassidy what she saw. Loneliness, she realized, was a sickness. It was a disease. It caused people to do terrible things.
In seeing this revelation, and understanding it, Cassidy woke up.

***

We are not alone, she told them. We have each other. But we’re all we’ve got. We do not have forever. We only have today. Beyond the horizon of Tomorrow there crouches a terrible thing that will silence all of us, so that not even our echoes remain. We must talk to one another now. We must acknowledge one another’s existence while we can. No one else will.

Sic Trans Gloria Novae Mundi

It was low tide and Jacob stumbled down the white dune, staggering stiffly toward the lapping surf on the New England coast. Bubbly froth lazed forward and withdrew, then lazed forward again, tumbling planks and splinters of wood and other flotsam in its playful foam. Jacob hobbled with his arms raised for balance as the dune finally plateaued onto the white beach. His backside still stung from yesterday, when his father had whipped him so hard with a leather strap that he could not sleep all night long. He had shoved his little sister. As atonement— in the eyes of his parents and of his God—he was to collect mussels from their clusters among the seaside stones on the beach, or catch crabs, or harvest whatever else God would provide since the Natives had retreated further inland with the advent of Autumn. His father said that the Natives helped the previous Winter only because God had inspired in them His love, but that the pilgrims could not rely on the Natives now. There would be no more help from the heathens, he said. Jacob wondered why.
Jacob was grateful to be away from his family. He was angry, but was too young to understand much more than he was tired of his sister following him incessantly and betraying him whenever he attempted to do anything besides chores. Susan was a little Judas, he thought, and he wished for no more flagellations on her behalf. He had only wanted to walk by the creek, alone, and catch frogs, perhaps, or skip stones. But Susan was stubborn as his shadow, and clung to his trail as steadfastly on her short little legs. Losing his temper, he baptized her in the creek with an abrupt shove of his hands. Yes, she almost drowned, but he saved her, drawing her small body up from the hole he had not seen in the creek. Weeping, but still breathing, she clung to him as he carried her back to their village. Her dress was drenched through and she had nearly drowned herself again in tears by their arrival in their drab stick-and-wattle house.
Jacob hated Susan as he walked along the shore, aching at the seam of his britches. It was his tenth Autumn and the seventh since crossing the Atlantic to the New World. He could not remember the voyage except vaguely— impressions of dark, dank cabins cramped with other pilgrims seeking new lives away from England. Within the shadowy, fetid ship he had felt it sway back and forth upon the grumbling sea and it seemed as if they were in the belly of the Leviathan. His sister had not known the Hell of floating upon the sea. His mother had tried to comfort him with kisses and caresses, and his father had tried to comfort his mother with the Word. But a toddler knows when his parents are lying to themselves. It was evident upon their faces, which he remembered most vividly of all. Their faces were like the damned, and they shuddered as he did at the endless roar of the godless sea.
Seagulls cawed shrilly above, drifting sideways with their white wings lifted aloft, suspended almost magically on the salty winds. Jacob wondered if angels possessed such wings, and if they flew in the same manner in the firmament. The seagulls’ voices reminded him of Susan’s as she cried, and so they infuriated him. He stooped down to pick up a shell or pebble to throw at the birds, but his hand happened upon something strange on the shore. Brushing aside the sand, he found a little doll made of withe and decorated with a pale blue ribbon. Picking it up, he dusted it off. The face of the doll had been painted, but the smile was erased by brine and sand. It reminded him of his sister. He glanced about, and saw more things upon the beach, tumbling languidly to and fro in the lethargic waves. They were remnants of what had been a ship. It had been a large ship, he knew; not unlike the ship which he and his mother and father boarded years ago to come to this wondrous and terrifying world.
The pain in his backside had kept Jacob from sleeping last night, but so, too, did the storm that raged distantly at sea. The winds bellowed like demons and the thunder boomed like pagan gods in a terrible war. Rain leaked in through the roof of their house and pooled in the village square. Not even the stone church was spared flooding. Now that the storm had passed, the sky was crowded with pillars of white clouds through which the sun gazed wanly. The sea had calmed itself, though the wind still hissed uneasily, as if resentful; its grudges not yet relinquished.
It was easier to believe in pagan gods than his father’s God in this New World. His father had said that the New World would be a new Jerusalem; a paradise on earth, born in the belief and the devotion to their God. It would be different than the Old World and all of its iniquities.
The seagulls cried overhead, like angels in agony, and Jacob felt a deep sadness. He untied the blue ribbon from the doll, then hobbled up the dunes and onto the wind-blasted, rain-flooded New England grass. Using a stone, he dug a small hole in the muddy earth and set the doll within it, covering it over. He then used the ribbon to bind two sticks together and propped them up above the small grave. He tried to say a little prayer, but it died on his lips. His eyes burned, but not from the chill, briny wind.
Collecting up an armful of mussels, Jacob hobbled home and gave them to his father. He then apologized to his sister and spent time with her, watching her as if she was the most precious miracle in the world. All throughout the week he never spoke a cross word to her, nor lost his temper with her. And if he became angry, he remembered the drowned doll that had washed ashore.
Susan saw him cry only once—a few tears while he fed the chickens—and asked him what was wrong.
“The world,” he said. “Old and New, it’s all wrong.”

