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The man in the black robe stood at the end of the long driveway, across the yellowing field where the bales of hay huddled in the shrapnel stalks. The man leaned on his long-handled scythe, his face cowled in shadow. The scythe’s blade gleamed, even in the predawn murk. Billy sat upon the front porch of the farmhouse, squinting his eyes as the flash of the blade leapt out at intervals, watching the man as the man watched his older brother, Thomas. Thomas did not see the robed man as he helped his father with the tractor. Billy could not tell Thomas because his head did not work right, and so his mouth did not work right. Instead, Billy pointed at the man with one hand—the hand that did not hold the toy soldier. Even so, no one paid any mind to Billy, and so they paid no mind to the robed man. At length, the robed man continued down the road. Along the distant hills behind the robed man were trees. The trees were bare and black like charred hands stretched out in vain to protect against the coming sunrise.
Billy did not play with the toy soldier in his hand. He held it gently, reverently, as if it might break at any moment.
“Hey, Duckbill,” Thomas said, ruffling his little brother’s hair as he and his father stepped up onto the porch. “You going to help daddy with the tractor while I’m gone?”
“If he can milk Betty without being kicked he’ll be doin’ good,” their father said. He did not pat his youngest son’s head, but grumpily took hold of the rocking chair and sat down. “But maybe someday he’ll be strong. A lot of them that are weak in the head prove to be strong in the arm. Maybe then he’ll earn his keep.”
Thomas did not sit in the other rocking chair, but stood with his arms folded. “Wish you wouldn’t say that about him. It’ll hurt his feelings.”
Their father shook his head. “He don’t understand anyhow,” he said. “And the truth never hurt nobody. I’ve been tellin’ you the truth for years, Tom, and you grew up big and strong and good. No harm done, all in all.”
In reply, Thomas crouched down beside his little brother. “You’ll learn to talk eventually, Duckbill. I know you will. When I come back you’ll be here to greet me, and you’ll tell me with your own mouth how your daddy’s the sorriest son of a buck there ever was this side of Crabapple County.”
Billy continued to stare at the distant hills, the distant trees, and the coming sunrise. Their father chuckled.
“I may be the sorriest son of a buck in this county,” their father said, “but I feel sorry for the sorriest son of a buck over there. You’ve got a talent with a rifle. I’m sure whoever you’ll have in your sights will be as a clay pigeon still on the flywheel.”
The sun rose and set the trees afire with napalm bombardment. The horizon burned in an apocalyptic inferno. Billy began to sob.
“What’s wrong, Duckbill?” Thomas asked, tenderly. He put a hand on the little boy’s shoulder, but the boy just shook his head.
“That boy ain’t right,” their father said, grimacing. “What’re you cryin’ about, boy? You ain’t got nothin’ to cry about.”
“Lay off the boy,” said their mother. She stood behind the screen-door, her hands on her aproned hips. “Breakfast is ready. Come get you something to eat. All of you.”
Their father shot bolt-up from the rocking chair and went in.
“Come on, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “You’ll feel better once you’ve had something for breakfast.”
Reluctantly, Bill rose from the porch, careful not to drop the toy soldier. His eyes blurred with tears and the glare of the sun. Letting his eyes fall to the hay bales, he saw them anew. There were minced men rolled up and bound together in amongst the straw. He rubbed his eyes clear of the tears, but not the vision.
Billy followed his older brother inside the house.
Sitting at the table, the family said Grace and then began to eat. There were biscuits, sausage, eggs, and gravy on each plate. The tablecloth was checkered red and white. The grandfather clock ticked off seconds, slicing Now from Nevermore one sliver with each swing of its pendulum. The radio was on the kitchen counter, near the dirty pans. It was turned down low, but Billy listened to it intently as he held his idle fork with one hand. The other hand retained its gentle, but firm, grip on the toy soldier. The radio host spoke of the Viet Cong and deadly jungle diseases.
Still, their father spoke casually; easily. Pridefully.
“You’re doin’ a good thing, Tom,” his father said, beaming. “Stoppin’ them Commies is the most important thing right now. It’s either them or us. You’re gonna’ make sure it’s them.”
“I know, daddy,” Thomas said.
“This ain’t goin’ to be another Korea,” his father said resolutely through a mouth full of gravy-laden biscuit. “We just come off the Big War and nobody had the stomach for it. Now, though, you are goin’ to put those Commies in their place. And that place is six feet under. Or head-down in the rice paddies. To hell with ‘em. They don’t deserve a Christian burial.”
Thomas nodded, but said no more. He ate his breakfast in silence.
Billy ate nothing. He stared emptily at his full plate.
“Bill,” his mother said. “You need to eat something. You got a full day ahead of you and you aren’t going to be able to do nothing on an empty stomach.”
“You better eat that food, boy,” his father said, “or I’m takin’ its cost out of your hide.”
Billy pushed the plate toward his brother, his eyes and mouth agape with meaning they could not convey.
“It’s all right, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “I got enough to eat.”
The radio announcer spoke confidently of the military, but his words were gnawed with screaming static.
Gunpowder clouds floated in from the East, darkening the caustic white sky. The winds cut across the heartland like cold metal blades sweeping side to side.
Billy followed his brother and father out to the gate. Opening it, they went through. They said nothing of the blood and ragged skin and meat hanging along the barbed wire fence, or the bodies entangled in the coils. The herd gathered around obediently as the men went to the barn. The old barn had a gambrel roof, like a casket, and overflowed as they approached it. The hay loft brimmed with heaped corpses and entrails and dismembered limbs as they began to pitch hay down to the cows. Billy could say nothing at all. He only moaned a little.
“Jesus, boy,” his father growled. “You ain’t even doin’ nothin’! We’re the ones throwing this hay out.”
They worked at the heaps of hay while the herd eagerly gathered around to eat. Billy watched the dumb beasts chew, their heedless lips splattered with blood. Billy’s eyes itched and brimmed as they always did when he was near hay. The world was blurry, but he could see more than most.
“Daddy, I’ve been thinkin’,” Thomas said as he pitched the hay. “You need to teach Bill how to shoot. Who knows how long this war might last.”
“The boy doesn’t understand nothin’,” his father said. “You honestly think they’d accept him? He’s…half-finished. Course, it’s our fault. We waited too long to have him. And now…well, he’ll be lucky if he can look at a gun without runnin’ off in terror.”
“Daddy, you’re being mean,” Thomas said, halting his pitchfork.
His father halted, too. He stabbed his pitchfork’s teeth into the floor of the barn like a bayonet into bowels, leaning on it and rubbing his lower back with one hand. He affixed his youngest son with a shrewd, merciless stare. “I ain’t bein’ mean. I am bein’ honest.” He turned toward his eldest son. “Don’t you remember how he reacted when I tried to get him to shoot that little ol’ .22? He ran as if the Devil was after him! He’s scared shitless of guns now. I can’t even clean a gun in my own living room without him becoming a blubbering mess.”
“That’s not his fault, daddy,” Thomas said, looking to his little brother with a mixture of sadness and pity.
“I know it,” his father said gruffly. “That’s why I said we should never have tried at our age. And now look at him! Playing with dolls and cryin’ when a gun goes off. It’s not…manly.”
“He’s still a boy,” Thomas said. “He has some growing to do.”
“At his age you were shootin’ ducks, Tom,” his father said. “All on your own with no say-so from me or nobody else.” He smiled with pride. “I remember back then. You were so proud when you brought those ducks in for supper. Your momma already had made some soup, but when I saw what you’d done, I said, ‘To hell with the soup! Let’s have some roasted duck!’” His wrinkles smoothed with youthful joy. “And I’ll be damned if that wasn’t some of the best meat I’ve ever had. And you never ruined anything you shot with a bad aim. You got the Eye for shootin’. I’d wager to say your enemies will call it the Evil Eye before long. Or the Eye of God. Where you aim, Death follows. Those slant-eyes will be like fish in a barrel. They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
They continued pitching the hay as the clouds rolled in.
Billy wandered away, unnoticed. He looked out across the yellowing fields that undulated heavenward, the bales silent amongst the splintered stalks. He was startled at the roar of the tractor engine. The tractor rolled out of the shed, his father a shadowy outline atop it. Billy watched the bold, black tires of the machine deploying forward to the day’s work, its ridged tires cutting trenches in the fallow earth.
Billy walked farther away. He came to the tobacco barn where the stalks hung from the crossbeams. Bodies hung there, too. He walked inside and saw the man in the black robe, sharpening his sickle. Billy stared at him. He could not see the man’s face beneath his hood. The whetstone slid slickly across the cold white crescent blade in a pendulous motion. The sibilance struck something primal in Billy’s spine, begging flight. But he did not flee. He stood and stared at the man. The man looked up, but his hand never stopped swiping the whetstone across the long blade. Its curvature reminded Billy of a raven’s beak. Bill began to cry.
‘Silence,’ the man said, his voice sharper than the blade he whetted. ‘You have chores to do. As do I.’
Bill ran away from the tobacco barn, catching up to Thomas in the field. He hugged him around his leg.
“Whoa, Duckbill,” Thomas said, almost falling over. He looked down at the trembling boy that clutched at his thigh. “Come on, now. You don’t need to get upset over it. I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll be coming back. Don’t you worry none.”
Billy continued to weep, shaking his head as the tears came.
They drove the shaky, sputtering old truck to the bus stop and waited with the other families for the military bus to come to pick up the young men assembled there. There were lots of kisses and handshakes, hugs and shoulder pats. There was bravado, and not just from the young men. Fathers and brothers and uncles spoke with grinning complacency.
“Give ‘em hell, boys.”
“Shoot to kill.”
“Kick their asses so hard you knock their slant-eyes straight!”
While the others talked and boasted and bragged on their sons, Billy stared at Thomas through tears. Thomas was tall, like his father, only Time had not whittled him thin yet, and his shoulders were broad, his chest burley, his arms muscled from tools and chores. His smile was easy and kind. He had the loudest laugh, spreading seeds of laughter all around him. He was the gentlest and the strongest young man among all those gathered from every end of the county.
But Billy knew that none of that mattered to the man in the black robe as he, too, waited by the bus stop, leaning patiently on his scythe.
“Be good while I’m gone, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “Grow bigger and stronger than me, okay? Momma and daddy are going to need your help.”
Billy tried to speak, but, as always, the words did not come.
When Billy and his mother and father arrived home, without Thomas, Billy stared out toward the East where the dark clouds flashed here and there with lightning.
“Get on inside, boy,” his father said. “And go to bed early. Don’t stay up all night playin’ with toys. Tomorrow I’m goin’ to have to show you how to milk the cows. You’re goin’ to be busy for the Winter.”
