The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

 

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The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

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

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

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

***

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

The Choice

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The Choice

The room was comfortable to the point of discomfort. There were children’s drawings all over the back wall, behind the mahogany desk, and a leather couch against the adjoining wall, and the air conditioning was not too cold for Karen, nor too hot; its neutrality perfectly matched the late Spring weather. There was a large poster of a kitten hanging from a branch, with the words “Hang On” beneath it. The kitten did not look inspirational. It looked desperate. On the opposite wall was a poster of a sunrise over the ocean where pillars of rock jutted up from the waves. The wallpaper within the office was light green with tendrils of flowers racing around one another in arabesques.
Karen did not like the room. It unnerved her, though she did not know why. The smiling face of the older woman behind the desk disturbed her even more. The woman’s voluminous blonde hair and endless smile reminded Karen of a televangelist. The woman wore no crucifix, but the gleam of her eyes ratified a religious conviction that equaled her words.
“We aren’t meant to understand life,” she said, “or God’s plan. Sometimes we just have to be humble and accept our lot with grace.”
“I want an abortion,” Karen said, frankly. “I was raped.”
Most people had the decency to blink their eyes in shock when Karen told them this, or to drop their eyes in deference; especially when they were trying to convince her not to have an abortion. It had been difficult enough to find an abortion clinic in Mississippi, everyone directing her on a wild goose chase, and it seemed like this clinic wasn’t an abortion clinic at all. It was a scam. But the scam was as enigmatic as the woman’s perpetual smile.
“Oh Karen, that is a horrible thing to live through,” the older woman said. “I am so sorry.”
“He was not human,” Karen said, her voice tremulous. No matter how many times she told people this, she could not steady her voice. “He was a monster.”
“I do not doubt it,” the older woman said. “But you cannot blame the child for the sins of the father. The child is an innocent. The father is to blame.”
“Don’t call it a ‘child’,” Karen said. “And don’t call that monster its ‘father’. They’re both monsters. I know it.”
The woman had no badge on her blouse; no name plaque on her door or her impressive desk. Was she an actual doctor? The nurse at the sign-in desk had said that she was, but was she a nurse? No one gave Karen any names, though they gladly took hers, and that bothered her, too. She felt like she had been ambushed, even though she had walked in through the door. She was too conflicted right now to challenge the woman on her credentials, even as the woman said everything that Karen thought an abortion doctor would not say. The woman’s manner, and the whole room, seemed to be arranged to put her at ease, and that made Karen all the more paranoid and uneasy.
“I have dealt with many young women in a similar situation, Karen,” the woman said. “Girls who were given what they thought they did not want. And do you know what all of them did? They kept their babies. It was hard for them…at first. I will not sugarcoat it for you. It is hard having a baby, especially in circumstances as…unfortunate as yours. But they all learned how precious their baby’s life was, and how birthing that baby also birthed a new world alongside that new life. The mothers experienced a rebirth themselves as well. Their selfish youth was transformed into the dazzling selflessness of maternity. Their babies made them stronger. Their babies made them happier. And they did not have to live the rest of their lives regretting that decision.”
“I will regret not having the abortion for the rest of my life,” Karen said, becoming angry and defensive. She felt like the woman was attacking her. She felt like the woman thought she should be grateful for the attack as well. It was like being assaulted all over again, her back on the wet, dirty pavement and a horrible presence pressing down upon her, imbuing her with its malevolent seed. “I don’t want this thing!”
The woman behind the desk kept smiling, but she also drew in a deep, irritated breath through her nose. Karen could hear it in the ensuing silence. She could also hear the ocean, or something like the ocean; the lapping of waves and the splashing of water. But the ocean was over a hundred miles away. Perhaps, she thought, it was just the throbbing of her own blood in her ears. Karen did not feel well.
When the woman spoke again, it was with a steady voice so tightly lipped and exact that it could have chiseled words into stone, or scars into a human heart.
“You can have an abortion well into the third trimester,” the woman said. “So you have plenty of time to make up your mind on this decision. And you should take all of the time you need. A single birth can change the world. This is not a decision to make in haste.”
“But it is my decision,” Karen said meekly, feeling as if she somehow lost an argument.
“It is, Karen,” the woman said, in a tone not unlike her mother’s. “Which is why we want you to make the best decision possible. It may seem like the end of the world for you, but it could be the beginning of a new life for you…and for everyone.”
The woman stood up from her chair and walked around her desk, her hand raised toward Karen. Karen rose, reluctantly, and followed the woman. The woman escorted Karen out of the office and down a soothingly lit hallway lined with more drawings scrawled by children. The two women stopped at a door that opened into a room where a tall nurse waited. An ultra sound machine was against the wall—intimidating with its prophetic powers—and a bed was spread beside it. The nurse directed Karen to lay down, speaking in soft-throated grunts. Whether the nurse was male or female, Karen could not discern. The nurse was barrel-bodied and wore scrubs that masked gender. The nurse was large. Its hair was capped and its mouth was masked.
