Gaslight Essence: Flesh And Blood

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.”

 

The Snail (Woolf)

20200517_123659-1

Slowly to the lighthouse she went,
yet she never really arrived,
like a sea snail so wholly spent
in the sun, she never survived,
oozing over pebbles of thought
and undulating like the waves,
wandering slowly while she sought
other shells, like clefs on the staves
of a song without any words,
yet awash with colors and sound
while down swooped the shrieking seabirds
to feast on thoughts she thought profound.
Nought remains of the languid snail
tossed to and fro along the beach
except her opalescent shell
tumbling within the frothy reach.

Shattered

He smoldered within the mirror
while the late evening drew nearer,
a Summery Saturday night
after a long stretch of daylight.
The mirror was a wedding gift
from his parents, before the rift
that had ruptured in its due course,
bleeding out as a bad divorce.
His wife watched as he primmed himself
in her mirror, nearby the shelf
where their old wedding photo stood,
the two of them framed in fake-wood
and kissing in front of a crowd,
all of their parents very proud,
but now he dabbed on some cologne
and combed his hair, (full but two-tone),
while flashing his straight white teeth
rounded by a beard, like a wreath
that was finely trimmed, each hair snipped,
and, not noticing her, he quipped,
“Still lookin’ good, you handsome stud.”
His wife waited, feeling like mud
while he got ready for “Poker”,
a word spoken like a Joker.
She said, “That’s lots of cash, Jason.”
But, being like a Free Mason,
he never spoke about his games
or any of his friends’ real names.
He would just say, “I sure will win
with a little help from some gin.
Then I’ll get in the scoring zone.”
Despite the cash, there clearly shown
packs of rubbers through the leather:
things they never used together.
The rings reminded of the ring
on her finger, a gaudy thing
he had exchanged in a Pawn Shop
for money he earned with a mop
in an old fast-food restaurant—
the place they met, their Friday haunt
now closed down, its windows broken
and its name nevermore spoken.
“Can you stay home tonight?” she said.
“I’ll make some fresh banana bread.”
Adjusting his belt, and his crotch,
he then checked his true Sterling watch.
“Sounds good for breakfast,” he replied.
“And how about eggs on the side?”
She saw herself past his shoulder:
the wrinkles now looking older
than he looked in his corduroy
and cowboy boots, dressed like a boy
ready for a good do-si-do
and maybe, too, a rodeo.
He could have passed for his thirties,
strutting despite his old hurt knees;
like a rooster touring his coop
and crowing loud atop the stoop
while all the hens gazed in wonder
as they felt his booming thunder.
Whereas her figure had swelled plump
long after she had lost her bump
to a sharp scalpel that had left
her cute navel a scar-crossed cleft.
Marginalized in the mirror,
she saw things now brighter, clearer,
and knew that the once happy Past
passed like a young boy, running fast
to the end-goal, to be a Man,
while yearning to shorten the span
so that he never grew wiser,
becoming too soon a miser
who forgot birthdays on purpose
and treated life as a circus
eager to pack it up and go
leaving her behind, a sideshow.
Anyhow, he prepared to leave,
buttoning up each cufflink sleeve
and putting his wallet up front
to bulge his pocket, give the runt
the outline of a bigger hound
to be picked up from the dog pound.
And yet she was in the doghouse,
knowing he left to hunt the blouse
at another girl’s street address,
something that, if he did confess,
he would do without any shame,
saying, “It’s just a Poke-Her game,”
all the while grinning with an air
debonair—so Devil-may-care.
She glanced at his wallet laying
on the bed, its stuffed folds splaying
to reveal a lot of money.
Her tone pleading, she said, “Honey,
I hope you and the guys have fun,”
while her world was coming undone
as she watched the man she married
grin at himself, his face varied
from the face he wore with his wife
in a normal day of his life.
This rare face came alive
and he hummed just like a beehive,
its combs brimming with sweet honey,
or a day in May: warm, sunny,
the fields alive with flowers,
Though those colors had not been Ours,
she thought, since the day we married.
No, our colors have been buried
deep in the Past, deep in the earth,
just after our son’s awful birth.
My colors wilted in their bloom,
uprooted, torn to make some room
for the fruit of our Love, the child
he hated, abused, and reviled.
But it was my body that died!
My body ripped apart inside!
Then we couldn’t make love at all
and his love became very small.
After all, it’s true, what they say
about Love and how it won’t stay,
but fades over time, no matter
how perfect the daily platter.
He just never valued something
if it couldn’t warm his dumpling.
“There’s a good movie on tonight,”
she said, clutching the pistol tight.
“It’s about a second chance…”
He did not give her a first glance,
turning away from the mirror,
checking his watch, the time nearer,
and so, heading to the door,
he said, “Good night, babe…” and no more.
She heard him start his king-cab truck
and leave the driveway, her eyes stuck
on her reflection in the glass—
eyes wide while completing a pass
up and down her war-torn body;
all used up, her forlorn body.
She aimed the pistol at her heart
and, at the bang, she broke apart.