Billy went upstairs, but did not go into his own room. Instead, he carried the toy soldier into Thomas’s room. The little boy sat on Thomas’s bed, looking out through Thomas’s window. Beyond the distant fields, toward the East, a storm was readying its front-line offensive. Billy opened the window and a warm breeze blew in, as if from some other part of the world that was warmer and moister. It felt like a monsoon was coming to the heartland of America.
Hell of an ache in my leg. Must be going to rain. Good thing I’m wearing my trenchcoat. Even now, far from the trenches, I can’t escape the need to wear it. It is one of the best things to fend off the rain, despite how it can sometimes invite the wash-off into my boots. Good against the New York fog, too. And the cold New York winters. My fedora helps also, keeping my head dry, but nothing keeps the chill out of my gimp leg. Damp, cold pain. Like a Mauser gone cold in my leg. As it so happens, it is an old Mauser in my leg. Medics never could get it out, they said, without risking my artery. The fact that my artery had healed around it baffled them back then. Should have bled out, they said. I did bleed out. But I am still alive today, for better or for worse.
She wouldn’t let me die back then. Sometimes I think she is still here, keeping me alive.
The sprawl of the docks is like a ship at sea. The boardwalk sways with the ocean and creaks as if it has a hull breach, keen on sinking. The boats are in the distance, lost in fog and night and the crowding shadows. The streetlights lead me along in my uncertainty. Like a dog on a leash, unsure why his master has a sad face and a loaded rifle. The dead of New York line the empty streets, like shades on River Styx. Only I can see them as their apparitions drift by. Not many living people would put up with the Sight. Seeing the dead everywhere can really ruin your appetite.
But the dead are not the people I’m concerned with. At least, I don’t believe so. I’m on the lookout for a young man. His Jewish mother is wanting him home. Probably went for a visit at a brothel and fell in love with Loose-Lucy. Or maybe got himself Shanghaied. Or maybe just left his old mother for another life. It happens. If he was dead, I would have seen him in her apartment. The dead cling to familiar forms of their former lives. Much like those of us who are half-alive, having lost our former lives in the War.
I try not to think about the War. There are enough ghosts on the boardwalk as it is without conjuring more to haunt me. That old decade is gone, and a new one’s begun, the upstart pup saddled with all of the problems from the old hound dog. Nobody warned me that the new decade would be of the same pedigree as the old. Same president, but different war. Not that I have anything against Truman. He’s just no Roosevelt, you know? Maybe he started war with the Koreans because he thinks he needs to live up to Frank. Maybe there are too many war hawks circling restlessly since 1945. I don’t know. Feed them scraps from the table and they think they rule the castle. I’m no Beatnik, but even I’ve got to say this country’s had enough of war for a while.
Glad I’m a cripple now. No war with a side order of conscription for me, thanks. Then again, there’s always a war going on in New York, isn’t there?
The bar is called the “Creak-Easy”. A joke, obviously. It is on the edge of the city, near the docks. A good place to funnel some patrons fresh off the boat. Dock workers. Sailors. Fishermen. The bartender has blonde hair and blue eyes. Hitler would have loved him slapped up on some propaganda posters. Only, he is one of our boys. Navy, I assume, by the pictures of the battleships and sailors and pilots all over the place. Also, the bloated dead men around him are a hint. Not much detective work involved, all in all. Dead men tell no tales, they say, but that isn’t the case at all for me.
“Hello,” I say.
“The name’s Dan,” the bartender says, unprompted. He extends his hand over the counter. “I like to greet all my new regulars.”
I hesitate, sizing him up. I shake his hand.
“Jim,” I say. I hold up the photograph Allen’s mother has given to me. “Private investigator. Looking for a missing person. Young man. Tall. Big. Jew.”
“A tall, big Jew, huh?” Dan says, grinning as he glances at the photograph. “He’d be easy to spot. Most Jews I know are little guys with big noses.” When he sees that I do not share his joke, he shifts uncomfortably, withdrawing his hand. “Course, they didn’t deserve what the Nazis did to them. Just saying that your Jew doesn’t sound run of the mill.”
I ignore his opining. “His name’s Allen Cronenburg. Likes to go by ‘Al’ sometimes.”
“The problem is,” Dan says, “that not many of them come around here.” He hooks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating a Catholic crucifix on the wall. “Even if he was welcome here—and he wouldn’t be—he wouldn’t dare show his face around here. Not if he was a smart Jew.”
“Guess I’ll ask around anyway,” I say, turning to go.
“Not without buying a drink,” he says, his baby blue eyes hardening.
I don’t drink anymore. It gives me a headache, and I see more than I care to see when I’m drunk. So I try a different tact.
“You were in the Navy,” I say. It is not a question.
“Yeah. What of it?”
“Lost a lot of friends to the waves,” I say, trying not to stare too much at the swollen faces of the ghosts around him, behind the bar.
“Maybe,” he says, shifting uncomfortably.
“I lost friends, too,” I say. “In the Death Factory.”
His scowl dissolves into wonder. “You survived the Death Factory?”
“Somewhat,” I say. “Not completely.”
He nods. He stoops down behind the bar and fetches a glass. He pours a glass of beer and hands it over to me. “On the house,” he says.
I take a gulp— just enough to show good faith—and I survey the bar and its patrons.
“The limp?” Dan asks.
I nod. “Lucky I got to keep it. The leg, I mean.”
Dan starts talking to me about his own wounds. I am not listening to him. One of his ghosts is sputtering with swollen lips, his voice gargling in his distended neck. It is hard to understand the dead sailor and his babbling, but I get the gist of it. The dead man tells me his message for Dan, the bartender. I will tell him later. Right now I am more concerned with finding the living man I was sent to find.
“And so I get this shoulder ache pretty badly from time to time,” Dan concludes, grimacing as he rotates an arm. “Better than dead, I always say.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I say. “But keep the healthy perspective. Excuse me.”
I leave the counter and head toward the middle of the room, amidst all of the tables. None of the ghosts look like a tall, big Jewish boy, so I ignore the ghosts, for now, and focus on the living. A couple of guys at the far back corner have several dead men around them, their tickets punched to the Stygian shore. Bullet holes in some. Others with wires around their throats, eyes bulging out of their sockets. Mafia men, likely. One of them smirks up at me—as only a Mafia man can—and winks. The other one—bigger than the smaller, smirkier one—scowls at me.
Save those two for last, I think. I focus on the other patrons before the smaller Mafia man’s smirk loses its edge of humor. I could use tact with the two Mafia men—butter them up with some jokes and whatnot—but my leg is hurting me, so I just sit down, uninvited. Sometimes you got to just open with an honest salvo. Let’s both sides know that there is no flirtation involved.
“Looking for this guy,” I say, holding up the photograph. “Allen Cronenburg. You two wouldn’t happen to know what could have happened to him, would he? He frequented this dock. Possibly for business. Possibly for pleasure.”
“Maybe for both,” the smaller man says, smirking. “Some of us have the good fortune of business and pleasure at the same time.”
The bigger man says nothing. He only nods, his hard gaze unblinking as it, in all likelihood, surveys me for every little bone he could break when need should arise.
“It can be,” I admit, “but I don’t know the peculiarities of the man enough to know. You know? I wanted to make sure he did not get mixed up in anything that wasn’t…kosher.”
The smaller man— an Italian with dark black hair and a pencil mustache that could underwrite your execution—smiles broadly. His brown eyes glitter with amusement beneath his fedora.
“This guy here is funny, ain’t he?” he says to the bigger man.
“Real funny,” the bigger man says, mirthlessly.
“And that’s why I’m going to give him a warning,” the Italian says. “But in a funny way.” He grabs my arm; not violently, but firmly, and points to his own nose with his other hand. “We don’t like nosy people,” he says. “And Jews got big noses, don’t they?”
He laughs and lets go of my arm. I smile, but it has no more humor in it than the bigger guy’s openly hostile grimace. I wait until the Italian’s laughter peters off, then press him while still holding the photograph up.
“So you’ve never heard of him?”
The bigger man squints up and down at me like a tailor making an estimation of size for a suit, or an undertaker for a coffin. The Italian glances at the photograph, briefly, then shrugs.
“No,” he says, “but you keep sticking your nose where it don’t belong and you’ll wake up to find yourself a rabbi.” He grins broadly. “By which I mean you’ll have gotten an aversion to pig’s blood.”
He chuckles. His friend—accomplice or partner in crime or whatever he may be—does not share in this joke, either. His grim expression is set in granite, like a mountain, and like a mountain he is ready to drop those boulders of his fists on my head.
“What?” the Italian says, looking hurt. “Nobody appreciates a good joke. A couple of wet rags, the both of you.”
“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” I say, standing.
“No problem, gumshoe,” the Italian says, rolling his eyes to watch me step away. “Happy hunting.”
I leave their table. The two Mafia men are not responsible for Allen’s disappearance. Their table is crowded with people, but none of their ghosts match the photo of Allen. Their eyes follow me imploringly; wanting revenge or justice or acknowledgment. I don’t have much time to offer them anything. There are more dead in this city than there are homeless, and even if I had the money to offer the Ferryman payment to send each of them Beyond, I still wouldn’t have the time to see it through.
The next person I visit is an old man with the drunken dazzle of the sea in his swaying eyes.
“Hello there, old-timer,” I say. “Mind if I shoot the breeze with you for a minute?”
“It’s a briny breeze,” the old man says, taking a gulp of his beer. “Awfully salty. But it’s the way I like it.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I say. I sit across from him, the wobbly little table between us. I show him the photograph. “Mother’s looking for her son. Young man, as you can see. Allen Cronenburg. Big Jew. Probably head and shoulders above us all.”
The old man finishes his beer in one last gulp, then squints at the photograph. He is wearing a trechcoat, like mine, but faded with too much sun and saltwater.
“There ain’t no saltwater like a mother crying for her lost child,” he says. “Big man, hm?” He rubs his scraggly beard. “Lots of lads help on the docks. Different sizes, but few so tall as you say. Maybe he sought his fortunes over the waves. Some of us do, and never look back. Take a new mother to replace the old.”
“I thought he might,” I say, “but I still need to make sure, if I can.” I shrug. “I don’t get paid, otherwise.”
The old man drinks the rest of his beer, squinting with one eye out the window, toward the docks. He never blinks. He seems the type that stares at the sun defiantly, even if it burns out his sea-dazzled eyes.
“Aye, the payout’s what we are all looking for,” he says. He sets his empty mug down on the table, in front of me. “Any sailor worth his saltwater gets a portion forwarded afore the ship sets out to sea.”