With some effort, Karen laid down on the bed. This room, too, was covered with drawings done by children. There was a single poster on the wall next to the door. It displayed a mother cradling a baby against her chest, the baby’s forehead nestled into the mother’s neck and her chin. Both were smiling brightly. The room’s one and only window opened onto a playground. She did not recall seeing an elementary school next door; but she had been so focused on this building, as her only hope, that her tunnel vision had ignored everything else. Maybe it was a private elementary school— Catholic perhaps. There wasa statue of a shrouded figure looming near the merry-go-round. The face was obscured, and the hands were open-palmed in a gesture of welcome. There were no children there, but she could see ruts in the sandpit where children had been playing.
Karen saw all of this briefly, then stared resolutely at the ceiling.
“Lift your shirt, Karen,” the older woman said.
Karen’s pregnancy was strongly pronounced beneath her shirt and it took some effort to roll her shirt up and over the swell. Her belly reminded her of an apricot, swollen and round and colored darkly peach-and-red, but it felt like it was rotten within with ruin in its pulp. There were nights when she dreamed of terrible things and, when she awoke, she went downstairs, into her mother’s kitchen, and held a fillet knife, tempted to thrust it into her belly. Her mother told her that pregnancy did strange things to women’s minds, both during and after delivery. She reassured her that the hormones could make a madwoman out of the most austerely prim and proper lady. But Karen doubted her mother ever wanted to take a knife to her while she was in her womb. Then again, Karen was not conceived from rape, either. Neither of her parents ever mentioned that abominable aspect of Karen’s pregnancy.
Sometimes Karen wondered if her parents believed her story. Karen had always been a choir girl, though her saintly behavior was never enough for her father. Most of her friends had lost their virginity in their early teens, whereas Karen had waited and saved herself for her future husband. The ugly irony of her situation made it infinitely worse. And the fact that her parents did not believe her, after so many years of strict celibacy, made her want to scream obscenities at them until her throat bled. But she was still the choir daughter they had wanted, even if they no longer believed she was, and so she kept to that straight and narrow path of silence and obedience.
Except in this: she wanted an abortion. They told her they would disown her if she had the creature in her womb aborted, saying it was a sin against God, but she knew she could not take care of it. She knew it was a monster, just like its disseminator.
The police never caught her rapist. They said they were trying, but they didn’t have many leads. Karen could not help much either, giving scant details. She did not remember much, except inescapable horror. She could not remember anything about him except violation. She remembered walking home from her community college. She was exhausted from working morning shifts at McDonald’s and then going to night classes. She did not see the shadow lurch out of the corner until it was too late. It was as if her mind had gone far away when he grabbed her and dragged her into an alley in the middle of the night. When she thought of it at all, she could only remember something crawling all over her; a terrifying chaos of impressions that clambered over her mind and body and soul, ravaging her unto desolation, bereft of her own humanity.
The nurse rubbed the warm jelly over Karen’s stomach. For some reason, the slime made her panic, briefly, as if it reminded her of something she did not want to remember. But this passed. The nurse pressed the transducer against Karen’s belly, and the ultra sound screen bloomed with an image.
“There’s your baby, Karen!” the older woman said excitedly. She smiled widely, her teeth bright white and gleaming as fulgurously as her eyes. She leaned over, then, and spoke to Karen’s stomach while pointing at the ultra sound screen. “Say hello to mommy! Say, ‘I love you, mommy!’”
As disturbed as Karen felt about the woman’s words and behavior, she was more disturbed by the image on the ultra sound screen. It was not what she could see that disturbed her, but what she could not see. She saw the white and black pixels all churned together in the basic outline of her womb, but she could not see the baby.
Fetus, she told herself. Not baby.
She stared at it for some time, unable to make heads or tails of it. Literally, she could not discern in its anatomy what was the tail and what was the head. The fetus looked wrong. It did not register in human shape, but was an amorphous thing resistant to a prominent morphological totality.
“It is going to be a beautiful child!” the woman exclaimed, still grinning like a holy roller having seen the face of God.
“It doesn’t look like a fetus at all,” Karen said. She tried to sit up, but the sexless nurse kept the transducer pressed hard into her belly.
“I don’t want to look at it!” Karen said, feeling highly alarmed. “It…it’s not a child! It’s a monster! Just like…just like the monster that forced it inside me!”
Karen pushed the nurse’s hand away—and the painfully probing phallic transducer. She stood up from the bed as quickly, almost tottering over with the unwieldy weight of her womb, and then hurried out of the room, down the hallway. She stopped halfway down the hall, her eye alighting on something her brain had ignored before. The children’s drawings on the wall. She stared at them for several seconds, and realized she could not see any of the drawings. She knew they were all drawings drawn by children, but their details were formless in her head; erased upon sight. Recognition of what they were— their essential meaning—succeeded, but recognition of the particular features failed. It was all crawling chaos in her mind. She told herself that the stress was upsetting her faculties. She told herself she was having a mental breakdown. Sobbing, she fled out of the clinic and went home, wanting to lay down and sleep the day, and the world, away.

