Bit And Bridal

 We stood together, arrayed in a circle—much like the standing stones around us—and in the center of our circle was the dead horse, its head still bleeding from the gaping bullet hole that cratered the center of its long forehead.  Its tongue hung slack and pale between its twisted teeth.

 “Ready the blade, Matthew,” the master said.

 I did as I was bidden, sharpening the ax on the whetstone and discerning the fine gleam of the blade by moonlight as the strokes spit sparks.  The sibilance of stone on steel unnerved me, but I knew better than to disobey the master, especially now, when the lich moon was rising toward its zenith and hour of the Worm wheeled Cerberus above the standing stones.

 “Make ready the saddle!” the master commanded.

 Two servants hurried to lay the saddle upon the dead beast’s back.  The master upended his bottle of brandy, meanwhile, downing the rest of its burning amber courage to help him see the ritual to completion.  The bottle dry, he sighed angrily, breathlessly, and hurled it against a standing stone, shattering the glass as his chest heaved with mad resolve and contrary fear; desperate rage and mortal terror.  He turned to me like a man invoking his daimon.

 “Enough!” he said.  He staggered toward me, falling on his knees, his brow profuse with sweat.  “It will cleave true with keenness of blade or keenness of damnation, one or the other.”

 The master extended his hand upon the stone altar, his fist closed except for the ringfinger, the latter apart from the others and still encircled with the silver token of his marriage.  He had not taken it off for two years, nor ever would.  Whether widower or bridegroom yet again, he would not doff the silver wedding ring that bound him to his beloved wife, Filianore, now lost in the shades of the realm beyond.

 “Strike quickly!” he commanded.  “Strike true!”

 I put aside the whetstone and readied the ax in my hand with a tight grip, a careful aim, and a long hesitation.

 “Damn you, Matthew!” the master shouted.  “Be done with it!”

 I brought the crescent blade down upon the master’s ringfinger.  The blade made a rather satisfactory butcher’s sound, as should be heard in a shop when a butcher dresses a pig.  The finger split from the hand, parting a hair’s width from the silver ring itself.  Master cried out, but it seemed more a cry of exultation than pain or regret.  He then took up the bleeding ringfinger, and the ring, and hurried to the dead horse.  Kneeling down, the master spoke a few words which I did not understand.  It was a different language.  He spoke softly, urgently, then pressed the severed finger into the horse’s mouth, as one would a bit for a bridle.  At first, nought seemed to happen.  The servants and I watched with abated breath, horror as wild in each face as hope was in the master’s.  Quite suddenly the beast’s slack mouth tightened its teeth, clamping blindly upon the finger and the ring.  The lax tongue lolled to life, spiraling like a searching slug until it had found the bloody end of the dismembered finger.  It proceeded to lap at the bloody digit.  The horse shuddered, then whinnied, and rose most unnaturally from its puddle of blood and filth, standing at attention on its four hooves.  We backed away as one; all except the master who exulted.

 “By Judas’s coin, it worked!” he shouted triumphantly.  Then, in a lower voice, he said, “Strap the saddle tightly upon the beast’s flanks.”

 No one moved forth to do as bidden.  We exchanged glances as war-time compatriots might when one unwittingly spoke the name of a savage battle none were meant to speak of again.

 “Secure the saddle!” the master shouted.

 We would not.

 “Craven and callow, the lot of you!” he shouted, then secured the straps himself, his four-fingered hand fumbling with leather and blood in slippery disunity.

 The horse meanwhile stood silently, tonguing the master’s severed finger, but otherwise it did nothing.  The hole in its forehead revealed the cooled mush of its oozing brains.  To look upon it was to look upon the frailties and treacheries of flesh, and to marvel at the abominations rendered unto it by the despair of the soul.

 The saddle secure now, the master pulled himself up onto the undead beast’s back.  There were no reins, nor was there need for them.

 “To Filianore, you diabolical creature!” the master cried.  “Bring me to my beloved on the Plutonian shore!”

 The horse hobbled at first, its limbs trembling with reawakened life, then hastened into an unnatural gallop, the motion of its legs graceless and mechanical, like a puppet worked by inept hands and slackened strings.  But by strides, and by infernal powers not meant for the scope of Man, the pale horse rose from the earth and treaded the nocturnal air, rising and rising into that blasphemous sky with its lich moon and baleful stars, rising into the air like a wandering wraith and carrying the master to lands unknown to all but the most damned of men.

 We waited for hours.  It was yet not dawn and we sat in the ring of standing stones, not knowing whether we wished the master to return or not.  The sun’s warmth remained as a sullen orange glow beyond the trees.  The chill of night lingered, alongside the dew, and a fog tumbled groggily with the nightmare phantoms of what had been dreamt that night before.

 We saw the silhouettes through that ghostly fog; gray shadows half-glimpsed by eyes and half-dismissed by reason.  The horse emerged first, its head yet cratered with the fury of the shell.  Then the figure emerged beside the horse, stumbling as if a drunkard fresh from the tavern.  It was the master, though now his dark hair was whiter than the fog itself; his face gaunt and wrinkled too much for a man even of three decades henceforth.  Yet, the gleam of mad triumph illuminated his sunken eyes.

 And then there was Filianore.  She swayed with the lethargic amble of the horse, tilting slowly left and then right, left and then right, near enough to falling off on either side, yet she did not fall.  She yet wore the white dress in which she had been buried, only now the veil was sallow, the dress stained with filth and rot and the ruin of the grave.  But it was her eyes that transfixed all upon whom they gazed.  For there were no eyes in her head: only empty black sockets in which worms writhed in cloyed stupefaction.