Taking the hint, I pick it up and bring it to the bar. I tell Dan I need another beer.
“On the house,” he says.
“Not for me,” I say, hooking a thumb over my shoulder at the old-timer. “Him.”
It is a mistake.
“His tab is as deep as the Mariana Trench. I’m not even sure how he got that beer to begin with. Probably filched it from somebody or suckered them with a sob-story.”
“I’m not looking for a sob-story,” I assure him. “Just a trail, or a few breadcrumbs.”
“You’ll get nothing from him but hogwash.”
“Regardless,” I say, “I need a beer for him. I’ll pay.”
I pay for the beer, then bring it back to the old sailor. I set the mug in front of him.
“Thank you, kindly,” he says. He takes the mug casually, lipping the froth. I ask him a few questions as he wets his beard. He ignores my questions in the meantime, then sets his mug down.
“What you need to know,” he says, “is that men have been dying around here. Young, old, Christian, Jew, Negro, Pollock. It don’t matter as to who—they’ve all been turning up dead. And by ‘turning up’ I mean to say floating up. We’ve been finding them on the sea near the docks. Lot’s o’ dead from drowning. Or so it seemed at first. Only, they’ve been done a terrible wrong. Their…well, their lower halves have been violated all bloody. Mutilated. And sharks and fishes can only account for so much. Maybe they all crossed the wrong gang. I don’t know what Christian would do that to a man to kill him. A garroter might bloody his hands a little with a little wire, and a hitman might bore a swallow’s nest out of a man’s head, but to do what has been done to some of these boys? Well, what diabolical bastard would do that?”
“You think Allen suffered the same treatment?” I ask.
He takes another swig of his beer, clearing his throat roughly as if he’s got shrapnel in it.
“Don’t know. All I know is that even the gangs around here are unnerved by it. Nobody wants to talk about the bodies. Even those tough boys over there that you risked your stones to talk to don’t like nobody saying nothing about it when they’re in earshot of it. Gets them upset.”
The old-timer chuckles, or gargles glass— it is hard to tell the difference.
“They go all lily-white,” he says quietly. “Reminds me of that fellar in London with the knives and the prostitutes. What’s his name?”
“Jack the Ripper,” I say.
He nods. “Something like him,” he says. “You don’t want to find a body like that.” He gives me a knowing look. “You were in the War, right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, it’s like somebody sat on a landmine. Not a pretty sight. You know, we used to eat turtles, and one of the ways of cleaning them is to cut off the head and put a hose in the stump, flushing it with water. These bodies are like that, only reversed.”
He takes one last swig of his beer, tilting his head back dramatically and draining it to the dregs. His head sways as if he is ready to fall asleep, but his eyes never shut or blink. They just keep on squinting. I wonder if he sleeps with his eyes open, like Captain Ahab ever fixed upon his White Whale.
“No, sir,” he concludes, “you do not want to witness what we pulled up in our fishing nets. It’s likely to haunt a man…even a man that’s seen the horrors of War.”
This conversation finished, I stand up and walk around between some of the other patrons of the Creak-Easy. Some are more taciturn than others. Some can’t stop talking; others are tight-lipped as a can of sardines and mercury. Eventually, someone makes a scene. Not me, or anyone I am conversing with, but a newcomer barging in through the door.
“Whooooo!” the newcomer crescendoes, wobbly as a jellyfish. He is wearing an old, dirty coat and a pair of dirty slacks. A hat sits crookedly on his head, and seems like it will fall off at any moment as he wobbles left and right. Ican tell just by the look of him that he has all his shoestrings untied.
“Leroy, you loon!” Dan yells. “I’ve told you before to get out and stay out!”
Leroy’s feet halt, their big boots planting heavily on the floor, but his upper body sways as if he was a plunger struck by a 2×4. He is a lanky man of indeterminate age, his dirty beard curly and twirly.
“Oh, Dan!” Leroy exclaims. “Jus’ lemme’ haf a seagull drink. Jus’ won drink!”
“You’ve have enough, by the look of you!” Dan says, scowling. “Get outta’ here before I have to throw you out. Go get some sleep!”
“I can’t,” Leroy says mournfully, blinking back tears I cannot see. “I ain’t had nuffin’ to eat! Not won bite!”
Dan glares all the harder, but says no more. His anger gives way to blue-eyed pity—reluctantly—and he fishes into his pocket with a hand. Sighing, he holds up a couple of quarters.
“Go get something to eat,” Dan says, “somewhere else.”
Leroy wobbles to the bar, takes the two quarters, and stands there, staring at all of the liquor behind Dan.
“I said go,” Dan repeats. “Somewhere else.”
Leroy purses his lips thirstily, then sighs as if someone told him his childhood sweetheart has died.
“Ain’t no love fo’ ol’ Leroy ‘round ear,” Leroy groans. “Jus’ haf to throw mah’selth in the oshun if I wanna’ drink. Like ‘em lizard people. THE LIZARD PEOPLE!” he shouts at the end for emphasis.
Leroy staggered toward the door, the two quarters now gone into his dirty coat pocket. Smelling a potential trail, I head after him. Drunks with loose lips can reveal things that others are less likely to say.
Dan meets me at the door.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “but Leroy’s a lost cause. He can’t offer you any info except what color the park bench is under its seat.”
“What happened to him?” I ask, still eying Leroy as he goes through the door.
“Same thing that happened to everybody else,” Dan says. “The War. Leroy was a cook on my ship. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a bad cook. All he could cook well was his own brain. And then a kamikaze hit us and he took a heavy kettle to the head. He has been dazed ever since. Dazed and confused and drunk. Once, when sober, he begged me for a drink. Saying he kept hearing ‘voices’.”
“Lizard men?” I say.
Dan shook his head. “No, the voices of all of the men trapped below-deck. The ship was taking on water and we had to abandon ship. We…we all hear those voices sometimes. That’s why I can’t stand the Japs next-door. I won’t go out of my way to tell them so, but I can’t stand them.”
“What are they, tenants?”
“Something like that,” he says, scowling. “But they also sell food to idiots willing to eat it. They act innocent, but no Jap’s ever been straight. Even their eyes are slanted, ya’ know? Probably been killing people and putting them in their soup. They’re goddamn cannibals, and I would know. I’ve heard stories from buddies in the Pacific. Japs don’t even value their own lives. Kamikazes will tell you that much. Crashed into us like they were playing chicken while blindfolded.”
Japs next-door. Cannibal soup. Farfetched, I know, but I think I’ll bite this hook and see where it takes me.
Through the drifting gray fog off the Thames the figure strode idly. He was a few bold strokes of charcoal with a couple of white notches of white chalk at the end of his sleeves and a patch of white chalk between collar and stovepipe hat. The face was pleasant enough, with its crooked, but well-meaning smile, and perhaps handsome, if a little anemic in its complexion. Pale blue eyes and pale blue lips and an easy how-do-you-do-this-chill-evening bearing. He was what might be best described as lackadaisically stoic, and of an indeterminate age. What was more, he was on his way to a murder investigation.
“Evening, constable,” the tall, anemic man said as he approached the other man upon the street corner. “Chilly night, isn’t it?”
“Always chilly where murder’s bloody as this is, sir,” the constable rejoined, his flaring mustache a pale white bird beneath his long, red nose. “Too chill for these old bones, I dare say.”
The constable held his arms tight to his large body, as if huddling around himself for warmth. The lamppost’s gaslight carved in harsh light the cobbled sidewalk and the brick facades, impressing upon any passerby the oppressive reality of their countenance, which was as stern as the constable’s grim expression. Yet, the gaslight rendered the other gentleman almost translucent as the fog itself; as if the light would burn him away utterly were it just a little starker on the monotone block of moonlight and shadows. A ghost made flesh, he followed the constable to the nearby edifice.
“This way, detective,” the constable said, opening the door for him.
Women were weeping within the building. They sat together upon faux-posh couches of red satin, their mascara running down their pockmarked faces. What they wore would have been scandalous in any other sphere of London, but suited the alluring interior of the establishment itself. The anemic fellow tipped his hat to the madame—a lady in her forties, likely, with a weave too fair for her dark eyebrows—but the constable shooed her away before she could address the former gentleman. The constable led his guest up the stairs, with their wobbly bannister and dank carpet, and down the hall. Several doors were closed along this hall, on either side, and were silent, their trade postponed for that evening. Candelabrum lit the way, presuming more prestige for the purpose of that place than what would have been allowed by the estimation of higher social circles. Touches of feminine grace adorned the hallway here and there, however, despite the pretense of that establishment: potted flowers of hale vibrancy, watercolour paintings undertaken by a keen eye, and even needlework wherein sharp steel rendered delicate conceits of colour and form. The anemic gentleman noted all such things with the same phantasmal smile as he followed the constable. There was a pretense of taste at the establishment, despite the aim of that establishment.
At length, they came to an open door. The constable stroked his mustache once, as if to calm it lest it should fly away in fright.
“This way, sir,” he said.
The pale gentleman entered the bedroom.
The woman’s neck had been cut, ear to ear, her bodice and gown and blonde hair all soaked through with her own blood. Her eyes stared vacantly as she sprawled upon the bed in parody of a model to some Bohemian artist in want of scandal. Her face was drained of colour, excepting her lips, which were blue, and yet she was not so pale as the pale gentleman who surveyed her leisurely at a glance. His crooked smile was immutable.
The room itself was lit well enough with candles, though shadows still clung here and there to the walls like spiders, devouring flowery wallpaper with their black gossamers. Strangely, despite the body of the prostitute, the room was rather tidy. The bed was tidy. The prostitute herself was tidy, except for her blood. It was as if the room had not been used at all that night.
A watchman wobbled to attention beside the bed as the constable and the gentleman entered. He looked groggy and irritable, squinting sternly. He snorted once, then spoke.
“The Magdalens raised a right fuss all over the street,” he said. “So I came runnin’ and found this here whore laid out just as you see here. I told the rest of ‘em to stop botherin’ the fine folks round here, but they been cryin’ evah since and won’t quiet themsel’es ah tall. How can a man piece together the puzzle when he can’t ‘ear ‘imself think?”
“Did you happen upon anyone in flight hereabouts?” the pale gentleman asked, patiently.
“No sir,” the watchman said. He wobbled a bit in his long coat, either from sleepiness or drink or both. “When I come up ‘ere the lady of the house— if you can call ‘er that—shown me up ‘ere directly. And here I stayed, sir, exceptin’ to send someone to fetch the constable.”
“And so I, in turn, requested you, sir,” the constable said. “For it bears all the signs of our industrious Jack.”