The woman returned to her office. A man waited there, wearing unremarkable clothes that moved at unnatural places, even as he stood perfectly still. His outline looked human, but there was something amiss in his features. His face was as a mask in its eyes and mouth and nose, and his bearing was unnaturally stiff, as if his limbs were not made to maintain an upright position.
“She is too far along for an abortion,” the woman said. “The child will be brought to full term, just like the others.”
The man said something with his tongue, but it was not intelligible English, or any other language. It sounded more like the splashing of ropey things dragging along a shoreline’s tides.
“Yes, Master,” she said. “Your children will be glorious to behold before the end. How sad that these ungrateful vessels should be granted the honor of bearing them for you.”
The creature’s voice rolled and splashed like the waves.
The woman’s smile finally ceased, and her whole body shuddered. She was glad she was beyond her prime; beyond her breeding years. She was glad she was infertile and would never have to make that choice herself. She was glad that she had the religious conviction to hate the women that came in here, week after week, otherwise she might have felt sorry for them. And how would that have pleased her lord, Nyarlathotep?

Another Lovecraftian Story

Priceless

My Jag growls as I shift it up-gear, the lights of the Big Apple splattering across the windshield like the biggest-assed fireflies you’ve ever seen. I down-shift and spin the wheel, hitting the right turn with a slide that quickens my paper-pusher heart just enough to give me my signature wheeling-and-dealing gleam in the eye. I want that gleam, and it’s got to be as bright as it can be. It’s my genie-gleam; the spark of genius that has made me one of the most powerful hedge-fund magicians in the world. People see that gleam and they say, “This bastard knows how to pull a golden rabbit out of the hat”, and then I do it for them, only I’m pulling it out of their back-pocket because they’re too stupid to know which end a hat goes on. No surprise, really. My clientele always have their heads up their asses.
I slam the brakes and pull into the back-street, behind a large warehouse, and park next to the one and only door in and out of that giant building. The Jag purrs obediently, patiently, in the gloomy shadows, and I kill it with a twist of the wrist. Pocketing my keys, I pull down the visor and flip the interior light so I can see myself in the mirror. The suave, handsome bastard staring at me has slicked-back black hair and movie-star looks, a tan from last week’s trip to the Caribbean Islands and a laser-smooth shave without one black pore betraying that caramel skin. I’d marry me if I wasn’t such a philanderer. With the light on, I got a halo, and I have to crack an ironic smile at that sight.
I adjust the collar on my business suit, straighten my tie, and then flip the visor up, turn off my halo, and get out. Mr. Between is already waiting outside the door, backlit by a single bulb overhead. He is a smallish man in a suit not unlike a mortician’s. He has a black mustachio and thinning hair on his burnt-umber pate.
“Hola, Senor,” Mr. Between says in his heavy Spanish accent. “Bueno noche.”
“A decent night,” I say, never giving more enthusiasm than what’s needed.
“Payment?” he says.
I hook a thumb behind me toward the Jag. “Por supuesto.”
“Excelente.”
He opens the door for me and I step inside the windowless warehouse. It looks bigger inside, its girder-ribs spaced expansively apart. The cinderblock walls are bleached by the harsh fluorescent lights, giving the lofty heights a starkly airy look. It is like an acid bath of light, eating away every shadow. There is an icy draft in the building, too, and I am glad I am wearing my best Armani suit. I’d hate to have goosebumps while I’m taking care of business. Nothing worse than some physical observation being misconstrued for weakness or fear. Even the semblance of fear is deadly in the concrete jungle. I got to growl on my prowl, just like my Jag outside. Fire every piston flaming hot while showcasing a smooth, cool exterior. Waxed and maxed, I like to say.
Mr. Between closes the door and then gestures for me to follow him.
“Aqui, por favor,” he says.