Shallow

Everything seemed out of season.  The leaves of the Maple tree glowed like the flaring flecks of a somber fire on the street corner, its crown traced in the orange light of a lamppost. The brickwork of the nearby townhouse was half lit by that same light, or else lost in shadow, only a single window on the second floor etched apart by a candle’s glow. All other houses down either street were drowned in black night, neither porchlight or inner light refuting the tenebrous uniformity of the late hour.
It was said the Wizard put a spell on his neighbors, one and all, to urge them to bed early—even on weekends—so that he would never be disturbed during his midnight lucubrations. There was no traffic on the road, nor even foot traffic. Occasionally some local drunks would go wandering away from the local bars, but never would they wander this way, and all sober people shunned this road at night. The single rear light of her father’s old pickup truck had disappeared from sight a few moments before, heading home where her mother waited, weeping at the kitchen table.
The Wizard was a mysterious celebrity within the county. Everyone knew of him and spoke of him, but no one really knew him or spoke to him. His house sat at the corner of two streets and two worlds, seen by many and yet frequented by none. They said he was a kingmaker, and a king breaker. Between light and darkness, he existed. People hoped for, and dreaded, the call to his house.
Her mother had curled her red hair, and selected the green summer dress for her to wear— a slight slip of a dress that left her freckled shoulders bare, and was sheer down the flat of her chest, and hitched high with a hem at her freckled thighs, showcasing knobby knees that popped sometimes as she walked with that awkwardly bouncing stride of a fawn bounding dubiously through its first summery field. Her father had insisted on the makeup she wore—the red lipstick that made her slight buck-teeth more pronounced and the mascara that only ran down her freckled cheeks because of the tears she had shed during the drive over here. Why the Wizard wanted her, she did not know. Her eyes were too large, her cheeks too shallow, her chin too slight and her overbite too disastrous to be cute. She was not pretty, or even plain. As a child she was pretty, perhaps, but not now, fresh upon her fifteenth year.
She stared up at the townhouse looming over her. She stepped up on the first concrete step. The house intimidated her, as did everything that belonged to the wealthy and powerful. The strange L-shaped stairs led up to the front door aslant, and a lion statue lounged on the brickwork, at its crook. Its slumbrous brow was bathed in scant light from the lamppost. Its eyes were sleepy, and its mouth closed. The gleam of the light on its bronze mane fascinated her, briefly, as she passed it. It lionized the ascent with its presence.
She idolized Reba McEntire. As she took another step up she heard “Fancy” playing in her head. She was not wholly ignorant concerning men—homeschooled, but not ignorant. A boy at her church had grabbed her shallow breasts when she first began to blossom, and shortly ended blossoming, barely larger than he was. And her strange cousin, Mikey— whom her parents referred to as “slow” and “not right”—showed her his penis when she was eleven. He was seventeen at the time, but weighed twice as much as her father. The small, ugly thing between his legs was barely visible beneath his ponderous gut; like a mushroom poking out from under a white boulder covered in hairy black moss.
She took another step up, and the second run of steps angled perpendicular from the first, leading up to the black metal door with its lion-headed knocker. The glass was blackened by shadows. The opal moon shone at the back of the house. The front facade was shrouded with a veil of darkness where the lamppost’s sullen glow did not touch it.
The door opened silently. It did not creak or screech on its hinges, unlike the doors at her family’s old farmhouse. Yet, this house seemed older than her home; older than times her great-grandfather knew nothing of.
The door opened, but no one stood there at its dark threshold. She hesitated, naturally, and shivered in the warm, summery breeze. The inner vestibule was palled, but there was a soft light deeper within the house, radiating gently down a staircase and its elaborate rails. All else was darkness and obfuscated suggestion.
Knowing she had no choice, she entered the house and headed slowly toward the soft-lit staircase. The door closed behind her, silently and of its own accord. At the bottom of the inner stairs, on the lacquered wood of the landing, sat a cat. It was a large cat with a creamy white-and-brown patched coat and a black masked face. It had clear blue eyes which were oddly shaped like almonds, and, when paired with the strange down-curve of its lips and a face as flat as a wall, gave it the permanent expression of irritability and grumpiness. It waited until she stood before it, then turned about and walked up the stairs at a leisurely pace. She followed the cat, coming to the landing upstairs. The light down the stairs extinguished at once, and only a single light glowed on the second floor, down the hallway from an open door. All other doors were closed and dark. She walked down the hallway and came to the dimly illuminated room, its door open and waiting to admit her.