 And upon a pale horse she came.  Upon a pale horse she came for us all.

Cracks

 Cracks

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

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

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

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

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

 “Jimmy cracked corn…!”

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

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

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

 “Stupid brat,” the man said.

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

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

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

Confessions And Silence

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

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

 That was, all except for Tilda.

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

 She hated Confessions most of all.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Know you lemongrass, my little fawn?

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

  And what of belladonna?

 Again Tilda nodded.

  And hemlock?  Wolfsbane?  Yarrow root?

 Tilda nodded to all three in succession.

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

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

 

      ***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  What are they?  Tilda asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

  Hello, my little lamb,  the witch said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  They are dead?  she ventured.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Tilda s father vanished into the Silence.

 

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

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

Still Life

Still Life

 

I first met Antonio Petras when I was twenty-eight years old.  I had been one among the premier sculptors in Rome for four years prior, yet had not to produce a work of skill sufficient to elicit appreciation from his discerning tastes.  One does not know the name Antonio Petras unless he wants one to know it.  Moreover, he was known on a first name basis only with Cardinals and Mafia dons, and no one— including his own mother, may she rest in peace—called him Tony.

Instead, everyone called him Padre, for he was the Father of the Mediterranean.

I still remember vividly our first meeting.  I had been informed that my sculpture, “Ganymede Spirited Away” had been purchased for a lordly sum, and that the buyer expected to meet me.  I informed his agent that, for the lordly sum rendered, I would bear such an honor with delight.

“Yes,” he said solemnly.  “You should be honored.”

Yet, I did not meet my mysterious patron until two weeks later.  I was taken— by private boat— to a privately owned island in the Mediterranean.  Padre’s primary residence, as I came to know it, was a palace of marble columns and mosaic tiles.  It was all white and cerulean, like the Mediterranean itself, lounging lazily beyond the verandah.  To complete this anachronistic Romance, all servants who personally obliged Antonio Petras customarily wore himations and robes.  The overall effect was that the palace existed in a bubble apart from Time.  Nor were there any electronics or modern light fixtures throughout the palace.  All was illuminated by the Mediterranean sun or by brazier; nought else.  And the silence of that place!  The tides swept about and hushed the beach, breathing salty through the open-columned passages of the palace.  It was as if the palace resounded with the lullaby of the sea.  Wherever one walked, the sights and the sounds of the womb of Hellenic Greece were ubiquitous.

Of course, as breathtaking as the natural seascape was, nothing compared to the collection to which my work had been added.  My work— though the best I had ever produced as yet—was humbled among that collection.  Indeed, I do not doubt that Padre was putting me in my place by having my work positioned in the back area of his massive gallery, whereas the best sculptures I had ever seen were positioned to the fore.  It was not a matter of cruelty, either, this humbling arrangement, but rather Padre’s strict observance of rank and privilege, which I no doubt know was intended to inspire competition for the talents involved, and thus betterment of the exclusive gallery as a whole.

But what of the man?  Well, people called the Pope “Padre”, but they only called Padre “God”.  Upon initial glance, however, he reminded me of Urban II: a weary old man in his chair, his wispy white beard straggling from his withered face.  Due to his rheumatism he shook, always, and otherwise moved slowly.  But his thoughts were swift; swifter than Zeus absconding with Ganymede.  I still do not know where his vast wealth originated, but I know he was well-read on a surprising number of topics.  Science, Music, Literature, Religion.  He was a Renaissance Man.  But his one single most powerful passion was Art, and of the Arts he— like Michelangelo—prized sculpture above all other mediums.

“In sculpture even the infirm may appear powerful,” he told me.  “Made of marble, Man may withstand the tides of Time.”

This was his introductory greeting as he walked stiffly to meet me in his gallery.

“Even the statue of a withered old man like myself might stand forever, untouched by God’s forgetfulness.”

He abided no servants while he spoke to his artists.  We were alone in his gallery.  All I could hear was his dry voice, and the pendulous rush-and-retreat of the sea.  We sipped wine— rare vintage, naturally—and he escorted me through his collection, praising some, faulting others, but discrediting none more than my own.

“You must improve much before you gain my true respect,” he told me.  “Make living flesh from stone.  Only the artist that can transcribe every imperfection perfectly may be esteemed in my judgement.”

We arrived, by now, at my statue.  It was the largest I had ever sculpted, and it towered above us.

“Your feathers are wanting,” he said, referencing the eagle clutching at Ganymede’s hips.  “You must make them light and airy.  They must appear as if they can flap and lift with the wind, rising in defiance of their heavy stone.  Do not meant lift and rise despite their clay mold?  So must you transpose your art that it may endeavor Sublimity in its realizations.”

I took no offense.  How could I?  He had paid me handsomely. Moreover, he belittled works that were, to my eyes, superior in every way to my own.

I surveyed all of his sculptures as we walked and talked and sipped wine.  He did not discriminate of size or subject, just the skill of rendition.  There were nudes, of course—men and women of splendid proportions realized by a meticulous craft, their bodies such as would tempt the Olympians down from their mountain in amorous haste—and there were robed figures, their stone cloth rendered so smoothly that the eye should have doubted the hand’s report.  There were animals, too, from powerful tigers to delicately limbed birds, flamingoes and herons and a spoonbill preening itself.  There were busts of famous people, and of nameless models.  These, too, ranged wildly in every respect except the skill required to render them.  Witnessing so many talents, my pride crumbled even as my Ganymede soared in immodest grandeur.

I noticed, though, that Padre possessed no old works from masters past.  This, he confided to me, was quite a matter of intention rather than means.