There isn’t anything in the whole wide-open interior of the warehouse except a cinder-block building with a flat roof. A building within a building; a box within a box. To one side is a regular door. On the other side there is a garage door. It is hard to believe that one of the most famous portrait artists in the world lives here. It seems so neat and desolate a place for a “creative type”. I remember dating a sculptor in college and how her place was a fucking explosion of gaudy abstract art, magazine cut-outs, Punk-girl clothes, and pretentious books that only jobless would-be philosophers would read. Or pretend to read. Then again, it isn’t like I should expect a famous painter like Xenia Agnes to live in a dump like this. This is probably just her studio. I bet her house is a fucking pig sty. I’d bet my magic money wand on it.
If you’ve never heard of Xenia Agnes, it’s because you don’t make enough money to have heard of her. Same goes for me. If you don’t know me it’s because you can’t afford the acquaintance. That’s life. You’re either a winner or a loser. The only other alternative is that you are the winningest winner among winnners, and that’s who I am. Alpha apex among the alphas.
Mr. Between opens the door and beckons me inside the cinder-block building. Inside I am surprised to find that the walls are hung with dark satin sheets and that there are spotlights hanging from the ceiling and standing on three legs in the corners. The building itself seems to be partitioned into two rooms; the one I am in and another one beyond the inner wall.
Mr. Between motions for me to sit on a stool in front of a large mirror lining the inner wall. The stool is made of wood. It doesn’t have any padding and hurts my backside .
“Isn’t there something I can sit on that doesn’t feel like I’m getting fucked in the ass by a pirate’s peg-leg?”
Mr. Between just shakes his head, then busily sets to rearranging the lighting in the room. I watch him in the mirror. Then I stop. For some reason looking at the mirror makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s the kind of feeling I get when I’m looking at a bitch in a bar and suddenly I get this paranoia in my head that she’s got a stowaway in her cockpit that I won’t know about until I start landing that plane. Only this is worse. Somehow more terrifying.
To distract myself, I try a little conversation with Mr. Between.
“So, Xenia likes her privacy, huh?” I ask.
“Si, senor,” he said.
“Is she going to be here soon?”
“Ella es aqui ahora,” he says, still adjusting the spotlights.
“She’s here now?” I say, surprised. “Where?”
He points to the mirror.
“Oh!” I say, taken aback. “It’s a two-way mirror. Clever. I need to get these for the bathrooms in our buildings. Awfully handy.”
I stand up and peer into the mirror. I don’t expect to see anything, but it is interesting to think that Xenia is just on the other side of that reflective glass. I’m glad I don’t have to see the bitch staring at me while she paints. That could be unnerving. I hate when people stare at me. You don’t stare at a tiger in the jungle, do you? No, because he’ll stare back, and then he’ll get an appetite on him and eat your ass for lunch. You’re invading his territory with your eyeballs.
Anyway, a two-way mirror is a hell of an idea for a beret-headed artist to have. I could really use these mirrors in the bathrooms back at work. It would be easier to know what everybody really thinks about me when they don’t think I’m around. Not that I would put these mirrors in the Women’s bathroom. That would be a waste. None of them are above a seven in my book— less chance of a lawsuit that way— and moreover I don’t give a shit what women think of me. If I did, I’d never get laid.
“Is Xenia from Spain, too?” I ask.
“No,” Mr. Between says. “Europa.”
“Spain is in Europe,” I say, frowning at Mr. Between. “What region of Europe?”
Mr. Between just shrugs. For a guy “in the know”, he doesn’t seem to know much.
“Her name sounds Greek,” I say. “I bet she’s Greek. Damn, Greek women are ugly. 99% of them, anyway. I vacationed in Greece a couple years ago and expected the women to be beautiful. You know, like Brazilian women. But they aren’t. The beach is wasted on them. Can-opener noses and eyebrows thicker than your mustache, man. Really bring down the market value of the properties over there.”
“No commentario,” Mr. Between says.
I laugh. He knows I’m right, but he’s too afraid to say so in front of his boss. I’m not afraid to say what’s what. I brought Mrs. Agnes her payment. Even if I were to tell her she’s the ugliest Medusa to ever crawl out of a snake-hole in Greece, she’d still paint me to get her hands on this payment. I know people. I know how business works. There’s nothing personal in it, unless, of course, you’ve got a winning personality. And I do, which is why things always work out for me in the end.