The Highwayman

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

A riddle

Studded veil of widowed Dawn
gleaming on a moonlit lawn
like clear crystals in a crown
or sequins on a dark gown,
these jewels spangling the flowers
in the early morning hours
dissolve clean in daylight air
neath the sun’s incessant glare,
yet return with mist-blurred night
like earthbound stars, twinkling bright.
Small and fleeting as a kiss
from the fairies—what is this?

Lafcadio Hearn, Mr. Kwaidan

hearn

Given nothing but lumps of coal
and extreme pressures all his life
Hearn forged in the depths of his soul
fine diamonds into a keen knife
with which he cut loose from the past
and traveled far, a refugee
from West to East, devout outcast—
a lotus flower floating free.
Scholar of suffering, he knew
what others felt as the Other;
short of stature, of olive hue,
and abandoned by his mother.
An orphan of so many lands,
he was a boy born from two climes
and tossed between so many hands
to become a man of the Times.
Blind in one eye, yet he could see
more clearly things that mattered most,
despising modern industry,
and mourning Japan’s ancient ghost.
Loathing the Old Testament creed,
his heart leapt at pagan creatures,
seeing in them the ideal breed
of human joy with wild features.
He was said to be of those men
aloof and adrift in his ties,
yet tried to avenge a kitten
when a man blinded its eyes.
Some claim he stole tongues from the dead
whereby to tell tales not his own,
but storytelling is well-read
in itself—nib of ancient bone.
What stories had been given them
that gave him in turn, came ago,
extending thus from sleeve to hem,
till he wrote them for us to know.
Should we judge from utopia
a wayfarer of unfair fate
when, steeped in myopia,
living well at a later date?
Is he an appropriator
of cultures belonging to those
who gave him his nomenclature
and his set of kimono clothes?
Who faults da Vinci his paintings
of the Madonna and her child?
It is, in life, of the plain things
that motifs are copied, then styled.
What privileges did he boast
(which critics have afterwards claimed)
when as an orphan, coast to coast?
Not more than “gender” can be named.
Before the fortune and the fame
he lived many years in a barn,
laying upon hay, cold and lame,
and only frayed daydreams to darn.
A Greek, he witnessed the Banshee
faceless upon a flight of stairs;
a Celt, he saw Persephone
rising from Plutonian lairs.
Born to love a well-told story,
his soul was half Irish and Greek,
he sought what was grim and gory
being small, but not at all meek.
Like Hearn himself, Japan did take
and borrow from other countries,
their tales oft of meaning and make
as in China, and its sundries.
Why should that be a jackdaw flaw
for him to know good seeds from bad?
To replant a seed breaks no law
when fertile crops are to be had.
Should we let all be so fallow
that all seeds should wither and wane
when someone who is not callow
should grow the crop with his rain?
As for his much-beloved wives,
he learned from them of tastes and tones,
living as a man of odd lives—
a soul reborn which dharma hones.
He had a freed-slave wife back when
it was a grave crime in the States,
but he was a radical then—
a rebel against such mandates.
True, his ambition would end it
and he would leave her all alone,
but destiny chomped at the bit
and there were yet fields to be sown.
Fate took him faraway, not done
with his strange life and its strange ride,
to the Land of the Rising Sun
to find his Mama Sama bride.
Soon adopted into a clan
of Samurai, to which his wife
was a noblewoman, the man
found for himself a peaceful life.
This is why today he is yet
celebrated in Chicago
for every gory vignette
of that city’s vast crimson glow,
and why his cookbook of Orleans
is used by Creoles and Cajuns,
a French tongue for all tastes and scenes
he was loved like other Bay sons,
and why, in the land of Japan,
he is still respected today,
known as the learned Western man
who heard what their ghosts had to say.
And so Hearn traveled very far, 
floating like a leaf on the wind,
living a story as bizarre
as a Kwaidan tale by the end.

Pandemonetized Death

The token of our holy creed
bears the seal of our fickle breed
which thereby reads, “In God We Trust”,
and so we must, for boom or bust,
forfeit lives of those sickly few
so the Devil may get his due,
for Mammon is our true god here,
crisis or not, year after year,
and we take less stock in those lives
when the Stock Market yo-yo dives—
the bottom line we must all serve
cares not for flattening the curve,
so live and let die at what rates
the Dow Jones index thus dictates,
projected profits meaning more
than elders hastened to Death’s door.