“The old masters were too polluted by Greek ideals,” he said.  “Donatello and Michelangelo.  I would not offer a soured wine for either of their ‘masterpieces’.  Realism is what matters.  Capturing life, exactly, is what matters to me.”

There were sculptures certainly never to be confused with Greek ideals.  A fat whore was rendered in all her ugly minutiae, her pock-marked face seemingly ready to offer herself for a pocketful of Euros.  Other models were less than ideal, also, yet more esteemed within his collection, dominating the fore of his gallery by that sighing sea.

And then we came to a sculpture which no human hand or eye or discipline could produce.  This, I swear without caveat.  It was beautiful, odd, and terrifying.  Seeing the look on my face, Padre leered.

“Exquisite, isn’t he?  Unequaled, too, I promise you.  And the cost?  A human soul could fetch as much.”

It was a man staring in perplexity, bordering on horror.  He was nude, but his body was neither idealized or abstracted.  It was wholly realistic.  Too realistic.  More than any of the rest, this sculpture of a pudgy middle-aged man made me feel keenly the crudity in my own abilities.

“Who made this?” was all I could mutter.

“A woman I found in Crete,” he said, slightly amused.  “She has a gift…or a curse…depending on how you look at such things.”

“It must have taken years for her just to refine the skin,” I said, passing my eye over every smooth surface and creased wrinkle.  “The veins are extraordinary.  Please tell me how long this took.”

“She accomplished this in….what is the American saying? ‘In a flash’?  Yes.  That is how long it took.”

I did not understand his sense of humor, but he seemed amused by some private joke.

“Enough, my son,” he said.  “Now we will discuss your next work you will do for me.”

“You will be my patron?” I said, delighted— and overwhelmed—by the prospect.

“If you prove yourself more capable than your previous effort.”

Again, I took no umbrage in his condescension.  Rather, I took his money and promised to deliver something as profoundly realistic as anything in his gallery.  Anything in his gallery, excepting the nude man that this mysterious woman made “in a flash”.  Even as elated and inspired as I was, I entertained no delusions of surpassing such a piece, nor ever truly equaling it.

 

***

 

Fourteen frenzied months later I sent photographs to Padre’s agent.  He rejected my work outright.  I was upset.  I was at a loss.  After all, the piece was superior to my Ganymede piece.  The only word I received in answer was “Artificial”.  I had labored upon it with my daemon undiverted.  How could it not belong among his gallery?  I spent four more months refining it, smoothing the skin and softening the flesh of Icarus until he might well have melted alongside his wings.  Again I sent photos from my studio.  This time I received a longer letter— one sentence—and a single photo.

“Improving,” the letter read, “but nowhere near as good as this.”

The photo enclosed in the envelope was not, as is often said, “worth a thousand words”.  It was ineffable.  The subject matter was unremarkable—a nude woman, again with the same quizzical fear upon her face—but the execution!  I despaired that I should ever approach such mastery.

Still, I was yet determined to prove my own meager powers, if only above all others except this mystery mistress of chisel and hammer.

 

***

 

When next I heard word from Padre, he informed me— in his antiquated longhand—that he wished for my presence on his island.  This was an abrupt honor, and I wondered if he desired my statue.  He did not, for the same letter informed me that he would only command an afternoon of my presence, after which I would be returned to the mainland and expected to resume my work.  Frustrated, but also curious, I met one of his servants at a port, just before sunrise, and was taken to his island forthwith.

Watching the waves part from the boat put me in a mind of Ancient Greece: of Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and the beautiful Siren call of Greek tragedy.  Could I ever aspire to render from marble the white froth that turned over and collapsed in upon itself?  Could I ever capture the liquidity of life, of flowing forms, in the defiant marble that stubbornly stood in its myriad forms amongst perpetuity?  How might I capture the sands of the beach in unyielding stone?  How might I dare to capture Cronos himself in static manifestations?  Meditations in marble were things of sweat and tears and curses and sighs.  The marble sculpted the sculptor as much as the sculptor revealed the figure within the marble.

A wise artist never endeavors to understand the business of his patrons, particularly those like Antonio Petras.  That said, I had my suspicions.  Banking.  Drugs.  Human trafficking.  Religion, which concerned all the previous and more, no doubt.  To see his island palace was to see but a fraction of his wealth and power.  It was to see a favored nook in the large expanse of affluence and influence that he wielded around the world.

And yet, in the end, such things amounted to nothing.

Arriving upon the island, I was taken again to Padre’s gallery whereupon I was given wine and instructed to wait at the leisure of my patron.  He arrived shortly after, walking more slowly than before, his body betraying the enfeebling effects of age even while bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.

“I do not know if I should appreciate your obedience,” he said, wryly.  “Had you been more preoccupied with refining your statue you might have disregarded the summons and remained behind to concentrate on excelling among my gallery here.”

I disregarded the insult, knowing that men of his position and power could afford to insult the gods themselves.  For all his power, however, there was no concealing the infirmity of his body, nor the anguished grimace upon his withered face.

He suddenly called out to a servant.  “Bring me the mirror!”

Motioning me to follow him, we left his columned art gallery and came to the verandah that faced the sea.  The mosaic tiles glittered in the sun.  He went to a bench shaded beneath a rotunda of columns with a dome.  Astride the dome lounged a mermaid of some kind, but Padre suffered her to lounge there headless.  It seemed a strange choice for a man with so much wealth.  He could have easily procured something less damaged for his fine palace.

Sitting down, Padre gestured that I join him.  I did so.  It was an idyllic vista, the expanse of shore and sea spreading out beyond the shade of the dome like the cradle of the gods.

“Such a pity, the Pieta,” he said absently.  “The proportions are cartoonish.  Mary is a Philistine giant, whereas her son is but a doll crumpled in her colossal lap.”