“Indeed?” the pale gentleman said, dubiously. “I wonder…”
The pale gentleman looked upon the bloodied corpse of the prostitute with his pale blue eyes. His smile never wavered, but was pleasant as ever, though it still remained crooked and pale.
“Such a waste of warm blood,” he said. “The chill London air has squandered it all.”
The constable cleared his throat. “We have a witness, sir,” he said.
“Then let them testify to their truth,” the pale gentleman said.
The constable frowned in confusion, then nodded to the watchman. The watchman left the room, venturing down the hall. A door opened, then the watchman’s rough voice said, “C’mon, then.”
A young woman— too young by many standards— entered the room. Her hair was light brown and loose about her shoulders, the natural curls like ripples on the brown surface of the Thames. She wore only a white shift and had a countryside tint of sun to her skin.
“Hello, young lady,” the pale gentleman said.
“Hello, sir,” she said tremulously, not looking at the corpse upon the bed.
“And what is your name?”
“Emma, sir,” she said.
“Emma,” he said courteously. “A lovely name. And what do you do here?”
“I am…an apprentice, sir,” she said.
The constable was agog with disbelief. “An apprentice? Is that what you would call it?”
“I’m not of age yet, sir, to be of…purpose,” she said. “Madame says I have not yet bloomed to it, sir.”
The constable shook his head pityingly. “Such sins would shame Babylon.”
The pale man ignored the constable and addressed the young woman. “What did you see, young lady?”
She stammered. “A man…a big man…hairy…thin. But strong. Tall. But not too tall. Everyone is tall to me, sir. I am so short, you see?”
“Do you happen to know the reasoning for this…barbarism?”
“He did not like how Madeline…how Madeline looked,” she said uncertainly. “And how she spoke. He took a knife and…and…”
She burst into tears.
The pale man waited patiently, his crooked smile unmoving; his pale blue eyes unblinking.
“And where did he go?” he asked after a moment.
“Out…the window…” the young lady said, sobbing.
The constable and the watchman exchanged uneasy looks.
“A man might go out the window,” the constable said, “but not run away at a sprint. He’d be hobbling, if he could walk at all.”
The pale man went to the window. The curtains were drawn aside, but the window was not open. After a moment’s thought, he about-faced with a smooth motion, as if a wooden figurine in a Dutch clock.
“I should like to speak to the young lady alone,” the pale gentleman said. “Please, Emma, show me to your quarters.”
He followed the young lady down the hall. She led him to a room with three beds laying nearly side to side to side. Colorful dresses hung within an open wardrobe, alongside more mundane clothing, and the window was covered with a curtain.
“Ah,” he said, entering the room. “Quite…cozy.”
“I share it with Lacy and Madeline,” Emma said.
“And where were they?”
“Seeing to…business, sir.”
“Ah,” he said again, nodding once.
The pale gentleman walked toward the window and the young lady became deathly silent. He drew back the curtain to reveal the view of a brick wall belonging to the neighboring building. The window’s frame was peeling, scabrous, and a few red streaks were the only paint it would ever see for years to come. The pale man noted these red streaks, then covered the window once again with the curtain. He turned back to the young lady. She was sitting on the bed, her feet dangling laxly while she wept into her hands and trembled. The pale man’s smile faltered for but a moment, replaced with something akin to pity.
“And I suppose he fled out the window?”
The young lady only nodded, but did not look up.
“As I thought,” he said.
Emma said something, but he left the room as if had not heard her.
The madame of that house was quite unnerved as she stood before the constable and the pale gentleman. They were upon the street now, in the garish glow of the gaslight lamps.
“Not one among your other employees saw the culprit in question?” the pale gentleman asked her.
“No, sir,” she said. “Most of my girls were…entertaining customers. Those that were not were in their rooms, seeing to other arrangements.”
“And they did not hear anything afore the incident? No sounds of struggle? Of a scuffle? Did the victim scream before her death?”
“No, sir,” she said, her lips aquiver with a dread as she looked into the pale blue eyes of the gentleman.
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” the pale gentleman remarked lightly. “And when did Emma make known the murder had been committed?”
“Well, sir, she wasn’t the one who made it known,” the madame said. “Angela was walking by and saw it. She screamed, and then we all came runnin’ in haste.”
“And where was Emma at this time?”
“In her room, sir, useless as a knife without a blade. She was crying awfully hard and rocking to and fro like one of them lunatics in the asylums. I had to slap her good to wake her to.”
The pale gentleman had not blinked once that entire evening, and did not blink now. “And her roommates?”
“Lacy was entertaining,” she said. “The dead girl…Madeline…was her other one.”
“And she, of course, was predisposed,” the pale gentleman said. He said it as a matter of fact, neutrally, and yet it slipped into the air with a sense of morbid flippancy.
The constable rose on his toes and shook his head in consternation, coming back on his heels. This seemed quite a feat for a man as portly as he. “Her roommate dead and Emma could only tend to her own feelings? What is it with this generation nowadays? Soppy-minded and with waxen spines, I think.”
“Perhaps she has more sense than we realize,” the pale gentleman said. “She is an ‘apprentice’, after all.”
“Emma lacks sense,” the madam said hurriedly. “Emma’s naught but a servant in the house. Truly. For cleaning and cooking and such. Everybody knows whores don’t have ‘apprentices’.”
“Indeed,” the pale gentleman said, his smile still pleasant, and crooked. “And why, my lady, did you not see the culprit in question? Before he ventured upstairs with Madeline? ”
“I do not attend to every…transaction,” she said, defensively. She swayed a bit, her eyes bloodshot in the gaslight. “I have other things to do, it just so happens. The girls are grown enough to see to the business themselves. So long as they don’t allow thrift, I won’t complain of it too much.”
“Indeed,” the pale gentleman said again. He said no more, but narrowed his eyes at the fumes of alcohol he smelled on her breath. He still did not blink.
“And so no one knows the man’s name?” the constable almost exclaimed with anger. His mustache seemed ready to fly about with fury.
“It is better that we not know our clients’ names,” the madame said, simply. “Could lead to more trouble than it is worth, sir.”
“I’ve no doubt,” the pale gentleman said, “that the victim knew the murderer’s name. But what good is that now? Poor little Emma cannot tell who the murderer was. And, so, we have yet another clue hinting at nothing but what we already know.” He waved away the madame. “Good night, madam. See to your girls with greater care in the future, please.”
The madame merely laughed shortly, humorlessly, and returned inside the brothel.
“We shall never catch him!” the constable growled. “‘Jack’, indeed. He is a jackdaw, more like. Cheeky as he taunts us as stupid countryfolk lost in the barley!”
“Jack is not difficult to discern,” the pale gentleman said quietly.
The constable’s bushy eyebrows leapt in surprise. “How do you mean, sir?”
“Our mutual friend, Jack,” he said, “is London itself.”
“I don’t understand, sir,” the constable said, incredulous. “Do you mean to say he is the run-of-the-mill sort? I cannot fathom it. He is an animal. A beast. Even our worst criminals do not commit themselves to such a frenzy of sin. He is absolutely diabolical. Nothing in it, if you pardon my boldness, sir, is so common in Jack’s wicked exploits.”
“I must disagree, my dear constable,” the pale gentleman said. “Such brutality is quite common here. It is definitive. Essential. And why should it not be? We do not propose that a lion is wicked in its nature to hunger for flesh and blood, nor should we condemn it as it satisfies such hungers. It is his habit. So why, pray tell, should we expect a city such as London to live as a lamb when it, like all such large cities, grew upon a surfeit of flesh and blood? Show me a lion who became the lamb and I will show you a corpse feeding the grass. London thrives as a beast ever on the prowl.”
“We are not lions, sir,” the constable said. “We are Christians.”
The pale man’s smile never left off at all, but lounged crookedly upon his face. “As you say,” he said. “But the notion of a Christian seems to me a more fabulous notion than a lion becoming a lamb. Even in the notion, too, the blood is the life.”
The two gentlemen agreed to resume the case in the morning. They bid each other adieu and a good night.
Yet, the pale gentleman did not leave. Rather, he ventured into the alley between the brothel and its neighboring building. There he found a knife amidst the rubbish and the secretive shadows. A little farther way off he found a dress streaked with blood. These things he found easily, though the alley was pitch black. His eyes could see easily in the dark. Conversely, the gaslight haloes that punctuated nocturnal London that made it difficult to see sometimes, garishly rebuffing the darkness with an inventiveness and arrogance only the pride of Man could conjure; like little artifices of suns luridly lit, obliviously unaware of their folly. London thought such lights the haloes of a saintly city, whereas the garish glow was a whore’s suggestive leer as she would fain entice a king with her debased bed. So proud, she was, and so obliviously imbecilic. So grotesque in her gaslight essence. Yet, innocent too. As innocent as Eve within Eden.
Or perhaps as Lilith in exile.
Looking up, he saw the window belonging to the room where Emma resided. The pale man went to her window, as easily as anyone might walk down the street. Easier, in fact, for it required no locomotion at all as he floated above the pitted darkness of the alley. Coming to the window, he peered within. Lacy was asleep. Emma pretended to be so, but the pale gentleman knew she was not. Gently, he tapped on the window. Lacy did not stir. Emma did. She sat up in the dark, blind to the figure at the window. He tapped again. Slowly, Emma walked to the window. She squinted through the glass, but could not see him, so dark was it. She turned, as if to go to bed, and the pale gentleman raised the window. Before she could turn again, he grasped her, gently but firmly, his hand over her mouth. In one silent motion, he spirited her away from that room, that brothel, that street corner, taking her atop a building where no eyes could see them.
Setting her down, but keeping a hand upon her mouth, he spoke to her.
“Emma,” he said, “it is time for the truth. Do not scream, or it will go badly for you. Tell me what happened. Do not shrink from the facts, however bloody they may be…or iniquitous your own dealing in them.”
He removed his hand. It was a cold hand, and long-fingered. She moaned.
“Are you the Devil, sir, come to take me away?” she asked.
“The facts, Emma,” he said sternly. “Or you will know something of the Devil tonight.”
“God Almighty!” she exclaimed in her girlish voice. “I did not want to do it! I truly didn’t! But the madame said I would be entertaining soon! And I dreaded that! My apprenticeship was almost up and I did not want to do it!”
“So you killed Madeline to avoid your…progression?” he said.
“I thought it might put it off for a time!” she cried, weeping and clutching at herself in the chill, misty dark. “And Madeline was so cruel to me…so hateful in what she was teaching me. I loathed her, and feared becoming like her, and she liked that I feared it, and so taunted me, and so made my life a Hell. And now I am off to Hell, aren’t I? I am going to Hell for taking a life!”