See, I never went to business school. That fact really burns my underlings in their panties. They all spent so much money and time going to some prestigious, ivy-choked college and yet I’m the guy they call BOSS. The truth is that business school is a waste of time. Either you got the instincts for business or you don’t, and a lot of these bleeding-heart desk-cowboys don’t. You can’t roll that diploma up and stuff it down your pants and say, “I got the bigger dick, so I’m the boss.” It doesn’t work that way. Either you’re born with a big dick or you’re not, and they weren’t. I was. I got the master magician’s wand and I swing it in everything I do. That’s why I’m magic, both in business and in bed. I started off at the bottom, of course (just about everybody does). The difference between me and the others is that I wacked all of the contenders out of the way and climbed that ladder with a hard-on that never went soft. I’m a hot-blooded, knob-throbbing DICK.
That’s another reason I don’t have anything to fear from the ladies beneath me. No CUNT ever became a DICK, not without missing what was functionally essential to the role. Balls, in other words. Real big BALLS.
“Almost finished?” I say, growing anxious. “I’ve got things to do, amigo. Checks to write, girls to fuck, alibis to plant…”
Mr. Between fidgets with a spotlight in the far corner. This irritates me because I do not see how that light really makes much of a difference. Might as well turn on a baby’s nightlight in the corner for all of the difference it makes.
Finally, Mr. Between stands up and walks over to me. He points at the mirror, has me sit back down, and adjusts my posture and shoulders as I stare at my own reflection. Mr. Between, I realize, is a very short man. I am nearly as tall as him as I sit on the stool. Then again, I am a tall guy. They say taller men tend to achieve higher positions in businesses and I conform to that norm. I wouldn’t accredit it as the only reason for my ascension, but it didn’t hurt. Physical imposition can add to mental imposition, and I have won many arguments simply by looking down at my peons from my full height.
“Is it true that Xania paints with only her fingers?” I ask Mr. Between conversationally. “I mean, don’t oil paints make you go crazy? Like that one painter… What’s his name? The one that cut his own ear off and sent it to his friend…”
Mr. Between answers me by pointing to the mirror again. That’s strange. I did not realize I had been looking away from it. I force myself to look at it again. For some reason it makes me think of smooth ocean water right before a shark erupts up from it, mouth gaping wide with serrated teeth.
“You know,” I say, “I don’t know much about paintings, but I don’t need to know much to own a bunch of them. Some people say paintings are priceless and that the true value is inestimable because it has ‘artistic value’. But that’s just hippy-dippy bullshit told by people more in love with the idea of art than the monetary value of it, simply because they’re too fucking poor to buy any art. If paintings were priceless they couldn’t be bought. If artists lived for their art then I couldn’t buy their time and talent with my money. Nothing is priceless on earth. Everything has a quantifying sum. Even artists. Even your boss in there. Senorita Agnes. I’m owning her for a few minutes tonight.”
I don’t know why I’m being so belligerent. I just feel a little unnerved, I guess. This whole appointment has been weird. If I had to be honest about it, I did it on a spur of the moment, and out of some misbegotten sense of pettiness, too. It started when that shit-sucking brown-noser Emerson brought in his portrait and hung it on the wall in his pissy-ass little office. Normally I wouldn’t have given two rat-turd sized fucks about what he hung on his walls, but he was all beaming pride like he had just made a 1000% profit on a dark-horse investment. And then Susie— that little four-eyed traitor— had to ask him about it and he had to go bragging to everybody within a five mile radius about having paid the one and only Xenia Agnes to paint his portrait. At first I thought he was blowing smoke up his own ass, especially since it was by a “world-famous painter” whom I had never heard of. Then he had to one-up the lie by saying she painted it with her fingers and it only took her a few minutes for a very “negotiable rate”. Those two lies I could have overlooked, but later in the day, while he was out talking to a potential investor— and probably fucking up the deal— I went into his office and looked at the gold-framed painting.