I deferred to his opinion, naturally.

“Yet, the Pieta will last and last,” he said.  “Such are the injustices of this world.  Unfair and innumerable.”

Again, I deferred to his opinion.  Suddenly, a great paroxysm betook him to sit up straight, as if struck with lightning, or, as it were, some zealous monomania.

“Cronos is the most high God,” Padre said.  “And I intend to defy him.  I intend that you defy him.  Defy him and all of the gods.  I had chosen you because you are yet young, and ripening with potential.  But I am overripe, and running out of time.  Cronos seeks to detain me, and unmake me, before I may exact my defiance.  Even now his pendulous scythe seeks me, slicing away at my bones and my nerves and my mind.  I hear it, like the ticking of the clock, or the ebb and flow of the sea.  He devours all his children, you know?  Whether god or human, he devours us all.  And you must keep his gluttonous mouth from me.  As a stone I shall defy him, as did Zeus his father.”

“I am honored, Padre,” I said.

He dismissed such obsequiousness with an impatient wave of his hand.

“I have sufficient capital for as many such sculptures, and sculptors, as I desire,” he said.  “All have attempted my dream.  All have failed.  Save for her, of course.  She works expediently.  She works…unnaturally.”

He spoke as if he had said a joke, smiling through his pain.  What the joke was, I did not understand.

“Then why hire any other artist?” I said, feeling irritated.  “Why not let this…this…Protean woman people your gallery with all the statues that you desire?”

He smiled mirthlessly; that wry smile that seemed embittered despite all outward appearance of joy.  Like a colorful fruit with an alluring rind, sour to its pulpy core.

“Because I push human limitations,” he said.  “Why shouldn’t we equal the powers of the gods?  I want another artist to succeed as she has done.  Not with so much ease, naturally, but with perseverance and discipline, as is the needful habit of Man.  Then I should hire such a man, or woman, to sculpt my own likeness.  And to them I would give all my riches, just for such a grand satisfaction.”

“All of your riches?” I said, disbelieving him.

“This island,” he said, “is but a small corner of my empire.  And you should have it all, should you accomplish such a feat.  Pygmalion may have done such a thing once, though that conniving goddess interfered from pure vanity to stamp her own miracles upon his work.  I should like my present flesh rendered steadfast in ageless stone.”  He coughed into a trembling, mottled fist.  He smiled sardonically through the pain.  “Frailties and all.”

Presently a servant girl in a himation arrived, her black hair curling like an Ionic capital.  One breast was bare.  She handed a small, circular shield to Padre.  It was rimmed with copper and in its center was a mirror.  Its glass was as immaculate and clear as air itself.

“This is my aegis,” Padre said.  “Though it has not always belonged to me.”  He held it up, with some effort, and looked into it, grimly.  A moment later, he handed it to me.  “Look into the glass and tell me what you see.”

I took the mirrored shield in both hands and gazed into its looking-glass.  What I saw was a truer reflection of myself than any other mirror had hitherto given.  It revealed as much as reflected, its soul-gazing glass more genuine than what eyes might see unaided.  The mirror was scrutiny itself; it concentrated the essence of the gazer and revealed what they dare not seek to know of themselves.

Trembling, I almost dropped the aegis.  So unsettled was I that I did not notice the dry, dusty chuckling of the old man beside me until he took the mirror from me.

“The aegis has that effect on men,” he said, “and women, too.”

“I thought…I thought it was supposed to have a gorgon’s head in the center,” I said after collecting myself.

“And so it does,” he said.  “Every gorgon is revealed when someone peers into its glass.  It was made by the gods, you know.  Athena herself, supposedly.  That is why it does not age.  That is why it is untarnished after so many millennia.”

He motioned for a servant, and the dark-haired woman returned, taking away the aegis.  Padre regarded me with one of his knowing looks of wry amusement.

“Which would you prefer, a painting of yourself or a photograph?”

“A painting,” I said, “if the painter be worthy of the oils used.”

“And why is that?  Is it because of the labor rendered to us by another human being?  Is it the skill?  The interpretive talent?  Or is it the sacrifice of the venture?  Is it the Time involved in capturing your likeness and bringing it to life on lifeless canvas?”

“All of those reasons,” I said.  “A deft hand and a deft eye are invaluable.  Why not indulge one’s vanity”

“And yet you cannot, as they say, ‘take it with you’ when you die.  So who is the painting really for?”

“For my posthumous pride,” I said.  “For the ages.”

“Perhaps,” he said.  “Vanity, in its ultimate form, is the desire to live forever, isn’t it?  Or at least to be remembered forever.  But that is not the reason I seek a worthy visionary to reproduce me in stone.  No, it is war.  It is revenge.  Revenge against Cronos and his insatiable appetite.  I entertain no delusions as to live forever.  I am not yet senile enough in my old age to believe fallacious half-hopes.  I only want to avenge myself.  And, by extension, humanity.  That is my intention.  That is the raison d’être.”

He became silent.  Pensive.  Gloomy.  Like a storm distant at sea, he brooded, not yet breaking toward the mainland.

“Painting was changed by the advent of photography,” he said quietly.  “Only a meager handful may paint so realistically that their brush strokes are indistinguishable from a photograph, and even that is discernible at nearer distances.  Conversely, anyone with hands may take a photograph.  Therein between lays a vast gap of deficiency.”

“It is good that I am a sculptor, then,” I said, lightly.

Upon his weathered, withered face was a galvanized intensity that struck dead like a thunderbolt all the flippancy I formerly felt.