The Wizard sat at a table, reading a book scrawled with no human language upon it. He squinted down at the book, aglow in candlelight, and when she entered the cat leapt upon the table, sitting patiently beside the book while its face remained in a perpetual flat-faced frown. The Wizard did not glance up, but pointed to a long mirror standing in a corner of the murky room. The tall mirror was lit by a five-stick candelabrum.
“Undress,” he said. He said no more, but continued to read the mad spirals and cross-strokes nonsensically arrayed upon the splayed book.
She hesitated, then went to the mirror, thinking of her mother and father and siblings; of the farm and the letters from the county, and the bank notes, and the massive debt.
She hesitated again in front of the mirror. She stared at herself in the mirror; amidst the gloomy murk blurred by tears. Her curly red hair, her knobby knees and freckled shoulders; her mascara running down her cheeks. She was a child, really, and she was only old enough to realize that she was still a child. Taking a deep breath, and hating herself, she pulled the green summer dress up and off of her.
She did not take off her bra or her underwear. She had to look away from the shame in the mirror, drying her eyes and happening upon the jars that gleamed on the shelves lining the room, half-concealed in the burning candle dusk. There were skeletons both familiar and bizarre in those jars. Here a cat; there, a rat with a human skull. A bird’s skeleton with a long, reticulated neck and a dog’s head at the end of it. Eyeballs that stared at her, and a human heart that continued to beat, disembodied. In other jars were more innocuous things: flowers, grasses, liquids of various colors. Ash, flint, pebbles, roots. Yet, however banal, they all excited in her young heart a fear that made her tremble violently in the Wizard’s study.
The Wizard continued to read. She did not know if this was supposed to be part of a means of exciting torture upon her or if he had simply forgotten about her. He did not seem interested in her at all. Nor was he what she had expected. He was of no specific age— that is to say, he could have been in his thirties or his fifties. He had no beard, nor a robe, but wore khakis and a simple blue collar shirt. Brown loafers were upon his feet and his face was free of spectacles. His hair was black, frosted white at the temples. He resembled a doctor more than a fairytale Wizard.
She gazed again into the mirror. She was not a pretty girl; not even cute. She had callused hands from milking cows and pitching hay. She was bony from too much work and too little food. Whatever idle fat was supposed to hang on the breast and buttock had been burned away irreparably by daily chores on the farm. Her forearms were too boyish with muscle, as was her whole body. She knew no other life other than from hearsay from the other kids at her church. They went to public schools, and rarely talked to her because they lived very different lives. They lived on their phones, and the internet. Her parents could not afford a cellphone or the internet, nor satellite tv. They watched three channels on broadcast, and that was rarely more than an hour a day. Chores consumed everything, and a farm could not earn anyone a living anymore. It could feed a family, but lose itself on its own mortgage. Only corporate farms and hobby farms remained strong. And they were not real farmers. They were pretenders. Nowadays fake lives could earn more money than a genuine life ever could.
“We’re underwater on the mortgage,” her father had told her on the way here. “And he promised to help with all that. You just got to…got to put yourself out there.”
Like a cow, she thought bitterly. Put out to market.
Startling her, the Wizard shut the book suddenly, sighing irritably. He pushed his chair back and stood, turning around. Instinctively, she shrank from him, huddling in a corner where three stacks of books towered. Bumping into them, she fell them like dominoes, sprawling them out across the strange Persian rug on the floor.
“Sorry,” she said automatically.
“I said undress,” he said firmly.
She gawped, and then the tears came anew, flooding her face. Her heart hammered horribly between her shallow breasts, threatening to burst her lithe, boyish frame. She felt faint, and swooned, a heat in her head like a matchstick soon to ignite into an immolation of shame. He came forward and took her bra off impatiently, and her underwear while she wobbled on one leg and then the other. She did not fight him, swaying with the movement like a scarecrow being shaken by the seasonal winds. She closed her eyes, the tears burning along her sockets.