She fell to her knees and wept in fright and guilt and anguish.
The pale gentleman was unmoved, at least insomuch as her feelings were of importance.
“And there was no man at all in the room?” he asked.
Emma was too taken away with her tears to answer him. His crooked smile never vacating his face, he snatched her up with a hand by the arm.
“Was there no man in the room?” he demanded, his voice transformed. It was no longer soft and amiable, but edged as hoarfrost upon Westminster Bridge.
“There had been,” she said, sobered at once. Her eyes were agog in the dark, and twinkled with tears, the moonlight through the parting clouds making stars of them. “Madeline had made me sit and watch as she…entertained him. All the time she would do something she would say, ‘You’re a right one for this soon!’ or ‘She’ll be a keen learner of that!’ and then she would laugh, and the man would grin, and they were like a witch come to Sabbath afore the Devil! I couldn’t take it, sir! When she had finished, and the man had left, she continued to taunt me! I told myself I would endure anything for the debts of my family, but the closer I came to the true work of that Godless house the more frightened I became. The more I told myself I wouldn’t do it. Whenever I was frightened by it, I would take my mind off it with stitchin’. So I started stitchin’, making pretty flowers as I used to in the countryside, before my family moved to London and lost it all to our debts. But Madeline resented me my stitchin’. ‘You think you’re so clever with that needlework, do you?’ she said. And then she stole it away from me. And so…I took the knife I use for my stitchin’ thread and I…I unspooled, her!”
The tears had stopped. She looked vacant, but also vindicated. The guilt ebbed away from her eyes as her lifeblood ebbed away from her throat and into the mouth of the pale gentleman. He drank deeply of her warm, young blood, draining her slender neck until she swooned and fell into his arms. Her eyes fluttered and then the lids hung heavy, as if she were to fall asleep forever. Before she did, he took the knife with which she had slain Madeline and he cut his own pale wrist, forcing it to Emma’s lips.
“Drink,” he commanded in his beastly voice.
The blood dribbled at her lax mouth for a moment, but then the lips awakened tautly and she sucked at the wrist proffered. The sinews of her neck tightened with hunger, with Life, and she clenched upon him with her arms, not unlike a cat upon its prey. After a time, she released and swooned, her head lolling with a surfeited ecstacy. He held her until her willowy body grew rigid with newfound strength. She stood now, steeped in a new life. She could see all of the London through the dark and the moonlight. She saw the gaslight glow of the lamps, and she hated them.
“Master,” she said in a voice that was girlish, but also bestial.
The pale gentleman’s crooked smile was lined in crimson stitchery.
“Now, Emma,” he said, “your true apprenticeship begins.”
In their white petticoats, and walking side by side, the two sisters were like phantoms upon the grounds.
“I always knew mother would die from fear of death,” Angela remarked as she and her sister toured their mother’s estate grounds. The sky was overcast and gray, but the afternoon was warm and Summery. “Not fear of her own end, of course, but of ours. She always fretted over the most innocent of bug bites and coughs.”
“I do recall several instances attesting as much,” Evelyn said, lifting her petticoats as she stepped over a broken branch from the great felled tree. The rest of the yew lay athwart the garden, broken limbs spread dramatically and smashing much of the hedges. “She fancied herself clairvoyant.”
“If so, she should not have bothered worrying so much,” her sister rejoined. “She should have reconciled with it and had done with fretting.”
“Remember when, only last year, she insisted we all have our funeral portraits taken? What nonsense! Only Thomas would indulge such an absurdity.”
“Thomas was always more heart than head,” Angela said. “He indulged mother’s every morbid whim.”
“It did pain her greatly when news came from the Front,” Evelyn said. “As it did all of us. But he is gone. Cast in some charnel countryside trench in Germany. That was what drove mother to the brink, I think. It was as if her prediction had come true.”
“Indeed,” Angela said, eyeing the yew tree disdainfully. It looked as an ancient, crooked titan fallen to the ground, one limb still raised, as if pleading for aid. “This falling tree was merely punctuation at the end of mother’s final sentence. But that is why one must never indulge the supernatural. It makes prey of the mind for every capricious fancy misread on the wind.”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said, sighing. She lifted her petticoats again, stepping gingerly through the scattered detritus of the shattered crown of the tree. Angela did not bother, and seemed to be dragging half of the splintered branches by her petticoats, like the charred bones of the war-strewn dead. Evelyn said nothing, but knew Angela was very stubborn about things, and set in her ways. “She was right about Thomas, though. He did die over the Eastern horizon.”
“As did many other men,” Angela said, scoffing. “It is an utter tragedy for us, naturally, but it is a tragedy for many other families as well. A tragedy for Great Britain! The rule, I dare say, rather than the exception. Mother’s supposed clairvoyance had naught to do with granting her especial insight into the outcome. We all knew it was a bedeviled enterprise. I believed Thomas would fall as well, though I hoped he would not.”
The two sisters fell silent, passing along the outer perimeter of the garden. After a few moments of glowering at the tree, Angela spoke again.
“The menfolk should be returning soon enough,” she said, “or what remains of them. Perhaps we may make a request of a few hearty young men to clear away this obscenity. And restore the garden. Mother’s estate has enough in its coffers to see to that, I would imagine.”
“What a frightful storm that was,” Evelyn remarked. “Little Edward and I felt it in Yorkshire. What fright mother must have felt to have it raging all around her!”
“Indeed,” Angela said. “One must wonder what it must be like in the trenches. I have read that it is most like a tempest, only with malice in its every gale.”
“That is because of their machines,” Evelyn said. “Such terribly clever machines of death.”
“And such godless machines,” Angela added. “To waste so many good young men. God should not allow it, but I suppose it could be a punishment.”
“Not for Thomas, surely!” Evelyn said quickly. “He never wronged anyone in his life, except in trying earnestly to make right by them. He was a sweet soul, however misled in the manner of his kindness.”
“Certainly,” her sister said. “What I mean to say is that these men are like the…avatars of Christ. I do not mean to blaspheme by invoking a pagan religion, but it is the only analogy by which I may express myself. They die for our sins. For mankind’s sins.”
“It seems unfair to them to shoulder such sacrifice.”
“As was it for Christ.”
“Do you believe he might, therefore, Rise again? Thomas, I mean. And not literally,” she added hastily. “Spiritually. To Heaven.”
Angela looked up at the overcast sky. It was still gray and bleak, and a warm wind whispered in the butchered hedges. “Thomas was always the believer among the three of us,” she said. “He was more like mother than either of us. I suppose if any should, he should.”
Evelyn nodded in agreement, then let out a gasp. Her eyes had affixed upon a dead crow laying rigid among the yew tree’s scattered red berries.
“Another augury,” Evelyn said.
“Mother would think so,” Angela said, lightly. “But what would she have made of it? A crow— being a creature of death—dies from feeding on the seeds of the tree of death? It is such a conflicted omen.”
“Perhaps she would say the spirits are mad,” Evelyn said with a sad smile. “Perhaps the world is mad.”
“Or Death itself has died,” Angela said. “If you were inclined to indulge such inanities.”
The two sisters retired to the gazebo in the center of the garden, sitting and taking tea after an old maid brought it to them. They sat and watched as the premature twilight settled over the earth. Mist rose languidly, like ghosts from their chthonic beds.
“Mother loved this garden,” Evelyn said. “We should have had her buried here.”
“She would have haunted us to no end,” Angela said. “To be honest— and risk being callus—I am heartened that she has passed on. She was very bitter toward the end, you know. She was one of those long-lived spinsters who should have taken residence in a nunnery, yet she was also one of those aged grandmothers so bitterly steeped in their fading years that they cannot enjoy their family life, nor let their families enjoy the lives they have claimed for themselves.”
“Mother missed father,” Evelyn said. “That is all. Do you know she confessed to me once that it was father’s death that would kill her. Not upon the instant, of course, but over time. His being gone over the years was tolling her considerably.”
“We all miss father,” Angela said dismissively. “It is the tragedy of mortality. It all claims us in the end.”
“Mother said I would die from tragedy,” Evelyn said. “She said I would lose everything and wish to lose what was already lost.”
“Please, Eva, no more morbidity,” Angela said. “I am in no mood for it.”
“It is just that her prediction for me would indicate that I live to be a very old woman,” Evelyn said. “That should be nice, of course, but to lose everything would mean to lose little Edward. And he is so young presently. Did you know she predicted his death as well?”
Angela shook her head stiffly, a sneer of distaste upon her lips. “It is not surprising that she should burden her daughter with visions of a son’s death. Mother always courted improprieties that were excused only by her elevated station in society.”
“She said Edward would die as his uncle had and be buried beneath the Eastern horizon. But that can’t be so. The War is over now. The Treaty has been signed and the enemy put in his place.”
“Just so,” Angela said, sipping at her tea.
The two sisters were silent for a time. The mists gathered at the edges of the garden. It was nearly time to retire.
“It will be strange to sleep in our old house once again,” Evelyn said. “I would rather stay at the house with little Edward.”
“As would I prefer to stay in my own home,” Angela said. “But we must see to mother’s remaining concerns. For all of her reputed clairvoyance, she did not prepare for death the way she should have. So many matters still need tending. I hardly know where to begin.”
“That is why it will be nice to have Edward in from Yorkshire tomorrow,” Evelyn said. “As a lawyer, he can attend such things with experience while little Edward and I go birdwatching.”
“Indeed,” Angela said.
The two rose from the table and walked toward the large house to which their backs had been turned most of the evening. They came to the cobblestone walkway leading to the verandah, and Angela paused.
“Something the matter?” Evelyn asked.
“You spoke of dying from tragedy earlier,” Angela said, a slight smile upon her face. “Well, mother knew me well, I suppose. She said I would die from a great joy in life. A miracle, she said. Wreathed in flowers as if ready for my funeral.” Angela may have laughed, or may have cleared her throat; the two were much the same for her. “Mother knew her children well, but I believe it was a slight on her part to tell me I would die from what is presumed to be a happy happening.”
“Mother was very strange,” Evelyn said, sympathetically.
The two sisters went into the house of their dead mother.
Angela sat in an armchair in the parlour, in front of the hearth. The hearth was ablaze, throwing shadows across the vast room with its high, barrel-vaulted ceiling. The bookcase was half aglow and half in murk, as were most of the chairs arrayed around the room. The table— large and formerly central to the parlour—had been moved to the far end of the room. Her mother’s chair, too, had been moved to the far end, though Angela found herself staring at it more often than she would have lived. A painted portrait of her mother, near the hearth, also preoccupied her.