“Unless there was a thing to take photos in 3-dimensional space.  Yes?  Unless there could be rendered, in a moment— as if an insight drawn out directly from the sculptor’s mind—the very idea that had been buried in thought as thick as granite rock.”

I frowned.  I knew of computer programs with which Hollywood men might take photographs and feed them into a computer, the computer thereafter fabricating a 3D model with algorithms and such technobabble to generate a digital model from the various photos.  They could even— from what my limited knowledge provided on the subject—use large machines to “print out” 3D sculptures of the model recorded in vertices and polygons and the like.  But that was not the same as carving out of marble a sculpture.  Perhaps they might someday undertake to use a computer to render from marble a sculpture such as Michelangelo could praise, but it would not be the same as a sculpture born with careful hands and keen eyes and the labors of a soul possessed.

Then again, was that not the very same argument made on behalf of painters in the past when confronted with the fiend of photography?

Padre suddenly raised his hand above his head, snapping his fingers aloft.  A servant came hurrying over, nearly tripping over his white robe.  With outstretched arms he held in his hands a leather satchel which, by his manner and his fearful expression, might well have contained explosives ready to detonate at any moment.  He very gently handed this satchel to Padre, then hurried away.

Padre cradled the satchel in his arms, letting it rest on his lap.  The satchel moved as it lay there, a sibilance sounding suggestively from within.  It was as if angry coils slithered about, tangled inchoately in an inextricable knot.

“You hear them?” he asked.  “In the beginning, before Cronos and his ilk, there was merely Ophion and the dancing maiden on the primordial waters.  Time did not exist. Neither life nor death existed.  Only a moment existed, eternally. A moment existed, and that was all, and that moment was Maiden and Ophion copulating upon the waters of Chaos.  What is Chaos but timelessness?  It is the calming of the waters.  The ceasing of the waves.  Lest we forget, when Cronos was castrated by his own scythe his genitals fell among the waters, causing waves to crash against the sands of Time.”

 

As I left that day, I glanced back again at the great palace beckoning to me; taunting me with its grandeur.  Seeing again the domed rotunda of columns, I scrutinized the headless mermaid upon the dome.  In the bright Mediterranean sun I saw that it was no fishtail with which she luxuriated, nor was the repose with which she reclined one of ease. Her tail spiraled in serpentine coils.  Her posture was of defeat and death.

 

***

 

I had not heard from Padre or his servants in some time.  Months passed.  I feared he might have lost patience with me, or worse, confidence, and so presumed to send a letter.  I was informed, at the passage of a fortnight, that Padre had suffered a fall and was now confined to a wheelchair, recuperating however he could.  The letter did not indulge much else for elaboration.  All that was said was that I would be contacted when Padre was ready to receive my new work.  Furthermore, I was informed to improve upon it in the meantime.  This I did resentfully, for I thought it already the most eminent of my works.  Simultaneously, I also acknowledged that while it very well would have been gladly displayed in the Louvre, it was yet worthy of a place amongst the forefront statues of Padre’s exclusive gallery.

And so, unsure whether my patron would live to see what I had achieved for him, I threw myself into meticulous refinement of my Icarus piece.  Begrudgingly, I had to admit that I had, in time, vastly improved the feathers and the overall realism of the work.  To make stone so airy and soft was my obsession for a time and I do not believe I oversell myself by stating that aspiration was equally met by talent.

It was the following year that I received a letter from Padre’s servants.  They had arranged that my work would be shipped to the island within a month’s time.  This was highly unexpected and so I prepared for the date in a nervous hustle.  When the time came, I went with the servants, escorting my piece from studio to port to island.  I was given a room in the palace while the piece was moved into the gallery.  Padre did not present himself and I suspected that he may not have been on the island.  This suspicion was fed by a week of isolation on the island.  Meals were made for me, and I was given clothes— white robes like the rest of the island’s inhabitants—and I lived in a paradisaical state of luxury.  I enjoyed long walks on the beach, swimming in the sea, and the satisfaction of two years’ work.  I shunned the gallery for fear of growing doubts in my mind.   Already they gnawed at me and the need to know Padre’s opinion on my magnum opus grew in my mind like restless insects.

Then one day, while out on a walk, I was summoned to the gallery.  While I waited I stared out through the colonnade, toward the sea, ignoring the other statues in the gallery.  I did not even wish to look at my own work.

A servant wheeled Padre beside me as we traversed his gallery.  He did not say anything. He only pointed toward my statue, and so we went.  We came to my magnum opus and he sent the servant away.  He stared at the piece, and I stared at him.  He was frailer now, shrunken in upon himself.  Were it not for the wheelchair holding him, I would have thought he would crumble to dust at that very moment.  His scraggly white beard had thinned.  His sallow cheeks sagged.  However, the same fiery light of intelligence blazed within the shadowy sockets.

At first Padre seemed pleased— eager, even, to devour with his eyes the work I had accomplished.  But the longer he surveyed the wings the more quickly did the luster of his hopeful gaze fade into jaded dimness.  The more he scrutinized the smooth flesh, the less pleased he was with the want of wrinkles.

“It is a fair piece,” he said flatly.  “But it yet aspires beyond its reach.”

“I am sorry,” I said, too much in shock to mutter anything else.

He shook his head.  “No, it is I who am sorry.  Had I another ten years you might achieve the skill I require.  There is so much potential in you, and that was why I chose you.  So young and so much potential.  But not enough time.  He taunts me even now, you see?  Cronos will have the last laugh after all.”

“But what of your woman?” I said, trying not to sound bitter.  “What of her superior skills?  Why even bother with me if you have someone at your disposal who could achieve more and with lesser effort?”