After he had taken her remaining raiments, he stepped away. She had anticipated fondling hands and hot breath and a great pain within and without. Instead, he turned about in seeming indifference. When she dared to open her eyes, she saw him laying a large elliptical bowl on the table, next to his book and his cat. It was very much the same shape as the standing mirror. Into this bowl he poured a silvery liquid from a strange jug that looked like a coiled conch. He waited a minute or so after pouring the syrupy liquid, then he closed his eyes and whispered a few words she could not understand. He passed his hands over the bowl several times. He had an Apple watch on his wrist. She glanced at the elliptical bowl where the silver liquid resided. It was as thin as a Judas coin.
So shallow, she thought.
“It may seem shallow,” the wizard said, as if reading her mind. “But it can still drown you.”
“We’re already drowning,” she whispered.
If he heard her, he did not seem to care.
“Stand in front of the mirror,” he commanded her. He stared intently into the bowl. “And uncross your arms. Stand completely still and do not move. It could be catastrophic if you disrupt your image within the Constancy.”
She did as she was told, dropping her arms to her sides and standing still in front of the mirror. She was skin and bones and freckles and buck-teeth and overbite. Only her red hair was truly pretty about her, and it burned like fire in the light from the candelabrum; burned like Maple leaves in Autumn. A willowy skeleton of a girl, her ribs etched softly beneath breasts that would have been nonexistent except for the small nipples dotting where breasts should have been swelling. Narrow hips and slender thighs.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She blinked in disbelief at the question, and turned her head to look at him.
“I told you not to move,” he chastised her absently. He was holding a white twig above the water, from which a chrysalis hung. “What do you want?”
“What does it cost?” she asked.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“What will you give me?” she asked, also knowing the thirst of want.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“Then I want everything,” she said without hesitation.
He nodded, almost with clinical disinterest, and dipped the chrysalis into the silver liquid, swirling it around slowly while the image in the mirror distorted and swirled, growing her breasts, widening her hips, and swelling her flat butt. She grew curvaceous in the flesh. The pain was excruciating, but she knew it was worth it. She stared at her new body in the mirror where such changes had been wrought, and she was transfixed. She had a new nose, fuller cheeks, pouty lips, and her chin was extended out so that her overbite disappeared. She still had her freckles, and her red hair, but the two complimented her new body. She was beautiful.
He warned her of various things she should not do, like reaping bad karma, or finding religion, or following a cult.
“You are your own goddess now,” he said. “And others will follow you. You will be your own religion and will trend for as long as you live in beauty.”
The cat rubbed against her ankle, looking up at her with its perpetual frown. She realized she had seen it somewhere before. She thought she could hear the clapping of hands at a distance, and fought the urge to take a bow.
The Wizard became disinterested in her once again, sitting down at his table and opening his large book again. Looking over his shoulder, she was surprised to realize she could understand the strange symbols on the pages. The @’s and the #’s were like symbols in a language for stargazing, and she could read them now. Her horoscope was written in their strange code, and she saw that it assured her ascendancy.

***

They nicknamed her the “Ginger Kardashian”. She was an Instagram model, social media influencer, and a makeup and fashion Youtuber. She built an empire out of her lips, breasts, and hips. She never worked at a farm again and moved out to LA where she bought a McMansion that dwarfed every house in her hometown, including the Wizard’s townhouse. She became a millionaire many times over and trended every week on every platform. Her fake life earned more money than a real one ever could, and though she was never happy, she pretended like she was, and often looked at her own posts online with a sense of awe. Her image had become a goddess. Her image had become a religion and had gained many followers around the world. But she also became a follower herself, envying the same goddess others envied and knowing she would never feel so happy as her shallow image on the other side of the looking-glass.

Overpass

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