“It was always dreadfully chilly in here,” her sister said, walking in briskly while carrying a plate with teacups and a steaming kettle upon it. She set the plate down on a smaller table that was closer to the hearth, then poured the tea into the two cups.
“What is that?” Angela asked suspiciously. “It smells fragrant.”
“It is hibiscus,” her sister said.
“As I feared,” Angela said, crinkling her nose. “I shall have none, thank you.”
“Why ever not?” Evelyn asked, furrowing her brow.
“It does not agree with me.”
“But hibiscus tea is excellent for sleep,” Evelyn said. “Doctor Doyle has told me so on numerous occasions. The tartness relaxes the stomach, and the soul, so good dreams are sure to follow.”
“I would rather have a nice bitter tea before bed,” Angela said. “Whenever I drink hibiscus I am reminded of heathens bending their knees and backs in a temple to some obscene goddess.” She clucked with agitation. “Indeed, now I know if I drink it I shall have dreams about just such a foul creature.”
“Mother enjoyed hibiscus tea,” Evelyn said, stealing a furtive glance at her mother’s chair. “She said it was nectar of the gods.”
“If you ask me,” Angela said, “mother had far too many acquaintances with gods. All one ever needs is the Father. The others are extraneous, if not diabolical.”
Evelyn let the point stand, not really willing to argue metaphysics when concerning their mother, and instead went to fetch a chair. She did not take liberty of her mother’s chair, though she had to fetch a chair from another room consequently. She sat down in front of the hearth, staring into the flames and sipping her tea. She noticed Angela’s wayward attention.
“Mother may be gone,” she said, “but she still commands the attention in this room.”
“It seems no matter how much I struggle, I cannot force my attention away from mother’s chair and table.” Angela glanced about the room only to have her eyes return again to the aforementioned items. “It is strange.”
“It is the grief that does it,” Evelyn said. “Or so I should think.” She, too, glanced about the room and found herself drawn to the chair and table also. “So many seances she hosted here. Whether they were true or not…I do not presume to know. But mother certainly believed in them.”
Angela stood up and walked cautiously toward her mother’s chair and table, as if they were temperamental dogs soon to bite. The centerpiece to the table was a vase full of old chrysanthemums, all withered and dead now.
“Mother believed in a lot of rubbish,” she said. “And consequently tainted our sensibilities with her rubbish.” Peering closer at the vase, she noticed another flower among the large bulbs. She snorted with amusement. “And here are hidden your yarrow, mother. I thought you had forsaken their visions.”
“Hm?” Evelyn said, looking over her shoulder at the vase. “Yarrow?”
“Here,” Angela said, pointing to the smaller, yellow flowers. She did not go nearer to the table, or the chair. “Mixed in with these other flowers.”
“What of them?” Evelyn said, sipping daintily from her tea.
“Do you not remember how she would hold them to her eyes as if looking through a monocle? She claimed she could see other spheres and phantoms with them.”
“I do not recall all of her eccentricities,” Evelyn said. “There were so many.”
“Mother was particularly obsessed with yarrow,” Angela said in a governess’s tone of scolding. “You should recall as much as I. Do you not remember when Thomas relieved himself in the yarrow she had planted in the garden? Mother was furious. She said he had invoked the Evil Eye upon him, and upon the rest of us.”
“She likely meant her own evil eye. Thomas had earned its scrutiny on more than one occasion, however innocent his intentions.”
“And yet it was mother who was ultimately the victim of her superstitious nonsense,” Angela said.
“Whatever do you mean?” Evelyn said, somewhat aghast.
“Why, the old yew tree fell and her poor heart gave out at the sound. It is the most natural conclusion to make. She always obsessed over that yew tree, just as she obsessed over the yarrow flowers. Just as she obsessed over every little presumably occultist tiding. It is a matter of self-manifest destiny, you know. Fear the cock’s crow at dawn and it will, with passing days, bring about nightfall of the heart. Did you ever hear of Reverend James and the real cause of his death?”
“It was always said he died of falling from his roof in the middle of the night,” Evelyn said. She sipped at her tea, and made a face. “Quite tart, but good for the soul.” She set it aside. “Is there more to it? I always presumed there must be. He was not a daft man.”
A sly smile played upon Angela’s lips. It was an uncommon visitor, and so did not settle there for long, embarrassed at its own presence like a stranger in a strange land.
“That is not the complete story,” she said. “Do you recall how obsessed he was with ‘wrestling demons’?”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said. “It was his incessant refrain in every sermon.”
“Just so,” Angela said, still staring at the yarrow. “Reverend James’s refrain originated in his belief that the Devil danced upon his roof at midnight.”
“Surely not!” Evelyn said, her mouth a dismayed moue.
“Any reasonable person would say as much,” Angela said. “But James was never reasonable. Or sensible. He told the baker, Rhodes, of his nightly visitor and vowed he would wrestle the Devil if it was the last thing he ever did.”
Evelyn raised a hand to her mouth in shock. “So he climbed atop his roof in a fit of moonlit fancy and fell to his death?”
Angela turned away from the seance table, and her mother’s chair. “He did just that. Yet, it is worth remarking that he may have not been entirely lunatic at the end.”
Evelyn’s eyes were wide, listening intently as a doe before it bounds away into the forest. “How do you mean? Please, Angela, do not make me regret this conversation. I will be tossing all night with terrible dreams if it takes a turn in the shadows.”
“Abide, sister, and you will see it as more sheet than specter,” Angela admonished her. “James’s neighbor, the farmer Montague, reported missing his most beloved billy goat the day after. In fact, the men happened upon Reverend James’s body while in search of the goat.”
Evelyn sighed in relief. “So the goat had been climbing upon the Reverend’s house at night and chewing his thatch? What a shame that James should die from such an absurd misunderstanding!”
“It is a good lesson, do you not think?” Angela said, complacently. “A cautionary tale that should be edifying. Mother knew the story in its totality, yet she said she knew the Devil was still dancing on the Reverend’s roof, even after Montague fetched his silly goat down that same morning. Mother feared all sorts of spirits and auguries, and as a consequence she scared herself to death with the fright she begot upon herself. Let that be our lesson, then, and take it to heart. Never let fear overmaster us, especially fear of specters born of our own frayed nerves.”
It was the next morning and Angela sat on the bench beneath the latticed arbor in the garden. She sighed in contentment of the morning. It was a bright dawn— starkly glorious compared to the bleak weeks recently with their stormy weather—and she sat with her parasol leaning against the arbor, in anticipation of the hot noon. Mists drifted throughout the garden, but it was not overly chilly. Her white dress was thick with plumes and frills. It reminded her how Thomas spoke of women’s fashion before he was sent to the Front.
“How you women can tolerate it is beyond me,” he had said. “It all seems like wearing one’s bed around upon oneself. I’d rather a soldier’s uniform any day of the year.”
Atop the arbor the blooming red roses crowded each other, perfuming the cool morning air. Angela sniffled at their heady fragrance, and frowned.
“Too much sweetness may well kill a man,” she said sourly. Yet, it was not in her nature to leave because the flowers were not agreeable. She sat stubbornly upon the bench, waiting for her sister to rise from bed.
The mists were heavy upon the world. They drifted as though off the River Aire.
She saw the figure at a distance, being but a gangling silhouette loping through the mist. She might have dismissed it as the gardener, or her brother-in-law, but there was something peculiarly singular about the figure’s stride that distinguished it from all others. When the figure broke from the mist into discernability, Angela let out a dreadful choking gasp.
The figure continued up the cobblestone walkway, toward the house. The front door opened and Evelyn stepped out with her parasol. Seeing the figure, she dropped her parasol at once— eyes wide with surprise, confusion, elation— and then hastened down the steps toward the figure.
“Thomas!” she cried. “Thomas, is that really you?”
Her brother chuckled and held out his arms, embracing his sister as she met him.
“Just the same,” he said, smiling ear to ear. He was thinner than she remembered, and his face gaunt with sleeplessness as well as malnutrition. His brown suit hung slack off of him in places where he once filled it out properly. Evelyn trembled to see him in the flesh.
“But they said you had been…had been…but I cannot say it!” she exclaimed, sobbing with joy. “Had only mother lived long enough to see you alive and well!”
“Oh, but mother knew I would not die,” Thomas said. “Not yet, anyway. She knew better than my own mates, it seems.”
“Why, then, did they report you so?”
“It was some other poor fellow,” he said. “So many have fallen, you know. And there is no sorting the wretches out. Why, I lost more friends than I can count, and have had my fill of the trenches. They were as mass graves, and many were just left to rot like half-planted seeds.” He shook his head sorrowfully. “It is a nasty business, war. A job for the plow as much as for the reaper.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” Evelyn said. She wiped away her tears, then beamed like a convert to a miracle. “Come! We must let Angela see you! She will not believe it! Why, I think she will be all tears and smiles!”
“Not our dear Angela!” Thomas said with grinning incredulity. “I believe she will stubbornly tell me I am a ghost and should be getting on to the next life!”
“Oh, you know she does not believe in ghosts,” Evelyn said.
Brother and sister walked, hand-in-hand, toward the garden. They waved to their sister beneath the arbor.
Angela slumped, silent and still, among the beautiful roses.
The mists took me once again, and the shadows and their whispers. I wrote poems intended to honor Lord Gou and his household, yet I am baffled by their meaning. Even as my hand hovered and circled above the scroll— dragging my brush to reveal their mysteries— it was a thing detached from my control; a bird circling from afar and in its own manner. I dreamt awake, or so it seemed, and watched the poems birth themselves in ink, a baffled bystander wondering if he ever had true possession of the poems, or if the poems merely possessed him for a time. Perhaps I was a prideful imbecile deluded by a conceit I willfully welcomed, thinking myself a master while overmastered by an Art beyond my true measure. Perhaps it was that a nine-tail kitsune exerted its powers over my hand, granting my hopes and desires like a Wishing Jewel without true, meted merit. I did not know. All seemed insubstantial and dreamlike. All seemed surreal in the drifting mists and the waxing moon.
I must have drifted with the mists. When I roused it was still dark— the night only half over— and I nodded at the table. The brush in my hand had long gone dry. Setting it aside, I laid myself back upon the floor, preparing to sleep more properly. It was then that I heard them, and wondered how I had not heard them before. It was a rowdy procession upon the veranda, bustling with many among their multitude. They laughed and sang and danced to the piping of hichiriki flutes played wildly, as if by the winds themselves. I marveled that they should not wake the entire manor. Then again, perhaps they were the entire manor, all taken away in the frenzy of sake and moonlight and music. The procession passed by my screen door and I saw their silhouettes through the paper and the slats. They were a motley of shadows of various sizes and figures and movements, and their voices seemed to slur and shriek and caterwaul, and so I suddenly found myself afraid. There was something unnatural about their figures and movements. Whereas a moment before I thought them merely servants drunk on stolen sake, now they seemed something more ominous. From their inchoate voices there rose a song, as there is a rhythm among a storm and its crackling lightning and drumming thunder. They sang thus:
“Wild nights, wild days!