“She…she is a last recourse,” Padre said.  “Her talent is too…dreadful to surrender to as of now.  Even in my crippled condition I am not so desperate for such an…irreversible option.”

He groaned and struck his fists against the wheelchair.  It was the most explicit expression of frustration, or any emotion, I had seen him allow himself.

“I am but crumbling clay when I should be timeless marble!  Had I only more time!”

The intense light in his eyes suddenly extinguished, like blown-out candles in the dark wells of his sockets, and his face grew lax as melted wax.  I feared he was having a stroke and made ready to fetch for his servants.  But it was a momentary disintegration and he soon gathered up himself into a grim sneer, the baleful light returning to his eyes.

“What now, little one?” he mumbled.  “Aspire still?  What hope have you?  You, who are as a maggot gnawing at the heel of the gods as they press you down into the filth of your birthplace?”

I did not know if such scorn was for me, or if it was rather for himself.  He said no more, except to summon his servants to have me boated off his island.

 

***

 

I did not hear word from Padre or his servants again.  I should have let such matters go, knowing I had failed to achieve what he had desired I achieve, but my pride ached.  And it was an angry ache; an ache of frustration and rage, of disappointment and resentment and action.  I restrained myself for a time, but the ache grew too severe, resounding awfully, and so spurred me to at last dare Padre’s wrath.

I rented a boat and sailed on my own to Padre’s island.  It was an insolent, presumptuous impulse, and I should have paid for it with my life.  Yet I did not.  Coming to the island, I found it abandoned.  There were no servants.  No signs of life.  No one lived there or stirred within that paradise.  It was as the tomb of a Minoan king, silenced with forgetful dust.

I did not inspect Padre’s gallery until after I had checked the various rooms and quarters for guests and servants.  Perhaps I felt that entering the gallery unaccompanied, and uninvited, was too intrusive.  Perhaps it was a creeping feeling of surreal fear that restrained me from entering it.  Whatever the reason, I soon found I had nowhere else to investigate.  So I entered that columned forum while the waves of the Mediterranean crashed amongst the silence.

No life stirred there.  The many statues remained inert, no matter how lifelike their visages and their manner of bearing.  My Icarus fell for eternity near the middle of the expansive forum, and while this was a more enviable position than my Ganymede, I yet felt bitterness at its middling placement.

I saw a leather satchel upon the tiled floor.  Recalling it from a previous visit, I wondered at its careless disposal.  Nearing it, I found it open and empty.  A brief thought of Pandora’s opened box— or amphora— flitted through my mind, though I knew such a fancy ridiculously born of my fear.

I heard rustling amongst the farthest shadows, near the back of the gallery.

“Padre?” I said.

Padre was pale, his countenance one of fearful confusion.  I asked him what was the matter.  He did not answer and I feared he had finally suffered a stroke in his old age.  As I approached him I realized my error.

It was not Padre, but a statue such as I could never have hoped to equal.  He stood half in shadows, looking into the deeper shadows of the corner of his gallery, where the sun did but faintly touch with its light.  Nothing sounded within that tomblike silence of his gallery except the waves throwing themselves to and fro.  And something else.  A sibilant sound emerged, nearer to me than the waves.  The hissing of many tongues, and the groaning of a woman.

The sun was setting and the gallery darkened.  I had an uncanny feeling that eyes were watching me. Pleading eyes frozen forever in place.  As I turned to leave I heard a muffled moan.  I hesitated only a moment, then fled from that place, running blindly through the gallery.  By the time the tides splashed my feet I was bruised and bloodied from my blind flight.  I went to my boat and left as quickly as I could.  I never returned to that island.

 

He still remains there, a part of his gallery.  Protected from Cronos, and entrapped by Cronos.  Forever, gazing among the waves breaking leisurely against the sands of Time.