At first I thought it was just a blown-up photo of that ugly, rodent-faced Jew, but then I got to looking a little closer at it and saw the actual texture of the paint and the three-dimensionality of the smoothly caked-on strokes. There were strange swirls to the paint itself, when you looked more closely. I guess she paints with her fingers like a conductor leading an orchestra. Even the artist’s signature swirled in its illegible scrawl. I don’t know.
What I do know is that it wasn’t a photo and it wasn’t a print; it was the actual-factual canvas with all of the intricately layered paints forming a facsimile of life so nuanced that it tricked even the genius-gleam in my eye. It was so life-like, actually, that even I found myself envious of Emerson’s prized possession. That little rat-nosed fuck. But I got over it quickly and called Susie to my office, telling her to get me the number of the painter and to set up an appointment. Spared no expense so long as it was a bigger, better portrait than Emerson’s. And, of course, I warned her to be as discreet as possible. Naturally, within the next hour everybody in the building knew about it, including Emerson, and all he could do was squirm like an impotent worm under the realization that I was about to outdo him, just as I outdid him in everything else.
“So…” I say, “is she a leper or an albino?”
Again Mr. Between points at the mirror.
“Perdoname,” I say. “I don’t know why I keep looking away. I thought Xenia Agnes was supposed to be a fast painter. I’m surprised it’s not finished yet.”
I am being belligerent again. I guess I am just trying to put this grandstanding artista in her place. Truthfully, there is a part of me that resents this whole situation.
“Whatever you do, don’t make me look like that rat-faced bastard Emerson,” I say. “I mean, you did a great job accurately capturing him, but you made him look all pale and sweaty and scared halfway to death. I’m surprised he hung it up in the office. I wouldn’t have been… so…keen…”
Looking at my reflection, I realize that I am looking sweaty and pale, too. My Caribbean tan can’t outmatch the pallor. And my eyes are twitchy, my skin goosebumped. It’s not the cold drafts of the warehouse, either. I feel off my game. I feel like game. I feel hunted.
I have instincts, like I’ve said— instincts for this concrete-and-glass jungle— and right now my instincts are telling me that there is something lurking nearby that makes the alpha apex predator in me want to go find a nice bush to hide in and cower under and piddle itself stupid.
I look at Mr. Between. He is standing solemnly in the corner of the room, chin tilted down and eyes sunken into pitted shadows as dark as his mustachio. He is as still as death, his face grim and sweaty and as hunted and haunted as I feel. As I look at him, I feel something looking at me. It feels as if it is looking at me from every angle— looking at me and through me. It sees my thoughts and my memories, my feelings and my fears. I cannot move, the terror like what I felt when I was a snot-nosed brat still afraid of the Boogeyman as I laid under my sheets at night, too scared to breathe because it might attract the make-believe monster’s attention.
Abruptly, Mr. Between opens his eyes. The change of expression— from grim visage to come-all-ye-faithful relief— frightens me and relieves me at the same time. I laugh a little, nervously, though I don’t think any of it is funny.
“Painting finish,” he says in broken English.
“Good,” I whisper. After a few moments of willing my body to move, I stand up from the ass-flattening stool. “Good,” I say again, this time a little more loudly.
I move towards the door slowly, a little apprehensive about making any sudden movements. Mr. Between opens it for me and follows me out.
“Payment,” he says.
“Yessir,” I say, starting to get my old mojo back. “In the car, mi amigo.”
We step outside and I open the passenger-side door. It is dark beside the warehouse, but the light above the door spills out onto the face of the little girl. She has dark black hair, pale skin, and dirty, oversized clothes. Her crack-whore mother gave her to me for a couple of hundred bucks. Susie set up the exchange. Part of me feels bad for her, but the larger part really, really hates Emerson. I mean, if the girl is going to be sold anyway, why not let her be sold to some lesbian art chick for the night. Right?