Blood and sake,
mist and haze!
Till the earth is all afire,
sword and pyre!
The way of things,
the way of Springs,
all things unmade!
avert the eye
but feel the Winter!”
This song continued for some time, and I found myself listening at the door, crouching like some beggar at the threshold of a temple. I peered through the slats, but the moon was at the procession’s backs. Fearful, and yet compelled, I took hold of the door and, with fateful surrender, flung it open to witness whatever grotesqueries awaited me in that misty, moonlit world.
Nothing. No one cavorted there. The veranda was empty and I stood alone. Shivering with fright and exhaustion, I returned indoors and laid myself down, clutching myself to still the trembling of my limbs. When I finally fell asleep it was with a rattling sigh that loosened, at last, the icicles of my bones.
“Every woman is a jorogumo,” Lord Gou said, “given time. They cocoon you into marriage and feed from your essence.”
We walked about his garden— Lord Gou, the musician, myself, and a retinue of household servants.
“My wife was much the same,” he continued to say. “Lady Utano’s aunt. She provided me a son, strong and handsome. But the war claimed him— a great honor, truly, in service of the Emperor against his enemies— and my wife betrayed me to the last, an heir not forthcoming. Yet, I am a man of faithfulness, even unto the treachery of his wife, and so I have not remarried, but pursue the Buddha’s salvation in the meantime.”
“There was no other woman to strike your fancy, my lord?” I asked.
The servants glanced amongst themselves, and worriedly to their lord, but Lord Gou did not seem to begrudge the question.
“A few here and there, to be sure,” he said, “but none worthy of the honor of serving me as the soil for my dynasty.”
Lord Gou suddenly stared at the moon bridge, and there seemed some great displeasure in his fiery eyes.
“The diviners have not arrived,” he remarked. “And so the corruption remains.”
“We have sent for them, my lord,” an elder servant said in an obsequious tone. “I cannot explain their absences. They vowed to come at once.”
“I am their patron,” Lord Gou said, the bones of his jaw creaking with anger. “And yet they cannot condescend to assist me in my time of need. It is a shame. I am of a mind to turn them out of their temples and replace them with the riffraff polluting the edges of my province. The riffraff might repay me with some gratitude, at least.”
I thought this an excellent idea, but did not say so.
“And now the diviner that I have on my grounds is absent,” he continued to say. “Where is Karasu? Is he feeling better?”
“His stomach illness still plagues him, my lord,” the servant said.
His master snorted. “Who do you have care for your healer when your healer is ill?”
“I do not know, my lord.”
“Of course not!” he barked. “It was a rhetorical question, you imbecile.”
The musician blew a few notes on his hichiriki. It reminded me of the evening prior, with its shadowy visitors and their mad dance, and so I spoke to distract myself from the dread such memories inspired.
“To think that a holy man can become sick,” I said. “It stokes fear for your own well-being against evil spirits. What can mortals do against such forces if they are so inclined to make sport of us?”
“You doubt Karasu’s abilities,” Lord Gou said. His tone was not one of displeasure. “I admit doubts, also. A holy man with a sick stomach is a blasphemous thing. Yet, he is the only diviner in my employ. All others have failed to manifest. I grow impatient. An unnatural cloud besmirches my household and I wish to be rid of it.” He halted by the willow tree, its head hanging dolorously over the moon pond. He gazed at it for a very long time, his eyebrows knitted hatefully. “As for what mortals might do, we might trust in the Buddha. We might beseech his mercy. That is all he is good for, after all. This world is a willful place, and so willfulness prevails. But Order must prevail, too, and be obeyed. Where willfulness arises, it must be contained. It must be stamped out, like a fire at the doorstep.” He turned away from the willow, and the pond and the bridge. “And if a foot catches fire, so be it!”
The diviners never arrived, and Karasu eventually returned to the company of Lord Gou. He sat in the Main Hall with the rest of us and complained of an upset stomach, belching as loudly as anyone, though never touching any of the food served to us all.
“I am afraid I ate a little too well last night,” he said. “It was too great a feast in such a short time for proper digestion.”
“You ate no more than usual,” the musician observed.
“Have a care to respect your elders, little pup,” Lord Gou said. “Or you will never live long enough to become an elder yourself.”
The musician threw his eyes to his lap, whereas I surveyed the diviner for signs of sickness. He did not look so pallid or sickly as he looked well-fed and hale. While the cords of his ancient, thin neck were etched sharply as ever, the stomach beneath his white robe seemed bloated to bursting. He had not eaten nearly so much the day before to justify such a drastic change in his belly and bowels. I wondered where he had engorged so much fare. It was a mystery. He did not even touch his herbal tea, though his host had commanded his servants prepare the tea especially for the diviner to allay his digestive discontent.
Lord Gou stood, suddenly, and addressed the Main Hall.
“I am the ruler of this province,” he said, “and soon even the Emperor shall esteem me above all others. It will be known that I am a powerful man of means and blessings. A propitious marriage ensues, my friends, and with it the greatest blooming of a garden ever known in this or any other kingdom!”
We voiced our support, naturally, and let our host continue.
“To mark this occasion,” he said, “I ask a boon from each of you. From you, Toshiyuki, I should require some additional poems written in honor of my province. I know I have burdened you with much already, but the Sutras can wait. I am of a heart inclined to poetry now, for it is a heart raised with expectation.”
“I will gladly compose in your honor,” I said.
“Excellent,” he said. He then rolled his eyes upon the musician, his gaze a mixture of sardonic resignation. “And you, reed-spitter, I demand an original song. It need not be grand or complex. A simple song will suffice.”
The musician looked up from his lap, his face beaming with hope and joy.
“And if you fumble this with terrible crowing then I will cut you up like a chicken and feed you to the riffraff!” Lord Gou said.
The musician looked again at his lap, dejected as ever.
“And for you, Karasu-san, I require another cleansing of my home.”
“At once,” the diviner said. With great effort the diviner stood, the contents of his bulging belly sloshing about as he teetered. “I am readied as ever, my person now ten times the holy man I once was.” He tottered toward the door, leering surreptitiously at some mirth only he was purview to.
So forceful was my inspiration that night that I could not but think of myself as a puppet whose words were being chosen by someone else. I wrote for several hours without ceasing, the words seemingly born of my brush rather than my brain. Wherefrom this mutiny of imagery and compulsion? Perhaps my hands were frenzied with foreplay better served on Lady Utano, and lacking that bettered medium, exorcized their carnal madness on brush and ink and scroll.
“How leaves scatter far
over the bridge of heaven;
yellow, wet, and red.”
“Cherry blossoms felled
by a burrowing beetle
will mingle beneath.”
“Lips of the lotus
part to kiss the mirrored moon,
only to then drown.”
“The prideful carp swims
where the lotuses entwine,
tearing them apart.”
“A Summer’s warm love
cut short by Autumn’s cold winds;
too soon Winter comes.”
At last, my hand ceased. The brush was abandoned and the scrolls left on table and floor to dry. My legs ached with restlessness and want of exercise. Thus, I left for a walk through the garden, having completely forgotten about the disturbing entourage from the night before.
The moon was high and pale as a pearl. It illuminated the garden well, despite the mists that dissolved the harsher edges of the world. I found myself quite at peace. True, I still longed for Lady Utano’s embrace, but I was placidly resigned to my lonely stroll through the clouds. It was not long before I came upon the moon bridge, manifested like a dream from the chilly whiteness. The figure leaned upon the railing, as was his custom, and stared into the pond below.
“Are you the source of the curse here?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “I am merely a victim.”
“You told me that I was a diviner,” I said. “How do I rid Lord Gou of his curse?”
I could not see the man’s eyes, veiled in shadow, but I knew he was now staring at me, and into my soul.
“Lord Gou is the curse here,” he said.
All was dreaminess, but perplexity had its place. “In what way?” I said.
“All living are cursed in some way. You are cursed with lust and pride. He is cursed with something worse.”
“Rage,” I said, knowing the answer. “I suppose you are correct. We are defined by our curses as much as by our gifts.”
“And yet Buddha expects you to empty your vessel of the self to find peace.” The man did not sigh— he did not even seem to breathe— but there was an exhalation of some kind that was unearthly and made me sad. “Some of us never find peace. Some of us do not wish to. We cling to our curse and our corruption, for they are what we are. We are afraid to disappear.”
I thought on this and wondered if I truly would ever wish to abandon my lecherous ways, or the pride in my poetry. They defined me as much as any virtue I possessed.
“It reminds me of a man,” he said, “of a sinner named Gendayu. He was a thief, a blasphemer, and a murderer. Any of these such crimes would see him tortured in the realms of Jigoku. Yet, he repented and sought the Buddha’s path—selfishly, of course—and died with a Lotus of Amida blossoming from his mouth.”
I would have shaken my head at such nonsense, but the mists made me drowsy; numbed my body to the compulsions of gestures. “I feel as if such stories are told to convince monsters yet living to behave themselves until they properly die and are taken off to the depths.”
“There is no cure for a man set in his ways,” the man agreed. “The self consumes them, imprisoning them with their own karma. We are all imprisoned by the self and its karma. Some reluctantly. Some gleefully. Oni embrace their flaws openly and without remorse. They are freed by their cages.”
This all seemed very true, but it provoked more questions. The mists without bled within, and I felt dizzy. I saw the man’s robe, then, and knew it was brown, yet it glistened red as if the mists that surrounded him and the bridge and pond had bedewed the modest fabric.
“Who are you?” I asked. “How do you know so much about such things? Are you a diviner, also?”
“I am a simple blacksmith,” he said. “But my eyes have been opened to the ways of the world. Sharply opened.”
A pain beset my eyes and I closed them, massaging them with my fingers. When the pain subsided and I opened them again, the man on the bridge was gone. Only the mists remained.
“I have sent for more diviners,” Lord Gou said. “From Kyoto, and beyond.”
We sat in the Main Hall, Lord Gou at the head of his table. To my surprise, Lady Utano sat to his left side, whereas the diviner, Karasu, sat to his right.
“That is an excellent idea, my lord,” the diviner said.
Lord Gou turned toward the old man with eyes agape. “You approve? I thought your pride would be wounded.”
“If it benefits you, my lord, it benefits all.”
His stomach was not so pronounced as the day before. To the contrary, he drank his tea readily and with motions swifter than most men his age.