The Highwayman

The stagecoach had been overturned on its side, laying like a dead beast with its gut split open at the door. The driver lay dead, next to the yet-dying horses. Hopping down from his own horse, the Highwayman approached the dying horses on foot, noting the whinnying and the spittle on their mottled lips. Their legs had been broken from the crash, and maybe even their backs. He lowered the muzzle of his revolver to one horse’s head, just above the bulging eye. The gunshot cracked the sky, echoing up through the ravine. That sandy depression was strewn with the garments and suitcases that had been bucked and battered in the chase and the ensuant crash. The horse was silenced at once. He did the same for the other horse, and the ravine was a dead quiet thereafter.
“Ain’t nothin’ I hate more than creatures sufferin’,” the Highwayman said. His eyes were shaded by his black cowboy hat, eclipsing the hot Nevada sun, yet the perpetual squint never left his gaze. As a consequence, the Highwayman always appeared angry, or in pain, his dark eyebrows like black wisps of fire beneath his crinkled brow.
He turned his attention, now, to the dusty cab. Its single occupant had not yet emerged. So, taking both revolvers from their holsters, the Highwayman approached the cab slowly, guns raised. He should have known he had nothing to fear, for his horse was absently grazing on some patchy tufts of grass. And the piebald never relaxed so much when there was danger lurking nearby. She had an instinct for such things.
Looking over the stagecoach, and peering over the sights of his revolver, the Highwayman saw a young woman crumpled in among the cab like a baby in its broken crib. She was a fair-haired comely little thing in a blue dress, flecked here and there with blood. A golden cross lay upon her chest, the latter of which rose and fell with her breath. So she was still alive; only scraped and bruised. He put the revolver to her gashed forehead and readied to pull the trigger.
Her eyes flashed open, full of terror. He withdrew his gun.
“Get yourself on up outta’ there,” he told her.
The woman glanced around, her eyes scuttling every which way as if they meant to flee from their sockets. Otherwise, she did not move.
“Come on, now,” the Highwayman said, not unkindly. “Get yourself out.”
Grimacing, the young woman tried to rise, and then gasped in pain.
“I believe my arm is broken,” she said. Her voice was high, and not only from the pain. Had she been a singer, she would have been tenor. It was more a girl’s voice than the voice of a woman more mature in worldly matters.
“All right then,” the Highwayman said.
He holstered his revolvers, then climbed atop the stagecoach, standing with his boots to either side of the open door, stooping down to offer her his hand. She took his leather glove with a blue satin glove. He groaned, and she winced and gasped, but gradually he pulled her to her feet within the toppled compartment. He then lifted her out, carrying her as a groom would his bride across the threshold. He set her under a bristlecone pine tree, the twisted specimen offering some shade with its smoky clouds of green needles. He then pillaged the body of the coachman and gathered up whatever things he thought worth saving from the disarrayed contents of the young woman’s suitcases. There were silken gowns and makeup bottles and various jewelry of silver and gems. When he returned to her, he demanded her earrings and the coins in her purse. He did not take the golden cross hanging from her neck.
Meanwhile, she stared at him hatefully with her blue eyes.
“You’ve killed a good man,” she said.
“You’ve a city accent,” he returned. “New England, I’ll bet.”
“You’ve killed a good man and robbed a woman who has never harmed you,” she said.
“God giveth and taketh away,” he said, crouching down in the shade next to her. She shifted uncomfortably, and winced when she attempted to lean on her arm. He shook his head.
“It ain’t broken,” he said. “You just banged it good.”
The young woman looked away, toward the piebald. The Highwayman followed her gaze, and snorted, or laughed, or both.
“You were going to kill me,” she said, warily. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you were sufferin’,” he said. “Like ‘em poor creatures over there.” He tipped his head toward the dead horses.
“Suffering is a part of life,” she said, absently clasping her cross. “But you seek it out for others. This is not right, sir.” She scowled at him beneath her crumpled bonnet. “This is not becoming of a Christian!”
“Well then,” he said, standing. “That’s how it oughta’ be.”
He went to his horse and took a sack from aside the saddle, returning to the shade of the bristlecone. It was well into the evening, and the shade was stretching across the ravine like a dark hand.
Opening the sack, the Highwayman began to stuff all of the woman’s belongings into its gaping burlap mouth. When he had finished, he tied the sack tightly with twine and set it beside the twisted trunk of the tree.
“Are you now satisfied, sir?” the young woman asked bitterly.
The Highwayman regarded her now silently, his eyes dead in the shade of his leather-brimmed hat. He slipped his rifle off his back, doffed his leather duster, and then took off his holstered revolvers. Putting them aside, he approached the woman as she shrank against the tree.
“What do you want?” she gasped, her blue eyes agog with terror.
He said nothing, but knelt down in front of her. She pressed herself against the tree, turning her face away and trembling, holding her one good arm out against his chest. His denim shirt was unbuttoned to the navel.
“Are you not a Christian man?” she wept. Her arm bent and buckled beneath his urgent weight.
He paused, staring at her cross grimly.
“What good would that be?” he asked. “It ain’t of any good to you, is it? Not now. Not ever. I could take you as I want and nobody’d do anything to stop me. How’s it any good, then?”
She began to sob. “God will protect my soul, if nothing else.”
The Highwayman snorted in contempt, then sat down beside her, leaning against the tree.
“He’s a helluva devil, ain’t he?” he said. “Making us the way we are and then blaming us for it.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What do you mean?” she said between sobs.
“The Engineer,” he said. “That’s what he is, ain’t he? I mean, when you got yourself a locomotive and it runs off the tracks, you could blame the tracks or you could blame the workers in the locomotive. But only sometimes. Sometimes there’s something wrong with the locomotive itself. Wrong from the get-go. Innate’s the word. And then you gotta’ wonder why nobody’s blamin’ the Engineer. He’s the one that designed the locomotive. And sometimes the only thing that goes wrong started long before the train was ever put to tracks.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Course you don’t,” he said, appraising her balefully. “You never stopped to think none about it. Like this trip of yours through hostile territory. Somebody told you everything would be just fine, and then it weren’t, and now you can’t believe that it’s gone all awry on you.” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “But things have been goin’ wrong since forever.”
“You are speaking like a soul willfully damned,” she said. She traded her tears for anger. “And I bet you blame God for everything wrong in your life. But look at you! You kill innocent men and threaten innocent women! Steal and kill and your bounty is an eternity in the Lake of Fire!”