I pull her out of the car and she tries to run away. I grab her by the hair and she starts to hyperventilate again, her nostrils flaring wide above the duct-tape that seals her mouth. Tears are still streaming out from under the blindfold I placed over her eyes. She’s been crying since I bought her for the evening off her mother.
“Es bueno?” I ask Mr. Between.
He only nods, then opens the door. I lead the girl into the warehouse. Once we’re near the garage door, I tell her to sit down. I then tell Mr. Between that I want my painting so I can be on my way.
Mr. Between shakes his head. “No, senor. Give her.”
“Look, I am not into this,” I say. “I know a few guys that are, and if Xenia is, that’s fine too. Glad to know women are equal-opportunity at being sickos. But I am not going to stay here and watch it. No thank you. Give me my fucking painting.”
Instead of answering me, Mr. Between takes a remote control out of his pocket and presses a button. The garage door creaks and groans and growls, slowly rising and shuddering all the way.
I expect to see some butched-up lesbian with her hands soaked in paint up to her elbows. You know, pushing two-hundred pounds, wider around than she is tall, and with hair that looks like it was gnawed short by a goat. What I see instead, as the bleaching light of the warehouse illuminates the dark interior, is a mass of writhing tentacles splattered with oil paints and arrayed with glowing globular eyes, all centered around a large, gaping maw encircled with teeth.
I hear a scream piercing the otherwise silent space of that warehouse, and it is only when I gasp for air that I realize that the scream came from me.
“Esta es Xenia,” Mr. Between says. He points to the girl. “Give her. Open eyes. Let see.”
Shock gives way to my usual businesslike approach and demeanor. I take his words to mean I am supposed to remove the blindfold. Kneeling down, I remove the girl’s blindfold. Her eyes are red and still blinded by the sudden fluorescence and the streaming tears. When they have focused, though, they see the mass of tentacles and teeth undulating in front of her, instinctively clenching shut while she tries to scream behind the tape on her mouth. Within seconds she convulses in terror, goes rigid, and then passes out, her body limp on the floor.
I lift her up and walk, cautiously, over to Xenia. Her mouth widens. I can see eternity in her endless gullet. All of the questions and answers that mankind has never asked and would never know await the faithful in her circle of teeth. I stare in awe for a moment, maybe two, but then my professional nature resumes control. I am not a goddamn philosopher. I am a businessman. This is just business. I think in terms of business. It’s the only way to think at times like these. It’s like when I take investments from guys in Africa and Russia. Those tyrant princes and oligarchs with their lousy humanitarian records. I don’t care about where they get their money or how they take care of business. Business is business. It’s not personal. Emotions don’t matter. Not even fear matters. The bottom line matters. Getting what you want matters.
Taking a deep breath, I drop the payment into the receptacle and then step back while it processes. When the investment has gone through, Mr. Between retrieves my portrait from the easel behind Xenia and hands it over to me. The transaction is complete. I like to think I have been very professional in this business deal.
“Let dry,” Mr. Between says.
“I will,” I say, holding my portrait carefully. Without any further formalities, I walk out of the warehouse and get into my Jag. I set the painting in the floorboard and carefully lean it back so the fresh paint does not touch anything. Then I drive straight to my office building, say Hello to Jim, the security guard, and ride the elevator up to my office.
I hang the portrait up with little fuss. All in all, it looks good on my wall. Remarkably photographic for a painting. Xenia even captured my genie-gleam, though it’s brighter than ever before. It is a pretty good investment, as far as art goes. I can’t wait until Emerson sees it. The look on his ratty face is going to be priceless.

The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

 

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The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

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

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

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

***

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