Lord Gou nodded, then gestured to the musician with a hand. “I will have your song now,” he said. “And I may have your tongue ere the song is over.”
The musician swallowed hard, then sat up straight, hardening his spine with whatever courage remained to him. He did not use his hichiriki, but instead had in his hands a biwa and its triangular pick. He angled the biwa’s neck toward the ceiling, its paddle-like bottom in his lap. He then strummed the strings with the pick, his other hand strangling the fretted neck with his frenetic fingers. He sang a song, surprisingly, as he strummed and slapped the strings like a madman. His singing was of a madman, too, his eyes closed and the sweat dripping down his forehead. The words were original, insofar as my limited knowledge proved, and he likely spent all night warring with the instrument to create the song. Black bags circled his young eyes.
“The nightengale shrieks,” the musician sang, “and the heron coos. It is a tumbling night when floor is clouds and sky is stone. Upside-down waters full of stars. The carp mouths words without meaning. I cannot breathe when you kiss my mouth. Rice falls like rain in my heart. ”
He strummed the biwa in a flourish, then let it fade to silence. He dared not open his eyes. His words made no sense and his strumming failed to harmonize with the lilt of his voice, punctuating at the wrong moments. Yet, it was not unpleasant. It was entertaining, at least, as seeing a graceful crane fly into a tree and get tangled in its branches.
Lord Gou stood, his face grave. The Main Hall was deathly silent.
“That…was interesting,” he said. “It was neither good nor bad, but…uniquely incompetent. And you have used a biwa, which is so rare a thing that I cannot fault your inability to play it. It was idiotic to use it, which was to be expected from you, but also bold, and in that I can respect it, even if you fumble at it like a virgin maiden at a cock.” He flung a gold piece at the musician, striking him at the chest. “Here. Your music is like a wanton. It is cheap, but it has its delights.”
The musician took the gold, stood, and bowed very low to his host. Joining the sweat on his face were tears of gratitude, or perhaps tears of relief.
Lord Gou gestured that the musician be seated— peevishly—and then his dark eyes fell upon me.
“Toshiyuki,” he said. “I expect more things from you than middling music.”
I nodded. My scrolls were stacked beside me, upon the floor, and I took them up in my hands. One by one I read them, then held them out so all could see my perfected calligraphy. All seemed pleased by my work…all except Lord Gou. His face grew livid, reddening a darker shade with each scroll revealed. His expression changed from amusement to confusion, and finally fury. I continued to read, even as I felt the heat of his wrath from across the table. Confused, I stuttered on.
“How hard the hammer
of the blacksmith on the bridge—
two heartbeats as one.”
“A fish big of tail
as he circles the moon pond
is small in the sea.”
“Enough!” he suddenly shouted. “All of you, leave! I am tired. I have no patience for silly words and silly men!”
Lady Utano attempted to inquire after her uncle’s well-being, but he turned upon her with a vengeance.
“Know your place, niece!” he shouted. “Silence is your sex’s virtue. Return to your room unless you provoke my anger beyond my tempering!”
Confounded, we all left the Main Hall. I retired to my room, taking my scrolls with me. I did not understand them myself. They had written themselves, and in some way I felt as if I had presented someone else’s work as my own. Nor could I understand Lord Gou’s anger. I read over the poems again and again, yet the mist-muddled obliquity remained.
A few yin-yang diviners arrived to exorcise his household of supposed spirits. Many that were expected, however, did not arrive, and Karasu was as bloated as before. Many feats of magic and rituals did the diviners perform upon the house, and yet Lord Gou seemed unappeased by their purifications. It seemed to me that the man upon the bridge was correct in his assessment: Lord Gou was possessed of no spirits or pollutants, except, perhaps, those of his natural excesses. For instance, Lord Gou took great pleasure in smoking tobacco. It was forbidden by royal decree, but that did not stop many among my people from luxuriating in that barbaric vice.
As to my well-being, my calligraphy brush still slid smoothly as ever across parchment, the ink strokes as fluid and perfected as ever before. However, the poems and the Lotus Sutra were, in meaning and theme, twisted and disfigured by some inexplicable malice not of my own volition. My art had thus become as a Ronin with peerless skills at hilt and blade, yet serving no master as he slashed and bled a chaotic meaning upon the battlefield. It shamed me, but the ink still poured from me without stoppage. When Lord Gou’s servants refused to provide me parchment I found myself compelled to write upon the floors and the walls of my room. When they removed my ink and brushes my hands took up a blade and carved into the finely lacquered wood in the veranda. The poems bubbled up from my mind like demons from Mt. Asama.
It was during a moment of respite that Lady Utano visited me. She looked upon my room with concern, her eyes rimmed with their whites.
“You are unwell,” she said. “This whole house is unwell, though. There is something terrible at work here. A malevolence.”
“It will pass,” I said, counterfeiting confidence. “All storms do.”
“And what of the storm between us?” she asked. “It must tax you as it taxes me.”
“As I said, all storms pass.”
She gazed at me a long time, her face illegible as a mask. When she spoke, her words were as the quiet in the eye of a storm.
“Do you not fear that I will become a demon?” she said.
“No,” I said. “I fear that matrimony may lead one to become a demon, for I am, like your uncle, a jaded soul bored with being served the same cup of tea everyday.”
I spoke in bitterness, for I did desperately want her. But destiny determined my path elsewhere. Why could she not understand? The suffering in both our hearts was of her making. She fingered the wound and disallowed it to heal.
“The storm remains,” she said.
“So be it,” I said, losing my patience as she walked around my room. Did she not understand how she taunted me with temptation? “But remember that I prayed only for rain. You brought the lightning and the thunder.”
She opened my door and stepped out onto the veranda. She began to walk away, but then paused beneath the parasol shade of a plum tree. She glanced back at me, and diamonds sparkled on her cheeks.
“When you pray for rain at a dragon’s cave do not be surprised when blood spills. It is your prayer granted.”
The roof flew from the barn and somersaulted down the prairie like a tiller blade, churning up earth and flashing with the sharp sheen of its tin. From the front porch, at a quarter mile’s distance, Maggie watched the tin roof frolic in the March-matted field. The barn dissolved shortly afterwards, the bedeviled twister unraveling its old wooden planks in a spiral of uplifting torque. The tornado’s power overawed Maggie as it undid everything her father and grandfather and great-grandfather had created throughout the decades, erasing their hard work within a matter of seconds. She felt the same winds whip her brown pigtails wildly against her face. The unthinking violence of it all thrilled her, every nerve in her thirteen year old body tingling and vibrantly alive.
Maggie’s momma and daddy had gone to town to buy seeds for the planting season. She was alone with her baby brother, Mike. She could hear his wails over the howling of the winds. She wished he would be silent for once. His shrill voice reminded her of the children at school, all screaming and wailing and shouting for attention. She despised them. She despised her brother. She despised her parents for leaving her alone with him.
She marveled at the tornado.
“The March Hare,” she said to herself, though she could not hear herself over the howling of the winds and the wailing of her brother.
The tornado drilled onward, a massive column of spiraling eddies stripping apart silos and granaries as it continued its rampage toward the old farmhouse. Her baby brother’s wails rose, like a saw on sheet metal. Their farmhouse had no cellar or basement. She knew the tornado could easily tear the house up from its foundation and unfurl it like a moth-eaten blanket across the field. There was no escape. The tornado did as it pleased, unconcerned with trivial human matters.
Frowning, Maggie stepped off the porch and walked out across the field. Her white skirt flapped as if a bird desperate to fly away. She pressed it flat against her legs with her hands— not because of feminine dignity or shame, but because it irritated her with its panic—then she continued walking toward the tornado. Her pigtails whipped her face harder, as if flagellating her for her foolish willfulness. But she was undeterred. She went right up to the tornado. The tornado raged in its circle, as ever.
Then it seemed to hesitate.
When Maggie began to stagger toward the tornado, and started losing her balance, the tornado backed away from her and attempted to go around her, to either side. It was like a bewildered bull coming to a tree, unsure as to whether to go left or right. Yet, Maggie continued marching toward the tornado, stumbling and staggering and fighting to stay on her feet. Her tiny figure pressed the gigantic whirlwind back, as if a horsefly biting at a horse’s nose.
Finally, the tornado began to unwind, its spiraling column of debris and darkness slowing. It came undone, diminishing and dropping all of its playthings across the brown prairie grasses. The last shreds of wind dissolved into still air, at last, and a tall, red-skinned man stood before Maggie. He had dark black hair and wore a pelt of rabbit skin across his shoulders. He wore only a loincloth of rabbit skin upon his lower torso. His body was marked, seemingly at random, with war paint.
“You are a heedless girl,” the man said. “Do you desire death?”
Maggie stared up at the tall man. There were tears in her eyes, but they were not tears of fear. They were tears of envy. “I want the freedom you have,” she said.
The man crossed his arms and pondered the girl. His dark gaze never faltered; he never blinked. “Such freedom is death for mortals,” he said. “It is death for me, but I am born again with each whirlwind, for I am a spirit of the plains.”
Maggie tightened her small fists. They were tanned from years of laboring in the field, and calloused like leather. “I want to be a spirit of the plains,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go to school or take care of my baby brother or spend all Spring and Summer and Fall harvesting and working and breaking my back. You live how you want to. I want to live the same way.”
“It will be your whole life all at once, and never again,” he warned her. “It will cost you everything.”
“I do not care,” she said. “I don’t want to be married and then buried. I don’t want to live in fences and houses built to pen me in like a cow or a sheep or a dog. I want to live the way I want. Free. For myself.”
The man stood in complete silence for a little while longer, then nodded.
“Very well,” he said. He lifted his hands and grasped hold of the winds. He seemed to knead them into threads, then spun them together with his arms, as if coiling rope. He spun them until they began to moan, then howl. He then enshrouded Maggie in the spiraling air, like a swaddling blanket, and watched as it grew into a great spiraling column of destruction.
“Live free,” he said.
The tornado rolled across the prairie, spiraling exuberantly with its newfound life. It destroyed homes and businesses and killed many people. Those who survived the storm swore the winds sounded like a young woman cackling in glee. It was a storm of the decade, they said.
When the tornado finally unwound, all that remained was the detritus that the tornado tore up and ripped apart and flung around itself. As the last whisper of wind dissipated into the warm Kansas air, there could be heard a single faint whisper of peace and calm without regret.
To honor the Super Blood Wolf Moon, I am having a free giveaway of my supernatural thriller “The Dark Dreamer” (under my alias SC Foster). If you enjoy horror, action, myth, romance, and mysteries, then give it a chance this week.