Again, the Highwayman snorted, or laughed, or both. It was a contemptuous sound. He took off his hat, revealing hair that was as black as an Apache’s.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about you sheep,” he said. “You’re always blind to the knife that’s comin’ for you. That’s how you die happy. It’s the only way you can die happy. Bein’ blind. Me, I can see. I see it all.”
His eyes squinted more tightly, as if he was suffering a great hatred, or pain.
“I had me a brother long ago. Fifteen years dead now, I think. Back then, when Daniel was alive, he was like you, Ma’am. Believed in God and Angels and Devils and Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. He went to church every Sunday, prayed in the morning and at night before bed, and never spoke a cross word against nobody, no matter how much they might of deserved it. And daddy, well he deserved a cross word or two. Hell, I knocked some of his teeth out before I left home forever. He was a mean ol’ drunk and he’d beat us something fierce when he was divin’ in the bottle. But Daniel only ever prayed for daddy’s soul, and mine, and momma’s, whose death came shortly after Daniel’s birth. Anyhow, Daniel’d get these fits sometimes. Like the Holy Spirit ragin’ through him. Like a Holy Roller, you know? Just dropped to the floor and would shake all over as if struck by lightning. He liked to think it was God humblin’ him, or givin’ him visions, or whatever which way he liked to fancy it. Me, I thought it was something wrong in his brains. He was a good boy, and a kind boy, but he wasn’t the smartest of boys. Met a man who was, by all accounts, a decent man till he took a donkey’s hoof to the head. Afterwards he was a cruel sonnabitch. The brains are the key, I think, and we don’t really have no say-so in how they’re made. That’s up to the Engineer, see?”
He nodded at his own words when she refused to, then placed his hat atop his head again.
“Well, one day Daniel was out mindin’ the chickens, just like he was supposed to. Daddy and I was digging a hole for a new shitter. Pardon my language, ma’am, but that’s what we was doin’. What happened was Daniel was doin’ as he should and the next thing you know he went all limp and fell down with one of his fits. It happened once a week, mind, so it shouldn’t have been such a bother, but the problem was when he fell down, shakin’ and talkin’ in tongues, he struck his head on a rock. Now, this was through no fault of his own. The Engineer had seen it fit to give him a jolt, and that jolt did him in. He weren’t the same after that. He was lazy, and tired all the time, and was downright mean. Like he was drunk, though he never drank nothin’. Daddy got tired of it quick, bein’ now more alike than ever they was, and so daddy beat the piss out of Daniel. I beat the piss out of daddy, then took off with Daniel, lookin’ for a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with ‘im. But I was told was I already suspected. Daniel was gone. Only the shade remained, cold and without substance. And so I ended his sufferin’, too. Sent that shade on ward into whatever dawn might await it.”
The Highwayman was silent now, staring inwardly at some far-flung shadows that the young woman could not see except in the black pupils of his eyes.
“But the Lord gave us Free Will,” she said. “He let’s us choose for ourselves if we are Good or Evil.”
“Did you not hear a damn word I just said?” he snapped. “Daniel never got to choose nothin’! Got knocked over because of something wrong in his head, and then knocked his head worse than before. He didn’t choose none of ‘em things!” He struck at the tree with a fist. “No more than this here tree chose to be planted here. The Engineer designs, if he designs at all, and when things go off the tracks…well, you are the mess that’s left over afterwards. And so I thought to myself, ‘Well Hell, what good’s there in bein’ Good if it just gets you dead or worse anyhow?’ None of it matters. Not you. Not me. Nothin’. We ain’t got no say-so in anything.”
“But you can choose to be Good,” the young woman said, pleadingly.
“No more than the train can choose its own tracks,” the Highwayman said. “Or this here tree can choose to go plant itself somewhere else. Ain’t that somethin’, though? To know that you got as much freedom of choice as a goddamn tree?”
“You’re crazy,” she said, clutching at her cross again.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I know it. But knowin’ it don’t change nothin’.”
He began to look at her again in that intense, urgent way, and leaned toward her.
“But what about Christ?!” she shrieked. “He died for our sins! He made a choice to save us!”
He tilted his head to the side, bemused. “Yes, ma’am, I once was a Christian, too. But then I reckoned that the Christian faith was just another one of the Engineer’s jokes. He is a notorious jokester, ya know? Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another. High and low, everything in this world is contrary to the Word. I saw it in his dealings with Daniel, and I see it every day in his dealings with the world. The hare is taken up by the eagle. The mouse is eaten by the snake. Ain’t no mercy or love in it, except if it happens to be a swift death. And even that’s a matter of chance.”
“But you can choose better!” she said, as if to convince herself as much as himself. “You can! Please! Let me go!”
The Highwayman considered her for a long time, his gaze steady and unblinking. At length, he stood up and put on his holstered guns, his duster, and his rifle. He gazed to the West, where the sun was setting, stretching the shadow from the lip of the ravine over the hollow groove below it. He and she were standing in what was once a river, now long dried to dust. The Highwayman grumbled to himself for a few moments, as if thinking aloud,. He then addressed the young woman.
“If you go five miles South from here,” he said, “then you might make it to a small military outpost by sundown. They’ll take good care of you. They’re gentlemen there. Christian men. They’ll see that you get food and will tend to your hurts.”
The young woman stood up with her blue eyes gleaming brighter than the rarest of diamonds. She clasped the golden cross as if in prayer.
“Oh thank you, sir!” she said. “God bless you! I knew you couldn’t be too eager a Devil’s foreman!”
“You can take my horse,” he said, nodding toward the piebald. “She’s a good-tempered thing. She never bucks, even when bullets are flyin’ like gadflies.”
The young woman nodded, then hurried toward the horse. She could not get up in the saddle by herself, her arm too injured. The Highwayman helped her up, then, and then led the horse out of the ravine. Dusk flared beyond the ravine. It was an apocalyptic war of red fire and dark clouds beyond the horizon. The mesas looked like the gigantic headstones of dead gods long forgotten.
“Keep goin’ South,” the Highwayman said. “And you will find your Salvation.”
“Bless you, sir!” she said again, weeping with joy. “Bless you, and may you find peace and Christ in this life!”
He wacked the piebald on her rump, sending her in an easy gallop across the wasteland. After a few moments, he unslung his Remington rifle from his back. He aimed with a slow, aquiline regard at the blue figure on horseback.
“Let her die with hope in her heart,” he muttered. “It’s all any of us can aspire to.”
The aim of his eye, like the aim of his mind, was given to him by his Engineer, and it never hit amiss of its mark. He pulled the trigger and the crackling was as of lightning promising rains for the desert. And it was not a false promise. The Highwayman returned to the bristlecone tree for his burlap sack. He then went to fetch his horse back to him.

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.”